Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)

 

If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland.  The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.

This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.

Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.

Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.

Travelling in Time

I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.

My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountains that I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.

I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos –  the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.


Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours
  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
  • Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here
Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

My Missing Month: A Missive from a Scottish Summer

green mountains and blue sky
Scotland’s green and pleasant land this August

Deep into seasons of mellow fruitfulness now (and wind and rain!), our summer holiday seems like ancient history , but for sake of keeping a complete record on my blog, here’s my column for the September edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I sent in from the Scottish Highlands on my summer holiday to meet its mid-August deadline.

Taking our summer break during the school holidays, we are used to leaving home when the Cotswold countryside is green and tidy and returning to find it golden brown and unkempt. It’s as predictable a transformation as from pre-holiday hairdo to post-holiday hair; only the colours are different.

But this year we were wrong-footed by the early burnishing of the fields. Thanks to the July heatwave, the local landscape was baked brown before we left.  Even that hardy perennial, grass, instead of springing back beneath our bare feet, crunched underfoot like broken biscuits.

The further north we drove, the greener the landscape. Not least because there was rain. Lots of rain. The fields beyond Gretna were as bright and fresh as any you might find in the Emerald Isle.

And the days lengthened. At the time of writing this column, ensconced in Glencoe, we are far enough north for dusk to fall a full forty minutes later than in Hawkesbury. August in the Highlands feels like Hawkesbury’s July.

So when we get home, as we always do, in time for the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, we’re going to be completely confused. We all know that the Village Show marks the last day of a Hawkesbury summer. But my body clock will still be waiting for August to begin.

image of Buddha statue among autumn leaves
Goodbye, summer, it’s been fun!
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Why Every Author Needs to Take a Break Now and Again

In my role as Advice Centre Manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, I commission and sub-editing a daily blog post about all aspects of writing and publishing. I also write occasional opinion pieces for them . Not all of these posts will be of interest to non-authors, but I thought I’d share my latest post here, because the principles apply to other kinds of professions too. Whatever work you do, it provides the best excuses for taking a holiday – plus some lovely pics from my summer vacation!

(Here’s a link to where the post originally appeared.)


picture of Debbie on Glencoe in rainhat
Following my own advice to take a break in Glencoe, Scotland, last month

Do you find it hard to make yourself take a break from your writing life? Here’s the justification you need to take some time out and recharge your creative batteries!

In today’s post, Debbie Young, indie author, litfest director and ALLi’s Author Advice Center Manager, makes the case for the importance of rest for writers, not only for physical recovery, but also to reinvigorate creative intention and gain perspective.

Whether you’re nearing the end of the summer holiday season in the northern hemisphere, or enjoying the first signs of spring in the southern hemisphere, her personal account will give you the excuses you need to start planning your next vacation now!

 

Indie authors, as their own publishers, are their own bosses.

Most of us are ambitious to write great books and get them into the hands of readers. However much we do, there is always more to do: more writing, more marketing, more admin. A writer’s work is never done.

If ever a writer was able to check off every item on their to-do list, I’d question whether they’re really a writer at all.

Too Busy to Take a Break?

Whether or not we have a day job, family commitments or other pressures, we pile the work on ourselves, multi-tasking and straining the last drop of creativity out of each day:

  • We keep notebooks by our beds for those middle-of-the-night story ideas
  • We dictate copy in our cars and on walks
  • We get up early/stay up late to squeeze those extra writing hours out of the day
  • We eat and drink at our desks (oh, those crumbs in the keyboard!)
  • We may even exercise while writing – though so far I’ve resisted the lure of the treadmill desk!

If we saw a loved one working that hard in their chosen career, would we applaud them, or would we be imploring them to cut themselves some slack? Treat yourself the same way – you deserve it!

Too Old to Take a Break?

Once you reach a certain age, as I have, you may also start to feel additional pressure of “time’s winged chariot” (though Andrew Marvell’s poem is about a rather different activity), and worry about running out of time altogether (“When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen had gleaned my teeming brain…” – John Keats.)

Theories abound as to how to make the most of each day, how to divide up your time into the most productive chunks, how often to take breaks etc etc.

But I hold that nothing boosts your productivity more than completely downing tools for a week or two, counter-intuitive though that may seem.

Too Broke to Take a Break?

