True North

Last week, I took an exciting trip back to my roots!

Vic Watson and Jacky Collins, organisers of  Newcastle Noir kindly invited me along to Noir @ the Bar, in the Town Wall, Newcastle. Newcastle Noir is a literary festival celebrating the best in contemporary crime writing, bringing together writers from the North East, across Britain, as well as from further afield. By all accounts, the 2017 festival was a huge success, and it’s already on my calendar for next year! Noir@the Bar (there are quite a few versions of this across the country) is a fun, informal evening of readings…in a pub. Writers’ paradise, pretty much!

When I last visited Newcastle, I was too young to drink, but unfortunately, on this occasion, the bar staff saw no need to I.D. me. We had a fabulous night in a great venue, and I really enjoyed listening to chilling extracts from some must-read novels and short stories.

I chose to read the opening pages from my novel Beneath the Skin, and I was very conscious that my central character, Walt, was  coming home too. As a nod to my own upbringing, Walt grew up in rural Northumberland, but I could just imagine him meeting his mates for a few pints in a place like the Town Wall, having a laugh and a bit of banter. Beneath the Skin is about what happens when the laughter stops. When you come home but your best mate doesn’t. It’s about how trauma changes people.

 

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Beneath the Skin (Polygon)

My trip ‘down south’ was much too brief, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to check out a few Gothic locations for my next project….!

 

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Things to do in Cumbernauld when you write

There’s nothing more enjoyable than a weekend away, and a weekend away with like-minded souls is always the best experience. So, last weekend I set off with a bunch of Angus Writers (some of whom have appeared previously on these pages masquerading as murderers) for The Westerwood Hotel and Conference Centre, Cumbernauld. This was the 48th Annual Conference of the Association of Scottish Writers (SAW).

The Association operates on a largely voluntary basis, with the indefatigable duo of Marc Sherland and Jen Butler leading a dedicated and hard-working team of Council members. Club development is a key strand of its mission – any writers’ group in Scotland can enjoy affiliate membership and take part in the conference and other fabulous outreach projects and competitions. The conference is a hugely enjoyable way of socialising with other writers and the competition adjudications and workshops offer a unique learning experience. If you can’t find a writers’ group nearby- create your own and get in touch with SAW!

Writing can be quite an isolated (and isolating) occupation, so the chance to mingle and compare insecurities is always welcome!  Here are a few pictures of the usual suspects (they scrub up well) and one or two helpful observations about writers enjoying a bit of downtime…

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·         Writers always have lots of luggage. They will pack about 42 pristine notebooks which are ‘too nice’ to write on’ but don’t ask to borrow a pen, they’ll have forgotten to bring one.

·         They can always pick the comfiest spot in the bar. Leather chairs/ couches will send them into paroxysms of delight and a fireplace? You won’t see them for days.

·         They will always bring a laptop, carefully selected for weight, battery life and the ability to fit into a favourite overnight bag. The laptop will a) never see the light of day or b) be set up in aforementioned nook alongside a mug of coffee or a glass of wine. Photographs will be taken and Tweeted along with jaunty comments about wordcounts. Fifty minutes will be spent trying to connect to the hotel web server in order to check what the other writers are doing on Facebook. Coffee: cold. Wine: 3. Wordcount: Nil.

·         Food. Writers need frequent nourishment ‘for creativity’ even when the most creative thing they are doing is playing with the curtains in their hotel rooms. Croissants and brownies are particularly good, and the Westerwood also provide a tasty chilled strawberry juice to improve brain function.

·         Writers love a chance to ‘network’, and can be persuaded to stay up late with the promise of insider gossip. ‘Late’ will involve much comparing of books, discussion of wordcounts (totally obsessed) and favourite authors, and trivia quizzes where no one will be able to answer the literature questions.

·         Time to go home? Check behind the leather couches. You may well find a missing writer, clutching a laptop and weeping. The prospect of returning to domestic life can be a daunting one after a weekend of productivity. Please be gentle with them…

Want to know more about Angus Writers Circle? Follow us on Twitter @AWCAngus or contact me for more information at sandrairelandauthor@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

Granite Noir

According  to my friend and fellow writer Claire Macleary, granite has a peculiar quality which makes it sparkle, whilst underneath lurks the toughest of dark materials (gratuitous literary reference).

