Sunday, 12 October 2014

Place as source of inspiration

Gibraltar Harbour - has inspired stories and poems

I'm one of those people who are never short of ideas for writing.  Not that I'm blowing my own trumpet here, there's nothing special about that, and because writing is not my job, I am not forced to come up with ideas and angles and article selling points day after day - if I were, then I would have written a very different first sentence to this blog and I have infinite respect for those who achieve publication after publication under the pressure of deadlines and still find ideas for success. 

I often find that my ideas come from location, from places.  There is a good deal written about the importance of location and setting in writing - who can ignore the threatening presence of the windswept moors in "Wuthering Heights" or the architectural landscape of "Gormenghast"?  

What I have been finding in recent months is just how much the places I live in or visit can have an impact on my writing.  For example, the ancient graveyard of Newington Church on a frost-bitten evening was the perfect setting for my short story "To Hear an Angel sing"; 

Newington Church, Kent, image by Sonia Vallejo

and following on the Christmas theme, crossing the new Sheppey bridge in Kent and driving to Sheerness in the pouring rain helped to inspire another story: "Home for Christmas".  

The back streets of old Gillingham and Chatham, steep hills lined by rows of terraced houses that were the homes of the dock workers in the early part of the twentieth century, leading down to the dirty grey waters of the estuary inspired another story: "Please stay for Christmas".  The fact that all these are Christmas stories is neither here not there - I spent many Christmases in the Medway towns, where I grew up, and despite having lived away for over 6 years now, Christmas and Medway are inextricably linked in my mind.

But every place, I am certain, has its inspiration, whether for its beauty, the majestic  nature of its landscape, the architectural wonders displayed, or the closeness to nature.  I personally like looking beyond the picture postcard.  I like to look for the story within the place, rather than just the story inspired by the place, and doing this can sometimes bring about a storyline that just has to be followed, or characters that simply beg to be created and developed until their stories are told.  In this way, when I recently visited the lighthouse at Gibraltar - for the umpteenth time because I lived here as a very young child and still walk here with my kids regularly, a place so familiar to me I can easily visualise it, yet a place where I see something new each time I visit - I found myself thinking about what it must have been like, in less technologically - advanced days, to be a lighthouse keeper.  And that led me to thinking about what it might be like to be a redundant lighthouse keeper, one too old to look after the lighthouse any more.  And those thoughts led to my most recent poem, a section below.  Location for inspiration.

The Lighthouse Keeper

His fisherman’s fingers are
Blackened from mending nets
On wind-swept, sun-burnt beaches,
And from the oil, the working of the wires,
Night-long fires, generator,
Guano-stained glass that must be cleaned each day,
Like a constant wife he’s
Tending, nursing, birthing light

To burn the length of night.

Image courtesy of Little Lenses Photography

Thursday, 11 September 2014

R and R

Finding time to drift with the tide of imagination

If finding a space for writing and time for writing is often difficult, getting into the right frame of mind for creative writing can be even harder.  On the odd occasion I manage to eke out a spare hour or so between tasks at home which I can actually dedicate to progressing my latest project, I often find myself dawdling about, distracted with this and that (Facebook or Twitter, more often than not) and just generally finding thoughts of all sorts popping into my head except, sadly enough, the thoughts I need about plot, or character, or mood, or setting, or rhythm, or imagery that I need.  All too suddenly, that spare hour is over and it's back to the housework, or kids, or getting ready for work.  And there's never the space in an overworked schedule to relax.

Relaxing by a waterfall is a perfect place for creative thinking

In fact in the last six or so months, I have found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything for long enough to create anything, except a tangled mess of words.  My attempt to co-ordinate meetings for Gibraltar Writers fell apart because I could not find time to make it to the meetings I had arranged. My attempts to blog were disorganised and lacked any direction.  And the characters in my work in progress suddenly became elusive creatures that could not be pinned down in my mind let alone on the page.

Then a spate of illness forced me to do the one thing that the creative mind, I believe, most needs to be able to function.  Rest.  After months of working long hours, I suddenly found myself forced to be at home resting.  It took a full fortnight or so to start to be able to think thoughts from beginning to end without getting into a muddle.

