Writers with Pets: Heather Cook

Some of our favourite authors, past and present, are famous for their love of animals.

Ernest Hemingway is renowned for keeping polydactyl felines and his home in Key West, Florida, is inhabited by their descendants to this day.

Mark Twain, Doris Lessing, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and George Bernard Shaw all had cats too. Stephen King has both cats and dogs in his Maine home, and the French novelist Colette has been famously described as the original Mad Cat Woman.

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Mark Twain

 

In a new series of articles, I am talking to writers with pets and asking them about their beloved companions and how they inspire their creativity.

Heather Cook used to write a regular column in Your Cat magazine to which I subscribed during my petsitting days. She was a Homing Officer for the Woking and District Branch of Cats Protection before she retired a couple of years ago and continues to write books about cats.

Heather Cook, author and cat-lover
Heather Cook, author and cat-lover

Which came first, the writing or the cats?

I’ve always loved all animals and remember writing about dogs and ponies, lions and elephants as a small child. I didn’t have pets as a child because we lived in a flat in London, but I used to love my grandmother’s cats. As soon as I was able to, I had cats and because I always worked full-time it wasn’t sensible to have animals that needed constant company. Cats were the perfect companions and were I think slightly irritated to have me around more when I retired!

How many cats do you have at present?

I have 12 cats at present. 3 of them are feral cats that live outside, but they have deluxe cat cabins in the garden and at least 3 meals a day, so they’re about as feral as a suet pudding. The other 9 spend a lot of time indoors as they are mainly Special Needs cats. One was born without hind paws, two have brain damage and the others have various problems like heart trouble, missing limbs and dementia.

The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws
The aptly-named Stumpy Malone, who was born without his hind paws

Describe your writing day.

Most mornings I sit down at the laptop as soon as I’ve sorted all the cats out with feeding, room service and medication. I deal with emails first, then look over the previous day’s writing. I do two quite different sorts of writing: the light-hearted cat stuff and poetry of all varieties, so mood comes into the equation as to what I will spend my time on that day. Depending on other commitments, I will usually spend at least 2 hours in the morning writing and a further 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll have a sudden inspiration – particularly with a poem that’s been in my head for a while – and work on it very late at night.

How do the cats help or hinder the writing process?

My cats are my main source of inspiration, so they are an enormous help to me! The cat rescue work has also brought me so many lovely friends. Although sad things inevitably happen, I think that cats are very amusing animals and they insist on being written about.
On a practical level, one of my cats – Miss Tiny Trixie-Tribble – is obsessed with the laptop and loves to leap about on the keyboard. I have to save my work constantly because she is always deleting things or pinging off emails before I’ve finished. She also likes to add her own little flourishes: the word ‘ehwk’ is a particular favourite and I dread to think what it means in catspeak!

Heather Cook is the author of Evie’s Diary: A Bad Cat’s View of Life which can be purchased here.

The Cat Who Writes: Lily’s Story

It occurred to me the other day that it’s almost a whole year since I started writing this blog and I have not yet shared with you much about Lily, my cat. This, despite the fact that the blog is entitled A Girl and her Cat Write. It seemed strange so please allow me to introduce her to you.

This is my favourite photo of Lily. I think it captures her playful nature and her beauty, all in one beautiful shot.

Lily

I often write while sitting up in bed, last thing at night. Lily likes to come and sit with me, checking my spelling. If she spots something she’s not happy about, she takes a swipe at my pen to interrupt me. Needless to say, this can prove detrimental to productivity!

This led me to think about how different my writing might be, if at all, if she weren’t there.

The benefits of owning pets are well-documented. Companionship for the lonely and reducing depression and high blood pressure for the afflicted are just some reasons why millions of us in the UK keep cats, dogs and other animals around us. For most of us, they are irreplaceable members of the family.

I used to be a petsitter in a previous life. It was hard work and extremely challenging at times, but it taught me much about the nature of people and how they interact with their pets.

In August 2006, I spent an fascinating week in the home of a lady who breeds Burmese and Egyptian Mau cats. She was away on her first holiday in fourteen years, leaving me in charge of her brood – seven females and four males altogether, including her Grand Champion stud who lived in an outhouse.

