Time has done some funny things this year, hasn’t it? It’s sped by, and yet hung heavy at times. Perhaps we are all still in pandemic recovery. I heard it described as a collective ‘languishing’- and although I do feel like I’ve done a lot of languishing on my couch, trawling through my photos has encouraged me to relive some favourite moments…
First up, I was so lucky to have been invited to take part in the international Connect and Collaborate residency at beautiful Moniack Mhor. Not only is it the perfect place to rest, recuperate and write, it also gave me the opportunity to make friends with some amazing people from across the globe. Here is Moniack Mhor in sunset splendour and some of my co-conspirators lost in the woods! (Nadine Aisha Jassat, Gemma Rovira Ortega & Carly Brown).Not forgetting the all important glass of red wine poured by my Moniack pals after I finished the first draft of my next novel Waterbound! (Look out for more news on that in 2023)
In the summer, Angus Writers’ Circle had the chance to undertake a group residency in Arbroath Abbey’s New Scriptorium, as described in a previous post. Here is an image of my Tree Folklore Workshop, inspired by the humble Arbroath Pippin!
I was very excited to be invited by Fife Writes to deliver two creative writing workshops for Book Week Scotland. One was online and one was IN-PERSON! Myself and my lucky hat travelled to beautiful St Andrews, which was a real novelty after the lockdown years. Here I am, with said hat, at the old harbour…
There was also that fiery trip to Bloody Scotland! Again, so good to be back in-person. I think we’ve all been caught between longing to socialise and veering towards recluse-dom. I know I have, but once you’ve levered yourself from the couch you realise what you’ve been missing!
Thanks to a generous award from Creative Scotland, I was able to take part in a third residency (and I thought nothing much had happened in 2022!) in Ireland. Grateful thanks also to the lovely Noelle Harrison at Aurora Retreats for holding such a special place for us all in the Limerick countryside, somewhere close to my heart. Noelle, writing as Anya Bergman, has a stunning novel out VERY soon. Keep an eye out for The Witches of Vardo (Manilla Press). I have read an advance copy and I loved it!
The book I was working on at the Springfield Castle retreat is tentatively entitled The River Takes Her Name (suggested by my fellow retreater Petra!)
Legend has it that the ancient goddess Sionnan ate the Salmon of Wisdom, with its nine hazelnuts of truth, in order to gain all the knowledge of the world, only to drown in the river that now bears her name. In 1980s Limerick, nurse Anya Kildare has nine pieces of information which, if revealed, could alter the lives of those around her forever.
If knowledge is power, and power might bring death, how much would you be willing to give away?
Intrigued? I’ll tell you more about that, and indeed Waterbound, my great hope for next year, in a future post, but I’ll leave you with some wonderful images of Ireland and finally, finally, Newcastle Noir, which proved a bright and warm and friendly end to the year (despite the title!)
Hello! Hope you are doing fine. Thanks for dropping by to catch up with Part 4 of Scrapefoot. I thought it would only be four parts, but this story has other ideas! Thanks so much for reading.
This week, who exactly has broken in to Rebecca’s mum’s house?
For the first time in my adult life, I felt a bit blindsided. How on earth was I going to get him out?
“If you don’t leave immediately, I’m definitely going to call the police and have you done for breaking and entering.”
“I didn’t break anything,” he said. “I fix things.”
He nodded towards the table leg. He was crafty.
“How exactly did you get in?”
He laid a finger aside his long, elegant nose and tapped it. “Ways and means, ways and means.”
“What? Look, this is my mother’s home and-”
“But she isn’t, is she?”
“She’s in a home. Look, this is really none of your business.”
He put another log on the fire as if the words coming out of my mouth meant nothing to him.
“I’ve cut some logs for her, out the back.” He dusted his hands together.
“But-but she doesn’t need logs. She’s in a home, where she is being looked after.”
“Looked after.” He repeated. “After. Doesn’t that word mean behind? Like something left behind, or a second thought?”
I was so angry I couldn’t reply. I glanced at my phone screen. Was calling 999 an overreaction? He didn’t seem dangerous, just…odd. I was just trying to remember the non-emergency police number when he stalked past me. I caught that sharp whiff again, the foxy, musky smell. I’d forgotten about the fox. Had it gone into the other room? That’s where he seemed to be going, the strange man, crossing the floor with long loping strides. Into the sitting room he went, and I followed him. He sat down in the big easy chair where Mum used to relax to watch Coronation Street and do her crossword. The memory made something go chink inside me, like a bit of ice breaking off. The man gave a couple of experimental bounces.