Or a lakeside break - perfect for peace and quiet and time to think

Rest and relaxation.  Maybe that's why some of the best ideas come to us in the shower, or bath, or while working out at the gym, or walking.  In fact, walking has often been a favourite pursuit of many a writer - think Wordsworth or Woolf.  Rest and relaxation releases the  mind and allows it to wander, it allows thoughts to penetrate which are not necessarily logical or pertinent to the moment.  These are unfocused thoughts, derived perhaps from the subconscious.  They are the thoughts that day dreams are made of.  And those are the dreams that one day can blossom into that special novel, or poem or play.

Or a city break - just to get away from the routine.  This was the entrance to 2014's Love Festival at London's South Bank

So if I have a tip for the month, just as summer draws to an end and we enter the bustle of autumn, a new term, the return of co-workers from holidays, and head towards the rush and clamour of Christmas, it is to make sure to take enough rest, to find those times to relax and allow ourselves to dream.....and write.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Time and Space for Writing - in the mind

So I managed to book rooms, and made a stab at hosting a writer's group.  And wrote a story.  And then it all went wrong.

No-one turned up.  Well, two did, but by that time, I'd had an eleven hour day, was hungry, cold, disillusioned and went home.

Then the next time, the room had been double booked.  So no great success there, plus the guilt of letting other people down.

Clearly I need to take control again, make sure that my writing time is there and that everyone around me respects it, and that I can give some thought to communicating with other local writers.  At home I've set aside Sunday mornings and the family is easy going about it.  The first hurdle has been cleared.

But in recent weeks all I've done is work, so intensely I can barely think when I get as far as home, can sleep only in fits and starts and reading is a struggle, let alone writing.  Now that is a much deeper problem, and one that many writers must face, because it is an unusual thing for writers to be able to learn a good enough living from just writing alone.  Not unless they are so hugely dedicated, so good at their craft, networking, marketing their work and so on, that they have very successful freelance writing careers.  And I have huge admiration for these writers.  But I am in that dilemma where I must work to raise the family, keep a roof over their heads etc. but I cannot rely on writing income because I have no time to hone my skills, market my work etc. quickly enough to obtain enough commissions to be a full-time writer.

But that's ok.  Not all painters expect to exhibit their art in galleries and have a bidding war going on over their canvasses at auction houses.  But they still paint, and hang their art on walls in homes or maybe even in local cafe's and enjoy the creativity, the production.  Which is pretty much how I look at my writing.

So when work interferes to an extent where my hobby can have no time in my life because in the time I have my brain is dulled by mental exhaustion, then it is pretty clear to me that my work-life balance has to be redressed.  Because unlike sport, or cookery, or flower arranging, or going to a wine-tasting club, or salsa classes, writing needs enormous engagement of the mind.  Work does not interfere with me walking the dog - and I used to use this time to work out plots or characters in my head, but recently I've been wording up emails or working out lists of things to do the next day in the office.  Physical time is there every day because I get up extra early and I go out late in the evening to  walk.  But it's mental time.  My brain is so cluttered and tired, that even thinking about storylines is tiring.

I decided to see if there were any tips out there I could put to use - I can't afford not to work, though that would be a fine thing and I found these three I'm going to try out next week:

1.  The right tools to write with

      Being prepared is essential, so since I give myself two hours on a Sunday, then I can make best use of this when I have everything around me I need - laptop, notes, a notebook, a cup of tea, and the door to my room closed.  I make sure my pens work, the laptop charger is to hand and that any notes I may have scribbled down during the week are to hand so I can refer to them.  If I approach my writing like I do my work, then for those two glorious hours, I can focus on the task of producing the novel or story or poem I want to write.

2.    Music

       I find quiet background music helps me focus.  It makes me detach myself from work altogether so my thoughts are less likely to wonder back to what I left at the office on the Friday.  Each person will have their own trigger item or routine that will help them focus - a friend of mine sets an alarm for her one hour writing session, it focuses her on trying to finish the piece she is working on in that time.  When the alarm goes off, she finds she has achieved some progress and that keeps her thinking on what she is writing rather than on the everyday things that can be so distracting.

