What have I got to blog about?

In common with a lot of people, I'm a bit of a displaced person. I spend half the year living in the beautiful hilltop town of Lectoure in SW France and the other half in a very different but equally stunning place, the city of Edinburgh, Scotland's capital. (Sorry Glaswegians, but it IS.) Wherever I am I write....novels, short stories, shopping lists and now blogs. It's a curse and a blessing, this compulsion to put everything into words. Here's to all you fellow writers out there who, like me, hope some of our words will find an audience!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Tilting at windmills

A couple of weeks ago, we had a wonderful holiday in Norfolk. It's a place in England that neither my husband nor I have ever really visited and we were keen to see the famous Norfolk Broads. We pored over the map in our beautiful holiday cottage, locating the area dotted with huge blobs of water and labelled with various names ending with the legendary word 'broad'. We both had pretty similar preconceptions, that we'd round a corner in the car and there would be vast stretches of water shimmering all around us, the landscape dotted with old-fashioned windmills.

But as usual, our preconceptions didn't match with reality. It turned out the broads have to be explored by boat, not by car, that they're mainly inaccessible by road. So after several false attempts up roads that only yielded tantalising glimpses of the tops of cabin cruisers and the fleeting billow of yacht sails, we decided it was time for lunch in a local pub. And that was where our exploration got underway.

We sat at a table next to a family party, parents and grown-up offspring, and pricked up our ears at hearing the son ask his father how many pubs you could visit on a pub crawl round the broads. The elderly man immediately reeled off a list of pubs and their exact locations on the shores of the broads. "That's the man to ask," my husband whispered to me. And he was right. It turned out the pub expert had been a pilot on the broads for more than thirty years. He gave us exact directions to an old windmill we could get access to, a mediaeval bridge, impassable to river traffic after heavy rains, and to villages where we could stroll on the water's edge and enjoy the vistas we'd envisaged.

I had the feeling that friendly pilot had crossed our path for a reason. He transformed our day and spared us a lot of disappointment. The whole experience resonated for me in terms of writing and life. When I finished my first novel several years ago, euphoric with blind optimism, I sent it off to an agent and waited for the letter to say they wanted to take me on. My first rejection letter took me by surprise. It gave me my first inkling that maybe my preconceptions about getting published were misguided. Over the years, I've benefitted from the 'pilots' with experience of how the whole publishing industry works, and I've realised how naive my early preconceptions were.

One of my favourite Bible verses is Isaiah 42:16 - it's been a 'pilot' verse for me over the years: I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them...

How about you? Have you experienced any 'pilots' in your life, people who challenged your preconceptions and set you on the right path?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Audience is all

We've recently spent ten days on holiday in Norfolk and arrived back earlier this week with a hire car full of all the stuff we reckoned we needed for a stay in a self-catering holiday cottage. Incidentally, what's with the phrase 'everything but the kitchen sink'? Surely I can't be the only one who takes the kitchen sink with me.

Anyway, we arrived back in Edinburgh early evening last Monday, picked up an easy microwave supper from the local supermarket and made our weary way back to our flat. Now I need to give some backstory here, so bear with me. Because we split our time between Edinburgh and France, we rent out our flat through an agency for short-term business and holiday rentals when we're not there. I had noted that two tenants would be staying in our flat for one week while we were away. By my calculations that meant they were leaving two days before we were due to arrive back. So imagine our surprise (spot the cliche no self-respecting writer should ever use) when we turned the key in our flat door and found two very surprised people dishing up their curry supper - I'm just glad that's all they were doing!

Lucky for us, they turned out to be extremely good humoured about two strangers barging in on their holiday and after some friendly banter and profuse apolgies from us, we left them in peace to enjoy their curry. So there we were, 8pm, stranded in a hire car piled with suitcases and cardboard boxes and a bag full of dirty laundry, homeless and hungry...I think at this point I should run a contest for a suitable ending for this story. However, that wouldn't be quite fair as there is a deus ex machina I've been withholding. We have three grown-up sons who live in Edinburgh. We texted them all and ended up moving in with one of them for the rest of the week. He's a playwright and immediately posted on Facebook that his parents had turned up unexpectedly on a Monday evening and planned to stay for the rest of the week - was he in a Chekhov play?

