Carrbridge in Winter - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography

Saturday, 25 February 2017


Recently, I experienced the great delight and terror of being invited to read at my first literary salon, as part of Aberdeen’s Inspiration Point weekend.

But what is a literary salon?

I imagined worthy men of the enlightenment gathering in coffeehouses or smoky backrooms, their faces earnest, talking politics and economics; or refined French ladies lounging on elaborate chaise longue dissecting the literature of the day.

That couldn’t be right? I wouldn’t be expected to lounge on a longue, would I?

I consulted the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which informed me that:

A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.

Hmmm… The Inspiration Point Literary Salon was to be held at the Lemon Tree, a wonderful small
theatre space in the heart of Aberdeen. I checked the blurb…

Your chance to hear some of the best new creative writing being produced in Aberdeen and the wider Northeast, Scotland.

That description still made me nervous but also thrilled to be invited, along with friends from the Aberdeen Writers’ Room Collective, Rachelle Atalla, John Bolland, Avril Erskine, Gavin Gilmour, Laura Lam, Megan Primrose and Emily Utter, along with poetry therapy practitioner, Elaine Reid and playwright Morna Young.

Organized by the wonderful writer and creative powerhouse that is Shane Strachan, of Creative Learning Aberdeen, the evening was a fantastic opportunity for all involved.

So what have I learned from taking part?

  • Ask a writing friend to check your selected piece for appropriateness
Unless you’re a natural and accustomed to treading the boards, reading dialogue aloud, perhaps taking on the voice of at least a couple of characters, can prove daunting. For a first time reader descriptive prose might be safer ground.

  • Be Prepared
Sounds obvious, but the Inspiration Point event fell at the end of half term. I’d been away from home all week, enjoying time with family. I arrived at The Lemon Tree with only minutes to spare, with no printed copy of my reading to hand. It fell to my husband to make the mad dash home (20 minutes drive away) to print off a copy and return before I was due on stage to kick-start the second half. Note to self – be prepared!

  •  Become acquainted with the running order

A literary salon involves a collection of writers and so it’s good to know who will be reading before
Shane Strachan: organiser and writer
you (a few kind words helps keep the feel good factor flowing) and also necessary to know who will come after you, especially important if you are expected to introduce them with perhaps a short background summary.

  •        Lights

One of the biggest surprises on stage was that due to the spotlights focused on the reader, it was almost impossible to see the audience. No friendly faces smiling encouragement. It was akin to reading into a black hole. However, after several deep breaths, a couple of paragraphs in, as a reader you become immersed in the world of your writing. Keep going… don’t stop….

  •         Know thy route to and from the stage

Packed audience at the Lemon Tree Theatre
The Lemon Tree Theatre was the perfect venue, owning a wide stage, bar at the back, with circular candle-lit tables dotted around the main floor. However, whilst I made my way on stage, I also became acquainted with the many trip hazards  -coat sleeves, handbags, satchels etc. Once my piece was finished and the talented Rachelle Atalla was well into reading the opening of her current novel, the last thing I wanted to do was create an unwanted diversion by tripping and sprawling over one of the beautiful candle-lit tables. So instead, I discreetly choose to sit at the back until there was a suitable opening, which allowed me to make a less dramatic entrance.

Would I read at a literary salon again?

Writing can be a solitary business but during Saturday evening at The Lemon Tree surrounded by friends old and new, many established writers - some starting out, I understood why the concept of the literary salon has continued since the time of the enlightenment and ladies lounging on their chaise longue. It’s because it’s fun and frightening and wonderful all at the same time. Would I accept if asked to read again? It’s a big YES from me.

And if I weren’t reading, I’d still highly recommend pitching up at a literary salon. The Inspiration Point evening was a free event, we heard a fantastic range of new writing and the Lemon Tree bar was open…!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

THE HOLY GRAIL OF WRITING by Victoria Cornwall

I was driving my car the other day, whilst keeping a lookout for deranged drivers and wild animals with a suicidal desire to become my next road kill victim. I am not being melodramatic here. After decades of driving on country roads, I have come to the conclusion that animals line the grass verges to wait for my car to come along. Anyway, during my journey the lyrical, haunting tune of Send in the Clowns came on the radio. A melancholy atmosphere descended as I absorbed the sad, beautiful lyrics sung by Judy Collins. I was about to start blubbering into my steering wheel, when I was saved by the DJs next choice, The Eurhythmics collaboration with Aretha Franklin, Sisters are doin' it for themselves. Suddenly the world seemed brighter and I felt empowered. I finished my journey with a big smile on my face and a slight bounce to my driving. Within a short space of time I had swung from normal, to deep sadness, to feeling extremely happy ... and it got me thinking. 