3.   Setting a goal

      In a way it's using a technique from the office, but if it is successful at work, then no reason it can't be successful in my writing.  My goal this week is to try to enter a story for the Gibraltar Spring Festival short story competition.  I've only got till 14th March to get it ready.  My preparation for this was giving it some real thought when out walking the dog (and yes, I did occasionally get distracted thinking about work, but like everything else in life, discipline helps), and then I wrote it out during my session.  It needs to be finished and polished, so I will have to carve out an extra session this week, and I'm sure it will be worth it.

I'll give these three things a try.  The long and the short of it is that writers write.  Less bleating, more writing.  There can be no success without trying.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Time and Space for Writing

When and How?

It's what every writer I've ever met seems to crave - time and space for writing.

Carving out a chunk of time from a busy life just to sit and write seems to be incredibly difficult.  But no-one can think of being a writer if they don't write and in the same way as footballers make time to train and play their sport of choice, or swimmers spend regular sessions in the pool, so writers should and could set aside a session of writing time.

So why does it seem so hard?  I've been trying to be a writer for over thirty years.  But I relegate this most desired of activities to such a low place of importance in my daily life.  I work, I do the shopping, the household chores, walk the dog, visit family and friends, clean the car, far more readily than dig out my laptop or tablet or notepad and just write.  Perhaps I view writing as a guilty pleasure rather than as a hobby or a job.  And because I probably look at it as that - something that I do when everything else has been done - people around me don't expect me to put my writing first and certainly not before them.

So this year, with the help of Gibraltar Writers, I have finally found a session - only small and modest - where all I do is write.  No TV in the background, no phone to interrupt me (mobiles on silent only), no kids  breaking my train of thought, no dog to take to have an untimely wee, no hearing the washing machine telling me the kids' uniform and hubby's trousers are ready to hang out to dry, not even wondering whether the kids have had their supper (their dad is perfectly capable of seeing to their needs).  One Tuesday a month, I can go to the John Mackinosh Hall, to a dimly lit and sparsely furnished room where internet connectivity is so poor that social media sites can rarely interfere with my train of thought, turn on the laptop and just write.  Okay, so two hours a month is hardly going to see the 21st century version of War and Peace written, but I produced a short story draft last month, and this month, maybe the first draft of a competition entry.

Which takes me to the next point.  Space.  I live in a pretty cramped apartment.  Tucked into a corner of the living room is my desk and computer.  Space to write, physical space is important.  It's nice to have a desk and computer.  I have books on shelves near me and in the drawers I have notes and old print outs of manuscripts.  So far so good.  But just behind me is the TV.  It's where the family watch evening programmes.  Not conducive to uninterrupted thinking. 

Space for writing is about mental space as much as physical space.  We have the technology these days - tablets with a plethora of novel writing apps can help you achieve that goal of writing the novel.  But it's no more sophisticated really than paper and the back of an envelope if you cannot think your plot, or dream up your characters.  Just as a swimmer will need a pool or some body of water to master their craft, or a footballer a pitch or a basketball player a hoop high on a wall and a ball, so a writer needs space physical and mental to dream up those stories and string those words together.  J K Rowling did it in cafes and hotel rooms.  The John Mackintosh Hall monthly session is a step in the right direction for me.  And in the summer, there are shady, quiet corners of Alameda Gardens, begging to be used to dream up a best seller!

Monday, 16 December 2013

To Hear an Angel Sing

It's Christmas.  It's the season of all things fun and jolly, bells ring, there's wassail bowls and turkey and pudding, and loads of shopping, tree, presents, bells ringing, choirs singing......

But not for everyone.  I've personally been pretty lucky not too have too many tough Christmases, but I have spent time with those who have.  This story is for those who have nothing, nowhere to go, no-one to turn to.  Winter is always harsh, and midwinter is always dark, and only after the darkest night comes the light of a new day.

