Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Barely Casting A Shadow

Just when I was in need of a pick up, this dropped through my letter-box. (The book, not the flowers.)

Barely Casting A Shadow is Reflex Fiction's first volume containing 161 flash fiction stories that have been long-listed in their competitions from 138 authors.

I'm so pleased to have my story, No Mirrors, alongside all the other fabulous entries from writers whose names you see popping up all over the place whether winning competitions or getting their flash fiction collections and novels published.

The stories have been published on the Reflex Fiction website but it's so much better having them in a real book format!

It is available from Amazon here.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Why I'm not apologizing for making people cry.

Several people have told me that reading my stories made them cry. If I can write and relay emotion in my stories, then I'm happy. Sometimes I talk to people and make them cry too, and I'm just as pleased. Not for my sake, but theirs. But I'm not a monster; please read on.

I've mentioned World Voice Day before here on my blog and am doing so again because April 16th is the day we celebrate our voices. Many people think of voice problems as being caused by laryngitis but there are a number of other other causes too, including psychogenic voice problems, which are not uncommon. As a speech and language therapist I've come across many cases.

The young man opposite me was telling me how his voice gave out after talking for just a few minutes. His job in IT didn't involve much talking and he never had any problems at work but it was affecting his social life, especially in the area of dating. At 31, he'd had a few brief relationships but really wanted to find and settle down with The One. His voice, he felt, was stopping him from meeting someone because after talking for a bit his voice would become hoarse and he was embarrassed. What girl would be impressed by that? These days if he ventured out for a first date he never made it a second because he would start to worry about his voice.

I knew from the ENT report there nothing amiss with his larynx. I could also see that whenever he spoke about the more personal aspects of his problem, his voice became very strained. He was of the belief that he suffered frequent throat infections but I knew his hoarseness was the result of excessive muscle tension.

Voice care advice and vocal tract relaxation exercises would take him only so far. We had to dig deeper and get the real root of the problem. The first bridge we needed to cross was helping him to understand that his problem wasn't so much physical as psychological. Some people find that a difficult concept but although he found it strange, he realized that his voice was worse when he was tense. And, yes, he felt especially tense on dates, so it made sense.

His relationships had foundered because, in his words, he couldn't talk about emotional stuff. After a few sessions with me he appreciated that he, in spite of being a very physical 'macho' guy, was also a very emotional being who had grown up literally believing 'boys don't cry.' He'd been told off for being needy or emotional as a child when his father left home, slapped or humiliated if he cried, and so he'd built a barrier around his emotions. Throughout adolescence and into adulthood, any time discussions got personal he changed the subject or walked away. Working out in the gym was his release and his muscles proved he'd spent lots of time there. He'd fashioned himself into Mr Strong and Silent.

He couldn't voice his emotional needs let alone tell anyone that the loss of his father and way he was subsequently treated as a child by the rest of his family had deeply hurt him. But now his body was telling him something - his voice difficulty was telling him he needed to work on a problem he wasn't consciously aware of because he'd buried his feelings. He needed to get in touch with his emotions and literally voice them. More importantly, he had to feel okay about having his feelings and believe that he didn't always have to be strong and definitely not silent. Which is why I keep boxes of tissues handy, because boys do cry.

For  more information please check out the World Voice Day website.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Greeting spring.

Picture credit: Alison Everett
About a year before she died my mother handed me her notebooks in which she had jotted pieces about our life on the farm in the West Country where my sisters, brother and I grew up.  I chose to share this extract as spring is here at last. The picture was taken by my sister* last week when she put primroses from her garden into our mother's little blue vase shaped in a ring, just as we had arranged them at Easter when we were children.

In the long summer days the children kept themselves amused from morning to night.  There were woods to roam in, flowers to pick and press. Their teacher at the local infant school had always encouraged the children to identify wild flowers and in some of our fields they grew in profusion. The favourite field was a meadow known as the Butterfly Field. 
   In March yellow lesser celandines appeared on banks and dainty wood anemones covered the floor of the copses. These were not suitable for picking as they wilted so quickly. The pale yellow primroses followed and later cowslips appeared in some fields, especially on a patch of unmown steep ground known as the tumpy field because of the huge grass-covered anthills. In May the woods were misted with bluebells. Nearer the house we would spot germander speedwell, valerian, campion, selfheal, bugle, woundwort, willow herb, hawkweed, and cranesbill. In the Butterfly Field we found ladies bedstraw, agrimony, knapweed, goats’ beard, various vetches and some orchids. May saw hawthorn covering the hedges and in June they were jewelled with wild roses. Fields turned yellow and white with buttercups and ox-eyed daisies. Reed mace – often called bulrushes – grew in the reans.** 

The swallows and house-martins arrived in early April and nested in the cowshed and barns, swooping down to the yard to pick up mud with which to build their nests. Members of the tit and finch families visited the garden, a wren nested in one of the sheds and sparrows and starlings nested noisily under the roof tiles of house and barns. Blackbirds and thrushes sang, green and spotted woodpeckers tapped at tree trunks and tree creepers ran up apple trees searching for grubs. A robin appeared with a brood of young with speckled breasts but we didn’t find their nest. In the woods was an even greater variety of birds and we would often hear the cuckoo. The elm trees behind the Dutch barn hosted a small rookery. 
   We’d often hear owls hooting and one year they nested in a hollow branch of one of the old walnut trees. At about eleven o clock each evening there would be a tremendous noise as the young were being fed. Most years a spotted flycatcher built on the side of one of the barns among the Virginia Creeper, patching up the old nest year after year. 