Similarly, Granite Noir, launching last weekend with a glittering array of writing talent, did not shy away from asking the troubling questions exposed by our dark love affair with crime fiction. Moral dilemmas, blurred lines, social issues and the existence of evil were just some of the gripping panel discussions on offer at Scotland’s newest literary festival.

In addition to our favourite native authors, such as Chris Brookmyre, Denise Mina, and Stuart Macbride, to name but a few, we enjoyed an invasion of ‘hot Scandi talent’, courtesy of Orenda Books. The names may still be a little unfamiliar to us (and hard to pronounce!) but our appetite for their compelling thrillers is voracious and my ‘to be read’ pile is growing so fast I may have to move into the shed! From Finland we had Antti Tuomainan and Kati Hiekkapelto; from Denmark, Thomas Rydahl; Norway’s Thomas Enger, and Gunnar Staalesen (one of the fathers of Nordic Noir). Last but not least, Sweden’s ‘Queen of Crime’, Kristina Ohlsson.

Granite Noir also saw the launch of Cross Purpose, a gritty Aberdeen-based crime debut by my fellow ‘Mlitter’ Claire Macleary. Claire completed the Dundee Creative Writing programme a couple of years before me, but the literary scene in Dundee is very close-knit and supportive, so we’ve always kept up to date with our various successes and rejections. I was delighted to hear she’d secured a two-book deal with Saraband Books and most of our recent conversations have been about publication – the stresses and pitfalls as well as the pleasures!

The entire weekend was topped off with a highly entertaining Noir at the Bar in the Belmont Filmhouse, ably hosted by Russel D. Mclean.

Here are a few images from the weekend.

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Writing in Books

A blog post is well overdue! Searching for a thread to connect the many interesting events of last week (I’m a writer. I’m always chasing threads!), I came up with the notion that writing in books is a curious way of connecting us with each other and with the past.

Now there are some places which frown heavily upon the defacing of books in this way, and rightly so! I will start, then, with my research trip to the National Library of Scotlandnls

My research actually began long before my visit, having filled in the ‘Ask the Librarian’ form on the NLS website. I wasn’t expecting my ‘Have you got anything about mills?’ ramble to yield much fruit, but an amazing librarian (ALL librarians are amazing) called Mike swiftly came to my aid, producing a most comprehensive list of folklore resources for me to get my teeth into. (You’re not allowed to do that either. No pens; no teeth).

So I duly arrived at the grand old institution on George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, excited by the knowledge that some fascinating sources lay in wait for me behind those heavy wooden doors. And I was excited! There’s something about digging through old volumes that makes time stand still. The Reading Room experience adds to the occasion. All your outside stuff goes in a locker and you transport your pencils (NO PENS!), notebooks and loose change for the photocopier, in a clear plastic bag. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to spend some time in the Special Collections Room with a 14th c. illuminated manuscript book. The librarian at that time explained to me that book theft is a huge problem in many libraries. Thieves often excise the precious pages and slip them between the covers of a normal book, which is why everything now has to be in see-through plastic, and your papers are searched when you leave. It’s a sad world.

So, although I appreciated the historic marginalia I discovered in some of the books I was using, I certainly didn’t add any of my own! You can read about my research at https://barrymillblog,com. New post coming soon…

Noir @ the Bar was a wonderfully gregarious social event, bringing together crime writers and readers from all ends of the earth (well, almost). They are now being held in quite a few places, and the Edinburgh event, organised by Jackie Collins and Mark Leggat, is held noir-the-bar-1at the Wash Bar. Again, there was much scribbling of contact details in notebooks after the event (writers rarely remember to carry business cards or even pens!) but we all agreed that, as well as the dark and dastardly readings from some top-notch Tartan Noir, it was a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and influence people! The next one is on May 31st.

This weekend saw the return of the Further From Festival in Linlithgow. I was delighted to be asked to take part, along with my ‘Wyrd’ pal, Shelley Day (It’s our books that are weird, not us. We’re normal….mwa hah haha…). It was lovely to meet Sally and her team from Far From the Madding Crowd Bookshop, and I was so sorry I didn’t manage to get a browse through the shelves!

