Posted in Events, Personal life, Travel, Writing

Sophie Sayers and Me

Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.

Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.

Cottage Home

This illustration of the Hector’s House bookshop by Thomas Shepherd is in the same style as Sophie’s ficitious cottage (Copyright Thomas Shepherd http://www.shepline.com)

Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!

Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)

For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.

Writing Ambitions

Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.

cover of Young by Name
You can also read the archive of columns in each magazine in book form

Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.

For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.

Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.

Cosmetic Details

There are many differences between us:

  • Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
  • I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
  • Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
  • Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
  • Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
  • Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.

Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point

But there is one final similarity that unites us:  we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.

Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.

For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.

Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.

How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlings to find out!


Escape to a Greek island through the pages of the sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, now available in ebook and paperback

How to Order Murder Your Darlings


graphic advertising course

How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home

While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.

But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire  – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.

My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.

Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information. 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

Nescafe in Albania

A nostalgic travel piece about coffee in Greece & Albania

image of a glass of iced coffee with a copy of Murder Your Darlings against a blue cotton sarong
The backdrop is the sarong I bought in Kefalonia on my first trip, patterned with the indigenous turtles. A similar sarong is one of the clues in my Greek island mystery, “Murder Your Darlings”.

During lockdown, I’m drinking much more coffee courtesy of my Nespresso machine, which I continue to love, despite a Times journalist recently referring to it as “the Fisher Price of coffee makers”. (Besides, what’s not to love about Fisher Price, maker of the iconic chunky toy telephone?)

Yesterday, during an afternoon in which my garden was as hot as a Greek island, I forgot to collect a cup from the machine until it was cold. Not wanting to waste the coffee capsule, I decided to recreate the iced coffee that I used to enjoy on holiday in Greece – or café frappé, as they call it there. This refreshing long drink is not to be confused with the tiny cups of stronger stuff supped by backgammon players in the local kafenio.

With echoes of Proust‘s madeleine, the first sip took me back to the Greek islands where I spent a lot of time in the early Noughties, frequenting touristy tavernas and bars as we island-hopped around Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkas, Corfu, and more.

More recently, spending an idyllic week at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, run Jessica Bell at the delightful Hotel Nostos (which I highly recommend, by the way, once lockdown is over), café frappés sustained us through our daily writing sessions. (I’ll be writing more about that experience in a later post.)

A Durrell Pilgrimage

But my favourite coffee-related memory relates to an earlier stay in Corfu. When my daughter Laura was three, I booked a Durrell-inspired pilgrimage to the island setting of Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals, staying in Kalamis, the village in which his brother Lawrence lived and wrote. I’d had this ambition since first reading the book at the age of 12.

I hadn’t realised until I travelled to Corfu that just a few miles across the water lay Albania, a closed communist country which had somehow managed to fall out with the entire Eastern European bloc, leaving China as its only trading ally. Its repressive regime was notorious, and many of its citizens tried to flee Albania for Greece in search of a better life. This was illegal in Albania and any would-be migrants faced harsh punishment.

The only Albanian national I’d ever met was in Lefkas, where we used to have a small share in a small sailing yacht. Commonly known as Albanian George, he was a former circus performer who ran the Ola Kala Bar on the main drag in Nidri. He’d lure in tourists by doing handstands on the tables and riding through his taverna on a unicycle. We liked him very much.

My latest novel will transport you to the beautiful Greek islands of the Ionian without leaving your armchair

From Corfu to Albania

When in Corfu Town I spotted a boat running day trips to Albania, I couldn’t resist. I had assumed its borders were closed to tourists, so snapped up the chance to visit. The journey to the Albanian harbour of Saranda was only a few miles, but was topped and tailed with strict immigration procedures. The tight control continued when we reached our destination. It became clear that our excursion would be spent in the company of official government guides wherever we went.

Echoes of Hong Kong

It reminded me of a day trip I’d had a decade before, from Hong Kong while still under British rule to mainland China, where we were only allowed to see the official version of the country. I soon wised up that when our sweet Chinese tour guide, Polly, said “Look left”, it was more interesting to look right to spot what they didn’t want us to see. (Polly was enchanted when a member of our party introduced her to the old nursery rhyme “Polly, Put the Kettle on”.)

Kickstarted with Coffee

In Albania, our day included a walking tour of Saranda, a town very much under construction, which the government was hoping to turn into a major attraction for the yachties that flocked to the Ionian. Our first port of call was where the coffee connection comes in. The coach took us to a small, old-fashioned hotel for a restorative drink after our journey. There was no menu – just instant coffee all round, in chunky white mugs emblazoned with the international Nescafé logo. The staff were clearly proud and excited to offer it to us, so we tried hard to look suitably impressed and grateful.

Charmed by the Children

As we got back on our coach, numerous small children crowded around, pressing us to buy their souvenirs in exchange for valuable Euros, chattering in English. Charmed by these dark-eyed, glossy haired young entrepreneurs, whose average age must have been about ten, I quickly parted company with all the Euro coins in my purse in exchange for trinkets made in China: plastic bead bracelets and cotton handkerchiefs. I wondered whether the Nescafé mugs had also come from China.

Bowled over by Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gave us a potted history of Albania, we returned passing fields where the crops were being hand-harvested with scythes, to Saranda for a walking tour. This included a stop at the official government souvenir shop that stocked virtually no souvenirs. Still, I was pleased with an Albanian colouring book, a board book of Albanian words and pictures, and a small bag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle, all for Laura.

