Walking with Words

If there’s a cultural event locally and It’s free then I’m all over it like a rash. The idea of ‘Walking with Words’ to combine image, word play and local heritage on a walk along the Forth and Clyde Canal sounded like the perfect way to spend a sunny September morning.

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Walk a mile in his horseshoes…

imagesThe walks are the brainchild of the Reader in Residence at Falkirk Libraries(a post funded by the Scottish Book Trust), Jan Bee Brown who invited the participants to “snap and natter, tweet and twitter, hike and haiku” to explore the theme of transformation.  The context for the event was set by an informative pre-walk presentation by local historian Geoff Bailey who used vintage maps and images to compare and contrast the past and present landscape around Falkirk and its connection to the ‘Great Canal’.

Fired up to see the ‘after’ of the area which oozes industrial heritage our intrepid group hit the streets of Falkirk to navigate from the town centre along to Lock 16 before finishing at the Falkirk Wheel.

On the way to the iconic landmark, Jan encouraged the group to look at the area with fresh eyes, as if we were viewing the canal through the eye of Falkirk’s newest tourist attraction, the Kelpies, modelled on the type of Clydesdale horse which once trod the tow paths.

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Falkirk’s very own Banksy!

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Power to the People!

The thing that struck me most was how the area had changed since I was at high school.  In my novel, Talk of the Toun, the main characters go to St Paddy’s High School, based on St Mungo’s High School in Falkirk.  One of the opening scenes describes the two main characters ‘dogging’ (truanting – not the meaning dogging has in the contemporary sense!) school and taking a shortcut to the town centre via the ‘Bleachy’.

Today, the area has been redeveloped as an industrial zone but this was how I remembered it and described it in my novel. Here’s the extract…

The Bleachy gave me the heebie-jeebies and I’d never walked it alone even in daylight hours. Mr Stanners told us in our first year History class that the land opposite our school was once used as a bleach field to let cloth dry out in the sun. It was hard to imagine anything in the area being clean and bright these days. The Bleachy was now a maze of boxy concrete buildings with corrugated iron flat roofs and lock-up garages. Round every corner, mad dogs strained on their leash until their mouths foamed if you dared go near the yards of the garages and workshops that lined the muddy path. We called them Bandeath dugs; they were usually a cross between an Alsatian and a wolf and they came from the Bandeath dog shelter in Stirling. No one in their right mind would buy a dog that looked as pig ugly as these brutes. They weren’t pets; Bandeath dugs were tougher than night club bouncers.

The puddles along the Bleachy were always oily and rubbish piled up in corners like multi-coloured snow drifts. It wasn’t the devil dogs and the filth that freaked me out. The Bleachy was always dark, even on a sunny day and then there would be the men on their tea breaks, overalls rolled down to their waist, greasy thumb and index finger holding a fag between them and blowing smoke rings.

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Maw, Paw and the weans.

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Falkirk figures – Robert Barr, the man who gave Scotland its other national drink – Irn-Bru along with Dr Harold Lyon founder of Strathcarron Hospice.

Halfway along the route, Jan suggested we stop at a set of benches beside public art that I didn’t even know existed prior to the walk and she suggested that we write any words or phrases that popped into our minds. Some of my jottings included ‘transformational change’, ‘same but different’ and ‘coming and going’. Not exactly profound statements but who knows how the walk will fuel my writing once my brain has downloaded the sights and sounds.

This was the first of a series of ‘Walking with Words’ events and if you’re in the Falkirk area I’d highly recommend them to find all the inspiration you need on the hoof. You can book a place here.

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Any relation to Lady Gaga?

Do you find walking stirs your creative juices? Which walks are sensory rich for you?

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Pinterest Passion and 80s Rewind

Years ago I’d rip photos out of magazines and keep them in poly pockets filed inside A4 ring binders with dividers sorting them into categories such as ‘bathroomhbx-march-2014-cover-mdn’, ‘kitchen’, living room’ and ‘bedroom’ – hey, don’t judge, everyone needs a hobby! The cuttings were all ideas for interior design. It’s something I’ve always been interested in as I’ve moved house six times as an adult, so it’s lucky that I‘ve loved decorating each home.

Looking back, I’ve probably spent quite a few pounds on magazines like House Beautiful and Ideal Home to then tear out pages showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ home makeovers. Nowadays, there’s no need to buy these expensive magazines to gather ideas, the images are only a click away online and I don’t need to paste the photos on to ‘mood’ boards. It’s so much simpler now there’s the Pinterest website, a virtual pin board to store all the images that I would hope to feature in my dream home decor.

