Saturday, 30 September 2017


One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year (I’m a great fan of NY Resolutions!) was to read more non-fiction. And I have definitely tried. Looking back at my Books Read list, so far this year I have read 18 non-fiction, which isn’t bad.  OK, my preference is still by far to read fiction (fiction books read stand at 104) but I’ve done better than last year when I only read 16 non-fiction in the whole year. And now it's autum. The trees are changing colour, the wind is howling and the days shortening. It's definitely the time to retire indoors and get more of that reading done. And to ensure that I read plenty of non-fiction, I've enrolled to do a Masters in Applied Economics. Of course, that's not the main reason for deciding to study further, but it is certainly influencing my reading.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowBefore I started the course, my non-fiction choices were split roughly equally between biography and politics. My current favourites, if anyone is looking for a recommendation, are the engrossing biography of the six Mitford sisters, Take Six Girls, by Laura Thompson and the thought-provoking Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari.

Now, however, I’m being forced to venture into more academic books, to read things I wouldn’t necessarily choose for myself, and to read things that I know are going to be challenging. And – take a deep breath – I’m finding that this is a good thing! I’m enjoying having my brain stretched, being made to express myself with intellectual rigour, to source all the evidence I produce in an essay. It’s a great contrast to the way I normally write, which is to use my imagination, and to incorporate research in a way that suits the story rather than the facts (although facts are important, obviously).
Reading for the future?
This is only the beginning of a two-year course, so time will tell what influence it will have on me in the long run. I’m hoping that the contrasts between the two types of reading, and the two types of writing, will have a positive impact on my fiction. It’s certainly making for an interesting life!

If you were to recommend one non-fiction book, what would it be?

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 he 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.
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.
Fittie Aberdeen
Last but certainly not least Kymme Fraser is the second artist to join the multimedia exhibition.

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?