Our garden had a young ash tree, a holly and two yew trees. In the field behind grew two ancient walnut trees with two younger ones planted on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In the woods at the top of the hill were elms, ash, sycamore and beech. A large oak grew at the top of the field next to the cart track leading further up the hill. There were several fox dens and at dusk we would often see a vixen with her cubs and we’d hear the vixen’s cries in the night.  Badgers also had setts in the woods and they would come down to our garden at night and we’d hear them snuffling around. 

The most common butterflies were red admirals, tortoiseshells, orange tip and peacocks, but in the Butterfly Field other varieties could also be spotted. In the garden we had a large goldfish pond with about twenty fish of various sizes. Beautiful water-lilies grew in it and we often saw green and blue dragonflies. Frogs laid their eggs in the pond and the kids would collect some of the spawn and keep it in a tank so they could watch it hatch and see the tadpoles evolve in to tiny frogs.

**South-west dialect for drainage ditches.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The First Quarter

Three months have flown by. I find myself thinking that time definitely speeds up the older you get. The reality is that our perception of time is affected by how we spend that time. Studies have shown that if our routine is much the same day in and day out, when we look back that time seems to have gone very quickly, but when we embrace new experiences and do different things the perception of time expands.

The months of January and February were, for me, a time of expansion. I did more writing too, although time seems to speed up when I'm writing! Since my return to cold, grey England, I feel as if I haven't achieved much, yet the time has shot by.

My writing seems to have stalled a bit too. I'm blaming the cold weather. I arrived at Heathrow in a snow blizzard at the beginning of March. I was prepared for it because people kept posting snow pictures all over social media. The snow in London melted quickly only for another - albeit light - falling of snow a couple of weeks later.  It's still cold and my brain wants to go into hibernation when the sky is dull and overcast.

I managed more submissions than ever before in the first quarter of this year but so far little has come of them. I won a flash fiction competition on a small website that has disappeared into the ether. I also have an article on The Writing District website. Two pieces have received rejections, although both were encouraging. The rest were simply a case of not being listed or are still waiting an outcome. A couple will be waiting until August! I'm also waiting for the flowering cherry that I can see from my window to look like the picture above, taken last year. That should be a bit sooner!

I read somewhere - I can't remember where so I'm sorry I can't give an attribution - that the only way to cope with the waiting for results of writing is to have loads of pieces out there. I think that's good advice so I'm trying to do just that.

Happy Easter and good writing.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Happy 10th birthday, Big Green Bookshop.

Simon and Tim of  The Big Green Bookshop
always give you a great welcome.
I went to a birthday celebration today. It wasn't the doughnuts that lured me there (well, maybe it was just a little bit. The one I ate was delicious.) but the fact that an independent bookshop, not too far from me, has thrived for 10 years. That's something to celebrate.

I recall reading a blog post about two chaps who were setting up a new bookshop in Wood Green and I duly made my way to the newly opened Big Green Bookshop. I don't recall which books I bought on that occasion but it was a warm and friendly place. I just wished it was within walking distance from me.

When I was doing jury service not far from the shop I would make my way to Big Green to browse and buy books in the lunch breaks (which were usually quite long.) I think those little jaunts kept me sane because the case I was on wasn't pleasant!

The following three years Big Green Bookshop provided the book selling at the Finchley Literary Festival.

Part of Simon and Tim's success is down their engagement with the local community and hosting book events. I've been to several book launches and talks and an interesting Not The Booker Prize event. There have been many more events that I haven't managed to get to including one a couple of months ago for Stories for Homes 2. I was pleased to see copies on sale in the shop. This link will take you to Big Green's forthcoming events. They also hold regular events including reading groups, writers' groups, and meetings for music and board games.

I've loved bookshops since I was a child. Sadly my other favourite independent shops have long gone; Faculty books in Finchley, which was round the corner from my home, and The Bookworm, a tiny shop in South Molton in Devon, that I would visit with my mother when I was staying with her. So if you haven't visited this bookshop, put it on your 'to do' list. If you have, go again!  Help keep it thriving for the next ten years.

They are holding a birthday bash this evening from 6.00pm too, so if you're nearby head on over.

PS. There were still some Krispy Kremes left when I left the bookshop.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A Month in St Kilda.

St Kilda Pier.
I've just achieved a small goal - to live somewhere different for a short spell. After spending December with my daughter and son-in-law, I moved to an apartment nearer to the city of Melbourne for the month of January. In the the heart of buzzy St Kilda, a stroll of a few yards took me to Acland Street, full of restaurants and shops. A little further on is the Esplanade or, in the opposite direction, the peaceful Botanical Gardens.

