29 Sep 2014

The Thrill of a Good Spine Chiller

As a lover of all things that go bump in the night, I am often quizzed by those non-lovers out there as to why I enjoy these grim tales so much. And I see their point. Why, in a world where there is already so much horror, would I want to go looking for it in my bedtime stories? In all honesty, I don’t really know why I love the weird and wonderfully dark stories of Mr Lovecraft, Mr Poe and all of those other bards of the darker yarns. However, I do know that I am not alone and that the history of terrifying tales is long and steadfast.

For me it started with Lord of the Rings. I remember the thrilling shivers that came over me as I experienced Frodo being chased by the Ringwraiths towards Bree and the safety of the Prancing Pony. Tolkien’s descriptions conjured such vivid images. Of course Tolkien, being a philologist, had plenty of material to draw from in his studies of Beowulf and the Norse sagas. Indeed, most of the names he uses can be found in the tales of Old Iceland and Norway. I fancy he rather enjoyed the darker stories himself. For example, in Beowulf (which Tolkien translated into prose), Grendl’s introduction paints a very frightening picture as the ‘fen-walker, heath-stalker, offspring of Cain’ who cannot be killed by weapons made of man. All very mythic and scary.

Later came other writers and poets such as Radcliffe with her gothic romances and Dante with his Inferno. In America, Lovecraft, Chambers and Bierce all made their mark with the mythos of Cthulhu and The King in Yellow. Poe had his own special brand of chilling tale and magazines such as Weird Tales published them all for a horror hungry audience.
In England, there came the Penny Dreadfuls: magazines of short stories that could be had for, you guessed it, a penny. These were full of stories of vampires and monsters and invariably always included a damsel in distress.

Today we have a bevy of modern horror writers - Clive Barker and Stephen King immediately spring to mind - who titilate and thrill readers with ominous mists, native american ghosts and the denizens of hell. And then, with the advent of film came the opportunity to transfer these monsters to the silver screen. Who can forget Bella Lugosi in Nosferatu! Or the evil clown in IT! (A dear friend of mine could not go the bathroom on her own for weeks after watching that).

Looking at this long history and at my own long-time devotion to scary stories, I admit, it must seem a little twisted. But, one thing I should point out is that all of these stories are, in the end, fantasy. And at the end of most of these stories good always wins out over evil. The ring is destroyed, the vampire is slain, daylight returns and the person in distress is saved.

Perhaps it is this that makes these stories so appealing. It shows the duality of life. There is good and there is a lot of bad, but if you behave like a hero, good will win out.


12 Sep 2014

Getting in Deep with your Characters

As any writer worth their salt knows, your characters are what make or break a good story. You can have the most fabulous plot, but if your characters don’t connect with your reader, you are up the proverbial creek. Now, I’ve been sitting on the first draft of a novel for some time now because something about it just wasn’t making me happy. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from beta readers and some very good constructive criticism, yet still, something was irking me. But, last Saturday, after a very productive and interesting workshop in a small conference room in Amsterdam, the irksome-ness was cured!

The workshop was held by Trish Nicholson, award winning Flash Fiction writer and author, and I was lucky enough to be invited by well-known Rotterdam blogger and author Valerie Poore. We met on a platform at the rather unfriendly time of 7:45 and made our way north to Amsterdam armed with a thermos of coffee and muesli bars. We’d decided to get to Amsterdam nice and early as neither of us has terribly good direction sense and so we both had to allow for ‘getting lost’ time. Good thing we did too...The venue was in a tiny alley, which at that time of day was completely deserted. No one in Amsterdam sets foot out of their front door before ten, it seems.

Now, I won’t go into great detail about what we learned in the workshop as that would be doing Ms Nicholson a disservice. She is a very skilled instructor and has a wealth of information and technique to share, and if you have the opportunity to follow one of her workshops, I highly recommend you do.
What I took away from it, though, was a keener insight into where and why I had become so frustrated with my manuscript. I realised that while my characters were all fairly solid and had an appropriate amount of depth, a few of them had made decisions or reacted to situations in a way that was contradictory or out of line with how I’d portrayed them. Suddenly, great big holes appeared in my story. This might sound a bit dramatic, but for me this was a fantastic moment. I finally knew what needed to be changed.

So, now the clouds have parted, here I am back at the keyboard rewriting the whole thing from a better perspective.


11 Sep 2014

De-branding the Brain

“We are creatures of habit. We tend not to look for alternatives. It’s a lot easier to do the same thing day after day, but do we ever ask ourselves why we do it? Do we ever open ourselves up to alternatives? Why do we do the same things over and over?” (Paul Hegarty)


The ‘Law of Habit’ or ‘Passive Default’ is one nearly all of us are familiar with. It is just so much easier to choose the path of least resistance and default to what we know. It feels safe, comfortable, and does not require expending too much effort. It does not matter how old we are, where we come from or what our background is. This ‘law’ affects us all. There are of course exceptions - and they stand out as beacons who we openly praise but secretly envy. However, it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that this law also greatly influences our choices as members of an online society. And this, dear reader, is something that the big corporations know all too well. Yes, I said the C word. Yes, this might turn into a rant. You have been forewarned.