“This is better, isn’t it?” He jumped up so quickly I backed away, but he came after me, took my arm gently, the way a spaniel picks up a feathery game bird. “Come on- you try it. Remember how this chair was really lumpy?”
“No I don’t. This was my mother’s chair. I’m not in the habit of sitting in it and she never complained”
Reluctantly, I let him guide me to the chair and I sat down. The cushion moulded to my shape. Even though every sinew in my body was knotted with tension, I let myself imagine how wonderful it would be to let the softness of the cushion lure me into complete relaxation. Horrified, I sat bolt upright.
“Is this a new cushion? What the hell are you playing at?”
The pale stranger plonked himself down on the sofa, did another couple of experimental bounces, and then moved to the wing chair by the window, the one that had been my grandmother’s. That chair, I recalled, was evil. It seemed to have springs pinging from its soul.
“This chair is dreadful,” he said. “So hard and uncomfortable.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’ve never liked that chair.”
“And the couch- well, that is too soft.”
I tipped my head in consideration. “I always quite liked the couch. I used to curl up there to do my homework.”
“ Bad for your back. I bet you have a bad back.”
“ I have sciatica, but that’s neither here nor-”
“ So I found that cushion in the skip and now your mother’s chair is just right. She’ll be so happy when she comes home.”
He looks so pleased with himself, like a smiley collie dog, that I don’t have the heart to tell him she will never be coming home.
Thank you for reading!
While you’re here, please take a look at my novels and writing courses. I love to blend a little folklore into my novels, and from my interactions with readers, I know you like it too! If you can, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. With book shops closed, it would really help. Thank you in advance!
It’s Sunday again! I can’t believe it. For people who are confined to barracks, we’re fairly rattling through the weeks and months! Let’s hope time is propelling us towards a bright spot on the horizon. Anyway, I hope you are keeping safe and well and have a few moments to spare for the third instalment of Scrapefoot. Who is behind the brightly-lit windows of a seemingly empty cottage? Enjoy…
My heart must have stalled, because it suddenly started up again, rattling in my chest like a freight train. This time I did fumble for my phone, not to access the flashlight, but to have 999 at the ready. Squatters. That was the only explanation. Eel Beck Cottage was an ex-forestry worker’s dwelling. It had its own modest patch of land, with a vegetable plot at the back and a front garden over which, despite some heavy-duty wire netting, my mother had fought a long running battle with the deer. This was not a house you’d stumble upon. There were no passers-by in the wood, no ramblers, or tourists or opportunists. Whoever was behind those warm amber windows had chosen to be here. Had been led here. I glanced up at that bright star.
How dare they? Mustering all my courage, and mentally rolling up my sleeves, I started up the garden path. I was not afraid of confrontation. Most people, be they board members or gnarly trespassers, could be viewed as naughty children. They just needed the error of their ways pointing out to them in no uncertain terms. I had only taken a handful of steps when I realised I was not the first to mark this pristine blanket of snow. There were tracks, a single animal, leading right up to the front door. Animal prints. Fox prints. I stopped dead. Despite the cold and the dark, the front door was slightly ajar.
I faltered. Icicles, like crystal drops, had formed on the stone lintel and now they were melting, drip, drip ,drip. Someone had lit a fire in house. I could smell woodsmoke and the snow which had been banked up against the bottom of the door caved in like a child’s sandcastle. The amber light around the door seemed to grow brighter. For a second, the idea of a dirty, smelly fox slipping into my mother’s home outraged me more that the notion of a vagrant take-over. I could smell fox; that sharp, musky whiff. The same scent that greeted me in London when I went out to my car in the early mornings. The scent of something waiting and watching, anticipating my next move.
Giving the door a shove, I stepped over the threshold of snow. A rich, dark heat hit me: smouldering timber, winter apples, spice. It propelled me forcibly back to childhood, to my mother’s far-fetched tales, fleecy pyjamas, hot chocolate before bed. I had to swallow something hard that lodged in my throat and when I called out, my voice had lost its usual authority.
“Hello? Who’s there? You shouldn’t be in here, you know.”
I let my gaze roam around the walls. The place was filled with candles in jars. On every surface they sat, little flames dancing like fireflies. I’d been imagining a crime scene, the place burglarised, upturned drawers and scattered paper and desecration. But none of that was evident. The place looked broadly as we had left it twelve months ago, when the paramedics had skilfully manoeuvred my mother over the same threshold. She’d looked back once, and I’d had to avert my eyes from the deep well of sorrow in hers.
No the place looked undisturbed. I said it again- hello -in a much firmer voice. A head popped up from behind the table, quickly followed by the rest of the man who’d been crouching there. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen. That’s all my brain would come up with. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen.
And he was indeed strange.
He was very…pale. Like a faded painting. Hair the colour of ash and a wispy beard to match, an Arran jumper unravelling at the hem, and those camouflage pants that soldiers wear in the desert. He was barely there, yet somehow he seemed to merge with the kitchen and all its neutral shades; whitewash, stone, limed oak. When he looked straight at me, his eyes reflected the amber glow of the candlelight.
“Hello,” he said, as if I was the visitor, the intruder.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My voice was gaining ground, becoming more confident.
He glanced at the floor tiles. “I was fixing that table leg. It’s wobbly, the table.”
“It’s always been wobbly, but-”
“No problem. You’re welcome.” He moved over to the hearth where a healthy blaze was spitting and crackling. Sparks detached themselves and floated up the chimney. As a child, I used to rush outside to see if I could spot them emerge, little specks of fairy dust against the night sky. I shook the notion away.
“My mother hasn’t used that fireplace for years. There’s central heating and light.” I marched over to the wall and clicked a switch. The kitchen was flooded with a harsh artificial glow, making the stranger wince. I could see him clearly now. My first thought was that he was much younger than I’d first thought. Maybe he’d gone prematurely grey, like Philip Scofield. His skin was still young and taut, and his facial hair looked a bit tentative, like a teenager’s. It was hard to work out his age.
“I like the dark,” he complained, rubbing at his eyes.
I immediately clicked off the switch and we reverted to candlelight. What the hell was I doing?
“Look- who are you? I’m going to call the police.”
He laughed at that, one of those seen-it-all-before laughs. “I wouldn’t bother. They’d never be able to find this place. It took me all my time.”
“So how did you find it?” I was feeling frustrated, angry and my legs were tired. I wanted to sit down, but I had to get this person out of the house first.
“The star, of course.” He jerked his head towards the low ceiling. My thoughts travelled upwards, through the rafters and the attic, up into the sky to the Great Conjunction. I brought them back down to earth and rearranged them. I had to get this CRAZY person out of the house. Something else occurred to me.
“That fox- is it yours? A pet or something? It came in here, I saw the prints in the snow. You need to get out and take it with you.” I suddenly moved from the spot where I’d planted myself, looking under the table and between the legs of chairs. “They’re unhygienic.”
“The white fox?” His voice sounded amused.
“Is it a dog?” I straightened up. That would make more sense. “Is it your dog? Look, seriously, you and your dog need to sling your hook. Get out now. This is my mother’s house. I don’t even know how you got in.”
I glance around wildly but there is no sign of a forced entry. Everything is untouched apart from the addition of a warm fire and soft lighting- and a fixed table leg.
“No, No, it’s not a dog,” he said eventually, but he didn’t elaborate.
Thank you for reading! See you next week for Scrapefoot #4
Thanks for joining me on the blog! As promised, here is part 2 of Scrapefoot. Rebecca has simply gone to check on her mother’s empty cottage in the woods- but what will she find? Check back next week for part 3. Enjoy!
Now, in the wood at Eel Beck, something strange occurred. I felt a little disorientated, giddy. It was like being hit by that first sip of glühwein when the air is cold and your stomach is empty. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a shifting of things, as if the cottage I was heading towards was no longer where I might expect to find it. The wood was white and alien and when I paused a moment to look back, my footsteps had been obliterated. Or maybe they had never been there. Where had that voice come from? It had broken into my thoughts, low and insistent. Catching my breath, I glanced at the tree beside me. It was a holly bush, grown to such a point that it could safely be called a tree. The snow had slipped from its razor leaves, leaving green, glossy spikes and berries the colour of blood. In this faded-out world, the red hurt my eyes. It looked positively gaudy, a distraction.
In my peripheral vision, I saw something else- a slash of silver, a black eye, a slender paw. I gasped, but the more I looked for the creature, the more I saw only absence; twirling snow, ragged roots. It had been a fox, a white fox!
I felt breathless, glorious and yet strangely cheated, as if I’d only been granted certain permissions, and was longing to learn more. How often does anyone get to see a white fox? Are you sure that’s what you saw? That voice again. I glared at the holly tree, but she was giving nothing away. She? Oh, come on! I shook my head at my own foolishness. The landscape was playing with me. The longer I stayed there, the more it would try to outwit me, like an owl waiting to sense the heartbeat of a mouse beneath the ground. Don’t fall for it, I told myself. My mother’s vacant home was only a five minute walk away. Go check on it. Turn on the taps, make sure there are no leaks or broken windows and get the hell out of there.