Music is the end result of someone's creativity, just as a painting, a poem, a book or a beautifully crafted statue or figurine. There is an endless list of how a person's creativity can manifest, but I suspect that all creative people strive to do the same thing ... to evoke a feeling, an emotion, a reaction from those that see it, feel it, use it or read it.  

Painter, illustrator and sculpture, Richard Artschwager, once said, "There isn't any art until some creature sees and consumes it. And has a reaction." Perhaps that is what drives us all. I know many writers will say that they would write even if no one ever saw what they had produced, however, I suspect the majority of writers have a desire to share their craft with like-minded people who will hopefully enjoy it.

A successful novel will evoke a reaction in a reader. Some novels will take a reader through the whole range of emotions. The transitions between these emotions and reactions may be sudden or deceptively subtle, gradual or a non-stop fast ride where the reader hangs on by their fingernails. Hopefully there will also be the odd moments of reflection or relaxation to make the next stage of the story all the more stimulating. A reaction a writer does not want to evoke is boredom or frustration with the plot or the characters within the story.

I believe that the holy grail of writing is to evoke the emotion that the writer intends to evoke, at the precise moment they planned it to happen, at just the right momentum a reader wants or needs. When a writer hits those markers, they have been successful in their quest. However, in my opinion, it is not the reader who has the greatest reaction in the end … it is the creator ... for they have achieved what they set out to do, and that is a euphoric, heady experience that cannot be matched.


Do you agree that evoking emotions/feelings/reactions in a reader is The Holy Grail of writing? 
Can you recall a particular book which evoked a strong reaction in you?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, 11 February 2017


For the last year or so I’ve been keeping a record of all the books I’ve read, and even of those I’ve started and not finished. I’ve been trying to understand what it is that makes a book a GOOD book – to me – so I’ve chosen the last three books to which I gave the full five stars, and I've tried to discover what qualities they have that set them above the hundred or so others with three or four stars (less than three stars and I don’t carry on).

Image resultThese books are quite diverse. They are:
·         ‘Falling’ by Julie Cohen, a recently published women’s contemporary fiction novel;
·         ‘The Year Of Living Danishly’ by Helen Russell, an autobiography/political commentary; and
·         ‘Faking It’ by Jennifer Crusie, a classic romantic comedy.

I’ve tried to identify the things that make them such all-round successes for me, and have come up with the following. These qualities are in addition to having attractive characters that the reader is rooting for – I take that as a given!

 Immersive - as a reader you are completely in these books. It's not just the story that carries you forward but the setting and the little details about the main and secondary characters. This is a world you can believe in.
Off-beat – to a greater or lesser extent all the characters are out of the ordinary, which makes them particularly interesting, but the key thing is that they are not caricatured. It’s very easy to caricature eccentricity, but for me that doesn’t make a good read.

Accessible style – the style of writing is not literary, not trying for long words and (even worse) long sentences/paragraphs. It is easy reading. In both the Jennifer Crusie and Helen Russell books, humour is also very much to the fore, which helps.

Page-turners – all are books that make you want to read on, that you regret every time you have to put them down. They are not the heart-in-your-mouth or blood-and-guts type of page-turners, however, as those don’t appeal to me. I don’t like too much tension and I definitely don’t want tragedy. These three were the perfect balance of interest, action and resolution. And there was the added bonus, with the Russell book, that I felt I was learning something new, too!

What qualities do other people feel are essential to a ‘good’ book?