To Hear an Angel Sing    

 "It’s one of those nights, and here I am, leaning on a gravestone, squinting up at the church and struggling to breathe.  The cold is the kind that slices into your lungs and so you hold it in a little, just enough for your head to stop reeling and to delay the pain of its nails as it rasps its way out of your throat.
     I pull my scarf up to cover the tip of my nose and exhale into it.  That way its warmth stays with me a little longer. 
      It’s pink and fluffy.  The scarf, I mean.  I didn’t choose it.  It’s not really my colour; clashes terribly with my red curls.  Not that anyone can see them.  It’s the longest it’s ever been, my hair.  Mum always kept it cropped close to my scalp.  Saved hassles with lice as she dragged me from school to school, always one step ahead of the man that fathered me.  Kept its real colour hidden too.  Life’s not always easy for a skinny Scots boy with red hair and freckles.  God knows how much fighting my knuckles could have taken if those Geordie lads had seen ginger curls.  They’re tucked neatly under the matching hat now. 
     I’m not complaining.  To be honest, I would have cried with delight when the woman clipped past me and dropped them into my lap - if I hadn’t been too dozy for tears.  That’s the problem out here.  You need the daylight for scavenging in bins or looking out for a better spot to spend the night.  Or, if you’ve got the energy, to look out for a handy coffee morning where you can warm up and fill your belly with Garibaldis. 
     But at night you  have to watch out for yourself and you sleep as deep in whatever bits of rag you can gather together.  You sleep with one eye open and look out for Old Bill, or dogs or drunks, so during the day you sleep.  You can’t help it." 

The rest can be read by downloading the story from Amazon.  I'm still startled at how easy it was to upload it and have my friends and family across on both sides of the Atlantic purchase and read it.  I got  feedback within minutes - all of it positive so far, glad to see, my sensitive ego can only cope with "constructive" criticism.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Gibraltar Writers at Sir John Mackintosh Hall

So the date is set: Tuesday 3rd December at 7.10pm.

The next Gibraltar Writer's meeting next Tuesday is an important date.  Last one of the year, so maybe a good time for people there to recap on what they've achieved in the past twelve months.  And if you haven't been published, we'll all want to know what you are working on, how far you've got and so on. Last before Christmas so maybe a good time to meet up with everyone, get to know those you haven't met before, exchange news and views and go for a bit of a bevy afterwards.  Last before the New Year, so a good time to get to know what's in the offing for 2014 so plans and resolutions can be made.

What could be in the offing for Gibraltar Writers this coming year?  Well, I'm only going to put in my ideas here, and other members will have more to add (and maybe bits to take away), but for what it's worth, here's my wish list for the spirit of christmas (whatever that is) to work on:

  1. Regular, productive get-togethers with other writers that keeps me motivated, enthused and helps me over all those boundaries that writers tend to create for themselves (writers' block / no time / more important things to do / can't quite get the words right.....)
  2. Arranging a series of workshops so we can practise some of those tricky little skills that we can then use in our writing (I once attended a one - hour workshop on using the sense of hearing in writing: it was surprisingly helpful and very entertaining).  We can run them in-house and also get outside speakers in.
  3. Getting into the schools at competition time to mentor young writers 
  4. Reach out into community groups to get all sections of the community telling their tales - the elderly, young mums, the sick, people with disabilities, young people: those who might need a little bit of extra support to write or tell those stories that need telling.
  5. An anthology of Gibraltar Writers' work at the end of the year.  We'll need sponsors.  Anyone out there love local literature?
  6. A role in the Literary Festival - an evening of readings by the Gibraltar Writers, a story telling afternoon, morning coffee over poems, a poetry jam in one of the local pubs (good poetry and ale seem to have been brewed for each other).  Oh, and perhaps we could run a workshop for beginner writers.
  7. An online support group for submitting and critiquing work in between meetings.
That should get us going!

So if you've read this and you're wondering if......don't.  Don't wonder.  Just do it.  Find our Facebook page and join the Facebook group.

And come over on Tuesday.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


Ok, I should have included it in yesterday's blog, but hey, I was tired, it was late, I forgot - should write when fresh not exhausted.  But here it is, first few lines of Nightwatch.  Hope you enjoy.....

It is never silent in the city:
even in the dead of night you hear the
threat of humming lights spreading yellow oil
across damp concrete.  The gas works rumble
and as the city sleeps, the freight trains snore
and rattle and rumble a steady trail
past aching whores tip-tapping their way home.

The empty bed lies dead in cold shadows,
Cheap mattress hollowed from his latest descent
into her life, unwelcome, uncalled for.

The rest can be read in the anthology, one day.....