So, in this context, picking our way round piles of random luggage in our son's spare room, trying to work out where we'd put our tooth brushes, I received an email entitled: One week to go before your trip - got your bags packed yet? No doubt a marketing team at the airline we're flying back to France with next week decided this kind of automated email would be an important aspect of customer relations; no doubt in many cases, it is. But for me, searching in vain for my tooth brush, I found it as irritating as being asked if I'd done my Christmas shopping yet in mid-October.

As a writer, that email set me thinking. Audience is all. No matter how lyrical my prose, if it doesn't take account of my audience, I may as well not bother.

Do you have any 'misjudging audience' stories? If you're a writer, do you have any tips for keeping your audience in mind?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Falling in love again

I'm feeling guilty that my last blog post was seventeen days ago. According to the writers' websites I subscribe to, I should be blogging at least twice a week, tweeting and facebooking several times a day, keeping a notebook of scenes and experiences and overheard snatches of conversation, clocking up a minimum of 1000 words per day on my fiction work-in-progress, getting up earlier to write, redeeming the time.... there are so many well-meaning words of counsel and advice on the subject, I can easily lose sight of some important central truths: I write because I love to write. I write because I'm fascinated by the extraordinary power of the written word.

In the centre of Edinburgh, cheek by jowl with its elegant eighteenth and nineteenth century neighbours, squats an ugly sixties office block. It would be a hideous eyesore apart from one important redeeming feature: some enlightened body has turned it into a wayside poetry hoarding. Every time you pass the corner of Jenners Dept Store where historically, Edinburgh ladies always congregated to take afternoon tea, you can look up and be inspired by words:

This is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful, it breaks the heart again and again. Alexander McCall Smith

Dear Edinburgh, how I remember you, your winter cakes and tea, your bright red fire, your swirling cloaks and clouds. Ian Crichton Smith

And one by the incorrigible Oscar Wilde that makes me smile whenever I read it:

It is quite lovely, bits of it.

I'm sure these snatches of poetry speak in diverse ways to every passer-by who takes time out from their iphone to raise their eyes and look up. Yesterday they were a demonstration to me of the sheer exultant power of words to conjure a feeling, an image, an atmosphere, a memory. They motivated me to keep writing when all the good advice on the internet was just making me feel inadequate.

Good advice certainly has its place but advice to writers can sometimes feel a bit like those self-help articles on fifty ways to improve your marriage. Sometimes all you have to remember is that you got married because you fell in love.

What motivates you in your work? What's your attitude to internet advice?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

What's in a name?

Ryanair deposited us back in Edinburgh last Saturday, so the past few days have included ticking off items on the Edinburgh 'to do' list. One of these was follow-up surgery on my precious laptop. Last time we were back in Scotland, my laptop died on me. I remember the moment vividly. It was all so sudden, just two days before I was due to leave to go back to Lectoure. One minute, I was opening up my email, the next the screen went dark. It felt like my best friend had just keeled over with a heart attack - well maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I'm a writer, I'm allowed a bit of hyperbole.

Thankfully, a computer doctor lives five minutes away. An Italian who speaks English with a Scottish accent, he admitted my comatose computer on a Monday morning and by Tuesday evening it was chirping its little 'dada-dada-dadaa' ditty like a machine half its age. But the sobering news was that it had been on the critical list. The computer doc had cleaned out two potentially fatal viruses and at least half a dozen worms. Dosed with an updated virus check, my laptop was finally allowed home. Next day I whisked it off to the South of France to convalesce in the sun. It moved slowly, but at least it was moving. The next stage of surgery would involve increasing its ram, which sounded very painful to me but the Scots/Italian was sanguine about the procedure. 'Once we install it, it will be like day and night' Hmmm??