After watching too many episodes of Escape to the Country, I feel jammy to live in a three hundred year old cottage in a rural village and have no intention of moving again in the near future. But I’ve discovered another use for Pinterest as more and more writers are using the website to share the inspiration for their novel with their readers.

downloadUntil my book is actually out there, I don’t have readers but as I’ve had a bit of a break from my day job I’ve started to dabble in building a Pinterest board for my book, Talk of the Toun. My novel is set in 1985 and I’ve found hunners of Pinterest boards indulging in 80s nostalgia.

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I’m 2nd from the left in the front row.

I was also able to upload images of the Falkirk area setting for the book and if anyone wants to know what a council house in Bonnybridge similar to the one Angela, the main character might live in, then it’s now easy to visualise. Recently on Facebook, a new group has sprung up called, Bonnybridge Banter and the page has been buzzing with folk posting pics of their school class photos and of the area past and present.

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Sleeves record shop in Falkirk – THE place to go to buy the latest no.1 single.

Of course, some readers might not want to have preconceived images related to the novel force-fed to them but there might be others like me who want to relive the 80s and might appreciate a sense of the setting as a character in itself to enhance their enjoyment of the book.

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For me as a writer, and as a reader, Pinterest is a guilty pleasure where I can pretend I’m still a teenager (sad, I know) or where I can get an insight into the visuals that fired up other writer’s imagination.

If you fancy remembering the fashions, hair, makeup and music of the 80s then my board will transport you back to when Strawberry Switchblade was in the Top Ten with Since Yesterday. But I warn you, Pinterest is HIGHLY addictive…

Do you have a Pinterest board? Do prefer to imagine your own ideas and images for a book you’re reading?

The Prime Writers – Experience is the Teacher of All Things

downloadLife begins at forty!” is one of the many clichés to cling on to when you reach a certain age. Is life better because you’ve racked up years of experience and learnt from your mistakes?  Are you more comfortable now in your own skin and don’t worry about what others think of you? I can definitely answer yes to both questions and my more mature outlook impacts on who I am as a person and that’s reflected in my writing.

I started writing later in life and when my debut novel is published later this year I’ll be 47. After ten years practising the craft of writing, this novel will be the third I’ve written but the first to be published. Why? Because I had a lot to learn about things like the narrative arc and also needed to develop my writing ‘voice’.  Could I have achieved my dream of being a published writer earlier? Who knows, all I know is that during those thirty odd years  I was busy living and all the positive and negative situations I experienced have shaped me as a person and now have an impact on my writing.images (1)

That’s why I feel my writing is more interesting now than it would have ever been when I was much younger. And it’s why I gravitated towards other writers on Twitter who have had their debut novel published when they were 40+. I got chatting with these like-minded folk who’ve been around in the best possible sense and found I had a lot in common.  A group of these online friends have now taken this bond to another level and formed a collective known as ‘The Prime Writers’ and set up a Twitter account @theprimewriters and just launched a fantastic website.

Here’s the thinking behind this brilliant idea…

11018784_296273973830244_6589992450363424722_nOur group numbers more than 60, from all regions of the UK, and includes literary writers, writers of memoir, thrillers, romances, children’s fiction, historical fiction… you name it. We’ve been shortlisted for prizes, selected for book clubs, appeared at festivals and events. We draw on a vast reservoir of life experience to inform our writing and help and support each other in our publishing adventures. We were (in many cases, still are) teachers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, parents, carers – but we come together to celebrate, not only our achievements as writers, but the lives we led to achieve that dream.

Whether you’re looking for your next read, assembling a panel for an event, or simply seeking inspiration for your own aspirations, The Prime Writers is your gateway to a wealth of talent and expertise. 

I’m honoured to be featured as one of the ‘prime writers’ with my details listed on this great new website and hope this exciting venture will help raise the profile of those of us who’ve taken a bit longer than others but have made it in the end.

Did you start writing later in life too?

26 Children’s Winters by 26 Writers

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Me outside 26, Skene St, Bonnybridge, my home for the first 23 years of my life.

The number 26 is special to me. It was the house number of my childhood home so the address is hardwired in my brain. 26 is now special for an entirely different reason but still related to childhood.

A while back, I saw an advert for a project called 26 Writers and the number alone hooked me. That set me off to learn more from the ‘about’ section on the 26 website…

26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words, and believe their potential is hugely underestimated. Individuals, businesses, charities and government bodies all have compelling stories to tell – and we hope to show them how experienced and imaginative writers can find new and credible ways to engage their audiences. But we also want to open hearts and minds to the wonderful diversity of writing, to savour and enjoy words in all their many guises… and to have some fun. We chose the name 26 because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – the DNA of language.

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A room full of dolls at the museum – cute or creepy?

I decided that this was something I’d love to be involved with and immediately sent off my application. And waited… As you can imagine, I was chuffed to bits to find out that I was chosen to be one of the 26 writers to write a piece for their latest project – 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. The museum is a treasure trove of children’s objects and curators have selected 26 of them, which capture the spirit of winter.