It was as I popped out to feed him one particularly gloomy British summer morning that I saw a little black and white bundle under a tree in the garden. It had been raining all night and this poor kitten was in the latter stages of hypothermia. I took her into the house and tried to give her some warm milk. Her tiny eyes remained closed and there was a half-hearted attempted to open her mouth but that was all. Without a second thought, I rushed her to the nearest vet.

The vet’s brow furrowed. He took her temperature then quickly passed her to the nurse, instructin her to set up an intravenous drip and get the patient warm. He then turned back to me. “Look, you’ve done your best but it doesn’t look good. She’s barely four weeks old and too young to be so far from mum. Just to warn you.”

The mood with which I left the surgery that day matched the dark gloomy skies. For the next few hours, I could concentrate on nothing else. I had never had the opportunity to save an animal’s life until that moment. I didn’t want my desperate efforts to be in vain.

Back at the house, the brood took my mind off her a little until the call came from the surgery.

“Good news!” the nurse cried. “Your kitten’s going to be okay!”

She was still weak when I took her home and couldn’t eat solids for a few days but she was tiny, gorgeous and mine. I was completely smitten.

These days, her life is less dramatic. She’s approaching middle age much more gracefully than I am, for sure! However, after every meal, she still comes to my lap, rubs her head against my chin and gazes up at me as if to say “Thanks for everything, Mum”.

The ABC Award

This was great fun to write. Many thanks to the lovely Robert Fanshaw for this, and for my award!

Here’s what you do…
Display the logo and link back to the person who gave you the award. Nominate some other blogs. Work through the alphabet writing one word or phrase about yourself or things you like or associate with yourself that begin, A… B… C… All 26 of them.

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A: Asparagus. Currently my favourite vegetable. I love May/June time when it comes in season and the village shop has bundles and bundles stacked up.
B: Books. Hundreds. Lovingly stored on the countless bookshelves and windowsills throughout my house. I love them all.
C: Cats. I adore them and spoil them. Lily eats better than I do, despite what she would have you believe.
D: Day job. That thing that gets in the way of my writing and the rest of my life but pays the bills.  Seriously though, I do love it. I wouldn’t get up at 5.30 in the morning if I didn’t!
E: Eccentricity. Who’d be normal?
F: Friends. I have a selection of close friends who have become an unofficial beta readers group for my stories.
G: Gastro pub. There’s a fantastic one about ten minutes’ walk from my house. I am a regular customer, naturally.
H: Home. Whether up north with my parents, or in my house in Warwickshire, it’s where I feel at peace.
I: Iggulden, Conn. Superb author. I’ve just started the Emperor series about Julius Caesar. Fascinating stuff.
J: Jobling, Curtis. Author of the Wereworld series, creator of Bob the Builder, featured in a previous blog post here, and all round terribly decent chap.
K: Kitty. My alter ego. She’s my naughty erotic side!
L: Love. It really does make the world go round. Oh, and Lily. She’d never forgive me if I missed her out!
M: Mythology. A fascination of mine ever since high school when we sat through an afternoon’s crash course in Who’s Who on Mount Olympus.
N: Norwegian Forest Cat. The most beautiful cats in the world, in my opinion. I have my heart set on one of these as a companion for Lily when she gets older.
O: Opthalmic Opticians. These guys used to be the bane of my life. Blighted with severe astigmatism, I finally went for laser eye surgery for my fortieth birthday. Without doubt, The Best Thing I Have Ever Done In My Life!
P: People Per Hour. I’ve used them for lots of bits and bobs. Some fantastic people on there.
Q: Quiet. Something I appreciate more than ever since my move from a city to a village.
R: Running. Something I do reluctantly at the gym from time to time.
S: Self-publishing. Hopefully, what I’ll be doing in just a few short weeks.
T: Tattoos. I’m currently deciding on a design for my fifth tat. It’s been WIP for about a year so far.
U: Unwinding. With friends, with the cat, or just with myself. Essential for living.
V: Van Buuren, Armin. Dutch DJ & music producer. Love his stuff!
W: Wine. Essential ingredient when writing at the weekends.
X: XXX-Rated. Erotic literature. I have a separate bookshelf at home which is bursting at the seams.
Y: Z: Zzzz… Since childhood, I have always been someone who needs an inordinate amount of sleep!