Sunday, 5 February 2017


"So," my friend, Jan - who's read just about everything I've ever had published - said, "who's this Mel who upset you so much?" "I don't know what you mean!" I said, coming over all defensive. "Hmm," she said. "It's just that whenever you write the bad sister/office bitch/friend from hell you call her 'Mel'. That's all I'm saying." And do you know what? - she's right. I do. There was a Mel in my life who was all those things Jan mentioned and I haven't been able to let her go. I know it's not healthy but at least I get a bit of (unhealthy?) revenge when I'm writing her into a short story. I've got a cousin - male - who is also very loyal and reads most of my short stories and novels. He's not averse to voicing his thoughts either. "Paul?" he said once. "Who was he in your life? His name crops up a lot." "Does it?" I said. "Yep. And he always gets the girl." Not the Paul I know because I rather stupidly let him go (okay, gave him the old heave-ho) and perhaps I ought not to have done and then I would have been Paul's girl But no one needs to know that and my cousin will have to go on guessing! After having written about 1000 names into short stories and novels it's not that easy to come up with a new one, even though I have a Baby Names book on my desk. Didiane? Photina? Boaz? Milburn? I think not. Girls' names like Daphne and Dulcie, Polly and Elsie, are making a comeback but they're not names I liked the first time around so I won't be using those. And Roger - my husband's name. I'm reluctant to use that because people always quip ' ... over and out' and that's all I see in my mind's eye when I've tried to write him in. And using his name as a verb has a whole different meaning so I won't be doing that either. There are, of course, many books with one name titles. Jane Austen's 'Emma' is perhaps the most famous of all.
The present day novelist, Bernardine Kennedy, writing as Marie Maxwell, has also used one name titles with great success - Maggie. Gracie. Ruby.
I've been thinking of doing the same - I just can't find the right name, that's all. Oh. I almost forgot. 'Sylvia'. Jan also noticed that my evil mothers-in-law/horrid stepmothers/snobby women of a certain age are always called 'Sylvia'. Hmm,I'm probably fortunate that the 'Sylvia' my character is based on is long dead! My apologies to all the lovely Mels and Sylvias in the world - it's not you, honest. So, writing this has got me wondering .... is there a name you use over and over and if so why? Or is there a name you would never use at all?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Romantic Reads 2017

❤️❤️With Valentine's Day fast approaching, romance is in the air as we share our beloved romantic reads, with Linda and Neil also revealing some perfect dreamy locations to snuggle up. We'd love ❤️ to hear what you'll be reading (or re-reading) this Valentine's Day too...

Rae – As soon as it was decided we would share our favourite romantic reads, I knew I would chose Jojo Moyes runaway bestseller, Me Before You. In many ways Me Before You tears up the romantic fiction rulebook. For starters Will Traynor makes an unconventional hero, being a cynical quadriplegic, paralysed from the chest down, struggling to come to terms with his new life following a horrific motorcycling accident. Whilst bright, witty, Lou Clark, coasting directionless through life, is nothing like the driven, polished, stick thin women Will’s known in the past. Without creating a spoiler, the very plotline doesn’t follow a traditional romantic read. And yet… it’s a gloriously uplifting, punch-in-the-gut kind of novel, reminding us that love really knows no barriers.

Victoria - A romance novel that stayed with me for a long time is Redeeming
Love by Francine Rivers. Set during the Californian gold rush of 1850, it tells the story of Angel who was sold into prostitution as a child and survives by growing to hate men. She meets the religious Michael Hosea, who falls instantly in love with her. He believes it is a sign from God that his destiny is to marry and rescue her from her tragic existence. Slowly and steadily, through love, kindness and his dogged determination, he does. Redeeming Love is categorized as a Christian book, however, don't let this put you off if you are a non-believer or of a different faith. This is a powerful story, where the heroine struggles to feel worthy of being rescued, yet the hero refuses to give up. I loved the writing style of the author and the love, patience and loyalty Michael shows her. Some have found the circumstances of their marriage unpalatable, but I had no concerns and nor have the thousands of other readers who have devoured this award winning book in the past. I love it because I fell a little in love with Michael too, as when life gets tough we all need a hero who will catch us when we fall.

Linda - my fave romantic read is The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller.

