....welcome to my blog on writing, reading and living in London ......

Monday, 24 February 2014

Cuba - an adventure

One of the things I always do when I travel is to have in mind how I can turn my visit into a book, a magazine serial or a short story. Cuba where I visited this January is a fascinating place and I've already written the first chapter of a mystery. The country is one of excesses, not the sort of excesses we have in the Western world, for ours are all about having too much. Too much pollution, too much to spend our money on, too much consumerism. Cuba's excesses are quite different. Here is a quick photo trip so you can see what I mean. They are about excessively beautiful beaches (this one at Varadero, just 2 hours drive from Havana)
Of wildlife in its many forms, this frog somehow managed to get up to our second floor balcony in order to bask on our damp washing!
Of people who still use horses and carts for travel and transporting goods on a daily basis
Of the most fabulous hills over which you can ride for hours and hours along sugar cane plantations and acres of hills where you won't spot another person - we rode from 9am until 4pm from our Casa Particular in Trinidad. There was no health and safety check, no helmets or complicated instructions. Just a horse, with a pommel on the saddle to hang on to. The only question our cowboy Miguel (and he was a cowboy with a Stetson and the most wonderful kind manner, helping me on and off) asked, was 'do you have a bottle of water,' and that was it, we were off
But it wasn't all hard slog up those hills for our horses, or our backs and bottoms, as we broke the ride with a swim in a mountain stream under a waterfall
Cuba is also a country which has very few goods, hardly any shops and real deprivation, not least this sad little dog who desperately needed a home
I'm pleased to say, other dogs who live in Havana, in the big city had been taken in by a rescue home which feeds the lucky dogs and treats them for mange etc as well as sterilising them to avoid producing more dogs like you see in the country who live as strays and desperately need to be looked after. All the rescue dogs have labels on them identifying the district where they live. They are clean and flea free and belong to everyone and no one. Unlike this enormous rodent who was kept as a pet. I have no idea what it is, but it had extraordinary coarse fur and was very gentle. Fortunately we didn't see its teeth or we'd probably have been scared off!!
Havana is an amazing city, perched on a magnificent Bay looking towards the US which still has embargoes which cause much of the lack of goods in Cuba. There aren't even plastic bags when you go shopping and there is very little to buy. This photograph courtesy of a friend (thanks Colin!) shows the scene after a train derailment at Matanzas. Even sugar cane is scarce in Cuba which is absurd as they produce tons of it every year. It is however sent off to China to be processed and bought back in but there is still a huge shortage and a shortage of cash with which to buy it. Cuba is a communist country and shortages are something the people live with, being grateful for anything they can get. So, when a load of sugar was spilt on the track after the derailment word went out and immediately people came to sweep it up.
If you go to Cuba please take extra money with you and tip generously. For many people on a peppercorn wage, tips are a lifeline. I gave the lady who manned the loos at Cuba airport, my last 10 CUC note and I hope it made her day. Many people earn less than $15 dollars a month and CUC's which are the currency which foreigners use are particularly useful to the people. Everything is in such short supply that you often see people carrying cardboard boxes to utilise in fixing, for example, the roofs of the little bici taxis, or as here, newspaper used to make paperchains. Nothing is wasted and there is very little rubbish - we could certainly learn a lesson from them in that respect.
Finally we stayed in Havana, a beautiful city with amazing contrasts, buildings like this, which are virtually derelict, where you can see the sky through the roof. Amazingly though, people still live in them. You have to see Cuba to even begin to understand its many contrasts and anachronisms. Here, you might think is a country of many poor people but they seem blissfully happy. They are very close to their families, both geographically and emotionally, not having a huge amount of 'things' means I believe that they invest more time in the important stuff.
There are also, the amazing vintage fifties Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets which we rode along the Malecon. The Malecon is the sea wall where young and old in Havana meet, flirt, chew the fat, kiss and cuddle, go walkabout and enjoy the pleasant Caribbean breeze freshening the city.