The 26 written pieces will all be ‘sestudes’- 62 words long, 26 in reflection – and will be online in December and available to view at the museum from October through till March 2016. The exhibition will be raising money for It’s Good 2 Give, in case you needed another reason to come along.

Each writer has been given an a brief description of an object to write about and mine is…

A ‘Firefly’ Sledge

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Getting up close and personal with my object.

sledgeTraditionally a sledge would have been used as a practical mode of transport in many cultures for centuries, and evidence of one has even been found in a Viking ship burial. Children know sledging as a fun activity and the promise of snow in the Winter brings much excitement and searching at the back of cupboards. Today most sledges are plastic and simple constructions. This sledge was made in the USA, but bought in Glasgow in 1909 and used by the same family until recent times.

As I’ve never been to the museum, it seemed like a great excuse to make a visit and ‘meet’ my object.  I went along with one of the other 26 Writers, Sara McQueen, and together we explored the collection. I also got a bit more information about my object from Lynn, one of the museum’s curators who told me that the sledge was originally owned by the children of a well-known doctor who lived in Gourock.

Now all I have to do is write 62 words…

Have you ever been inspired to write about an object you’ve seen at a museum? Would you find the word limit of the sestude easy or difficult to work with?

Alight Here: An Anthology of Falkirk Writing

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The iconic Falkirk landmark which inspired my short story.

In January, I went along to a writing workshop led by Alan Bissett which was organised to stimulate ideas on what it felt to be a bairn (the term for anyone from Falkirk). The group were encouraged to submit their piece to be considered for inclusion in an anthology which Alan was to edit.

There’s no doubt about it, out of the many anthologies I’ve submitted to over the years this one meant the most to me and I was chuffed to bits to learn that my short story, ‘Today’s Special at the York Cafe‘ was to be featured in the book, ‘Alight Here:An Anthology of Falkirk Writing.’

alight-hereThe official blurb states that, “this book celebrates the work of local professional and amateur writers from the Falkirk area. When we think of Scottish literature we think first of the urban grit which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow or the rural poetry of the Highlands and Islands. No-one thinks of Falkirk. 

The collection features established writers from the area such as Aidan Moffat, the lyrical genius behind the band Arab Strap; Gordon Legge, who was key to the ‘Rebel Inc’ movement of the 1990s; Janet Paisley, one of Scotland’s leading Scots language voices; and Brian McCabe, arguably one of Scotland’s most accomplished short-story writers. Alongside them are a host of new and young talents, as well as unseen poetry unearthed from Falkirk Archives. Together, these voices create a compelling picture of Falkirk.”

photoThe launch was a great night with readings from contributors Bethany Ruth Anderson, Paul Cowan and local literary legend, Janet Paisley. It was exciting to see my words in print and I feel honoured to have my writing published alongside the talents of Samuel Best, Peter Callaghan, Karyn Dougan, Lorna Fraser, Matt Hamilton, Brian McNeill, Gary Oberg, Constance Saim-Hunter, Lindsay Scott, Dickson Telfer, Paul Tonner, David Victor and Claire Wilson.

11181883_798627483566550_3105361756786451391_nThe event also included a preview of Alan’s excellent new one man show, ‘What the F**kirk’ which will be touring the Falkirk area over the next couple of weeks. He had the audience in stitches and I’m looking forward to seeing it again on Friday night with my two best friends and fellow bairns.

Last night was a proud moment for me as a bairn! Does your local area have a strong identity represented by the arts?

The Journey is the Reward

imagesIn the build up to Book Week Scotland 2015 in November, the Scottish Book Trust has posed the question, ‘Have you walked a new path, taken the road less travelled or been faced with a crossroads?’

SBT have provided an opportunity to share a personal story on their website and become part of their national campaign to get Scotland writing.

Here’s the challenge…

Write about a journey in your life. This could be a real journey or an emotional journey, the day you stepped out into the unknown. Did you end up where you planned to go? Did the experience mark a turn in the road or show you the way forward?

download (1)To trigger ideas for the ‘Journeys’ theme, SBT organised a series of free writing workshops across Scotland and when I saw that Jenni Fagan was the writer leading a workshop at the Central Library in Edinburgh I rushed to book a place. I LOVED Jenni’s book, The Panopticon and have previously heard her talk about her writing so I was really keen to take part in her workshop.

Jenni set the scene with some quotes connected to the theme of ‘Journeys’ and my favourite was, “The only journey is the one within” – Rainer Maria Rilke.  This quote related to the Five Dials piece Jenni shared with us that she wrote on letter writing and her life’s journey.