I am awarding ABC awards to the following blogs:

1. Xanthe Wells
2. Tarja Moles
3. Elizabeth Ducie
4. Alexa Radcliffe-Hart
5. Peter Jones

Elizabeth Gilbert: A Signature of All Things

Some months ago, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Bloomsbury Publishing, London, for the London leg of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book tour to promote her wonderful new novel, A Signature of All Things.

Ar 201uthor Elizabeth Gilbert (l) and me at Bloomsbury Publishing in October 2013
Author Liz Gilbert (left) and me at Bloomsbury Publishing in October 2013

Over the Christmas break I finished reading the book and, I have to say, what a wonderful read it is.

Liz has created such a great character in Alma Whittaker. She is an incredibly intelligent woman who excels in her chosen field of botany. She is not, however, an attractive heroine who meets the love of her life and lives happily ever after. Instead, her story is one of immense personal strength, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and, ultimately, heartbreak.

I am a huge fan of Liz’s work and it was a pleasure to meet her at the event. A friend pointed me in the direction of Eat, Pray Love a couple of years ago and I have never looked back. She writes with a rare eloquence which reads as though she herself is speaking from the page. It makes her stories sound deeply personal and all the more believable. I have since gone on to purchase more of her books and shall read them with great pleasure!

 

New Year Resolutions: Top 10 Advice for Writers

Happy New Year All!

I’m not normally one for resolutions. “The way to Hell is paved with good intentions,” my mother used to say. So I figured there wasn’t much point, since I am pretty rubbish at the whole self-discipline thing.

However, I do feel somewhat obliged to make some changes, regardless. Naturally, the gym will have to feature, following the eating, drinking and generally being far too merry over the festive period.

The main feature of my resolutions will be writing-related though. I am on the brink of self-publishing some adult material for the kindle which is very exciting. I’d also like to make some significant progress with my novel over the course of this year.

It strikes me that many of you will be in the same position and therefore, some advice wouldn’t go amiss at this point, but rather than expect you to listen to me, I have sought snippets of wisdom from some of the greatest writers to help us. Read on…

 

1. Stephen King (Grammar and Composition)

Stephen has written a whole book about writing here but there are a few more tips specifically on a more technical note on this wonderful website: http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/StephenKingWriting.htm. I particularly like the paragraph about avoiding adverbs. If you need to describe a verb, you’re not using the correct one.

2. Elizabeth Gilbert

Having had the privilege of meeting this lovely lady and one of my favourite authors right now, I am thrilled that Liz offers her own advice to aspiring authors here. She has been dedicated to her craft from a very young age, much younger than me. She also tells us that self-forgiveness is more important for a writer than discipline: “Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it.” I am constantly setting myself ridiculously low targets that I still seem to fail to achieve. Liz’s advice is that this really doesn’t matter. You’ll get there in the end. I like that.

3. Ernest Hemingway

In this article about Hemingway, he talks more about the actual practice of writing. As I start writing my novel this year, I plan to use his tactic of only stopping when I know what will happen next. I have found while writing my short stories that it seems to work best to write it all in one go, but this won’t be possible with a novel for obvious reasons.

4. Mark Twain

Quotations by Mark Twain seem to litter the internet like cigarette stubs in an overflowing ashtray (although altogether more appealing). This article picks out the ones related to writing so you don’t have to wade through the mire. Point number 8 about avoiding verbosity is one which I will remember. It is tempting to use grandiose language in the false belief that it will enhance your work. In fact, it makes the prose sound less authentic so should be avoided. I guess the exception would be if this was a particular trait in one of your characters. The wonderful example of Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals springs to mind!

5. Anais Nin

The final piece I have chosen is a little more abstract. As a deeply emotional person myself, this article struck a chord. I firmly believe that writing should move people, regardless of the genre. Horror stories seek to frighten, to shock and horrify, for example. I always try and show emotion in my writing because for me, when I read a book, I want to be swept up and carried along on a tidal wave. If I have to reach for  a tissue when I’m reading a book, I consider the author to have been successful. I only hope I can do the same.

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Whether you are a writer or not, I wish you all the best of luck for your endeavours in 2014. Onwards and upwards!

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!

So, here we are. I’ve arrived in West Cumbria, chez Mama and Papa, amid severe gales and showers of both sleet and hail. To make matters worse,  the distraught feline on the back seat made her displeasure all too obvious by howling for most of the journey.

