Saturday, 16 June 2018

The World Cup in Russia and what Writers can get out of it.

Too many years ago to admit exactly how many, the boyfriend of one of my flatmates asked me if I minded if he watched a World Cup soccer game while she was getting herself ready to go out. I started moaning about "nothing but football" to be seen on television for the next month and he said "football is a great game" and proceeded to explain all the rules to me: offside, what's a penalty, what's good play, etc. etc. He made it so interesting that I was hooked from the start and since that time I have tried to watch every game of this competition. (As far as I know, my flatmate and her boyfriend lived happily ever after and I never laid eyes on him again - not such an interesting ending as you, dear reader, might have thought...).
My point here is simply that he had the ability to make something in which I was not remotely interested so intelligible and make me want to see how it all played out in the match we were watching. That is a talent that good writers possess: they reel you in from the first page and you stay happily with them as they take you on the journey they have written.

The World Cup is exotic, flamboyant, heartbreaking, fun. It's all there: drama, pathos, penalties given and penalties denied, tears, and triumph.You never know how a game is going to go. And you have the big stars and the players who stand out - there is always one player no one noticed before who saves the day, gets that vital goal and makes himself the hero of the hour. You get carried along with the excitement. If you can inject some of these emotions into your writing, you can hook your reader just as I was hooked into watching soccer.
There is no other competition that grabs me in the same way and I've got a whole month to enjoy it all!




Tuesday, 5 June 2018

On the Street in Big Cities

I am currently reading Lifeless by Mark Billingham. It was first published in 2005 but it is as relevant today as it was then. It is about homeless people being murdered on the streets of London and a detective going underground to try and solve the crimes. Having lived in London, I know the places in the book. Not only that, but a few years ago I attended a writers' event in the West End and was intrigued to see how many people chose to sleep in the doorways of theatres (as the protagonist in the novel) or in sheltered doorways around Covent Garden. I suppose it makes sense to pick a quiet but well-lit spot.
You can substitute London for Paris or any big city. Last weekend I was in Frankfurt. The suburban train tunnel around the city centre was closed for much-needed repairs which meant I had to take quite a detour to get to where I wanted to go and I got to see a lot of the inner city. Frankfurt has its fair share of homeless. They frequent the main shopping area, Zeil, which some people say is the most expensive mile in Europe. Be that as it may, for writers like me, it was rich in interesting detail. I saw a man sprawled in the middle of the pedestrian zone, totally oblivious of the sun on his face (and it was getting to be pretty hot by 10 o'clock in the morning), he rolled over and woke up as I moved past him and I was surprised to find that he looked well dressed for someone on the street. Maybe he'd been out on a binge. I saw a young lad with two plump little dogs who looked altogether in better shape than he was, several professional beggars and the inevitable addicts hoping to get enough for their next fix, tired people, people who stared at us from expressionless eyes.  I found myself wondering what they thought of all the luxury in evidence in the big stores and expensive boutiques around them.

I arrived late and had to change trains at the main railway station - never a healthy place to be on your own late at night. The city is a different place at night when the office workers are safely at home in suburbia and the street dwellers take over. I saw people rummaging in refuse bins for thrown-away food, one old lady who discovered a cigarette butt and looked at it with obvious delight, another woman sitting on a bench and having an earnest conversation with an invisible person next to her. A man gave vent to his inner rage and shouted abuse at everyone who walked past him.

Where do they all come from the Beatles asked in their song All the Lonely People? It would have been good to sit down and talk to some of them and hear their stories. I couldn't help thinking that Mark Billingham had got it absolutely right in his novel Lifeless. In the acknowledgements he thanked some of those he had spoken to and certainly his descriptions are true to life. Not only does he tell a good story, he also shows compassion for the street people and is never the slightest bit judgemental in his writing. While negotiating the tram or the train late at night in Frankfurt, I was often reminded of his novel.

My novels are set in the Irish countryside. There are no street people. But there are lonely people, people with problems, people who kill. I try to bring these elements to my Sergeant Alan Murray mysteries.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Say no to nicotine

May 31st is Say No to Nicotine Day. I gave up smoking twelve or more years ago and I was a chain smoker. I remember one very busy job in export when I had four phones, four ashtrays next to them and a cigarette burning in each. Once in a while the Managing Director would show up and say "you know you're not allowed to smoke here, don't you?' To which I always replied 'Oh, yes, I do know.' And I carried on puffing.
Do I miss smoking? Well, no not really. There is really only one cigarette that you absolutely enjoy if you are completely honest and that is the first one in the morning before your mouth - and breath - start to taste like the bottom of a parrot cage. Everything else you don't taste, you just need to get enough nicotine and stuff into your system.
Whenever something upset me, I reached for a cigarette as some kind of antidote. Did it help? No, never did. Why did I think puffing on a cigarette might help in a crisis? Hard to say, really. Certainly logic didn't have anything to do with it.
Am I glad I stopped smoking? You bet.
Was it hard to give up? Not really. Of course I stopped smoking when I first got married and in both my pregnancies. I tried stopping a good few times after that but without success. Then one day I bought a copy of Alan Carr's book which was in a sale. I consigned it to the back of my bookcase and meant to have a look at it in the distant future. But it sort of haunted me, knowing it was there. Everyone of my acquaintance who had stopped smoking attributed it to this book. It was kind of scary. Do I want to read it and stop smoking or do I want to continue smoking and read it when I'm around 80 years old or possibly later? In the end curiosity won out and I started reading it. Half way through I knew I was going to be able to stop.
I still remember when I had my last cigarette. Not your midnight, tomorrow is a new day stuff. I had three cigarettes left one Saturday morning. I finished my breakfast and smoked my usual cigarette. Went shopping, did a bit of housework, had the second last one. Then I sat out in the Spring sunshine on my balcony, made myself a cup of tea and took out the last cigarette and smoked it.  .
My family didn't notice I had stopped. I wasn't cranky. Yes, I felt something was missing for a few days. At work it was strange not to go downstairs with the smokers and hover at the side of the building (I worked in a no smoking building as you will have gathered). But I got accustomed to it all much faster than I had imagined.
I am so glad I stopped smoking!

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Royal Wedding and Showing and Telling

Were you one of the millions around the world who watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? I know I did and I thoroughly enjoyed the romance of it. It all went off very well, as people are forever saying about weddings.
Ever since King Richard III cried 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse' in Shakespeare's play everyone has been associating the Royals with horses. The Queen and the Queen Mother all owned racehorses and attended Royal Ascot, arriving in a horse-drawn coach. Prince Harry and Meghan were driven in the Royal coach with the Windsor greys pulling it. Did you see that one grey horse of the escort behaving badly? He really gave his rider a hard time the whole journey to and from Windsor Castle. It is those little things on the fringe of events which interest me because they make it all so much more human.

Writers very often use these little snippets to illustrate a point. Anton Chekhov famously wrote "don't tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass". His advice has been passed on countless times to aspiring writers in order to demonstrate "show don't tell".  A smile, a frown, can all convey so much more than a whole paragraph of writing. Everyone with lip-reading talents craned to see what Prince Harry might have said to Meghan or she to him during the ceremony. I would have preferred to see the faces of some of the other Royals, or at least more of them, as the ceremony progressed. In general, though, when the cameras were trained on the invitees, it all appeared to be the same as a normal gathering of this sort.  People chatting easily with people they knew, somewhat stilted looking small talk among other groups (I'm going by body language here!) and one or two guests in the background not speaking to anybody. This is meat and drink to the writer. Watching people in conversation whether in the shops, on the bus or in a restaurant is an excellent way to learn how we all interact. Even a debate on television can be very illuminating and provide loads of ideas for writing conflict into situations in your novel or short story. Like all writers, you just have to be aware of the world around you.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Help Yourself!

I have just been looking at the top 20 bestselling books on Amazon.com. Several of these books are what used to be called "self-help": how to live your life successfully. There are also a few books on diet and nutrition.
I remember reading somewhere that when Dale Carnegie started his evening classes for salesmen, he discovered that many of his students had basic problems with getting along with their fellow humans. Listening to the stories told in class, he identified key areas where many people go wrong. And he wrote his book How to make friends and influence people.
The next thing that Carnegie discovered was that his students had lots of worries. Again, listening to their problems and interviewing prominent people to get their experiences of coping with worry, he published How to stop worrying and start living. 
The point I am making here is that nothing has really changed. Apparently we still need books to help us. Every year there are new theories about what to eat and when and how to eat it. And there are, as I said at the beginning, all these works on how to manage your life. So, have we learned anything, despite all these tomes of wisdom? Are we all still looking for some magic formula for living? And if we are, will we ever find it?

Monday, 16 April 2018

Exercise - who me?

I remember when those fitness temples started years ago. Everyone was attending some form of training. My daughter and a friend of hers cajoled me into joining a local gym because three people got a colossal discount on the membership fee. I have to admit that while I will sit down every morning and hammer out between 1,000 to 2,000 words of a novel (that's roughly 4 or 5 pages, I think), I am notoriously undisciplined about everything else. I eat more chocolate than is good for me, for one thing, and I keep putting off things like tidying drawers or cupboards or even doing a full clean of my apartment until I am "in the mood" as I like to put it.

I remember going to that gym for the first time. A very nice, fit young man showed me the ropes (almost literally!) and gave me loads of advice on what apparatus to start on, ending with the necessity of warming up and cooling down. I bought myself some gear and started off on the treadmill. This was supposed to be the warming up phase but I soon got bored with that and went on to do the exercise for strengthening my back muscles. When I'd finished that- it didn't take long - I didn't feel like doing much else so I hopped back on the treadmill to do the cooling down bit and then I wandered over to the fruit juice bar where tanned and very fit looking people were enjoying colourful drinks and chatting about abs and pectorals and exciting stuff like that. I remember downing my fruit cocktail, if I recall aright it was a mixture of kiwi, mango and some minty stuff, and then strolling back to the changing room, towel draped artistically around my neck, looking - probably - as if I had spent a few hours working out. I kept that up for a number of weeks, happily taking leave of my colleagues with the words "I'm off to the gym". And I did go to the gym. I went in the evening after work, on Saturday afternoons and on Sunday mornings. There was one guy there who was always at the fruit bar and who I never saw doing any actual training. He was tall and slim with blond hair and a white smile in a suntanned face and he seemed to be on first name terms with just about everybody, except perhaps me. He got on my nerves after a while I am ashamed to admit.

I never really did anything athletic and I think the whole thing (I was going to say "exercise") was a complete waste of time and money but I felt I was one of the "in" crowd. Quite frankly, the most exercise I got was having a go on the treadmill and getting annoyed with people who parked their towels on the back-exercise apparatus, chatting to fellow devotees and thus blocking my use of that device. Not that I would have used it for more than 10 minutes.
The most sensible thing I did was to let my membership lapse. My health did not deteriorate in any way, I did not put on weight (I had not lost any, to begin with). The main benefit was to my bank account.
Nowadays, I walk everywhere as I no longer have a car, living in the centre of town with a bus stop just down the road, I don't need one.  And I love to walk on the beach. Which only goes to show that the best gyms in life are free - well, that's my story!

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Rural Ireland - not quite The Waltons

I grew up in the heart of the country and attended a country school where one of the big events (at least as far as I was concerned) was the arrival of the library van. I can't remember how often the van came to exchange books and put new ones on the one shelf which was devoted to library books. I remember that I was always waiting eagerly for it to call because I had read just about everything on that shelf.
The school was small and taught from Infants to Primary Leaving, which meant from around four- to twelve year-olds. I was about four when I started, accompanying my older brother and sister into this intriguing world. I loved reading from an early age and the habit has stayed with me.  I also developed a taste for languages. We were taught Gaelic from the moment we started school. At that time we used the Gaelic alphabet letters which were different to the English ones. To this day I lament the fact that this practice was discontinued and nowadays no one really knows how to write those ornate letters. By the way, this knowledge of Gaelic lettering came in very handy when I lived in Germany and had to read old German where some of the letters resembled the Gaelic ones of my childhood.
We lived a simple life on a small farm. One of the highlights was when my mother went to the city and came back with stories of the big world and a supply of Cheddar cheese (which we called "hard" cheese because all we could get locally was highly processed soft stuff). This all made me long to see the big cities.
When I did leave home to go to work in Dublin I felt that I was on the start of a great adventure. I thought Dublin was sophisticated, the place to live. Later I transferred my affection to London and although I have lived longer in Germany, near Frankfurt, than anywhere else, Frankfurt has never created that feeling of home for me. If I could I would divide my time between London and where I live now by the sea in Ireland.
I have to admit that I never pined for "Walton's mountain" when I left home. I was always too busy absorbing new impressions, visiting new places. Like many ex-pats, I don't really belong anywhere. I could be deposited in the middle of Brazil, say, and I would find a niche to call home on however temporary a basis. Perhaps it's a good thing, perhaps it's not. You can be located in the biggest city in the world but where you actually live is really like a village - your local shops, bus stop, familiar streets and shortcuts all form part of your environment. Speaking for myself, I can only say, looking back, that I learned something in every place I lived and I wouldn't want to have missed meeting all the people I did meet in those places.