But the best thing about Cuba is its wonderful people who are endlessly friendly, good natured, welcoming, happy and kind. So, Cuba is a country of excesses, but not the sort of excesses we know. It can be frustrating, particularly if you have booked a ferry or coach and the thing just doesn't turn up and all you get is a shrug of the shoulders when you ask when on earth it is due to arrive. Nevertheless it is a fascinating, vibrant and friendly place. Do go and see it if you can, preferably before it becomes commercial, like the rest of the world..... And look out for the book, once I've written it, that is!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Today on my blog I have the wonderful Jo Thomas (a fellow Accent Press author) talking all about her book, The Oyster Catcher which has received rave reviews. Jo, do tell us about yourself and how you came to write your lovely book. My name is Jo Thomas and I live in the Vale of Glamorgan with my husband, who’s a writer and producer, our three children, three cats, and our black lab Murray. I write light-hearted romances about food, family, friendships, and love. Why did you start writing? I had my children in quick succession and when I started writing I had 3 children under the age of 3. Writing was my ‘me time’. I could go to that place in my head and make it as lovely and special as I wanted it to be while around me there were toys to be tidied, piles of washing, and play dates to organise. In fact, more often than not, I’d drop the eldest at school, the next one in nursery, and then the baby would fall asleep in the car and I’d stop wherever I was, park up, pull out my laptop, and start writing. I got some very funny looks from passers-by though. Why romance? I love romance. I suppose it all started with Little Women and then Gone with the Wind and then I started reading authors like Christina Jones, Katie Fforde, Carole Matthews, Wendy Holden, and I felt like I’d come home. These were the worlds I wanted to live in. At the end of a busy day running the children around to rugby, guitar lessons, drama lessons, swimming, I go to bed, pick up the book on top of my pile by my bed, and that’s me time too. Nothing bad happens in those worlds. And then I realised that I wanted to tell these stories. I love the autumn and the winter. I love dusk when people start to put on their lights but haven’t shut their curtains yet and you get a peek into another world, and then I find I’m beginning to make up stories about the people who live there. It’s all in my head. It’s a happy place. I do believe that every story should have a happy ending, even if there’s been tears along the way. Where do ideas come from? I always want to change jobs or set up a new business. I’d like to set up restaurants or become a pig farmer or buy an oyster farm. So by writing about these things I’m actually living out all my ambitions. I love cooking. I love feeding people. Sunday lunch is one of my favourite times of the week. My brother is a chef and I’m always picking his brains for ideas. One of my favourite times of the year is Christmas morning when he and I hole up in the kitchen, listening to Radio 2 with a Buck’s Fizz on the go, and cook Christmas dinner together. Actually I love it because he has to be the commis and I’m Chef! My son loves cooking too and that’s becoming a really lovely and special thing to do together. I think that families and food and love go hand in hand. I love the memories that food can bring back. The taste of something can take you right back to a special place, a special moment. Like bangers on Bonfire Night, or peppery mussels in a bikers lay-by in Brittany. Maine lobster on my honeymoon and toasted marshmallows on a Saturday night with the kids, watching X Factor. Whenever we go on holiday, where most people would get out the travel guides, I get out the cookery books to see what kind of food we’re going to be eating. I’ve even been known to pack cookery books in my case. But I’m a cook, just a simple cook. For me the pleasure is about sharing the food I’ve cooked, the wobbly three-tiered chocolate birthday cake, or the homemade pizzas on a Saturday night in front of the telly. Food is my way of saying, ‘I love you’. What about research trips? My stories have come out of places I’ve been and food I’ve eaten. But then once the idea is there, I usually find there’s more research to be done and this is when you really have to push yourself out or your comfort zone. But it’s good to feel the fear, like my heroines must. I have been a waitress at a hells angels’ bikers convention, serving cooked breakfasts all day and night. I have taken part in the olive harvest in southern Italy, picking and harvesting the olives, going with the tractor to the local press and watching them being turned into wonderful deep-green olive oil. I have been oyster farming … in the middle of November! The Oyster Catcher What’s it about? It’s about a jilted bride who hides away on an oyster farm in rural Connemara, despite being terrified of water and her wild and unpredictable new boss. Cutting herself off from everything she knows, she learns about oyster farming and the art of shucking oyster shells. She finally learns to come out of her own shell but along the way she has to battle oyster pirates, pearl princesses, and loan sharks before eventually finding love amongst the oyster beds of Galway Bay. Where did the idea come from? My husband was offered a job on the west coast of Ireland, in Galway, to work on an Irish-language soap opera there. We went over to see the place to decide if we would go as a family. From the moment we arrived it poured with rain. I’ve never known rain like it, and that’s after living in Wales. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I decided that it wasn’t going to work, until that night when we went to a restaurant; a wonderful place called O’Grady’s. It’s an end cottage in a row of terraced cottages, painted light blue. You walk in and the fire is going, the candles are lit, and you look out over sea. And there I ate pacific oysters. I looked out of the cottage window and thought, OK, I get it. If this is what Galway has to offer, I’m in. And from then on I had some of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had, from wild foraged food, saffron sorbet , and the oysters, just wonderful. I thought, ‘this is sexy’. But it’s such a precarious business. And an idea began to form. How did you research it? Well, I started by eating a lot of oysters and going to O’Grady’s a lot. Then I discovered an oyster seller in one of the local farmers’ markets where you could buy half a dozen oysters, and he’d shuck them and serve them to you with a glass of white wine. It was a Friday lunchtime treat. I then went on a seafood cookery course at the Galway Seafood Centre. But it still wasn’t enough. I needed to get my feet wet, literally. By this time I was living back in Wales. So one dark, cold weekend in November I went with my good friend Katie Fforde to meet an oyster farmer friend of mine in Scotland. We dressed in wet weather gear from head to foot. As soon as we arrived we got stuck straight in and were wading into the water to see the bags of oysters that were being loaded onto the tractor trailer. Within minutes the water had come above the top of our wellies and was trickling down our socks. Then we retired to the pub for lunch. Absolutely soaked. There was steam rising from us as the barmaid stoked the fire for us to sit beside. Our feet didn’t thaw out at all. That afternoon, it lashed down. I’m realising the connection. Perhaps good clean rain helps the oysters. We worked in the shed, by the light of bare bulbs and to the sound of Radio 2 on an old radio, and helped grade and wash the oysters, ready to go to market. We caught crabs, listened for clunkers, and learnt to sniff for dead ‘uns. By the end of the day we were cold, wet, and very tired. We ordered large gins back at the hotel, handed the chef a large box of freshly picked oysters, and headed for our baths. That evening, we sat by a huge roaring fire in a deep red restaurant room with my friend the oyster farmer, and drank champagne and ate the oysters we had picked from the sea ourselves. Never has anything tasted quite so good. It was perfection. The Location. Why there? The book is set in Connemara; I just loved its wild, rocky landscape. We spent a lot of time with friends out there who had the most amazing parties, where the children would enjoy the freedom of the outdoors and guests would turn up, music would happen, and everyone joined it. They were wonderful nights, even in the rain! The characters, who are they? The book is about people who hide their feelings away so they won’t get hurt. But if you hide away you won’t find love either. Fiona Clutterbuck was abandoned by her own mother as a 15-year-old and has never really had the chance to realise who she is or what she’s capable of. In Ireland she’s a fish out of water. So when she’s finds herself having to battle loan sharks, pearl princesses, and oyster pirates she has to learn pretty quickly, to come out of her shell. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re put in that situation. Sometimes it’s sink or swim. Sean Thornton, Fiona’s boss, is grumpy and guarded but his saving grace is his passion about his oysters. He only comes alive when talking about the thing he loves. There’s Sean’s girlfriend, oyster broker Nancy, and the effervescent Margaret trying to turn her dying village back into something special again, along with a colourful cast of locals. And then of course there’s Sean’s dog, Grace, a Great Dane. She’s based on a dog I met in Galway who used to ride his owner’s windsurf. So cool. I once read that a champion shell shucker said ‘In order to open an oyster you first have to understand what’s keeping it closed.’ And that’s how the story started. Here's a picture of Jo who is attracting wide attention in the press and soaring up the Amazon ratings: You can buy the Oyster Catcher from Amazon by clicking this link: Amazon Or from Accent Press by clicking this link.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Writing a serial for Woman's Weekly

My first serial for Woman's Weekly, 'Finders Keepers' is in this week's copy of the magazine. (It's a 3-parter) I've tried short stories with them in the past without success so was really pleased to have this one accepted. I am a bit obsessed at the moment with romantic suspense and have been devouring the novels of Josephine Tey (a blog post about her might follow when I have time, she wrote two of the most interesting crime novels I've come across). People often ask where ideas come from. The one for 'Finders Keepers' was simple speculation. I can't remember how many times I have wondered what on earth I would do if I found a quantity of money in a suitcase, on a train, buried in a wood...... Of course you'd give it up, wouldn't you??? But, given extraordinary circumstances, people do extraordinary things. One way of generating interesting fiction is to put perfectly ordinary people in outlandish situations and test them which is what I did with my heroine Erica McAdam. First of all though, you have to show the reader your character living in their normal life, not for long though, the reader wants to get to the nitty gritty of the problems that face them, as soon as possible. Sometimes I look at a serial, particularly a 3-parter like a three act play. Firstly you need to establish who the main players are and make the reader FEEL for them. That is essential early on. I therefore made my main character a hard working woman on her own and I gave her a daughter who is in trouble through unexpected circumstances. We feel for people who experience misfortune and we like people who are loved or highly regarded by others. Then, in the first episode, I establish a problem, a deep problem for my characters to get out of. That sets everything up for act two, or, in a 3-part serial, episode two. Act two sees our characters fighting for their lives. No, not necessarily literally are they facing murder, or hanging off a cliff edge, but, they must fear destruction of something very important to them. Their way of life, their liberty, their capacity to care for those they love. So now, you see, showing the reader your main characters in their 'element' the person they are, in episode one has been useful. My heroine is not a rich woman in monetary terms, so she has nothing to lose in terms of wealth. But she does have her freedom and the job she loves as an environmental researcher at stake. She also has her role as a mother which defines her as much as her career. She is an honest woman who is faced with potentially being driven to do something dishonest. In episode two therefore, you need to dig your characters deeper into the problems which face them. Maybe let them make some bad mistakes. And, ideally, you need to add another major element to carry that episode forwards. In other words, you need to put even more pressure on your characters. I won't reveal what the second element is as part two of 'Finders Keepers' isn't out yet. However, as a clue, I would say the arrival of another important character can always act as a catalyst which helps to keep the momentum going. By act 3, or rather episode three, I like to create a black moment. A moment when everything looks as if it is lost. Where all that testing appears to have found your heroine or hero wanting, where they question the previous decisions they have taken. Haven't we all thought at times that we've blown it, that the worst is going to happen, that we can never get out of a complete mess we've made of things. But, we survive. Things change. WE CHANGE. Those changes are fascinating for readers to experience with characters for whom they have some sympathy. The resolving of that black moment, how people get out of life's problems and triumph is so important in giving a reader a satisfying result from reading a serial. After all, they have invested a huge amount of time in you. They've spent money on buying the magazine with episode 1 and hopefully have waiting to buy the magazines with episode 2 and 3 in it. So, if you're writing a serial, make the characters sympathetic people we care for, give them a past and give them important elements in their life that they would find it painful to lose. Put them through hell, then get them out of that awful mess. Hopefully then you will come up with a story an editor will have faith in and readers will enjoy. Job done!