So tempers were frayed to start with, before I learned that my father’s broadband connection has been reset and so the network and password data on the back of his router is useless. Cue a phone call to TALKTALK to get it all sorted.

Now, I am not the most patient person in the world as it is. So, I consider today to have been a triumph, since I have not lost my temper with anyone yet. However, it’s only just gone dark. There’s plenty of time before bed!

So, as I settle into a Christmas with my family, as I’m sure many of you will be doing, it’s time to reflect on a year of success for my fledgling writing career. And also to look forward to how it will likely leap forward in 2014.

By far, one of the most wonderful experiences was my first week at Swanwick which I shall treasure forever. Meeting so many talented writers and being immersed in a literary world was such an inspiration. Certainly, it gave me confidence and courage to write more than before and with a more determined purpose.

Visiting authors at book tours has also become an inspirational pastime which I look forward to doing much more of in 2014. Both Elizabeth Gilbert and Mark Forsyth have given me food for thought about my next steps into the world of authoring.

I have been writing my short stories which, as many of you know, will be published under my pseudonym sometime in January. One of my tasks over the holidays is to browse through thousands of book covers to choose just the right ones for my stories.

All very exciting stuff for someone who, less than twelve months ago, didn’t know whether this was just a passing phase that I would get bored of eventually. Although I do still get moments of self-doubt, as I believe most writers do from time to time, I believe I’ve made great progress this year.

So, if you’re a dedicated follower of this blog, first of all I’d like to say a huge “Thank you!” and also give you a taster of what’s to come in the next few months.

Short stories published for the kindle and available through Amazon only to start with. Watch this space or check my Facebook page () for details.

I’m off to Brittany in France for a writing retreat at Easter, another in Rome in June and then Swanwick again in August to top up on inspiration and meet up with my writing friends.

I also plan to be developing a website for my alter ego to help promote my kindle stories so look out for more on that. So, with that and continuing this blog, I shall be a very busy lady.

Finally, I have this novel which has been swimming around in my head for a while and really needs to get onto the page. So, there’ll be more work on that from to time.

So, all that remains is for me to wish you and all your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year 2014!

Triskaidekaphobia, friggatriskaidekaphobia and an Etymologist comes to Warwickshire!

As 2013 draws to a close and we look forward to a brand new year, we begin to think about resolutions we may or may not stick to and changes we will make to improve our lives. It may also be a time when we choose to overcome certain fears, which brings me onto this marvellous word: triskaidekaphobia.

It’s a word that comes from the Greek tris meaning “three”, kai meaning “and”, deka meaning “ten” and phobos meaning “fear” or “morbid fear”. So, it means “a fear of the number thirteen”. I’ve stayed in hotels myself where there is no room thirteen. They tend to be smaller, private hotels rather than the big chains, but nonetheless, it’s a very real fear for some.

There is also a related word: friggatriskaidekaphobia, which is the fear of, specifically, Friday the 13th.

For some, just hearing the phrase “Friday the 13th” brings them out in a cold sweat. Presumably, these are the same folks who make a habit of avoiding walking underneath ladders, throw salt over their shoulders and make themselves a recluse on that fateful day.

If that’s you, I have some advice. When you wake up on Friday, think of something positive and keep it in your mind all day. Maybe it’s a holiday you’ve planned for 2014. or maybe you’re going somewhere for Christmas, visiting family and friends. Get excited about it (if you’re not already) and hold that feeling of excitement. Before you know it, the day will have passed, for the most part, without incident. Then, it’s all over until the next one (my calendar reliably informs me this will be next June).

I am not especially superstitious myself. Life is unfair enough at times without adding the inevitable problems of an unseen force over which we can have no control. Still, I will no doubt buy a lottery ticket over Christmas, and cross my fingers at some point in the hopes that it makes a difference to whether or not I win. Touch wood, and all that…

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Speaking of etymology, I went to a book signing this week.

Mark Forsyth (aka The Inky Fool) visited Warwick to promote his new book The Elements of Eloquence so I managed to bag myself a seat. I also managed to be first in the queue for him to sign all three of his books for me which was a real treat. He wished me well with my writing journey too.

I found him to be a most engaging speaker. He is just as eloquent and articulate as you would expect if you’ve read his books. He recited all sorts of long-forgotten yet wonderful words in the English language with a distinguished wit and charm.