So last Thursday, I wrapped the patient up in its padded case (we're enjoying typically bracing Scottish Spring weather at present) and took it back to the computer hospital up the road. The Scots/Italian greeted us politely, but he didn't recognise us. I explained my laptop's case history and he still looked blank. Panic began to rise. How can you entrust a best friend to someone who has no recollection of nursing them through a life threatening illness? Then I added a detail that rang a bell with him and his face cleared. 'Ah yes, Jacqueline isn't it?' Confidence flooded back. It was going to be all right. I could trust him after all. He remembered my name.

'Fear not:for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; you are mine.' Isaiah 43:1

Most of us go through life feeling pretty anonymous. When someone remembers our name, it gives us a boost; when God remembers it, we find our identity.

Can you think of experiences where someone using your name made a difference? Do you think faith plays an important part in a sense of identity and self worth?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Can snakes turn into fish?

On Sunday, from the safe distance of our first floor terrace, we spotted a sizeable snake in our garden. Yesterday morning, my husband had another sighting, two of them this time, getting amorous near the back gate. He threw a lump of rock at them (our builders had the foresight to leave us with plenty of ammunition) and they disappeared into the undergrowth. Snakes, the harmless grass variety or otherwise, are as welcome in my garden as plastic garden chairs (see previous post). I grew up in a London suburb; I'm a townie. For me snakes were always something you watched David Attenborough cope with, secured within the confines of the TV set in the corner of our living-room.

Our Australian friends, who spend half their year in SW France and the other half in Oz, regard my wildlife squeamishness with lofty amusement. An American friend who lives in Southern California sent me an email the other day. She mentioned that a notice had gone up in her condo block warning that rattlesnakes had been sighted in the area. So there are millions of people out there for whom a couple of lovelorn grass snakes are really no big deal. I know all this, but it doesn't help. On Sunday night I lay awake in the small hours and fretted about the unspeakable horrors that might lurk in my Mediterranean garden. I'd pictured a rose arbour, meandering paths, swathes of fragrant lavender. I'd even spent an enjoyable hour on Sunday afternoon sketching a planting plan. Naive as a latter day Eve in her Garden of Eden, I hadn't reckoned on snakes.

Thankfully God has a habit of taking even my most ridiculous fears seriously. On Monday morning my devotional reading included Luke 11:11. I laughed out loud when I read it. 'Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?'

I thought about all the other worries and fears I lie awake fretting about, and it occurred to me that the Luke verse had a wider application than grass snakes. God my loving father, gives me fish, not snakes. One day, my garden will be as beautiful as I envisage it in my sketch pad. The snakes will turn out to be fish after all. Hmmm...where's that planting plan? An ornamental pond - now there's a thought.

Have you had any experience in your life of 'snakes' turning out to be 'fish'? How do you deal with the fears that keep you awake in the small hours?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Living in peace with your garden furniture

We arrived back in Lectoure on Easter Saturday. The journey down had been great. We took our time, avoiding the autoroutes, building in a couple of overnight stops en route, exploring some places we hadn't visited before. The car-that-thinks-it's-a-van was packed to the roof as usual, any stray empty corners filled with tins of baked beans, jars of mint sauce and boxes of man-size Kleenex. No wonder the French think the Brits are eccentric!

Opening the front door after an absence of a couple of weeks is always a bit of a tense moment. What disasters might await? Will the hall be running with water or mice, or worse still both? Will the wallpaper we put up before we left have peeled off the walls and be lying in a damp heap on the floor? Will the livebox that powers our internet have been struck by lightening, leaving us with a very dead box that takes weeks to fix? As you may gather, I do tend to be a bit of a 'glass half empty' kind of girl.