I’m lucky – I’m at that time of life when I can afford family holidays away from home, but you can still take a holiday at home, or rather, based at home, if your budget doesn’t run to fancy trips.

The important thing is to STOP – and pause – and rest – and return, revitalised to your writing life, stronger for having left it for a while.

This is how Orna Ross, director of ALLi and author of the Go Creative! series, describes the importance of rest in the indie author’s life.

Headshot of Orna Ross
ALLi director Orna Ross prescribes creative rest and play for all creatives

Creative rest and play are not breaks from the process of writing, publishing or business building. They ARE the process.

It happens at two levels. One is the obvious refreshment and restoration we get from taking a break away from the desk. All efforts to to perform, to make, to do draw on a pool of creative energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective. It’s like drawing water from a well, we need to give it time to fill back up again. But also the subconscious mind is core to the creative process itself, immensely more powerful than our surface, conscious minds. We have our best ideas, our aha moments, our insights and inspirations when we are relaxed, rested, playful.

Orna recommends a mini creative vacation each week, in the form of a “createdate” with yourself – something that I’ve found to be a really powerful and invigorating tool, even though I don’t always manage to fit one in each week. (Here’s an account of one I went on earlier this year.)

Practising What I Preach

Easy for me to say, you might be thinking, so here are some examples of what I gained from the two-week break I took earlier this month with my family.

  • New perspective on my writing schedule
    After an exhausting thirteen months publishing four novels, I decided to slow up, now that I have a strong start to my catalog of novels. I felt it was important to get the first three in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series out quickly, but that’s not a sustainable or reasonable pace long-term.
  • Revelation about my writing ambitions
    Having established myself as a lighthearted, humorous writer, I realised I do also have within me an ambition to write something more serious that won’t be described by reviewers as “a chuckle on every page” or “Miss Marple meets Bridget Jones”, much as I love those accolades.
  • Desire to research
    Having dismissed myself tongue-in-cheek as a lazy writer because I’m writing about what I know – English village life – I began to hanker after researching some meaty topics that I could then fictionalise, either within my village mystery series or outside of it.
  • New system of time management
    I’ve designed a new method for managing my varied workload: allocating a name to each day to do with a specific subset of tasks (e.g. Festive Friday for planning festivals and events), and saving up the related work for that day only. However, every day with a “y” in it, I will allow myself to write fiction!
  • Stimulating new sights and experiences
    From catching interesting radio programmes on the journey, to finding seaglass on the beach, the fortnight was full of new stimuli for new story ideas, as outlined in the photos below.
photo of woodland stream near Ben Nevis
Waiting for my family to finish a treetop walk near Ben Nevis (I’m not great with heights!), I realised I need to spend more time in the tranquility of woodlands – great for future createdate ideas
photo of vaguely butterfly-shaped granite
At the Cruachan Visitor Centre, where you can take a trip INSIDE a mountain, we were given a piece of granite as a souvenir – I chose mine for its shape, immediately thinking “The Granite Butterfly – what a great story title!” (Click image for more about Cruachan)
photo of two vintage teddy bears
This vintage bear (left), which I’ve named Galloway, called to me from the window of a charity shop in Dumfries, last home of the poet Robert Burns – I couldn’t help but start wondering about his back-story. Small teddy on right is my own since early childhood. Click image for more about the Scottish region of Dumfries and Galloway.
photo of heart-shaped necklace filled with real forget-me-not flowers
Spotted in the Glencoe Visitor Centre shop, this necklace filled with forget-me-not flowers will serve as a real talisman for when I’m writing about my character Sophie Sayers, who is described as “the girl with forget-me-not eyes”. (Click image for more about Glencoe Visitor Centre).
five pieces of seaglass arranged like the petals of a flower
Whenever we go to a beach, I look out for seaglass. These five different pieces were collected by me and my daughter on the shores of sealochs. Back story ideas again… where did they all come from?

How will your next vacation transform your writing life? You’ll never know unless you take it!

Posted in Personal life

Where the Grass is Greener

Every month I write a column for our village newspaper, the Hawkesbury Parish News. This is my column for the August issue, written for its mid-July deadline. The weather has changed a little since then, but our garden has felt the benefit!

sample of our lawn grass

Ours must be one of the few lawns in the parish that has become progressively greener during this hot, dry weather, rather than turning to hay. However, the lawn had to get worse before it got better. It turned chocolate brown, in fact, as my husband, who never does anything by halves, dug for victory over the weeds and took large parts of the lawn back to bare soil.