Etymology is a fascinating topic for writers and in The EtymologiconMark writes about it most beautifully. It is wordsmithery in its finest form, creating powerful images for each word and a small lesson in history in every paragraph.

I’ve not yet read The Horologicon, though it promises to be just as entertaining as the previous book. It goes without saying that I expect The Elements of Eloquence to be no different. Stay tuned for reviews of all three books in the new year!

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School: Reflections

What an amazing week!

I am thrilled to report that my first Swanwick Summer School was a magnificent success. It was truly wonderful to be a part of such a lively community of fellow wordsmiths. The term networking doesn’t really apply, not least because it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made new contacts; instead, I have made new friends. It’s a unique and inspirational environment. To hear everyone’s stories about what they write and their lives in general was delightful. I was particularly touched that the fact that I am not yet published mattered not one jot to anyone I spoke to. Some of these characters deserve a particular mention.

I had some expert guidance and advice from Roy Devereux about writing magazine articles and, more importantly, getting paid for it. I also had a one-to-one session with Roy where we discussed an article I had already written and talked about the next steps to getting it published. I’ll let you know my progress with that one.

Special thanks must also go to Autumn Barlow for her course on self-publishing. She gave many hints and tips which I shall be following very soon. Thank you Autumn!

Thanks must also go to Alison Chisholm for her course on writing autobiographies. She has opened my eyes to the fact that autobiographical writing can be done using fixed periods in your life, something which had never occurred to me before. I now have a couple of ideas to explore in this genre too.

Tarja Moles provided some superb information about creating and managing a blog. Look out for some great new content and improvements to this site over the coming weeks.

I even met a fellow ailurophile, the multi-talented Stella Whitelaw and learned of a local writers group, the Bardstown Writers, which I hope to visit very soon.

The highlight, however, would have to be winning an original signed Curtis Jobling cartoon at the AGM auction on the final evening. I will admit to being just a little starstruck as I asked him if I could get his picture in the bar!

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In short, I have come away from Swanwick with many more friends and a certain magic coursing through my veins. I am more inspired to write and more determined than ever to be a success. I cannot thank you all enough…

Swanwick Eve

Tomorrow I’m off to my very first residential writing event in Swanwick, Derbyshire (see link here).

I’m really very excited. My college course was only once a week for a couple of hours and there was the online writing course that I went on in April. While both informative and interesting, and despite the fact that I learnt a great deal from both these endeavours, the writers school in Swanwick will be a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the writing world for a whole week.

I’ve connected with a few people on Facebook already, so it’ll be nice to meet up with some of these people when I arrive. I’ve also been in touch with an author with whom I have a one to one session arranged. He has already given very positive feedback on a piece which I sent him earlier, so I’ll be thrilled to get his advice on how to get published.

There’s a pretty hefty schedule arranged for us throughout the week, judging by the programme which arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. However, my goal is not to fill my week entirely by listening to others talk. I also want to get some serious writing done.

As regular readers will know, I am a sufferer of Procrastination from time to time. How thoughtful, then, that the organisers have arranged for the whole of Tuesday to be a “Procrastination-Free Day”. Perfect!

So, look out for perhaps an update during the week, and definitely a selection of post-writing school reflective thoughts around the 18th/19th August.

Right folks! I’m off to pack my pens and notebooks. See you next week…

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

This critically acclaimed novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2005, is yet another tome which has sat on my bookshelf for some time waiting for me to pick it up. I’m so glad I did; it’s one of the best stories I’ve read in some time.

I was about two chapters in when I realised that, as the narrator reminisces about her childhood, there is never any mention of parents or siblings. From then on, I was gripped with the feeling that something wasn’t quite about right about her and her friends. I simply had to read on to find out what it was.

This is finally answered when the author allows Kathy’s character to pose these questions herself to her former guardians who answer them in a quite poignant fashion. I was genuinely moved by some moments at this point.

Highly recommended for those of you who enjoy something which will challenge your perceptions of what it means to be human and how we judge others.

 

Procrastination – The Writer’s Enemy

Something I have found worthy of note since I started writing is the effect that my mood can have on both the quality and quantity of material I can produce.

Since I have recently become single again, I have spent a great deal of time tidying up what was the office and which I now refer to as ‘My Writing Room’. So much time, in fact, that I have pondered whether I am subconsciously using this as a procrastination tactic.