The tour ended with an invitation to sample the local spirit. Our Greek tour operator had warned us against this firewater. With a three year old in tow, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Albania enjoying a stroll along the seafront, inspecting the marina under construction. Everyone else hit the harbourside bar.

An Unusual Carousel

Further down the promenade, Laura’s eyes lit up when she spotted an off-duty carousel bearing the most unchildish assortment of rides. Instead of the traditional painted horses, there were only miniature government vehicles: tanks, jeeps, police motorbikes and other symbols of state authority.

With no staff in attendance, the best we could do was to let her climb up on the platform to walk around. Suddenly a throng of olive-skinned Albanian children appeared from nowhere. Entranced by Laura’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, they scooped her up, sat her in a tank, and jumped down onto the promenade, where they proceeded to push the carousel round manually, delighted at her obvious pleasure. After a while they stopped and sat her in a police car, and so it continued.

“I’m sorry, I have no money to pay you,” I said, opening my empty change purse to show them.

They understood, but were not downhearted. They may have hoped for a tip, but they were motivated by kindness, not money. One boy even ran home to fetch a packet of biscuits, offering them to Laura and to us. They carried on entertaining her until it was time for us to leave to catch our return ferry.

The Perfect Ambassadors

Touched by their generosity, we were sorry to have to say goodbye and felt guilty to be returning to our comfortable holiday back on Corfu. We’d heard how impoverished the Albanian people were and feared for the children’s future in their totalitarian state.

But perhaps we need to not have worried. The Albanian government’s plans for Saranda paid off, and apparently it’s now a favoured cruise ship destination. With hospitality like that, I’d return in a heartbeat if I could – although I suspect I saw it at its best, before the crowds descended. I certainly count that day trip it as one of the best holidays in my life. It even made me think a little more kindly of Nescafé,

(Apologies for the lack of photos – I have no idea where my photos from so long ago are stored. Sorting out my photo archives should be my next lockdown project!)


FURTHER READING

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

Café frappés prove popular with Sophie Sayers when she spends a week at a writers’ retreat on a tiny Greek island in my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, available now in ebook and paperback.

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice.

Click here to order the paperback. 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Vasilios: A Tribute to the Man Behind the Name

Bill and me in our graduation photo
At our high school graduation ceremony in Germany – that’s Vasilios aka Bill seated in the front row, I’m top left, with John Harrison, a fellow Englishman, in front of me

In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)

While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.

A Class Act

He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.

photo of school production of Guys and Dolls
Bill in the role of Sky Masterson, with Cindy Arenberg as Sarah Brown (right) and Aaren Purcell as a member of the mission. (I was the mission leader, and Aaren and I got a real kick out of wearing those Salvation Army style uniforms, donning them for our yearbook photo.)

Purely Platonic

Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the  campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.

Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour. 

Separate Ways

Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.

Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.

Catching Up

Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?

Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.

I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study. 

inscription inside the book
We co-founded and wrote for a school literary magazine – my contribution was angst-filled poetry, his was a lyrical piece about a boat returning to a Greek harbour at sunset, a harbinger of his later career in maritime insurance

Too Late & Too Soon

Bill’s loss is felt around the world, by his family, colleagues and friends. (Here’s a link to the tribute to him from his former colleagues on Facebook.) Although many of our teachers from FIS have gone before us, I know he was highly regarded by them, and they too would be saddened by his departure far too soon. 

And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.

Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.

Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.

On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.

A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.

Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.

Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.

Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.

magnetBoth populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)

I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.

Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.

 

Posted in Travel, Writing

Like Buses… A Second Post on the Writers’ & Artists’ Website

Cover of 2014 Writers' & Artists' YearbookJust a couple of weeks ago, I posted here an announcement that I’d started writing for the esteemed Writers’ & Artists’ website (the 21st century manifestation of the the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook).

And like buses, as soon as one post opportunity came along, a second swiftly followed.

All About Writers’ Retreats

My second post went live at the end of last week while I was off in the Forest of Dean with my daughter’s school residential trip, (oh, the magic of modern technology!) This one shared my take on writers’ retreats – that they shouldn’t be seen as self-indulgent holidays for writers who want to hide from the real world, but as valuable opportunities for ambitious authors to improve their art, focus their ideas and build their confidence. “Constructive escapism” is how I preferred to phrase it.

As I type this post, my guest article is currently featured on the Writers’ & Artists’ homepage, with an illustration of a Greek beach. Why the Greek beach? That’s because the post includes a reference to the Homeric Writers’ Retreat and Workshop that I’m helping to run on the island of Ithaca at the start of August. Not only does that setting offer blissful escape from the pressures of the modern world, making it easy for the authors taking part to focus on their art – it also includes the notional presence of perhaps Greek literature’s most famous author: Homer, whose Odyssey focuses on the mythical Ithacan isle.

Image of setting for Homeric Writers' Retreat

My post will be bumped off the Writers & Artists’ blog’s top spot after a few days as new articles are added to the site. (A few more are coming from me over the next few months.) After that, you’ll find my post in praise of writers’ retreats here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/688/a-writers-toolkit/developing-an-idea/

The Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop

If you want to find out more about the Homeric Writers’ Retreat and Workshop, check out its website here – and lose yourself in the gallery of Erika Bach’s stunning photo gallery of Ithaca. And in case you missed it, here’s my previous post about writing for Writers’ & Artists’.