Top tip here: if you want to cultivate a forest of dandelions, leave a trampoline in place for a few years, and they’ll colonise what was once grass. Until we moved the trampoline to clear that patch, it became our cat Dorothy’s favourite shady retreat, the thick bed of sap-filled leaves cooling her furry tummy.

view of lawn with ladders, husband doing woodwork, tools, etc
Our back garden is a hive of activity these summer days
photo of grass bordering flower bed
Lush new turf provides a neat edge to a parched flower bed

But then out came the grass seed, scattered across the fine tilth he’d created, and lovingly watered in, until that part of the garden began to resemble the early stages of a hair transplant (for someone with lime-green hair, that is).

A few days later, a kind neighbour gave us some leftover rolls of turf. Now parts of our lawn look like a thick, emerald-green wig.

But if you really want your grass to keep its colour, come rain or shine, my dad’s solution is hard to beat: astroturf in his Bristol townhouse back yard. It’s the perfect answer for those who are allergic to grass pollens (I wrote about hay fever in last month’s column) – or indeed for those who are allergic to lawnmowers.


set of four Sophie Sayers books
Best Murder in Show is first in a growing series of village mystery stories

Fancy a summer read while it’s still just about summer? (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) Best Murder in Show kicks off at the time of a classic English village show – just like the one we’re currently preparing for where I live (though preferably without any murders).

Posted in Personal life, Writing

The Early Bird Catches the Focaccia

This post first appeared in the July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser“Only in the Cotswolds!” commented a friend when one Monday morning I posted on Facebook a photo of what I’d just put out in my garden to feed the birds: green olive focaccia and grissini. (And yes, before there are letters to the editor, I did soak it in water first, so as not to dehydrate the birds.) I thought the birds might appreciate dinner-party leftovers as a change from my daughter’s school lunchbox leavings.

Even more Cotswold would be a selection of Hobbs House bread and some trimmings from Tetbury’s House of Cheese, all drenched in elderflower pressé and served up on a wooden trencher hand-carved from a piece of Westonbirt Arboretum wood.

I should probably also have served it in an elegant little Boden dress, covered with a Cath Kidston pinny. I failed on both counts, despite my predilection for the latter’s handbags. And sadly none of it had been nowhere near a middle-aged man wearing oxblood corduroy trousers.

Back to Basics

In fact what my friend took to be a gourmet treat for my little feathered friends was more slummy than yummy. The olive focaccia being reduced for quick sale before loitering in my freezer for a few weeks. The grissini was not the rustic hand-rolled type, but straight white mass-produced batons, bought for a young visitor who eats only bread that looks as if it’s gone a few rounds with a bottle of bleach.

But I’ve come to realise that gourmet cooking is in the eye of the beholder. In a supermarket recently, I overheard a lady saying proudly to her friend “I cooked porridge from scratch the other day”. Er, water, oats, oats, water – there’s only so much that you can do with that. Her claim struck me as not far removed from saying “I prepared a banana from scratch” when all she’d done was peel it. But in a world in which you can buy frozen baked potatoes and frozen scrambled eggs, perhaps I should not be surprised.

Fly-by-Nights?

Fortunately my garden birds are not foodies, and they’re not much bothered by sell-by dates. (Don’t worry, letter writers, I never leave mouldy food out either.) But I was a little puzzled that most of the food put down after my daughter got home from school, still there when I went to bed, would entirely disappear by the time I opened the curtains at breakfast time, without me ever seeing a single bird tucking in.

Another social media friend came up with the answer: “If the birds don’t get it, the rats will.”

To be on the safe side, I’ve now changed feeding time in my garden, so that I’m up in time to see who’s coming to Garden Café Young. If the dawn chorus want a snack before I’m up and about, they can jolly well catch the proverbial worm. Even so, I have to say this morning when I put out their daily rations, I have never been so glad to see a blackbird.


image of covers of first three books in the Sophie Sayers series
My series of village mystery novels is inspired by my daily life in the Cotswolds – just click on the image to find out more about them