This is a familiar problem among writers and when mood is low or distracted, it creeps into your soul like damp in an old house. There are numerous websites offering a wealth of guidance in overcoming the problem but to research them in any detail becomes yet another way to avoid tackling the problem. Therefore, I have taken this onerous task from you.

I know what my problem is: I really need to just sit down and write. However, I work full time and often quite long hours. When I come home in the evening, I do some keep fit, I make a meal and then shortly afterwards it’s time for bed so I have to choose whether to take some time reading to relax, or do I get out my notebook and write.

Gail Brenner advises in her article for the Write To Done website that the first step is to work out why you procrastinate. Rather like a variety of medical conditions, there are different cures for each kind, it seems.

Sometimes we procrastinate due to boredom or fear; sometimes it’s down to our own thoughts which are limiting our abilities to perform.

Yourwritelife.com offers advice about breaking a project down into bitesize chunks which are manageable. This I have found to work as I become demotivated if I can’t see that I’ve made progress. There are some days when I break down tasks into such minute levels of detail that it seems silly but it all goes towards rewarding myself with a sense of achievement, so I figure it’s worth it.

It’s a great comfort to know that some of the best literary figures in the world have suffered from this debilitating affliction and gone to extraordinary lengths, in some cases, to fight it.

Ernest Hemingway famously preferred to stand while writing. One can only presume he had his desk raised a couple of feet from the floor, otherwise he would have sustained severe back trouble in no time at all.

Victor Hugo used to write in the nude. His logic was that if was naked, he couldn’t leave the house. He even had his valet hide his clothes until he was done writing for the day.

Somewhat less eccentric, Douglas Adams asked his editor to intervene during the writing of Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. It is said that the book would not have been completed without Meretzky staying in the author’s house until it was done.

Dr Bill Knaus in his article for Psychology Today give ten tips for writers. Among them, my favourites are:

  • Mapping your cognitive-emotive process. It’s worth spending some time thinking about the writing before you start. Allow yourself a few moments to gather your thoughts and work out what your feelings are towards writing.
  • Reward and penalty system. I have a page of gold stickers by my calendar. Every day I write, I put a gold sticker on the date. At the end of the week, if I’ve written every day, I can reward myself with something nice. I might watch a film or go shopping for shoes.
  • Expect inertia. It’s unrealistic to expect this will go away on it’s own. It needs work to make it stick. It’s also unrealistic to think you will ‘cure yourself’ and it will never happen again. It will happen. The key is to see it coming and be prepared for it.

Good luck with your writing!

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Following on from my post regarding books I read as a child here, I have recently re-read this award-winning novel.

At the age of 12 when I first read it, I remember that I didn’t particularly enjoy it. However, I couldn’t quite remember why. Now, I do.

A group of school boys, some quite young, become stranded on a desert island. The book takes the reader on a journey into the psyche of Ralph, one of the older boys. He assumes the role of leader and goes about creating a crudely democratic society in which decisions are taken by voting. He even adopts a method of ensuring everyone has a turn to speak their minds by using a conch shell found on the beach.

Ralph is homesick and longs for his quintessentailly English life. In order to try and secure a rescue as soon as possible, he builds a fire on top of the mountain top and assigns boys to take it in turns to keep the fire alight to produce smoke.

The antagonist and, by the end of the book, Ralph’s sworn enemy, is Jack. He has no time for this peaceful existence and becomes obsessed with hunting the wild boar which inhabit the island. He and his followers gradually descend into a tribal existence, painting their faces with the blood of the creatures they hunt.

There are some gruesome moments when one of the boys is killed in an accident by the beach and a second loses his life towards his end. For that reason, I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book for younger children.

Having said that, it’s a thought-provoking story which explores political themes in a graphic fashion, along with giving us a well-deserved reminder that without our creature comforts of modern life, we may not be so different ourselves.

Alan Bennett: Smut

I never had Alan Bennett down as a writer of prose. An accomplished playwright, certainly. Something of a national treasure here in the UK, one could even argue.

My local library is fast becoming somewhere where I test out things that look interesting but might be from an author I’m not yet familiar with, so it’s a good way of making discoveries, both positive and negative, before committing to purchasing a book. In this case, it was not the author that was new but the genre he had chosen.