I did, however, discover a little gem in a Linlithgow charity shop. The Queen’s Quair, a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots by Maurice Hewlett, was published in 1905 by Macmillan. I was totally bowled over by this inscription; a faint thread stretching from the past and drawing me in!

Other People’s Books

Happy New Year, dear Readers! Thanks so much for all your support in 2016. Everyone really got behind (or beneath?) Beneath the Skin from the very start, and, of course, I had a great team on board with Jenny Brown Associates, and Polygon. 2016 was a year for making connections. So many people have helped me in ways too numerous to mention, but I must just say how surprised and delighted I have been with the enthusiasm and professionalism of the blogging community. A big shout out too for Bookish PR Scotland, also making a debut in 2016 and definitely by my side in 2017!

“When will we be able to read your next book?” has been a frequent (and rather heartening!) question since BTS was published, and thanks to the generous support of  Creative Scotland, I have been able to devote my time to the daunting mission of producing a second  manuscript, The Bone Harp. My creative journey can be followed at https://barrymillblog.com,  although like all the best journeys there are frequent random diversions!

Speaking of distractions, don’t begin your January de-cluttering with the bookshelf. It’s fatal! I’ve done zero cleaning today, but I have  re-discovered some old books which mean a lot to me. That’s the thing with treasured books- sometimes the most important story is not the one between the covers. I’d like to share a few of my ‘finds’ with you:

 

 

Postman Pat. My boys are now young men, so this family favourite  is showing its age. Note the yellowing Sellotape, the broken spine and the dog-eared pages. Much love for this book! Grandad worked on Royal Mail vans in the Yorkshire Dales, so that makes it extra special.

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Mister Men. Another favourite. Look at those titles- definitely a map of my kids’ childhood. One for every mood! And the price sticker- all jumble sale finds, no doubt!

The family Bible. I seem to have inherited quite a few, but this one is interesting. Although it bears the initials A.L., it belonged to a great, great aunt, Mary Ann Watson. This lady’s death certificate reveals that she was a spinster and a jute spinner, and she took her own life at the age of 52 by walking into the sea. A tragic story, made more poignant by the hand-written notes she left in this bible.

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Scottish Tartans. On a cheerier note, these are dated 1942 and were gifts for my grandmother and her sister. The illustrations are classic Outlander, but this lone female golfer made the cut!

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Oor Wullie and Dandy annuals from the 1970s.  Who doesn’t love a comic? Christmas classics from my childhood, passed down to the next generation. Shows how enduring and well-loved these characters are- thanks D.C.Thomson!

 

Hope I’ve inspired you to begin the year by reconnecting with the hidden stories of your own treasured books! I’d love to hear them.

Head Notes and Heart Notes

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that the last few months have been frenetic, although the past week has more or less wrapped up my bookish events for this year. On Thursday, I took part in Dundee’s first ever Noir at the Bar, along with Kings of Crime James Oswald, Russel D.Mclean, Jay Stringer and David Wishart, plus those Dangerous Dames, Chris Longmuir and Wendy H. Jones. This is an American phenomenon ( read about it here) which is spreading rapidly and with great success. Watch out for NATB events in Glasgow, Newcastle and Edinburgh…and definitely Dundee in the New Year!

Sometimes, it’s good to take a step back and indulge in something creative for the simple pleasure of being creative. On Saturday I attended a Poetry Apothecary workshop, which was every bit as magical as it sounds. This is the brainchild of poet Rebecca Sharp, who gave us free rein to experiment with lots of lovely perfume oils and encouraged us to add words to the blend. As always, it was a pleasure to meet with a bunch of like-minded folk, and it felt good to ‘play’ with ideas, minus the pressure of producing a finished article. However, Rebecca’s Apothecary, and the fascinating mythology and history of perfume, worked its magic. Here’s a poem- enjoy! poetry-apothecary-2

Perfume: a love spell.

(A scent is made of base notes, middle/heart notes and top/head notes. ‘Notes’ of perfume oil go together to make a ‘chord’…)

Pierce

the sharp heart notes

of clove and myrtle

with needles of pine.                                                                               poetry-apothecary

Bind

jasmine and juniper,

with rind of bergamot,

drop by bittersweet drop.

Blend

musk, light-fingered frankincense;

a riff of vetivert;.

the bass grumble of oakmoss

Smell

the secret chord.