There was so much to do and see. I swam in the sea-baths followed by a wallow in the sea-water hydrotherapy spa. The breakwater at the end of the pier is home to a colony of penguins so I visited them after sunset one evening as they come back from the sea. The Sunday market on the Esplanade offered beautiful hand-made crafts. I spent a whole day catching up with a friend while her eight year old daughter made the most of St Kilda's famous Luna Park. While Olivia whizzed around on rides guaranteed to make most adults dizzy, we chatted at the same sort of velocity. My friend had been at the Australian Open the day before and had watched Carla Suaraz-Navarro win her match, and now the tennis pro was being filmed at Luna Park on the same ride as Olivia (who just missed being screened on TV but her leg was in shot for all the world to see!)

I explored what was on my new doorstep or hopped on a tram to discover more of central Melbourne. I wandered the arcades, the markets bursting with fresh fruit and veg and other produce (yes, you can get kangaroo steaks,) craft items as well as the usual household goods and inexpensive clothing. I visited the Yarra Valley for a gourmet tour of its wineries and other local produce. How can you go wrong with wine, cheese, fruit and chocolate? I visited art galleries, the pop-up Shakespeare's Globe, the moonlight cinema and, of course, bookshops.

There was a bookshop about a hundred metres from my door and in the little community garden nearby was a tiny free library! I also had a brilliant Op Shop, with plenty of books, on my street. So I didn't starve! And, even better, Melbourne is renowned for coffee so I had to sample some of that.

I also visited the small town about 60 miles out of Melbourne where my mother spent her first 10 years. I saw the school she enrolled in some 90 years ago which looks much the same although the street where she lived looks totally different. In the library's local history section I found school photos which included her elder sister and her best friend, although she herself was not listed. I also visited the cemetery where her sister, who died aged thirteen, is buried.

To keep me writing I joined a couple of writing groups, one of which meets in the courtyard of an independent cafe on Sunday afternoons for some dedicated writing time. The lovely waiters ensured coffee and snacks arrived with a minimum of fuss for those who wanted them. Another group met for writing support with opportunity to read out work and listen to others' WIPs. Some days I spent the entire day writing.

The Internet enabled me to keep up with writing news from UK and in touch with fellow writers. I also made several submissions. One was rejected with some encouraging words, others will keep me waiting for some time and I will hear only if I'm successful. (I hate these but appreciate that hundreds or thousands of submissions can't always receive a definite rejection.) I hope something comes of my St Kilda days' writing but whatever happens, the memories of the joy in discovering a new city will stay with me forever.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Round up of my 2017

Gingerbread wombats
I decided not to do my usual top ten reads this year (they are ubiquitous so you will have plenty of good reading ideas from other readers and writers!) but I think the book that stands out the most for me this year is Yvvette Edwards' The Mother.  I read it early in the year and it has stayed with me, which is my criterion for a good book! A close second is Isabel Costello's Paris Mon Amour. 

2017 started with my daughter setting off on her journey to Melbourne, Australia where she and her husband have relocated. The year is ending with me visiting their lovely new home to experience a summer Christmas. We have been shopping in the sun, watching people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals walk past jolly Santas and plastic snowmen to the accompaniment of Christmas carols! That felt quite strange.

We looked at the Christmas tree in Federation Square just metres away from the the crossing at Flinders Street Station where a few days later the terrible attack took place. Christmas will be difficult for those who were injured and I join millions in thinking of them and their families and wishing them all a speedy recovery.

My mother died last January and I am missing being able to tell her about her granddaughter's new home and job in the country where she was born. I want to be able to tell her her about the sights and experiences I have encountered in the past two weeks because I know she would have loved hearing about it.

On a happier note, my writing journey has been quite exciting this year. The first good news in January was that I had won the Great British Write Off with a flash fiction piece. Soon after I was longlisted in Reflex Fiction's first flash fiction competition. I've also had a few pieces in Ad Hoc's weekly competitions - although no wins.

In July I won the Senior Travel Writing competition and have had acceptances for two of my short stories, one for inclusion in the Stories for Homes 2 anthology and, last month, the news that I had won the short story section of Hysteria's latest competition which is published in the Hysteria 6 anthology.

Inevitably there have been plenty of submissions that have got nowhere, but the number of submissions was over three times that of last year and my highest number of submissions in a year ever which feels like a small achievement in itself.

The travel experiences which inspired the Senior Travel win included some of my 2017 travels; a brief stay in Bruges, a fascinating trip to Uzbekistan and a week in Catalonia during the recent political upheavals.

In my professional life, I decided to take slightly early retirement from my career as a specialist speech and language therapist after nearly 40 years of working in the NHS. I have to say so far retirement has been  a fabulous experience, although I do miss my colleagues (and some of my patients!) However, I did get to meet up with a dear friend and ex-colleague, here in Melbourne, last week.

Here's to a peaceful Christmas to all of you whether you celebrate it or not.