In both stories, the central characters are middle-aged women and both these women have sexual experiences which some would consider unconventional. Bennett writes not in the erotic style, but instead chooses to use specific language to infer what’s happening, rather than graphically depict it.

In an excerpt of an interview with Mark Lawson for the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/21870866), the writer reveals he could only have written this book until after his parents had died.

“You can’t write to the notion of what your parents of you,” he says. Which is good to bear in mind for me. I’ve thought from time to time about writing some erotica, but my mother would never forgive me. I suspect if I ever do, I shall use a pseudonym.

Certainly a literary lesson for me, this book. I shall look out for more of his work.

Paul Christopher: The Templar Conspiracy

I do love a good thriller, it must be said. And so do a lot of other people, it would seem after Dan Brown hit the bestseller list with The Da Vinci Code. 

Many have trampled in his footsteps and some have created works with, in my opinion, better plot lines and better characters, thereby making up altogether better stories. This is one of those stories.

I picked it up at my local library in Wellesbourne in Warwickshire – http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/wellesbournelibrary. I liked the title, having been somewhat fascinated by the occult from my late teens when I found my mother’s copy of The Satanist by Dennis Wheatley sitting on a shelf at home. The whole Templar idea being drawn into events set in the present day was intriguing so I picked it up and brought it home.

The pace is good. Not so quick you find yourself out of breath before the end of the first chapter, which is good. I think, as a writer, it must be difficult to maintain a pace like that throughout a novel, which must be difficult.

Instead, the author here has measured events such that they seem to hot up at just the right times. An enjoyable read to the very last page.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love

Every now and then, you come across a book which, quite literally, changes your life. Maybe not a huge shift but it does make you see things differently. It gives you a new perspective, perhaps. This is one such book.

As a result I now have a new favourite author: Elizabeth Gilbert. This woman is amazing! I first heard of her through a YouTube video where she was giving a wonderful talk about the elusive nature of the creative genius. I was completely hooked and wanted to read her work instantly. So, off I went and bought this book.

I found it, eventually, in the travel section at Waterstones. Having now read the book, I can only surmise that the person who put it there has not, for this is not a travel guide at all.

Instead, this is an intrepid journey of a different kind. Ms Gilbert chooses to share with us the trauma of her divorce and the subsequent quagmire of depression which leaves her a mere shadow of her former self. She then sets off on a trip during which she travels into the depths of her soul to discover true happiness.

Having been through a divorce myself, there was a great deal in this book which I could relate to. I never had the courage myself to deal with it in quite the same way as this lady has done, and I applaud her bravery.

This is a book that will move you to tears, both in happiness and sadness. I loved it so much that I went out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it, and read that in two days flat!

Exeter Writing Retreat

One of the most wonderful things I have gained by joining the Urban Writers’ website (http://www.urbanwritersretreat.co.uk/) is a community of fellow writers, all experiencing the same problems and insecurities as me.

This is very important, since writers by their very nature, tend to be rather solitary. When I sit down to write, I must have no distractions. No TV or music and, especially, no chatter. Almost any noise (including hungry cat meows) is enough to put me off my pen strokes.

However, it’s surprising how easy it is to become distracted by all sorts of things. One can quickly gain experience in the Black Art of Procrastination, suddenly getting an urge to grab the hoover and do a bit of tidying round the house. And I am not a tidy person, trust me. All this home-making lark does not come naturally to me.

So, imagine my excitement when I spotted a retreat in Exeter where I could escape the house for a day. I packed my laptop, my fountain pen, spare cartidges, my notebooks and off I went. (Click here for more info.)

The weather was gorgeous when I got there. It was easily the sunniest day of the year so far. I found my way around the city, parked up and went to the venue to meet my fellow writers.

There were five of us altogether, including the lady who runs these things. We kicked off at around 10.30 and I left around 5pm. We had a half hour or so for a lunch break where we discussed our projects. One lady turned up all excited as she had just had her story accepted for publication. We were all thrilled for her.

In that time, I managed to create 3 characters for my novel and write an entire 3000-word short story, albeit a first draft. In short, I managed to accomplish more in that day, than I had done previously in perhaps two weeks.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be able to drive down to Exeter every month. It’s a fair old distance from my place and therefore quite a long drive.