.                                                                        Sandra Ireland, 2016

 

Angus Writers’ Circle & a bit of a do…

As promised, a post dedicated to Angus Writers’ Circle and an evening of murder, mystery and mayhem. Well, we do have a high percentage of crime writers in our midst…!

I’ve been privileged to be secretary of the group for the last five or six years, but collectively we are much older than that. This year the Circle celebrates its 25th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, it was decided that a Murder Mystery evening would be the very thing. Given that we meet in a decidedly dark and creepy baronial mansion, the scene was already set. Armed with only our imaginations and a deluded sense of our own acting abilities, all we were short of was a plot! Our very own Ann stepped up to put words in our mouths and suspicions in our heads…

WHODUNNIT?

Was it beastly Lord BB with a letter opener in the study? Was it the enfants terrible of the greenhouse with their magic mushrooms? Or was it PC Smith with his antique camera? The tension was palpable. Feather boas were twitched and the gloves (and pith helmets) came off. Mrs Miggins tightened her grip on her rolling pin and Jennings the butler’s snowy tea towel became grubbier by the minute. Everyone was under suspicion. Even Carola our landlady, bringing in the tea, looked suspicious.

In a finale worthy of….EastEnders, the  killer was unmasked!

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. The glamorous Fiona was not as she seemed. That wig had gone to her head!

Hopefully, it won’t be another 25 years before we can ham it up again, drink weird poisonous cocktails and get silly pictures taken. Happy Anniversary, Angus Writers’ Circle!

 

Talking Books

Every so often I have to check my events page, not to find out where I’m going next, but to remember where I’ve been!

The last few months have been a whirlwind of new experiences, but Pamela Butchart,  a writer I admire enormously, once said to me, ‘After publication, everything will happen so fast- make sure you enjoy every moment’. Thanks, Pamela. I’m taking your advice!

This week, I’ve been wined and dined (okay, no wine for me- driving and all that) by the lovely gentlemen of Carnoustie’s 41 Club, attended a magical evening of Murder and Mystery in Arbroath and appeared before an audience of keen readers at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh! I think the Angus Writers’ Circle Murder Mystery is worthy of a post on its own, so let me take you to the Station Hotel, Carnoustie, and a very special bunch of guys.

Now I have to confess to not knowing what a 41 club is, but apparently it’s the ‘more mature’ division of the Round Table! So after a wonderful fish tea I regaled the lads with anecdotes from the exciting life of a writer, winding up just before the glazed expressions and tears of boredom became too visible. Yes, it really is that exciting! Joking aside, they did seem genuinely interested in ‘Beneath the Skin’ and the books were soon flying off the shelf/table, so a big thank you to Carnoustie’s  41 Club for inviting me. It was great to meet you all.

Now what can I say about the National Library of Scotland? One of my favourite places ever, I never dreamed I would one day be there, onstage, in front of an invited audience, with a microphone and everything! I was privileged to be sharing that stage not only with my lovely agent, Jenny Brown, who was chairing the event, but also with my fellow ‘future voices’, Les Wood (Dark Side of the Moon) and William McIntyre  (Present Tense). It was my pleasure to meet them both. Les  was actually one of my fellow  Bloody Scotland ‘Spotlighters’, although we’d never actually bumped into each other. We all had a wonderful chat about the writing process and all things bookish, and some great questions from the audience. The chat may have continued in a bar afterwards, but that would be telling!

So, lots more to come! I’ll leave you with a few photos, and next time I’ll tell you all about Angus Writer’s Circle and our Silver Anniversary bash. Suffice to say, there was a murrrder….

Images L TO R : With Richard Jennings, President of the 41 Club

                               ‘Voices of the Future’: WHS McIntyre, Les Wood, Sandra Ireland

November Thoughts

The topic I’m about to write about is always hovering not far from my consciousness. This week, of all weeks, it feels like a good time to commit some of my thoughts to virtual paper. Since the launch of Beneath the Skin in September, I’ve been very busy with author events and interviews. I’ve even ‘appeared’ on radio –Booked on Pulse 98.4FM -which is a first for me! Invariably, the question which crops up the most is this:

Your main character Walt is suffering from PTSD. How difficult was it to write about this?

In the run up to Remembrance Day, when our thoughts turn to those who have lost their lives, or have been wounded, in the line of duty – now seems a fitting time to address this question, and the challenges I faced in developing the character of Walt.