To get us thinking about our own writing, Jenni asked the group to write about why we write and also our earliest memories of reading and writing. The questions made me reflect on how I have developed as a writer and a person. When I was wee, I was a ‘teacher’s pet’ and used my reading and writing ability to fulfill my desire to be a ‘people pleaser’. This need for validation to feed my self-confidence lasted well into my adult years and seeped into my writing. It meant I held back for fear of upsetting or offending a reader until finally I realised that I can’t please everyone and that my writing had to be truthful. This has been an emotional and intellectual journey that’s taken years and one which I’m still on.

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Close up of my favourite tile on the wall of the Central Library. The letter ‘H’ is from a quote from the Book of Proverbs and states, “‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom and with all thy getting, get understanding”. Very apt for a learning journey in a library!

But from the writing prompts which Jenni provided, the one that immediately inspired me was, ‘Write about a journey that starts with fear‘. I remembered a physical journey I took when racing to A & E after my youngest son was injured at school. The emotions from that day are still vivid and as Jenni suggested I will write 100 words on this memory to see if I’m fired up to continue writing. If not, then I’ll dabble with the other writing prompts such as, ‘Write about a journey you were forced to take: grief, separation, illness‘ which instantly reminds me of the trauma of my dad’s sudden death.  Or I’ll try something more light-hearted like my ‘journey’ to lose weight. Who knows yet which path the workshop will lead me down…

As well as spending an afternoon meeting other lovely writers such as Catherine Simpson and Marie-Thérèse Taylor,  I made the journey home energised and keen to write about a journey which meant a lot to me.

Fancy writing about your journey? You can submit your entry here. And if you’re looking for great examples, I recommend reading the submissions by Stephen Watt, Angela Hughes and Nicola Burkhill – a talented trio of writers.

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* Postscript*

It was hard to choose a journey to write about but in the end I settled on the one involving my son’s emergency admission to hospital. If you’d like to read, Burn Rubber, it’s now online on the SBT website.

http://scottishbooktrust.com/writing/journeys/story/burn-rubber

Viva Venezia! – and the Art of People Watching

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I got a bit snap happy as round every corner was another photo opportunity.

I LOVE city breaks and over the last few years I’ve been lucky to visit some of the most exciting cities in Europe. I’ll go anywhere to experience new sights and learn new things but there are particular cities that have always been on my travel wish list.

One of them was Venice and I finally managed to tick it off the list last weekend. With such high expectations it would’ve been easy to be disappointed but thankfully Venice lived up to its reputation of being one of the most stunning cities in the world. We only had three days to explore and this meant we could only scratch the surface of Venice’s many attractions.

But apart from cramming in as much sightseeing as time (and my feet!) would allow, one of the bonuses of the break was to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes – people watching (everyone needs a hobby!)

i_m_watching_you_Noticing the idiosyncrasies of those around you is an essential activity for a writer. Being aware of a person’s mannerisms and eavesdropping on conversations can prompt a story idea or descriptive scene.

I’ve recently dabbled again in one of my other favourite pastimes – writing flash fiction, and I’m sure some of my observations will find their way into a piece of writing. My most recent 75 word story was featured on Paragraph Planet while I was in Venice and appropriately enough it includes an Italian cheese! If you missed it online, here it is but be warned, it’s best not to read it before eating!

A Taste of Home

The door slammed, he was home. Drunk. Again.

‘Is the spag bol ready?’

‘It’ll be a few more minutes; I need to nip to the loo first.’

I smoothed Arinca cream over the purple yellow bruise on my arm. Sitting on the loo seat, I got busy with the nail clippers and file. I was pleased with the handful of powdery flakes my toe nails produced.

‘Some parmesan?’

I sprinkled generously.

My people watching expedition started at the airport and really went up a gear when a woman sat next to me on the plane and I witnessed an annoying habit that was a new one on me. She spent the entire flight pulling fluff from her mohair jumper. I was glad the flight was only 2 & 1/4 hours long!

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The ‘wow!’ factor.

We were in the right place at the right time in Venice when we got caught up in the celebrations of St Mark and Piazzo San Marco filled with flag waving locals chanting, “Viva San Marco!” The square was buzzing and when we reached the top of the campanile we witnessed an aerial view of a massive flag being unfurled. The most amazing sight though was right beside me, a father and son ignored this once a year spectacle to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones. The boy played a game and the father scrolled through Facebook updates.

Felt I had to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

Felt  obliged to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

On the vaporetto to Burano, a man decided to treat his fellow passengers to a ‘song’ with no words, no tune and at a high volume. Only he and his pal who was filming it seemed entertained.

There were lots of other weird and wonderful behaviours on show that I took in while roaming around Venice and it’s certainly true that there’s nowt as queer as folk.

Only the week before our trip I went to hear Irvine Welsh at the Aye Write! Festival and he mentioned that he often does a complete circuit of a city’s subway route to see how folk act, dress and talk.

Do you also find people watching feeds your writing?