Ignore the snipey reviews if you look this book up on Google/Amazon/wherever. It's like with many great romantic books (I'm thinking Gone with the Wind here) and there are those who read it who consider themselves too literary or something for such a novel, or that, perhaps, pure romance is too lightweight. But if you want to be transported to a different place, a different time, a set of emotions you thought you'd long buried then this is the book for you. It tells the story of Francesca Johnson, a married but lonely housewife, and Robert Kinkaid, a National Geographic photographer who comes to the area to
create a photographic essay on the iconic covered bridges of Madison County. They fall in love, helped along by the fact that Robert Kincaid has a romantic soul and a way with words to tell Francesca so. It's a very short book - more a novella at just over 170 pages - and is a mix of forbidden romance, mysterious beauty, and poignant sadness. The film is good but the book is better, and I'm left wondering how many little girls were named Madison because their mother had read this book??

And my most romantic location?

A beach in the moonlight. Preferably, this will be a soft sandy beach which still holds its warmth from the day, and the air will be balmy. What I love is the beam of light that powers towards you when you stand on a beach (the love of your life holding your hand, of course) as the moon rises - it has a unique sort of energy that stirs the soul. But if I can't have a warm underfoot, sandy, beach then I'll settle for any beach at midnight... winter beaches with a rough sea are good if the romantic couple are wrapped up warm.

Jennie - I don’t read many historical novels these
days but one I’ve read and re-read is KATHERINE by Anya Seton so many times I’ve lost count. Published over 60 years ago it has never lost its appeal and these days is regarded as an all-time classic.

Katherine Swynford, the naive orphan of a poor knight, arrives at the court of Edward III when she is just fifteen and it’s not long before she comes to the notice of the married John of Gaunt who is the love of her life.

Anya Seton was renowned for the amount of research she did for her books and what I love about Katherine is the fact that it is based on historical fact and the love between these two people was real. As the mistress and eventual wife of John of Gaunt her children were the direct ancestors of the Tudors and theStuarts. If you like historical fiction I urge you to read it and lose yourself for several hours in the medieval world of power, pleasure and passion Katherine found herself living in.

Gill - When choosing my favourite romantic read, I was going to go with one of my two all-time favourites: Jane Austin or Georgette Heyer. But then I realised that my go-to romance writer at the moment is Jennifer Crusie, someone a lot more recent and a little less known. Author of American romantic comedies, her plots, dialogues, characters and humour are all spot on. It’s hard to pick which is my favourite but I’ll go for Fast Women, possibly because it was the first Crusie book I read and I was so delighted to discover this new writer. My only complaint is that she hasn’t had any new books published since 2010. Come on Jennifer!

Jennifer (not Jennifer Crusie) - When Rae asked me for a few sentences on my favourite romantic reads, my mind went blank. With a question like that it always does: I can’t think of the last book I read, or indeed any of the books I’ve read in the past year. I vaguely remember taking a Jeffrey Archer book on my honeymoon in case there was a dull moment, but I don’t think that’s the kind of answer she was looking for. 

I’m going to go back to an old favourite — or rather, a series of old favourites, a very, very slow-burn romance. When, in Dorothy L Sayers’ detective novel, Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey sees

Harriet Vane standing in the dock on trial for her life, it’s love at first sight for him. But the relationship is deliciously complicated by Harriet’s independence, her unconventional lifestyle and her natural dislike of being obliged to him for saving her life. 

She loves him. (Of course she does.) But it isn’t as easy as that — and so the author doesn’t need to tie up the romance alongside the end of the case. And yes — Peter and Harriet finally achieve their happy ever after, several books down the line.
Neil - Romantic reads are slightly out of my league, however I do find some of the locations that I visit have an air of romance surrounding them. Eilean Donan Castle is your iconic poster castle for romantic Scotland, it ticks all the boxes - loch, hills, the illusion of being remote.  But its not just the image when visiting this castle, there is an atmosphere around the castle and it was at night that it truly showed it self. When I returned to take some night shots of the castle all lit up, I did not expect to hear the sound of bagpipes floating over the still night air as a wedding took place. It was then I understood why so many people found this place romantic.
I am lucky to live in a country that is romanticised, with stunning castles and beautiful vistas round most corners.
Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Hope everyone enjoys a little romance this Valentine's Day ❤️❤️❤️