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 Reading, Writing

How to Review Books, and Why You Should – Guest Post for “The Artist Unleashed”

Artist Unleashed logo
(Not Jessica, in case you’re wondering!)

Today my guest post about my philosophy of book reviewing features on the excellent Artist Unleashed blog, which is curated by the multi-talented Jessica Bell, author, poet, musician, publisher and book cover designer. Continue reading “How to Review Books, and Why You Should – Guest Post for “The Artist Unleashed””

Posted in Reading, Writing

Why Authors Should Review Books (plus my latest book review for Vine Leaves Literary Journal)

Cover of Ben Nardolilli's book
The book I’ve most recently reviewed for Vine Leaves Literary Journal

A post about book reviews, reading, writing and authors

I strongly believe that all authors should review the books they read. Some authors prefer not to share their reviews in public, not least for fear of revenge against their own books if they give someone else a less than glowing review. But even if they never publish their reviews, they should still write them, because the process of digesting and responding to a book will contribute to their development as a writer.  (More about that idea here.) I’m more brazen than that. I review books not only on my own book blog (www.debbieyoungsbookblog.com) and on Amazon, and for various publications and organisations, such as Vine Leaves Literary Journal, founded by my multi-talented author friend Jessica Bell.

About Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Vine Leaves specialises in the vignette, so called to indicate a piece literally short enough to be written on a vine leaf. I don’t review the vignettes in the magazine, but books by those who have had vignettes accepted for publication by this prestigious magazine.

Cover of 2014 anthology book
The latest Vine Leaves print anthology

These contributors write in many different genres, from poetry and flash fiction to children’s books and adult fiction. Thus reviewing for Vine Leaves also helps me take another piece of my own advice to authors, which is to read outside your comfort zone. Yes, writers should also read widely within the genre in which they’re writing, but if that’s all they read, they’ll quickly become blinkered to the rest of the world of literature – not good news for any writer. As indicated by the title of the latest book I’ve reviewed for Vine Leaves, their bookshop of contributors’ works is a great place to find interesting and unusual books. Here’s my review of Ben Nardolilli’s Common Symptoms of an Enduring Chill Explained If you’re interested in submitting a vignette to Vine Leaves, or would like to know more about this distinctive literary form and enjoy some first-rate examples, hop over to the Vine Leaves website. Having work published by magazines like this is a great way to gain confidence and exposure as a writer, whichever form you usually write in, so if you’ve not yet tried it, why not give it a go?

Why Authors Welcome Reviews Too

New cover for Quick Change
Now available in paperback – my collection of very short stories (aka flash fiction)

Like any author, I always welcome new reviews of my books. Gaining personal, thoughtful feedback from a reader, even if it’s only a few words, encourages any writer to keep writing and to try to please more readers. There’s also a commercial advantage, in that the more reviews an author has online, the more likely it is that other readers will find that author’s books and buy them. So if you’ve read any books that I’ve written, please consider leaving a brief review on any website of your choice – whether the site from which you made your purchase, on your own book blog, or via Goodreads, the global social network for readers. You’ll make my day. Well, provided you enjoyed my book, anyway! To keep informed about new book releases, you might like to sign up to my occasional enewsletter, which includes a free short story with every issue. I’ll be sending out the next one in the next few days, so now’s a great time to subscrbe! Just add your email address here. 

Posted in Reading, Travel, Writing

Travels With My Blog

Our camper van outside Linlithgow Palace, Scotland
Our camper van, precariously parked outside Linlithgow Palace, Scotland, last summer

As regular readers will know, one of the most frequent topics on this blog is travel, usually involving our family motorhome (posh name) / camper van (what we usually call it). But when I was giving my website a New Year makeover, it  occurred to me that there’s one sort of travel that I’ve neglected to mention here – and that’s virtual travel.

Have Blog, Will Travel

No, I haven’t devised a Star-Trek style teleporter – though I’d love one of those, if I could be confident that on arrival at my destination all my molecules would be reassembled in exactly the right place. What I’m talking about is guest blogging – where I’ve hopped across the ether to write a guest post on somebody else’s blog.

Just before Christmas, for example, I managed to appear both in the USA and Greece on the same day, thanks to two blogging friends, the US author Amira Makansi and writer/musician Jessica Bell, who is based in Athens, Greece, but comes from Australia, which pleasingly allows me to squeeze another continent into this conversation.

About Amira Makansi

Amira Makansi
Amira Makansi

I met Amira via the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), whose Self-Publishing Advice blog I edit. I was intrigued to learn that she had co-written her debut novel The Sowing with two other writers  – her mother and her sister. She kindly wrote about her experience on the ALLi blog, then invited me back to hers to be interviewed about my own book, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes. You can read my interview – and lots of interesting posts by Amira and other guest bloggers – on her blog here.

Introducing Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell
Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell is another ALLi friend, a live wire with endless creative talents: she writes brilliant novels, poems and music. Though based in Athens, she also runs an annual Writers’ Retreat in Ithaca, mythical home of Odysseus and Penelope. Not quite as mythical as, say, Atlantis – it does actually still exist, as I can personally testify – I went there quite a few times in my pre-motherhood sailing days. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more peaceful or beautiful to pamper your muse. This probably makes Jess just about the coolest person I know.

One of the many other plates that Jessica spins is her blog The Alliterative Allomorph (yes, I also had to look up Allomorph in the dictionary), and every Wednesday she invites a guest blogger to sound off about any writing-related topic of their choice. Just before Christmas, she hosted a festive-themed post by me,. I realise this does not have the same topical appeal in early January, but it was great fun to write, allowing me to segue from my own frivolous, hot-off-the-virtual-press Christmas ebook to what in my opinion is the greatest ever Christmas novel – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s something about Jess’s blog that makes me want to talk about the greats, because last time I was on there, I talked about Tolstoy.

A Virtual Paper Chain

Helen Hollick
Helen Hollick

I also took part last month in a mass blogging event, known as a blog hop. This requires a number of bloggers to blog on the same theme, at the same time, and link to each other’s posts, leading readers on an ethereal tour. This one was held on 21st December, the shortest day (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), and took as its theme “Casting Light Upon the Darkness”. Historical novelist Helen Hollick kindly organised this mass blog, which meant coordinating 30 bloggers in different locations and time zones, and it was fascinating to see each author’s individual take on the subject. You can see Helen’s starting point here, but if you want to hop straight to my post, you’ll find it here.

So those were my December outings. In future, whenever I write guest posts or am interviewed on other people’s blogs, I’ll be adding links here so that you can read them in situ – and while you’re at it, you’ll gain an introduction to another great blog too!

By the way, I also regularly host or interview other author bloggers on my Off The Shelf Book Promotions website:  www.otsbp.com – but more about that another day. 

Follow That Blog!

If all that blog-hopping is making you dizzy, there are two simple ways that you can keep up with my online wanderings without having to remember to click on my blog every week:

  • sign up to receive each new post in your email inbox by clicking the “follow” button
  • subscribe to my new e-newsletter, which provides will give you a monthly round-up of my online activity within a single email, once a month

You’ll find instructions on how to do both of these things in the right hand column on the home page of my blog.

And finally… happy New Year, wherever you happen to be, online or in the real world!