However, they do offer online retreats too, which I may well partake of in the near future. I look forward to catching up with my new-found writing friends.

Lesley Glaister: Chosen

I have to say, this is a compelling read from start to finish.

The story starts with Dodie, a young unmarried mother with a clinically depressed mother and a history of post-natal depression herself. Her brother, who still lives with their mother, takes off to America to join what turns out to be a religious cult so Dodie leaves her partner and baby behind to bring him home. What she discovers when she gets there sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

I love it when a book evokes strong emotions inside me. Often, they are feelings of sadness or happiness. Occasionally, like this book, I get angry at the characters. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” I found myself screaming.” How can she be so stupid?”

What this means is that the author has created strong characters who I can identify with. I am now taking time to learn from these authors so I can employ their techniques myself when I write stories.

The story then switches to another point of view; that of Melanie, Dodie’s long-lost aunt. Her story collides with Dodie’s in such a way that neither of them will ever be quite the same again.

Highly recommended!

Writing Tip – Spider Diagrams

The online course I’ve just completed (Get Writing! Bootcamp) has taught me some amazing techniques for unblocking my creative thoughts.

My favourite is the idea of using Spider Diagrams, also known as mind maps. The idea is to start with a central idea which you put in a bubble in the middle. This makes up the body of the spider. Then, as you brainstorm, you can add details and further ideas to the ‘legs’. So you end up with something like this Spider Diagram.

If you have an imagination like mine, you’ll find you need the largest piece of paper imaginable. It’s also important for me that it’s not a ruled piece of paper. I don’t like to feel restricted by boundaries. This is a creative process, after all, so best to let your mind roam free. It’s also a wonderful excuse to indulge a stationery fetish, if you have one. Think flip charts, coloured pens, yet more notebooks. You get the idea.

So far, this technique has yielded an idea for a novel, which I hope to get under way very soon but is still in the planning stages right now. Science fiction fans please be patient!

Mario Puzo: Six Graves to Munich

I picked up this little book in my local library which I joined last week.

Puzo wrote this novel before The Godfather but the manuscript was lost for over forty years before it was finally published.

It tells the story of Michael Rogan, a secret agent during World War Two who was captured and tortured along with his pregnant wife.

The seven Nazis who tortured him presumed him dead after they shot him in the head (who wouldn’t?) but, in fact, he survived. Thanks to a metal plate in his skull and ten years of rehabilitation, he is seeking vengeance over the men who destroyed his own life and took that of his wife and unborn child.

After he finds and kills the first Nazi in Hamburg, he meets a prostitute by the name of Rosalie. She, too, has her inner demons to live with and they manage to support each other.

This is a well-written story with explicit descriptions of the murders and their effects on Rogan and his relationship with Rosalie. I was only sorry that it didn’t last longer.

Revisiting Children’s Favourites

One wonderful thing which has come from following my recent writing project, the Get Writing! Bootcamp is that the daily prompts opened up some wonderful memories of literature I read as a child.

As a child, I remember many happy afternoons spent at the local library choosing colourful books with stories which I can still picture today. (Mum, if you’re reading this, do you remember The Great Horse Chestnut Tree? We must have got that dozens of times!)

I also remember learning about Native Americans during my first year at primary school.  We learnt the wonderful poem The Song of Hiawatha by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and there was an afternoon where we dressed up to recite a shortened version of the poem to our parents. I remember my poor mother trying in vain to plait my hair like an Indian squaw and losing her temper with my stubborn straight locks!

On a family trip down to London one winter, I remember going to see a recital of Captain Beaky and his Band at some theatre or other. I had the book for several years afterwards. Goodness knows what happened to that.

During my recent house move, I found a present my mother bought me for my 5th birthday: Little Grey Rabbit’s Storybook by Alison Uttley. Another charming little book with great illustrations brought back some more wonderful memories.

Well, all this reminiscing got me thinking: what if I read some of these books again, now I’m much older? Would the stories be as wonderful now as I remember? How much has adulthood changed my perspective? Will I even be drawn to writing some children’s stories myself?

So, I have a new mission folks. I’m going on a shopping spree for some of my childhood favourites. My objective is to try and answer these questions and maybe discover something about children’s literature along the way.

Feel free to add your own comments and memories of your childhood reading experiences. It’s nice to share!