Before ploughing onwards, I cast a last glance behind me. Despite the ongoing snowfall, the path was crisscrossed with tracks. Not mine, they were still missing, but I recognised the cleft print of deer, the spiky splay of some kind of bird, and paw prints of all kinds, from shrew-sized to dauntingly large. The one that stood out the most was the one I seemed to know by heart. Perhaps as a child, I’d learned to recognise it. This trail threaded back on itself, looping around the rest like a sheepdog or crime scene tape. Bold, self-possessed. Quick-witted. A slender arrow of five pads, with the indents of sharp claws. Fox.
All those random impressions in the snow began to resemble a music score, an offbeat tune that filled my being and made my heart stutter an accompanying bass beat. Pressing my hand there, I tried to swallow my irrational fears and took a deep breath. I hadn’t noticed any of those tracks as I’d passed. I hadn’t noticed them. That didn’t mean they hadn’t been there. It was absurd to think otherwise, that somehow these creatures had manifested behind my back like ghosts, I shook my head and walked on. The light was fading fast and I deliberated whether to activate the flashlight on my phone.
My mother had always been a great one for an uncanny story. She knew all the old tales from this part of Yorkshire; the menacing Gytrash, its eyes like burning coals, Mother Shipton the prophetess, well-dwelling serpents and Scrapefoot the Fox, who gatecrashed a bear’s lair. Sometimes mum would sketch odd things in the evenings, straining her eyes by the light of the fire. As a child, I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure, but later, that turned to contempt. She made me despair. I wasn’t interested in her tales or her drawings and it was the 21st century. We had electricity, for goodness sake! It was as if she wanted to row back to an earlier, eerier time, when the fire played out such tales across the ceiling, the characters like shadow puppets, lurking in the cracks in the plaster. No wonder I was in such a hurry to grow up and leave. My current home is a newbuild; a swish apartment in Highgate, with artic white walls and high-performance lighting controlled by personal software which means I can illuminate the place from my I-phone. I never have to step into a dark room.
I am no longer used to the dark. The trees seemed to be bearing down on me. Above me the sky was like a massive 3-D poster, a luminous chart of all the constellations I had ever known. I could even identify some of them; Orion and his belt, the Big Dipper. And the one that looks like a W. Right overhead was suspended the brightest of stars, or perhaps a planet. On the News, there’d been a story about a Great Conjunction, the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, but I hadn’t really been paying attention. Apparently, it hadn’t been seen for centuries and they thought (whoever they were) that this might have been the actual Christmas Star.
Another of my mother’s stories flitted into my mind. In Finland, Artic foxes are said to race across the sky, brushing the mountain peaks with their tails. The resulting snowflakes ignite to form the Aurora Borealis. Like all of my mother’s stories, I’d packed it away with a sigh, impatient to move on, but out here, in the dark, below the vast dome of the sky and amid the hush of the snow, it felt like anything was possible.
I tried to shrug off the notion. Any moment now, the cottage would come into view and I could do my duty and return to my car, which was parked on the main road. And then it would be back to my hotel for a warming mulled wine at the bar. By some strange quirk, the Christmas Star, or whatever that bright shiny thing was, seemed to be pinned right above me, above the cottage, like a bauble on some weird cosmic Christmas tree.
And then I noticed two things. That creature, that flash of silver fur I’d spied earlier, whistled past me again and in my mother’s cottage, lights were blazing. Lights which should not be there. Each pane of glass was a little square of flickering gold in the dark wood…
Hope you’ve enjoyed part 2! While you’re here, do read about my writing journey, my books and my creative writing courses- and do drop me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!
Previously, I’ve written about my thoughts as a writer in lockdown, when I was finding it difficult to write. My muse had obviously been scrolling through it, and decided to take pity on me, because the drive to create has returned to some degree. My fourth novel Sight Unseenhas been published into a strange, sad new world. I want to take this opportunity to thank Agent Jenny, as always, and my publisher Birlinn/Polygon. Everyone there is working so hard in difficult circumstances to get those books out.
We were aided GREATLY by Kelly Lacey, Jacky Collins (AKA Dr Noir!) and a legion of fantastic bloggers and influencers who managed to get the Sight Unseen word out. If you need help with your literary endeavours, please look up Love Books Tours and Honey and Stag Literary Events. Heartfelt thanks to them all.
So, Book 2 of the Sarah Sutherland series Last Seen (set partially in India) and an outline for Book 3 (set in places I think I’ll be able to get to) are now complete. I’m just thinking about all those shiny new books that were published this summer, sitting hopefully in bookshops nationwide, longing for readers. I also know how difficult it is to persuade ourselves to try and resume a ‘normal’ life.
With the latest new restrictions, life looks set to shrink even further. I go for a coffee with friends just once a week, but since we’re from four separate households, that looks likely to be a casualty. However, being home alone has led to some interesting observations. While I’m missing all the literary events I used to attend, I’m enjoying a break from the almost-constant anxiety of speaking in public and ‘putting myself out there’. I think this will resonate with many writers, yet when we talk about mental health, we tend to skim over this. I always tell my creative writing students that sharing your work with an audience is ‘something you’ll get used to’ because that’s what we tell ourselves, but writers are generally a shy, insecure bunch. As much as I miss the interaction with readers, this breathing space has definitely made me feel a lot calmer.
I don’t have any answers for what’s happening to us, but I’ll share with you some of the little things that are getting me through this and it might help you too:
That first gulp of fresh air whenever you take of your face mask
Sitting in my porch and pretending it’s a conservatory
Fairy lights/lights in bottles/tealights. In Reykjavik, they chase away the dark with lights in trees, lights on the water. My memories of Iceland are not of dark and cold, but of golden reflections.
Tea (always and obviously) in a favourite mug, and taken outside. It’s portable.
Watching the sea instead of a screen.
Going out for a walk just as it’s getting light.
Hearty east coast dwellers who greet you with ‘Quite fresh, today!’ when we’re in the middle of a named storm.
Other people’s dogs. They look so happy.
Discovering really cool stuff in my neighbourhood.
Doing yoga/meditating online (Huge thanks to the Space to BE community- I recommend)
I suddenly seem to have a lot of hours to spare, so now seems as good a time as any to update my blog.
But what to write?
We are stuck in a strange limbo. There is an almost palpable feeling of dread in the air, a collective sense of nervous anxiety. None of us are sleeping. We tell ourselves not to watch every news bulletin, while unable to look away. The pandemic is unfolding relentlessly before our eyes and even those of us who have remained relatively untouched (so far) know that, right now, people are saying goodbye to loved ones via Facetime and NHS staff are fighting the sort of battle we have nightmares about.
I have been shopping once a week at my local Co-op, which is doing an excellent job. Today I took delivery of a small Asda order, primarily of staples I can’t get locally. I did have a bit of a giggle upon receiving a single banana! It made me think of that wartime ditty my dad used to sing, “Yes, we have no bananas!” There is something quite comforting about remembering the wartime generation and all that they faced. For anyone my age or younger, this is the first time we have experienced the sort of fear that comes from a universal threat. I hope it will be character building and allow us to address the cracks in our society. I hope everyone I know will get through this unscathed.
For writers, artists and many people working in the creative sector, the rug has truly been pulled. Income streams have vanished overnight and all our much-valued face-to-face events have gone. Add to this, our concerns over the health of loved ones (and ourselves) and it’s clear that we’re in for a bumpy emotional ride in the weeks ahead. Even those of us who are generally happy in our own company are finding this difficult. Fellow writer, Gillian Duff, has an interesting take on this. She suspects that, deep down, we have a primitive fear of being ‘separated from the herd’. This makes perfect sense, and rather ironically many of us have discovered that the lockdown has brought increased and unexpected connectivity with friends and family.
Staying connected- members of Angus Writers’ Circle
So now that we have all the time in the world, it should be easy to finish that work-in-progress, right? One of my favourite Tweets of recent days, was from a writer pointing out that anyone who suggests ‘writing a novel’ as a way of passing some time has ‘clearly never written a novel.’ The reality is indeed different. Any writer I have spoken to is finding it extremely hard to settle their minds long enough to create anything. My own day is a prime example. If words were KitKats, I’d definitely have a book in me…
4am Wake. Listen to radio and fret that it’s only the wee small hours. Turn off radio. Get up and make tea. Wash last night’s dishes while waiting for kettle to boil. Go back to bed, now fully awake. Read book but decide the time would be better employed writing. I could fit in 3 hours of writing before breakfast!
6am Open laptop. The view from the window becomes so interesting. The sunrise is lovely! If I go for my regulation walk now, the place will be deserted, and I won’t get the social distancing anxiety. Around here, the anxiety comes from people being too rule-conscious. On our rather narrow beach path, a Strictly Come Dancing scenario plays out daily as walkers and joggers take avoidance measures. Go for walk.
7am Still time to write before breakfast, but I’m hungry. I really want my breakfast
8am. Three-course, industrial-strength breakfast consumed. Lockdown lolling around takes energy.
9am Examine Word doc. Write a sentence. Check clock. Feel like I’ve been up for hours but it’s only 9am- not even coffee time. Get up and make another cup of tea.
9.30 Switch on TV ‘for company’. A panel of experts is discussing Corvid facts and I become engrossed. We are becoming a nation of armchair coronavirus experts and scientists have never been so cool.
11am. Coffee time. Plus biscuits, eaten while still watching TV.
12 am It’s noon! How did that happen? Look at Word doc and write a further three guilt-sentences while listening to The Jeremy Vine show. Get caught up in a debate about ‘corvidiots’ sunbathing while people are dying. So incensed I cannot think straight, and anyway, it’s time for lunch.
1pm Lunch, eaten in front of the One O’Clock news. No wonder I have indigestion.
2pm Decide I’d better do a bit of pottering outside while the sun’s out. I need my Vit D and I have potatoes to plant. Pity I can’t grow bananas. I do have a nice line in raspberry canes though.
3pm Coffee time, which is now coffee-and-something-fattening time
4pm The muse has fled. Close laptop. There’s always tomorrow and it must be nearly time for today’s press conference…
Two of the many silly little things I’m missing. Writing on a train going somewhere interesting and meeting friends for coffee. What about you?
Christmas is almost upon us; that time of year when you start to panic about time going by too fast. The perfect time, then, to do a quick round up of the latter half of this year. So much has happened since the publication of The Unmaking of Ellie Rook, it’s actually really nice to pause and look back.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Here’s a whistle stop tour of the last few months!
I hit September running with a mini-tour of some Waterstones fiction reading groups. Angie Crawford does an amazing job with this, encouraging people to get together over books and curating the reading choices with such care. I was really thrilled to be offered the chance to speak with the groups in Dundee and Perth, and the fact that they’d already read Ellie Rook was a bonus for two reasons. a) It gave a valuable insight into how the story is being received and b) I didn’t need to worry about spoilers. I’m always scared I’m going to give the twists away!
September, of course, is Bloody Scotlandmonth. If it’s not on your calendar, make it so.I wouldn’t miss it for the world, and this year was extra special- my very first appearance as a fully-fledged author! In 2016, I was a very nervous ‘Spotlighter’- Bloody Scotland does so much to showcase new talent- waiting in the wings of the Albert Hall for my three minutes on stage, in front of a capacity audience and some ‘proper’ authors. I don’t think I even had a book at that point- Beneath the Skin was still at the printers! This year, I was thrilled to be included on a panel devoted to history and folklore (my favourite things) with Mary Paulson-Ellis, Anna Mazzola, and chaired by Kaite Welsh
All of the above are super-talented and I have to admit I was a little in awe and pretty nervous. However, as well as being talented, they’re are also generous and very kind! Plus the friendliness of the Bloody Scotland audiences is legendary. I made it out alive!
Hot on the heels of Bloody Scotland came the Nairn Book and Arts Festival. For a fairly wee place, Nairn has the most spectacular Arts Centre and a really inclusive vibe. Thoroughly enjoyed meeting Mavis from The Nairn Bookshop and all the other volunteers. The lady in my B&B did the most amazing mushrooms on toast I’ve ever had in my life. I should have asked for the recipe…
Also in October, I was treated to a hearty literary lunch by the kind folks of Far From The Madding Crowd, Linlithgow. We had soup and cake and great conversation. My chair Rebecca Smith was lovely and we discovered some places we had in common. She once lived in Northallerton, N. Yorkshire, where I grew up (many decades before). I love these coincidences!
In October it was time for the Portobello Book Festival. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to have admired these events from afar and then to be invited to them, This time I was chatting with the fabulous Lisa Ballantyne and Lesley Kelly, who is not only an accomplished writer herself but an excellent chair, fielding some very searching questions from the audience, including my own family!!
November saw me heading off to Ireland and the Murder One Festival, Dublin. Again, this festival is a great supporter of new talent and I’d been offered a reading spot in the banqueting hall of one of Dublin’s oldest theatres, Smock Alley. There was a real buzz about the place, and of course I treated Ellie Rook to a Guinness afterwards – it would have been rude not to.