As it turned out, the only disaster was the garden. We inherited a wilderness when we bought the house. After two months of warm spring weather and April showers the weeds were triffid size. My husband settled down to a couple of days of machete wielding and I lugged the garden furniture out of hibernation. I have a vision for our garden, one that doesn't include four grubby white plastic chairs, two equally grubby matching loungers and half a dozen assorted plastic flower troughs. But I'm stuck with them. The budget won't run to replacements at present. Blame the ailing pound and the flourishing euro. Blame anyone, even the man with the machete. I stomped up the road to buy bread. Never mind the glorious sunshine, the stunning hilltop view, I wanted new garden furniture - I did, I did, I did!

Then I turned the corner and there she was, sitting on a cheap folding chair in the lane outside her house, a very elderly lady with a serene face and a peaceful air, watching the world go by. Her house has no garden, weed-infested or otherwise, but she's found her place in the sun in spite of that, and discovered the perfect way to keep track on what her neighbours are up to into the bargain.

'I have learned the secret of being content' (Philippians 4:12) Something told me that elderly lady had learnt the secret too.

Do you think contentment's something we can learn? Does modern society encourage us to be content?

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Black is not a Colour

We head back to Lectoure next week so I'm doing the usual scurry around Edinburgh shops to gather all the 'stuff' we need to load into our longsuffering car-that-thinks-it's-a-van before the return journey. Yesterday I was in a large DIY store buying paint. And yes, they do sell paint in France, but at such an exhorbitant price, I now understand why the majority of our French neighbours don't seem to use it very often.

Since economy was key and I do have several battleships to transform, I made a beeline for the aisle that advertised 'buy one, get one half price'. I selected two large tins of black gloss paint (don't ask!), together with a couple of smoke alarms (again, don't ask!) and trundled my trolley to the checkout.
"These are on special offer aren't they?" I said as the assistant put them through. Then followed one of those baffling conversations that I swear checkout assistants delight in as a way to pass the time.
"Nope. They're coming up full price."
"But there's a notice on that aisle over there."
"Not coming up on my till. Sorry."
Behind me, the queue was getting restive.
"Well could you check with someone?"
"Can't leave the till. Sorry."
Sorry was obviously shorthand for 'don't give a stuff'.
"Don't you have some way you could call the supervisor?"
From the pained look he gave me, you'd think I'd asked him to commune with the dead.
Then, by some paint purchasing miracle, a supervisor materialised.
"I'll go and find out for you," she said briskly.
Checkout assistant shunted me aside in favour of more docile customers, and I waited, and waited, and waited. But the wait turned out to be worth it, because I discovered something: BLACK IS NOT A COLOUR
The offer only applied to coloured paints, but 'as a goodwill gesture', (a patronising phrase, popular among retailers, to cover the fact that they've got it wrong), they would put my second tin through at half price.
I emerged from the skirmish as triumphant as if I'd just negotiated an international peace treaty, and armed with a brand new fact to impress people with at dinner parties: BLACK IS NOT A COLOUR

Later on in the day, reading another extract from my Lent book,(Barefoot Disciple by Stephen Cherry) I came across something that resonated with my 'new fact'.

'We can only ever expect to transcend our disappointments if we allow ourselves to really feel them....to accept the process, realise that hopes and aspirations have all too suddenly come to a halt and to hold the moment carefully, so that(it)...will become the energy with which one moves off in a different direction.'

Cherry seemed to be talking about an example of the black times that we all experience, that we choose either to shrug off and be stoical about, or own up to and really own, so that we can use them to move on. Black is so much more than a single colour. It's the shade(?)that works perfectly as a foil for most other colours, adding life, vibrancy and dramatic impact. One of my most vivid visual memories is of a take-off in a plane during a storm, seeing a vivid rainbow arc etched against black clouds.

'As they pass through the Valley of Baca (the Valley of Weeping - a black place)they make it a place of springs.' Psalm 84:6

Thank God for black, even if it isn't a colour!

Do you think the black times can be valuable? And on a more prosaic note, do you have any shopping frustrations you'd like to get off your chest!?