Robert ‘Walt’ Walton is an ex-soldier who has been physically, emotionally and mentally scarred by his time on the front -line. His way of dealing with his trauma is to run. Walt runs away from his home, from his family, from his mates, and finds himself in Edinburgh, staring into the window of a taxidermist’s studio. Taking on the role of the taxidermist’s assistant is possibly the worst job choice Walt could have made. He’s faced with the ‘undead’ on a daily basis, and the other inhabitants of the household; Alys the taxidermist, her sister Mouse and little William, are in the grip of their own dark past.

My first challenge was writing the novel in the voice of a man, and a man who’s experienced things I can only imagine. I’ve never walked in his boots. I’ve never been to war, or suffered injury. I’ve never killed anyone or experienced extreme violence. Therein lies the skill of the writer, you might say, but imagination carries responsibility. Walt may be a fictional character, but I was very aware that for many, many people Walt’s situation is all too real. As soon as you put a label on a character (Walt has PTSD; Alys has an undiagnosed spectrum disorder), you have a responsibility to get it right.

I spent a lot of time talking to people- former soldiers and their families, physiotherapists, medical personnel. I watched documentaries, read diaries, accounts and, interestingly, poetry. Two evocative and haunting books which inspired and informed me are pictured below. Helmand: Diaries of Front-Line Soldiers (Osprey Publishing), edited by Simon Weston and ‘Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets’ (Ebury Press), which is sold in aid of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Poetry is the greatest expression of emotion, and it’s Walt’s emotional life that I want the reader to invest in, rather than the nuts and bolts of conflict. The fact that the poetry of the ‘old generation’ of war poets- Sassoon, Graves, et al- is still so hauntingly relevant to us tells its own story.

So Beneath the Skin– a work of fiction, and of course I hope you will be entertained and enthralled by it. But I also hope you will close the book understanding a little more about the ticking time bomb of PTSD that dwells among us. I hope it makes us a little gentler with each other. I hope it makes us think.

‘Ireland writes about powerful and troubling subjects and shows how the past can have devastating consequences’ – Daily Mailhelmand-books

And I’d Just Like To Thank…

This is going to be a bit of an Oscar speech, so if you can’t deal with the tears and tantrums that occur when writers get tired and emotional, look away now!

Still on board? Well, here goes. There hasn’t been much time for thinking in the last crazy few weeks since the publication of Beneath the Skin, but in the wee small hours I’ve been contemplating how many people it takes to make a book. And how many it takes to SELL a book. Sell is an ugly word. I prefer the term SHARE. I’ve written the words, I want to share them with the world, but the task of getting your debut novel noticed in a giant mountain of freshly-published books seems almost impossible.

So, the more people you have in your camp the better! Now, I’ve always considered my base camp to be the University of Dundee. From terrified mature undergraduate to terrified author, my alma mater has seen me through some tough times. My fellow climbers have kept me company and supported me on the long lonely route to the…I was about to say summit, but let’s not get carried away here. I have reached a small peak, and this year I was delighted to be included in the Dundee Literary Festival (‘First Writes, with Shelley Day and Zoe Venditozzi). This is home turf for me, and the good will and support I’ve received from Dundee and from my own local areas has been phenomenal. It’s made me realise just how much books mean to a  community, and how valuable that community is when it comes to getting behind its  local authors.

I’m discovering more and more that book lovin’ communities don’t even have to be physical ones! Last week I took part in my first ever blog tour, and it was humbling to experience such a warm welcome from the virtual world of book blogging. (Not totally virtual, of course, because these dedicated readers and reviewers do love to get their hands on a real tome!). So – Oscar speech warning- I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to all of those who hosted my blog posts, reviewed Beneath the Skin and  tweeted and retweeted for all they were worth. Thank you! Major gratitude to Dawn Geddes, Journalist and Bookish PR person for pulling it all together (and knocking me into some kind of  social media shape) – major achievement!

Big shout-out to  Life of a Nerdish Mum, Eclectic Ramblings of Author Heather Osborne, Swirl and Thread, Portobello Book Blog and Culture for Kicks. And in the ‘real’ world, back at base camp, Peggy Hughes and her super-heroes at the Dundee Literary Festival!