Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






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

NOVELS TO ENRICH A TRIP TO THE FLORIDA KEYS ... by Rae Cowie

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.

FLORIDA KEYS
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

ISLAMORADA HURRICANE
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.


HISTORY BEHIND THE NOVEL
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.


METICULOUS RESEARCH
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
 today
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



FURTHER READING
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...

WHICH BOOKS HAVE ENRICHED YOUR TRAVEL EXPERIENCES?
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!

Rae
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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.





Saturday, 5 August 2017

THE END OF THE STUPID HEROINE? by Gill Stewart



I hope, I really hope, that we will soon, finally, see the end of the stupid heroine. You know the one I mean, the one who is Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) and needs rescuing at every turn. Usually she is rescued by the hero, occasionally by a good friend or relative. And the hero is attractive and capable, but if it’s a female friend/relative then she’s not nearly as attractive as the heroine because apparently being TSTL makes you sexy and desirable. Personally I think it makes her Too Stupid To Be Loved and I find it difficult to understand why the hero is attracted to her.

TSTL heroines were especially prominent in times past. Although Georgette Heyer has some excellent feisty heroines (the eponymous Venetia and Sophy) she also has some quite foolish ones (Horatia in The Convenient Marriage, Nell in April Lady). And I haven’t read any Barbara Cartland for decades, but as far as I can remember all her heroines were TSTL. In fact, some of them were too stupid to speak in complete sentences, but that’s a topic for another day. Almost all Mills and Boon heroines I read in my teens were TSTL – in fact the first time I came across a book with a female doctor as a heroine my teenage mind couldn’t compute it: if she was a doctor she must be bright, so how could she be the heroine??

I would like to think we have moved on from this mindset and that we don’t ever meet TSTL heroines these days. However, there is evidence to the contrary. Bella in the Twilight series is often TSTL and yet she is adored by the vampire hero, and by thousands of teenage readers. Why? Really? I haven’t managed to read any of E L James’ books to the end, but Anastasia strikes me as another TSTL heroine. Just by way of example, in the first chapter of Fifty Shades Of Grey she: is pushed into doing an interview she doesn’t want to do, dresses inappropriately, doesn’t know what Christian Grey looks like or his age despite him being a famous local, falls over her own feet, can’t work the recording device and just generally hasn’t done even the most basic preparation for the task at hand. So TSTLs are clearly (and unfortunately) not yet dead and gone.

But there is hope! Mills and Boon heroines these days occasionally do something silly, or make mistakes, but they are not unbelievably stupid. The heroines of all the women’s fiction books I have read in the last ten years have been either reasonably or exceptionally capable. As well as appearing in much crime fiction as the corpse (where she obviously was TSTL, but was not the heroine), women also often feature as the detective or sleuth. Erotica also often features a strong heroine, so E L James is not typical of the genre.

I don’t read much literary fiction, but I think in general there have been fewer TSTL heroines here, although there are often unattractive ones (and I don’t mean in appearance).

I would like to say to my fellow female writers: if you are a writer, you are probably not stupid. So please don’t portray women in your books as stupid. And to male writers: a stupid heroine is not a realistic heroine, so don’t go down that route. I’m pleased to say that having scanned the list of current best-selling romances (the genre that interests me most) I can’t see a stupid heroine among them. From Jill Mansell to Katie Fforde, from Trisha Ashley to Veronica Henry – the heroines may be wacky, they may be quirky, but they are not stupid! Progress has indeed been made. Compare this to the 1970s when books by Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann dominated the best-seller lists.

I’d be fascinated to know if anyone has adored a book with a stupid heroine – and, if so, why?