It’s been a busy week, with the Edinburgh launch of The Unmaking of Ellie Rook at the amazing Golden Hare Books, and a wee shindig at my local tapas bar Maxibells in Carnoustie (plus a friend’s wedding sandwiched in between).
All done and dusted, Ellie Rook is well and truly out there in the world! It’s always a tense time. As a new writer, it’s hard to see beyond that point where your first book lands in your hands, but now that I’m three novels in (actually more than that, but the fourth is in editorial and number 5 is in my head!) I have a chance to reflect on what life on the ink face is really like.
So, here are my top tips for new authors:
Launch venue. Make sure you choose somewhere you feel comfortable, and where you are among friends. It can be a bit of an ordeal!Writers are by nature shy creatures, happiest in their normal habitat. Scrubbing up to go out in public can be a chore when your default setting is slumped in front of a PC. Being in the spotlight- well, a hundred ‘what ifs’ will be floating through your head. Comfort is your watchword, whether that means old shoes or being in a place you’re familiar with
Ring the changes. Don’t be afraid to do something a bit different, although the standard ‘chaired’ chat is probably best for debut authors. Make sure you have someone you know in the chair! However, it’s good to experiment. Introduce some music or pair up with a poet or singer. Choose a theme, or pick a venue which relates to your book.
The local launch of my second novel Bone Deep, included traditional music and spoken word, which lent a story arc to the evening. This time, I was keen to play up the woodland, watery theme of the new book, so at Maxibells, we had tables dripping with greenery and my favourite local duo The Yonderlees put their own unique musical slant on the themes of the story.
I was able to use their PA too, which was very handy!
Staunch supporters at Maxibells!
Good friends are a must!
3. Take time to think about your guest list. A small, intimate gathering where guests are invited to drop in via social media, or a more formal ‘by invitation’ format? This can be tricky, unless you have a lot of contacts, perhaps from several different areas of your life.
Non-booky people can find a literary event boring and/or intimidating (and so can family members!) so bear that in mind when choosing a venue. Like a wedding, there will be the ‘ought to invite’ list and the ‘must have’ list. But it’s your day. Don’t let such things overshadow this great achievement.
4. Readings from the book. They must be short enough to whet the appetite, but long enough to break up the time. You have an hour to fill! This is where a musician or poet can help you out. Joint book launches are always an option if you’re a bit nervous.
Rebecca Sharp at the Hospitalfield launch of Bone Deep, 2018
5. Book sales. If you are traditionally published, most events will be covered by your local bookseller, but you can order your own author discounted copies or provide your own books if self-published. I usually offer the gig to my local indie bookshop (The Bookhouse, Monifieth) because, let’s face it- we need them! If you’re selling your own books, have a mate on hand to help. You’ll have enough to think about!
6. Food and drink. Most bookshops, like Golden Hare, thoughtfully provide wine. (Do not quaff a whole glass before your talk!!) If you’re organising your own launch- how about some home-baking or tea in vintage cups? Ellie Rook was launched in Carnoustie with gin cocktails and a curry buffet!
7. Publicity A good way to herald the launch of your new book is by organising, or having a professional organise, a blog tour. We are so luck in the writing community that we have so many reviewers and book bloggers willing to support our work. My tours have been arranged by Love Books Group and it’s wonderful to watch it all come together. Sometimes bloggers who might normally post about, say, beauty products or food, will come on board and introduce your book to a much wider audience. Social media is a creature which can offer enormous benefits in the right hands.
8.Reviews. After the launch everything will go dark. Nothing to do with the alcohol, but you’ll need to stick on your business hat. Everyone moves on very quickly and your book is just one of many struggling to the light. Try not to stalk Amazon and Goodreads as you wait for reviews. And you WILL get bad reviews. Steel yourself. It does not mean you have a bad book, but it just cannot appeal to everyone. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the negative, it’s the enemy of creativity. As a wise person once said to me, ‘The people who write 1 * reviews are not the people you’d ever be friends with anyway.’ So true. Stick with your pals and supporters- they are legion. Just make sure you invite them to your next launch!
One evening in 2017, I was sitting around a table with two friends, Dawn Geddes and Elizabeth Frattaroli. Our drinks remained untouched, tension was etched on our faces. We were trying to come up with a name for our new venture, and it was proving trickier than we’d ever imagined. We were on the verge of extending a hand to fellow writers, to offer them a retreat away from everyday life, from the domestic routine which kills creativity. Our vision was that they would be able to write, unhindered, in a glorious setting. We had the idea, the venue, the enthusiasm- but no name.
The name had to be catchy and writing-related. Perhaps even reflecting the rich literary heritage of Angus, where the retreats would be held, and celebrating the idea that, for one weekend at least, the clock would be stopped. We even had a tagline, ‘Press pause in the heart of Angus.’!
Our thoughts turned to local authors- Violet Jacob, of course, from the House of Dun -but what about, arguably, the most famous writer in the world, who just happened to have been born in a tiny cottage at the foot of the Angus Glens? J. M. Barrie. Maybe Peter Pan might have a solution to our problem…
Unless you’re some kind of Hemingway figure, locked in your study eight hours a day while your wife micro-manages your life, you, the average writer, are going to be time-poor. Everything will crowd in to take precedence over your work-in-progress: kids, shopping, cleaning, demanding relatives. What is the writer’s greatest enemy? The snap of the clock at their heels. So perhaps this quote might fit?
“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.” ~ J .M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Sure, it’s about mortality rather than creative time, but surely the reason why we write is to get those words out while we still can? Perfect.
In the last ten days, I’ve been learning a lot more about Barrie the celebrated author, with visits to Moat Brae, Dumfries, and his birthplace in Kirriemuir, preserved and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. I’ve even had the chance to compare crocodiles!
Books can be dangerous!
Elizabeth and Justin Davies, joint co-ordinators of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in south east Scotland, kindly invited me along on their group visit to the enchanting Moat Brae, the house which is thought to have inspired Peter Pan and was a favourite haunt of J.M.Barrie during his schooldays.
Now a centre for children’s literature and storytelling, the once-derelict property has been extensively and sensitively restored by the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust. Moat Brae was designed by Walter Newall for a local solicitor, Robert Threshie in 1823. The house and garden were in private ownership from 1823 to 1914. The house then became a nursing home which closed in 1997. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and was subsequently purchased by a local housing association. In August 2009, Moat Brae House was due to be demolished to make way for new social housing.At the eleventh hour, it has been saved for the nation and is well worth a visit.
My other jaunt this week was to one of my favourite National Trust for Scotland properties (next to Barry Mill, of course!). Barrie’s Birthplace is a delightful weaver’s cottage tucked away in the centre of Kirriemuir, Angus.
Charmingly preserved, you can see lots of memorabilia connected with the author, and some delightful quotes and photographs. Barrie returned to the cottage before his death in 1937, to have one last look at his old bedroom. The then owner was surprised but delighted to welcome him in to his old home and a poignant photograph commemorates the visit.
The old washhouse and outbuildings where the young Jamie staged plays for his friends still survive, and the garden is undergoing a makeover.
I feel I’ve been keeping a low profile lately, but only because I’m conserving energy for what’s to come!
This summer (July) sees the release of my third novel for Polygon THE UNMAKING OF ELLIE ROOK. Ellie had her first outing this week at Noir @The Bar, Edinburgh, before a hugely supportive audience of fellow writers. Thanks to all of them, and especially to Jacky Collins and Kelly Lacey for inviting Ellie and myself to the party!
In other news, BONE DEEP, in its stunning new jacket, will be unleashed on American readers in just two weeks time! Gallery Books are gearing up to run a huge Giveaway on Goodreads and I’ve also contributed an article about the relationship between folklore and psychological crime stories for CrimeReads, a popular US online magazine.
BONE DEEP coming soon from Gallery Books
And speaking of folklore…June also sees the beginning of a series of workshops I’ve planned at the Two Sisters Cafe, Carnoustie. Entitled FINDING INSPIRATION THROUGH FOLKLORE, this course, being run as part of my Creative Scotland award, will bring together writers, poets, musicians and artists as we scour our rich storytelling heritage for inspiration. The workshops are full subscribed, but look out for the other courses I’ll be running for Lifelong Learning Dundee in October.
A corn dolly from Something Corny, Inverurie- a prop for my Folklore Workshops!
Over the last few months I’ve had the great pleasure of taking part in the Love Stories Panel, with authors Noelle Harrison, Laura Lam, and Ella Hayes, ably chaired by Dawn Geddes. Sponsored by House of Elrick Gin, we visited Waterstones Edinburgh, Waterstones St Andrews and Blackwells Edinburgh to discuss how we approach love, sex and romance in our books and the relevance of the ‘romance novel’ today. Obviously I was representing the black cloud of toxic relationships everywhere! We enjoyed some lively discussions and brilliant audience participation, all washed down with a delicious honeyed gin cocktail (Monarchy of Bees) mixed by the talented Talia!