Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Yesterday would have been my mother's birthday - she would have been 103 years old, had she still been with us. And it got me thinking because I have recently read three novels - one by a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, one stunningly good thriller by a writer new to that genre, and one feel-good 'summer' read - and none of them had a character having a birthday in them, even though the time spans for all but the last one were quite lengthy and surely to goodness, during the course of well over a year more than one would have had a birthday. We all have birthdays - we can't ignore them even if we would prefer not to know the numbers racking up. Birthdays can bring a subtle dynamic to life. Take, then, the experience of the son of a friend of mine. He had a birthday coming up (his thirtieth) and he also had a girlfriend with whom he had fallen out of love. But he is a good guy and he felt he couldn't dump her just yet because his mother had organized a big family lunch for him and the no-longer-loved girlfriend had been invited. So he decided to do the deed after the party. But what happened? - well, the girl, ignorant of the plan in his mind, bought tickets to Paris and booked them into a 5* hotel for a long weekend as his birthday present.He went along. So, one not-really-wanted birthday treat, one proposal (hers) and an unplanned pregnancy later, they married, then divorced. That birthday had a lot to answer for!
In fiction, I am fast coming to realize that birthdays can create a nice bit of friction. Say, for example, the hero of the piece forgets the heroine's birthday, or he buys her something she really should have worked out that she hates, or he gets her lingerie in the size worn by his former wife/girlfriend/significant other. Wouldn't that send the story off down another track? My idea of hell on earth would be a surprise party - I'm not much of a party person anyway but to have one sprung on me when I'm not wearing the right dress, or had my hair done, or my nails, or I'm in lace-up walking shoes as I walk through the door to this evening of torture, would make me want to kill whoever had organized it. It can go the other way, of course. Our hero might be a wonderful guy but strapped for ready cash so he sells his beloved car/motorbike/golf clubs/kayak/whatever to buy his heroine a present. Wouldn't that make you warm to him? Cake and candles all round!
Thinking about this post I remembered I had in fact had my heroine, Emma, celebrating a birthday in Emma: There's No Turning Back when she is given pearl earrings by her beloved Seth. The book illustrator picked up on that and drew them into the cover design. I've recently written - and submitted to a magazine - a short story called 'Birthday Girl' but I think that is the sum total of my nod to birthdays in my fiction.
I leave you with some quotes. The first is from Janet Evanovich: 'Romance novels are birthday cake and life is often peanut butter and jelly. I think everyone should have lots of delicious romance novels lying around for those times when the peanut butter of life gets stuck to the roof of your mouth.' And this from John Glenn: 'There is still no cure for the common birthday.'

Sunday, 17 September 2017

What I Did On My Holidays

What we all DID - or didn't DO - on our holidays!

Rae - School holidays and writing make for awkward bedfellows in the Cowie household, mainly
because as much as I adore writing, I love spending time with family too. That said, if I haven’t grabbed some scribbling time for several weeks, then I begin to feel twitchy and so when my youngest signed up for a drama workshop in Chiswick, London, I saw my opportunity to accompany him, beavering away on my work in progress whilst he was treading the boards; a solo writing retreat
of sorts.
Chiswick House

And it was brilliant. Chiswick’s vibrant café culture makes it easy to discover a quiet corner to set up camp and happily tap away. But as well as drinking copious amounts of cappuccino, I also spent writing time in the local library and in the stunning gardens of Chiswick House – a Palladian villa built in 1729 by Lord Burlington (a great patron of the arts) as a meeting place for artists, composers and writers. The perfect spot! My mini writing retreat turned out to be just the creative shot in the arm I needed. Now I’m raring to spend time in my own, far more humble, writing den, now everyone has returned to school.

Victoria - Like many debut writers, I also have a day job which is not writing related.
 This means that due to work commitments, I am unable to go away during the holiday season. As I live in Cornwall (a holiday destination in itself), I grab the odd day out from work and pretend I am a tourist by doing all the things our holiday visitors would do, one of which is walking the coastal path. To date, my husband and I have walked just over a quarter of the coastal route. It was during one of these walks I was inspired to write The Thief’s Daughter, which is based on the North Cornish Coast. This summer we walked from Newquay to Holywell Bay, which is approximately 8 miles of moderate walking. Holywell Bay is one of the locations where Poldark was filmed, particularly the love scenes between Morwenna and Drake. It was a beautiful walk and the last one we did with our beloved dog before he passed away. I have many happy memories of beautiful scenery, sunny weather and sharing new experiences with our canine buddy, which I will cherish for years to come.  

Jennifer - What did I do on my holiday? Well, that's a question. I did have a holiday - I must have done, because I have the photos to prove it - but it passed in the blink of an eye, caught between the deadlines and events of a frantic summer.

My holiday, or what passed for it, was four days in northern Italy, in a hotel with surely the most spectacular view of any I’ve ever stayed in. I spent some of it staring at spectacular Lake Maggiore from my balcony, occasionally glancing up from my Kindle to experience the lake in its many moods. And I spent more of it staring at the scenery around me, from a boat, from a cable car, from a train. And in these, and every other place, I watched people, salting away their actions and their interactions, their laughter and their irritations, their spoiled lapdogs and their tantrumming two year olds, for a future cameo appearance in a book. 
Oh, and I ate a lot of pizza.

Linda - As a teenager, I spent most sunny summer days (and they were all sunny back then, or so it seemed) on the beach with school friends. In those days the big factories 'oop North' closed down and you'd have girls and boys from Manchester and the like, and then Glasgow, all slathering themselves with olive oil mixed with vinegar to get a good tan but getting horribly sunburned on the first day. Conversations would be struck up. 'Where are you from?' someone would ask. I'd vaguely point back up over the town to the trees on the skyline and say, 'Up there.' That answer was always met with very puzzled looks. I think many of them thought this was a place full of hotels and B&Bs and tripper shops and that no one lived here the rest of the time.

And then would come the question. 'You live here? But where do you go for your holidays?' This said slightly aghast and with more than a hint of jealousy that I might spend my entire days on the beach. But the answer was that I didn't go anywhere. My parents sometimes - about three times before I left home at twenty-one - went to visit relatives in Wales or Essex for a week but they were not travellers. My Dad never set foot on the beach either, his constant reason being he'd seen enough sand when he'd been fighting during the war in North Africa and he didn't want to set foot on it ever again.

Back then I didn't feel the need to go anywhere else ... I had it all here really. Not only the beach but glorious countryside out towards Dartmoor just ten minutes walk from our back door. When I was old enough (and even when I wasn't!) there were numerous bars where I could get a Babycham or a rum and blackcurrant. Oh, and a bag of chips to eat on the way home. I knew plenty of people who owned a dinghy of some description so there were plenty of trips along the coast cove-hopping. I even got myself a holiday job selling ice cream from a wooden hut on the beach - the hut is still there, amazingly! Mr Whippy made his appearance around this time and I became a dab hand with the old swirly cone technique, although I hated the stuff and still do. I knew there was a whole world out there to be explored some day. But what did I go and do? I married a man who doesn't do holidays, that's what. But that's another story ....

Gill -   Because summer is the best time of year to be in Scotland (in theory!) I haven’t really had a holiday this year, unless you count holiday as time spent having fun with people who have visited. In that case, I’ve had quite a few holidays. Having people here really encourages us to explore this area (mid-Argyll, west coast of Scotland) where we have now lived for 18 months. We went for bike rides, boat trips and walks, enjoyed the amazing scenery, the not-always clement weather and the fantastic food. And (almost) all the time I was squirrelling bits of information away for when I got back to my writing: that story someone told about a relative, that view from Ardnoe Point, that disastrous fall from the bike … It’s definitely true that nothing goes to waste in the life of a writer.

Jennie -  My husband always tells me living in France is like one long holiday! Hmm not sure that I agree with that. We've lived over here now for 18 (!) years and have been back 'home' just three times in all those years. The third time was this summer. Our daughter was planning a 'big' birthday party for her August birthday and we had to be there, didn't we? Husband didn't argue and so ferry tickets were duly booked and I dusted off the suitcases.  I also took the opportunity to make arrangements to sign copies of my latest paperback in the Dartmouth Bookseller. Devon in August is always busy and this year was no exception. Several of my books are set in Devon and in Dartmouth in particular and it was good to go back and fill the well with new impressions and meet up with old friends. Dartmouth has a special place in my heart, lots of life changing things happened to me there over the years and more good memories were made this year. And the ferry trip gave me hours and hours to people watch and make notes! (The birthday party was good too!)

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Its been all systems go this week as Neil Donald Photography Headquarters prepare for the North East Open Studios which begin on Saturday 9th September.
North East Open Studios (NEOS) began in 2003. It is a community organisation providing an informal network for artists and craft makers. During the NEOS week the public are granted access to the creative talents of the North East of Scotland. Artists, photographers, jewellery makers etc. allow the public into their work space or in our case a hired room o showcase their work.
The NEOS is a an award winning Tourist Initiative.  
So myself (but mainly Audrey) have been busily ordering prints and greetings cards for the week. I will admit I have had a wobble in terms of have I enough prints, is my work good enough , will anybody turn up. However  my nerves are now settled and I am excited for this weekend.

Table all set up ad ready to go !!!
Fortunately I am not on my own, there will be 2 artists and  a fellow photographer to help ease the pressure. There are also 3 more artists exhibiting within Balmedie so the little village is a hive of creative activity. Hopefully I will get a chance to visit a few more exhibitors throughout the week.
NEOS Poster for our exhibition

Jess at the Shed will also be exhibiting her art work and Audrey has already spotted a few pieces that she likes. https://www.facebook.com/jesspetriethepaintshed/
Sneek peak in Jess's Shed.
A friend and fellow photographer Ally Deans will also have his photographs on show. Fortunately myself and Ally have a different photographic style. https://www.facebook.com/allydeansphotography/
Fittie Aberdeen
Last but certainly not least Kymme Fraser is the second artist to join the multimedia exhibition. https://www.facebook.com/kymme.fraser.3

Artwork all set up

So if anybody is visiting the North East of Scotland this week look out for #Yellowsigns for #NEOS on the road a these will point in the direction of an artist or craftsman. Find some inspiration, be awed by the talent that you may not have been aware of.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Making Something Out of Chaos

by Jennifer Young

Mayhem at the boat stop...
In the midst of mayhem, there’s usually some kind of method. 

This dawned on me on holiday. I was standing by the side of Lake Maggiore trying to board a boat to Isola Bella — something which ought to be pretty simple. You buy your ticket and set off for the pier and…oh. 

There are four piers. One is for the big lake steamers, and the other three, to which we were directed, are for the flotilla of smaller boats that ferry visitors out to the island — and to many other destinations. And they all come in and out, with a turnaround of minutes, at any one of these three piers, not one of which gives any indication as to which of the many small villages they’re going to, or in which order (which matters, because every ticket is different). 

The milling crowd around these piers might be going anywhere, in any combination of stops. No-one seems to know which boat is going to come in at which pier. But the tickets are different colours, so the system works like this. 

But we got there in the end!
The boat comes in and the boatman holds up a ticket. Let’s say it’s green. You have a green ticket so you rush over towards him, holding your ticket up in turn. He beckons you out of the crowd of people waving blue or pink tickets, examines your ticket and sends you away, because you have the wrong green ticket. So you try again and again until you get the right boat with the right green ticket. 

This works if there’s one boat coming in at one pier at any given time. But when boats are coming and going at several piers it’s complete chaos. On the day we attempted the journey, the lake shore was full of people running up and down waving different coloured ticket and shouting at the top of their voices. Baveno? Isola Madre? Villa Taranto?

Sometimes, plotting a novel feels exactly like that — a complete chaos of random thoughts, ideas, characters and events, all jostling around a skeleton structure of a plot. 

The Lake Maggiore experience worked fine in the end, or I think it did. (I’m not sure we did get the right boat for the return journey, but we ended up where we wanted, so it didn’t matter.) Plots are  bit less defined, and most of the time I end up somewhere I never intended to go. 

But isn’t that part of the fun?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

ARE YOU DISCONNECTED? by Victoria Cornwall

Are you disconnected from your head? If you are then you run the risk of feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, depressed and angry. Hardly surprising, I hear you cry. Marie Antoinette probably felt the same way as she made her way towards the guillotine.

You may be surprised to learn that the majority of us go through life disconnected from our heads. Just ask Eckhart Tolle, who wrote the book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Not got the time to read another book? Then watch the short TED video on Youtube by Ted Kuntz called Feeding the Negative Wolf. In fact everyone should watch it, particularly authors, as we are the worst culprits. At least I know I am.

The theory is that while our bodies are here in the present … taking out the bins, working at our desks, driving the car, talking to our friends … often our head is elsewhere. Our head is either in the past or in the future, but rarely in the present.

The heads of older people tend to be in the past. They compare and recall better times from their youth when life was safer, people were kinder, the weather was sunnier and there was less crime. However, living in the past is not just the pastime of the elderly. There are those who blame their past for their problems and that can lead to a victim complex which dis-empowers you to such an extent that you cannot find the motivation or have the belief that you can change things now.

Younger people tend to have their head in the future. They can’t wait until they are old enough to drive, have sex, drink, move out and get married. Everything in the future will be better than it is now. The trouble with this (and the previous way of thinking) is it can only lead to dissatisfaction with the here and now. However, it is not only the young who live in the future. Those people that worry about what might happen in the future dwell there too. They worry they may not get that promotion, or that their plane might crash, or that they might miss their train. It is a very stressful and anxious place to be, yet we spend a lot of time there … worrying about the future.

The best place to have your head is with your body ... in the present and connected. Unfortunately, very few people live here. The present is where we appreciate what we have, enjoy the moment and not let the worries of the future or the past spoil our today.

Authors are very bad (or perhaps I should say very good) at being disconnected from our bodies.
Authors who live in the past believe that the publishing world was better before eBooks and before self-published authors diluted the market. They recall how it was better when they were paid larger advances and earned more money from writing. Times have changed and there are more choices and more writers have their work published than ever before, but if you live in the past these benefits will pass you by.

Authors are also notoriously good at having their heads in the future. When they get that contract everything will be amazing. When their book is published as an eBook life will be ideal. However, when one’s head is in the future it is easy to keep changing the goal posts so happiness is always just around the corner. The goal post moves to when they eventually have their novel published as a paperback and audio, then, perhaps, an award ... or maybe even two. Of course sales will rise and life will be so much easier when we achieve that best seller logo. Won't it? Achieve those things and we move the goal posts yet again. Everything will be just perfect when we get that elusive film deal. Only then will we feel content ... maybe. Authors are quick to forget that their very first goal to happiness was completing a novel in the first place.

So whoever you are, whatever you do for a living, whatever your age, we all need to connect with our heads and live in present. We need to learn to appreciate our surroundings, the people in our lives and value the achievements we have gained so far. Life is a journey and the only thing we are guaranteed is that it will end one day. And when you have learnt the skill of living with your head connected so that it becomes second nature to you, let me know how you did it, as I am trying my best to master the skill myself.

Victoria Cornwall

Saturday, 19 August 2017


Reading and travel are my two great loves and whenever I find the opportunity to combine them then I’m a happy soul. In recent years I’ve tried to read at least one novel set in the place I’m about to explore. So when we decided to visit the Florida Keys on a family holiday, I knew exactly which book I would choose – Vanessa Lafaye’s stunning historical debut, Summertime (A Richard and Judy BookClub Choice for 2015). A novel based on real life events, which graced my ‘to be read’ list for far too long.

Set during the 1930s on the fictional Heron Key, we’re introduced to Missy, loyal maid to the Kincaid family, who spends years of her prime waiting for her first love, Henry, to return from the battlefields of France. Trouble is brewing, as a hurricane threatens the coast, turning everything, including Missy’s life, upside-down. (Here's my full Goodreads review - Summertime Review .) Summertime is a fantastic debut, made even more special for me when I went on to read the author’s notes and discovered that the real life events on which Vanessa based her novel took place in Islamorada – the island we’d chosen to stay on the Keys.

Islamorada Hurricane Memorial

As we drove South on day trips, we passed a hurricane monument, which, if it weren’t for reading Summertime, I may not have given a second glance – which would’ve been a shame because I would have missed learning about perhaps the single most important event in the history of Islamorada. But because I read Summertime I understood the importance of the memorial. So we stopped and read the tragic tale of the brave WW1 veterans who, whilst working for the government, were treated shabbily by a system that chose to ignore the natural danger heading their way. Because I’d met and admired Vanessa’s fictional characters, her writing made me take time to reflect on the suffering endured
The true story behind 'Summertime'
by the real inhabitants of Islamorada, during the catastrophic 1935 Labor Day hurricane, when 200mph winds created 18 foot tidal waves, which swamped the low-lying sea town with appalling loss of life, demolishing most of the buildings. A sobering thought.

As we journeyed on past ocean front villas butting up against water bluer than a skimming dragonfly, heading to the lively tropical port of Key West, we commented on the strange sight of a bridge half-built, or broken - we weren’t sure.
Partially completed railway bridge (Florida Keys)
When I posted my book review on Goodreads, Vanessa was kind enough to get in touch and pointed me in the direction of her fascinating Pinterest board entitled ‘The History Behind The Novel’. It was there I discovered that the partially completed railway bridge we’d seen was the same bridge the WW1 Veterans, including Vanessa’s fictional hero, Henry, were working on when the hurricane struck.

I feel grateful to Vanessa as her time in meticulously researching the events which led to such a tragedy added so much more to my stay in Islamorada and also to my understanding of the danger of the deadly force of nature capable of destroying the breathtaking beauty of the Keys.

The Green Turtle Inn
As we drove past the flashing neon green light of the Green Turtle Inn, one of the few buildings that survived the storm, I couldn't help but remember the terrified residents who gathered there, seeking shelter, after the worst of the hurricane blew through.

It's a heart-breaking real life story, but the characters in Summertime display both courage and hope for the future. Islamorada has been rebuilt and is thriving as a popular fishing and tourist resort, once again. I'd love to return one day!
Islamorada - July 2017

If you’d like to see more photos of what inspired Vanessa to write Summertime, or learn a little more about a largely forgotten piece of American history, then I’ve included a link to her Pinterest page here.

Also, I can’t sign off without mentioning that having very much enjoyed Summertime (even if you can’t visit the Florida Keys, it’s still a brilliant read), I then went on to enjoy the companion novel, At First Light. This time our journey into the past begins during a 1993 Klu Klux Klan rally in Key West, when Alicia Cortez, a frail elderly Cuban woman, commits murder in broad daylight. To understand Alicia's motives Vanessa then carries us back to Key West of 1919, a wild, colourful frontier town filled with brothels and soldiers and bars. Again, At First Light, is loosely based on disturbing true events, which are sadly still pertinent today and which warrant a blog post all of there own! In the meantime, here’s my full Goodreads review.

So where will I travel to next? – Perhaps I should consult my bookshelf...