Let us look at two specific examples that illustrate this point. If one needs to search something online there is, for most people, one name that springs to mind. I don’t even need to mention it. It has become so ingrained in the collective psyche that the noun has become a verb. We all know that there are alternatives out there, but 9 times out of 10 we will go to that first choice. For some it’s not even a conscious choice. Your browser will immediately open that page as the default search engine and off you go. Seems harmless, right? However, a little digging reveals that this search engine is enmeshed in absolutely everything you do online. It records every page you visit, every purchase you make, and every search you perform. This is in the seemingly benevolent interests of providing the user with a filtered and person specific list of possibilities. And when I explain this to people they often say, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”. Indeed, what is wrong with this? It saves the user endless searching through pages of links. It handily pinpoints your location and shows you to within a few streets where that particular book shop is. It knows where you like to shop and go on holiday and personalises the advertising so that you can buy things that you want with a one-two-click. Nifty stuff!


The same can be said for buying books, ebooks and other handy items online. One name springs to mind, especially when it comes to ebooks. Again, this company has become so ubiquitous that most people are not even aware there are alternatives. I wasn’t. In fact I was under the impression that even if there were alternatives, they couldn’t possibly compete with this giant.


But here in lies the rub. When a huge corporation starts making life to easy for you and makes buying their products so much more attractive, one has to ask the question: at whose expense is it? In the case of corporation A, the results of every search are so specifically catered to an individual that the same individual no longer sees how much more there is on offer. No differing opinions are offered and no comparative options are available. In the case of company B, well just ask any publisher or author how they’ve been treated, particularly those who are based outside of the UK or US.


Furthermore, both of these corporations have on numerous occasions been exposed as having rather dubious business practices. As consumers we can either ignore this or take a stand. Taking a stand is perhaps a little daunting given our penchant for the above mentioned law, but in all honesty it is not that difficult. There are plenty of better alternatives out there and they are not that difficult to find.

Walking into a Thought Experiment

It has been a rather strange couple of weeks since my return from the wilds of Scotland. Perhaps it has something to do with the length of time I spent away from this hub of activity, but it has taken longer than normal to acclimatise to the hustle and bustle of city living. So, it occurred to me that a little stroll might do the trick to restore some balance.
Rotterdam is, in that respect, a great city to live in. While the centre is confined to a few city blocks, the surrounding areas offer a wealth of diverse sights for the enthusiastic walker. I’ve lived in this city for ten years altogether, and yet I still discover new bits on a weekly basis. Usually, of course, I do this on a bicycle, but last Sunday we decided to explore the South side of the river on foot. A handy little map (see above), procured from a local book store, showed a number of interesting spots to visit, but as I am fond of islands, we decided to walk the 7 or so kilometres to the Van Brienenoord Island. This island is actually the result of a splitting of the Meuse River back at the beginning of the 19th century and takes its name from the man who bought the island for the purposes of fishing sturgeon and salmon.
Today it is an oasis of green and a protected area for birds and, oddly enough, a herd of Scottish Highlander cattle. It is also home to a number of allotments or ‘volkstuintjes’ (gardens for the people), which are owned by residents who do not have a garden attached to their house.

The walk to the island is a lovely stroll through old and new neighbourhoods alike and crosses bridges and footpaths that take you all the way along the river bank down to the entrance to the island. Behind the island, the imposing sight of the Van Brienenoord Bridge, a throughway for motorists on the ring road, looms over the treetops, but once on the island it is easy to ignore it as you wander through grassy pastures and along tree lined paths.

On this particular Sunday we were in for an added surprise. Unbeknownst to us, a local initiative called ‘Zicht op Rotterdam’ (Looking to Rotterdam) were also on the island preparing a guided tour and evening meal for any interested visitors who wanted to find out more about their ideas for the future of our fair city. This is only one of a number of groups active in and around Rotterdam who are trying to find solutions to our modern problems (pollution, socio-economic gaps etc.).
Having recognised a couple of the participants as friends of my better half, we decided to sign up to see what it was all about.
We were taken on a walk around the island where various artists, performers and poets had set up camp along the way to show a visual representation of their ideas. Inspirational words shouted out from trees and plants as flags that waved defiantly in the increasingly stronger breeze. However, near a frog pond, where a twelve year old had been mayor for a day and given the adults a poignant lesson in seeing things clearly, the heavens opened and the walk ended in a mad dash for cover.
Our tour guides did not let that get in the way, though, and the tour continued indoors with a slideshow and short film exhibition of Rotterdam’s poets singing the city’s praises.

It was an interesting, if perhaps not entirely eye-opening, afternoon. The conclusion that they as a group had come to was not exactly clear, but in their own words it wasn’t meant to be. The initiative was started to get people thinking and talking about how they want to see their city in the future. The main question of the day: what will Rotterdam be like in 2024?
It is, to say the least, a question that tickles the imagination. As a rule, Rotterdam is constantly in a state of renewal when it comes to infrastructure. