Why a cat?

I live in the middle of a menagerie of humans and animals. We have six chickens, five cats, four horses, two dogs, a lizard, a snake and countless tropical fish, not to mention some humans that occasionally behave like animals. I include myself in that.

The cat in the photo is Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry). He and his brother, Peregrine Took (Pippin) came to live with us in 2017 and quickly realised they were on to a good thing. The other cats are a little more aloof (except Mo, but he deserves a blog post all to himself really). When I write, I’m usually surrounded by a pile of snoring animals. Bramble often sleeps behind my chair, so when I roll it backwards, I run over her long, Border Collie tummy hairs and she shrieks like a banshee.

But if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t answered the question. Why a cat?

Well you see, Merry likes to whisper in my ear when he sees me becoming distracted by social media or emails. You could call him my inspiration, I suppose, since his suggestions for plots tend towards the gory, with disembowelment and disfiguring incisions featuring prominently. You could even say that he’s the reason I turned to crime.

Paying it Forward

Since I began writing fiction in 2014, I have received help, encouragement, advice and friendship from so many other writers, all over the world. This writing community is a very special place, and I’ll never be able to pay back all the folks who have given freely of their time and expertise to help this bouncy, over-enthusiastic new writer with more energy than skill. But I can try to pay the favour forward, and that’s what I try to do these days.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for delivering a free online writing course. I hoped to target marginalised people, those with disabilities, chronic illnesses, carers and anyone who was struggling to attend formal classes, and I was overwhelmed by the response from the community of Northern Ireland.

I ended up running three separate groups to meet the demand, and together we learned how to create engaging short stories, how to edit them, and how to get them published. The vast majority of attendees were from my target groups, which was wonderful. Instead of an effort, I found each session strengthened me, almost recharging my batteries, as I watched people’s confidence grow.

At the end of the course, I sent out an anonymous questionnaire and the feedback was reassuring. People had enjoyed the course and learned from it. The only suggestion for improvement that came up (more than once) was that the course should have been longer. Not a bad criticism!

So, I felt guilty that I hadn’t made it longer, although my own health and my own caring duties meant that I’d made it as long as I’d thought my stamina could cope with. Then I wondered what else I could do to help this fledgling writing community. To pay it forward.

The answer came from one of the subgroups of the Society of Authors of which I’m a member. A lovely woman called Sofia posted a link to the London Writers’ Salon (LWS), a group of writers who meet three times a day Monday to Friday on Zoom, and just write together whilst muted (after a short introduction and some words of wisdom). I signed up, and after the first session, I was hooked! This was something I could bring to local writers in Northern Ireland.

A couple of weeks ago, I set up Ulster Dedicated Writers, a smaller and less ambitious version of LWS. I’d already paid for Professional Zoom thanks to the Arts Council’s funding, so why not put it to good use. We began small, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am, with only the previous members of my writing classes invited, but once we realised how useful these dedicated writing times are, we are starting to expand. We have new members, friends of existing ones, and we’re up to three sessions a week (aiming for four next week).

How does it work?

Anyone interested in joining us emails me (or uses my website contact form) and I add them to the contact list. Each week I send out the Zoom link, and we all pop up on the screen one by one, introduce ourselves, chat briefly about what we’d like to achieve that session with our writing, then I mute everyone and we write. For just under an hour and a half, all I see on my screen is the top of people’s heads as they type or handwrite their poetry, novel, short story, blog, whatever.

At the end of the session, we unmute and chat about what we’ve achieved, which is usually astounding.

There’s some magic about these writing sessions. Something about the knowledge that other people are beavering away at their writing alongside you seems to unleash everyone’s creativity and drive away their gremlins, their writer’s block.

If you think this might work for you, why not give it a try? London Writers’ Salon are brilliant, but you’re also welcome to join us in the Ulster Dedicated Writers. Just email me or use the contact form on this website and I’ll add you to my list.

It turns out paying it forward is fun. I’ve met some brilliant, talented, wonderful writers, and I can’t wait to see them spread their wings and fly. I hope they’ll also pay it forward, when success finds them and when they’re in a position to do so.

Shy Halos

Corona = Halo

From the Cambridge English Dictionary:

Corona – a circle of light that can sometimes be seen around the moon at night, or around the sun during an eclipse…

If you were to type the word Corona into a search engine, you would be flooded with results about the coronavirus pandemic and Covid – 19. These are dark times, an eclipse of our usually sunny lives. People are locked in their houses, avoiding contact, afraid of this unseen enemy that can pass to us from seemingly healthy friends and neighbours.

But dark eclipses can have a silver lining. Like a halo around the moon, dark times can highlight the generosity of spirit and kindness of so many people. We all give thanks every day for the NHS, for their bravery and selflessness, but there are other halos out there, too, hiding in unexpected corners.

Take those in the caring profession, looking after all the sad and confused people in nursing homes and residential care facilities. And the retail workers, the delivery drivers, the kids stacking shelves, the freight ship crews, the airport workers and port workers keeping the supply chains open.

If, like me, you are a member of the Very High-Risk category (I even carry a card to prove it!), you’re probably even more anxious than most. If you’re a carer for a high-risk person, or if, like me, you are a carer for a very elderly relative, that ups the stakes even more.

As a family, we chose to self-isolate a little before the government advised everyone to do so. This involved Fraser working from home, changing our sleeping and daytime arrangements so that we all have our own dedicated space in the house, etc. It also meant keeping my dad away from his day centre, which he loves to go to three times a week. There, the more mature folks sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a warm, stuffy room, the perfect petri dish for growing bugs, even with the exceptional hygiene they have there.

Two weeks ago, we began to eat our evening meal in the lounge, on our knees, instead of crammed around the kitchen table as we always have before. It gets messy, but I’ve learned not to cook Spaghetti Bolognese anymore.

With some strategic planning (NOT stockpiling!), we’ve been managing our food supplies quite well so far. The young and healthy Katrina has been going out to shop for us to Iceland and the local pharmacy to collect our asthma meds and my arthritis injections. She washes her clothes and showers when she gets home, and we disinfect all packaging before bringing it into the house. It’s like a surgical procedure, double-gloving and all!

Bread and milk have been a challenge. With five of us in the house, all munching cereal and toast and drinking tea and coffee, it soon runs out. So, we decided to send Katrina to the local shop, Carlisle’s. As we have two elderly neighbours*, I phoned them both and asked if they needed any supplies fetching. One was okay, the other was not. I took her order and prepared to send my beloved daughter out into a cloud of unseen viruses.

First, I texted another neighbour who works in Carlisle’s to check the optimum time to shop and avoid crowds while still finding food on the shelves. She phoned me straight back and offered to do the shop for us, including our elderly neighbour’s shopping. She was able to buy our groceries as soon as the delivery arrived at the shop (bread, milk, fruit and soya milk for the one with a food allergy that could put her in hospital) and store them in the walk-in fridges. She was careful to stay within the guidelines for rationing but we still got everything we needed.

So here is another one of our shy halos, gleaming in the shadows. Catherine is over sixty, but as spry as a twenty-year-old and sensible with it. She has offered to repeat this up to three times a week for us and for our neighbours.

Spring of 2020 is like no other spring we’ve ever experienced. My dad, who lived through WW2, remembers rationing cards – although his family were so poor that rationing was an improvement for them; they discovered what butter tasted like. This reminds him of that time.

He’s sad and confused at the moment. He can’t understand why he can’t go to the day centre, and thinks it’s because he’s done something wrong. This morning, he tried to make a break for freedom. He set off with his big coat and his hat and his stick to walk to Bardan Cottage Day Centre. Bardan Cottage is at least twelve miles away, and he wouldn’t have the first clue how to get there, but he doesn’t realise that.

If only he knew how lucky he is. Another family member’s mum is in a nursing home, also with dementia, and her family can no longer visit her at all. Dad doesn’t know that.

This rambling blog is by way of reminding myself and others, through a dark time, that there is still kindness in the human animal. There is still selflessness.

So, let’s keep all those halos shining. Let’s remember that there’s another meaning for corona, and may that help us through this crisis.

See you all at the other side.

*The expression neighbour should be loosely applied here. This is rural County Down. Can’t actually see any of our neighbours…

Definitely NOT Ballynahinch Book Club…*

I began writing in 2014, sat at my farm kitchen table and tapping away on a stolen iPad (stolen from my husband, but stolen nonetheless). I was filled with inspiration, determined to put down in glorious technicolour the story that had been battering away at the inside of my skull for more than 30 years.

I did it, too. Finished the novel. It was the bee’s knees, a best-seller for sure. The publishers would be queuing up to offer six-figure advances. How could they not? It was brilliant, unique, well-written…

Yes, well. You’ve no doubt heard this before, many times.

I was writing in a vacuum, with no one to tell me what was wrong with my writing. My POVs leapt about like cats on a hot tin roof, my tenses were all over the place — and my dialogue punctuation? I shudder at the memory.

When the number of publishers racing each other to make me offers dwindled from zero to a negative number, even I realised there might be work to do, so I joined a writing group. Belfast Writers’ Group was a great place to start, with friendly, welcoming people who knew so much more about writing than I did. It was wonderful to chat with fellow writing addicts, sharing experiences and horror stories.

I joined forums (SkyPen, now defunct, and SFFChronicles) and was adopted by the wonderful, generous Jo Zebedee. She hoisted me up by the ankles and shook me until all the b******t had dripped out then sent me, chastened, on my way to self-improvement.

But what I did learn, on top of the craft of writing, was what a social and generous crowd writers are. They don’t ‘steal your ideas’, or put you down; instead they share their knowledge freely, help you to find your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

But I lived in Ballynahinch, the back-end of nowhere. If Ballynahinch was in America, it would be called a one-horse-town. It’s best known for its traffic jams heading South towards the beach at Newcastle on a Saturday morning and then again heading North to Belfast on a Sunday evening. Holidaymakers and day-trippers curse Ballynahinch. Driving into Belfast for the wonderful writers’ groups there was a bind, especially on a dark winter night.

I promised myself that if I was ever in the position of being able to help other struggling writers, then that is what I would do.

By winter 2018 I had become a fairly well-known local writer, published all over the place and invited to perform my work regularly. Time to pass it forward.

I wondered into Ballynahinch Library and accosted the Manager, a wonderful lady called Pamela Dickson who has a kind face and a mischievous glint in her eye. I asked her if the library would be interested in hosting a writing group, and she leapt at the idea.

So in February 2019 we started Ballynahinch Library Writers’ Group. Pamela provides tea or coffee and yummies as well as bookmarks with the dates on and publicity on social media. We meet once a month on a Monday from noon to 1.30 pm (although we often stay chatting long after that!). We have a lovely constant group of writers who have become friends with each other over the months.

For each meeting I prepare a handout and some writing exercises/prompts and we critique each other’s writing, sharing ideas and experiences. At the end of a meeting, we decide what topics we’d like to cover next time and I scurry off home to prepare the handouts, which Pamela prints for the group.

I used to email them out to everyone before the meeting, but some people couldn’t resist doing all the exercises in advance, so I had to stop!

In October 2019, I was invited by Libraries NI to speak at Comber Library for Book Week NI in conjunction with BBC NI. I met some wonderful, keen readers there, and the library’s manager, Vivien, who welcomed me with warmth and a mug of tea. She suggested that what’s good enough for Ballynahinch would probably be good enough for Comber and invited me to run a second group there.

Our first meeting will be on Friday 28th February from 2.30 pm to 4 pm. I can’t wait to meet the new writers and hear their stories.

We focus on nurturing the creative spark, encouraging writers to be fearless in their writing, to try out new techniques, stretch their wings and soar. And they do. I’ve had writers who have lost all confidence in themselves after a mauling in a different writing group (not one I’ve mentioned here) who have rediscovered their love of words and the infinite number of facets that make up a story or a poem.

As I tell my writers: There’s no wrong way to do this. Just write, listen to your muse, and then you can edit it into a smoother form later. You can’t edit a blank page.

Then we learn together how to edit, how to plot, how to write dialogue and how to sculpt characters who stand out from the page and make you want to weep or laugh with them.

Both groups are open to new members, so if you live out in this particular bit of the back-end of nowhere and fancy trying out some creative writing, we’d love to see you!

*Ballynahinch Book Club is actually a Swingers’ Club which changes its name frequently to avoid detection by the authorities, or by stern church-going pillars of the community. As far as I know, Comber is too civilised to have an equivalent, but perhaps it’s just better at hiding…

Space to Write – All Downhill from here!

Gandalf spotted in the distance — photo and idea courtesy of Paddy Finn

I was lucky enough to be awarded an Arts Council of Northern Ireland grant last year, a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award. Part of the money was budgeted for some time to escape the ties of home so I could concentrate on getting this novel beaten into shape, ready to publish.

I had heard of Downhill Beach House, run by McCall and William Gilfillan, and had promised myself a stay there. This year was the right time to honour that promise.

Downhill Beach House from the beach

For ten days every late January/early February, McCall and William turn over their nine-bedroom hostel to poverty-stricken writers for a nominal fee. The hostel is self-catering, but the facilities are great, with plenty of places for the hard-working writer to hide away with pen and paper, laptop or tablet.

Getting away can be like a military operation for me. As a full-time carer for my father, who is ninety-two and suffers from dementia, it can be very hard to escape. I arranged leave of absence from my husband and family, organised a carer to come in and help out, filled the fridge and freezer with yummy food, cleaned the house, wrote out extensive instructions for care of the menagerie (two horses, two dogs, five cats, thirty-six fish and a snail at the last count) as well as for Grandad. By the time I was driving down the farm track that Friday, my eyes were crossed with exhaustion!

On the way to Downhill, I stopped off in Coleraine to buy supplies for me (I’d forgotten that when shopping for the family!) and to have lunch with a wonderful friend (and member of Otherworlds NI) who lives in that part of the world. A long chat with Anne McMaster about all things literary was just the thing to put me in a creative frame of mind.

The house at Downhill is set at the base of towering cliffs with a glorious sandy beach immediately in front of it. Accessed via a wooden footbridge, the beach is the perfect place to clear your head and communicate with your muse. Waves crash in, seething and surging around the rocks, gulls wheel overhead with their mournful bean sí cries and high above, so you have to tip your head back to see it, stands Mussenden Temple, built as a cliff-top summer library in the eighteenth century by the Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey.

Emptied now of books, it stands as a landmark from sea and land alike, a reminder of the profligacy of years gone by.

From the hour I arrived, I felt the stories of this beautiful place fluttering at the edges of my mind like moths to a flame. As soon as I opened my laptop and began to type, the stories flooded in, carrying my own story forward and breathing life into my characters.

There were ten of us there for most of the time I was in Downhill. Nine lucky writers, poets, and novelists as well as an extra guest of the owners who was staying in their house but shared our spaces in the daytime and ate with us. Sioban is a wonderfully talented musician who plays and writes music. After much persuasion from the rest of us, she treated us to some incredibly moving guitar music. It was magical, curled up on a sofa and listening to the notes rippling out as her fingers flew across the strings.

Trish Bennet, a truly talented poet and great friend, dragged me out for regular walks on the beach and around the National Trust Downhill Demesne, for which I’m grateful – I tend to lose track of time when I’m writing and wonder why I can’t straighten my neck when I stand up after several hours bent over a laptop!

In the evenings, we ate together and chatted while the winter gales flung themselves at the windows, laden with salt spray, but on my last night McCall organised a Pot Luck Dinner to which we each contributed food and drink. Seán (poet from Wexford) wins the prize with the note he sellotaped to the oven:

The (almost) dead seagull in this oven should be cooked by 8 pm.

His roast chicken was very popular and didn’t taste at all fishy, even though he refused to be drawn on its origins.

Paddy Flynn, another Otherworld NI’er was there, too, still writing a frightening number of words per day, but we also had a young adult novelist, a romance novelist, five poets and a musician. For such a mixed bunch, we became great friends. We plan to stay in touch, and I am certain we will. The depth and breadth of talent collected inside the walls of that old Victorian house was enough to blow the roof, if it hadn’t been so securely attached.

If you’re a writer in any form, at any level, and feel you need some space to write, I strongly advise you to watch out for the next time McCall runs this retreat. At £22.50 a night (minimum 3 nights), it is so well worth it!