But before you head off, please share which novels have enriched your travel experiences. (The Trip Fiction website is great for inspiration.) I’d love to hear some of your favourites…

Happy reading!


Saturday, 12 August 2017

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS ... by Victoria Cornwall

One day I will have a study of my own to write in, rather than a corner of my son’s former bedroom. I can see it in my mind’s eye now. I will have a shelf dedicated to research books and another displaying the first editions of my novels. The room will be tastefully decorated, with perhaps a vase of fresh flowers in the corner. Of course there would be lots of natural light from a large window, with soft pastel drapes and a spectacular countryside view.  In this room I will write my greatest work … at least that is the plan.

Henna Cliff on the North Coast of Cornwall
Of course, writers don’t have to have a study to write in. In fact there are many famous writers who have written their greatest work in an unusual place. I don’t know how much is truth and how much is fabrication, but I have heard that John le Carre wrote on a train, D.H..Lawrence wrote under the trees, Virginia Wolf in a storage room, Dame Edith Sitwell in an open coffin and Roald Dahl in a writing hut at the bottom of his garden. However, the most interesting place I know of is built into a north facing Cornish cliff, and I had the pleasure of visiting it one summer as I walked the coastal path.

Hawker's Hut
Hawker’s Hut was built around 1844, from timber taken from wrecked ships, namely the Caledonia, the Phoenix, and the Alonzo. To reach it one has to briefly leave the coastal path and descend down the steep gradient by way of some slate steps. It was built by Robert Stephen Hawker, vicar, poet and antiquarian of Cornwall, who could name Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson amongst his friends. He was thought of as a compassionate man, who provided a Christian burial for around fifty shipwrecked sailors washed up upon his shore.

He was also considered an eccentric, as he preferred to dress in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots and a pink brimless hat. Tales about him added to his reputation - he talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pig and a stag as pets. It is thought he even excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays. What we do know for sure is that he introduced the Harvest Festival celebrations to his church, a thanksgiving service where people bring fruit and vegetables they’ve grown to give thanks for a good harvest. The tradition continues today in Cornish churches and chapels up and down the county and the food is later sold and the money donated to a good cause.

Greenway and Caunter Beaches, Cornwall
Despite his busy pastoral life, he spent many hours sitting in his hut, looking at the breathtaking views while he wrote his poems, letters and smoked opium. Today, his small writing retreat is considered the smallest property in the National Trust portfolio.

The hut, which only contains a bench, is built into the hillside, with a turf roof and only the width of a path in-front of it. The Atlantic Ocean crashes on the rocks below, providing a roaring backdrop to the solitary place. The door has two parts, so one can sit inside and be protected from the wind, yet still enjoy the view of the dark blue sea meeting the ever-changing sky above. If one sits at the back, it appears that the hut is on a precipice, with nothing but the roaring Atlantic Ocean, rolling and foaming onto the jagged rocks below.

Hawker wrote many poems and published several volumes such as Records of the Western Shore (1832), Poems (1836), Ecclesia (1840), Reeds Shaken with the Wind (1843/44), Echoes From Old Cornwall (1846). Eventually, money and other worries led him into a gradual decline of depression and delusions. As he lay dying, he converted to Catholicism and when he died, the mourners for this much loved and respected vicar wore purple instead of black.

Hawker's greatest legacy to the Cornish people is his poem The Song of the Western Men. It is a poem that the Cornish people still hold close to their hearts today as they sing it as their anthemic song “Trelawny”.

I may dream of having an ideal study one day, but Robert Stephen Hawker needed no great room to write his works and be remembered for years after he left this world. All he needed was some driftwood, formed into a small hut and built into the face of the North Cornish Coastline. It was what he could see, hear, smell, taste and feel on the sea breeze that inspired his writing, plus the ability to appreciate the unspoilt beauty of the natural world around him.

Do you have an unusual or special place, where you like to read, think or write? Perhaps you have heard about someone else's. I would love to hear about it.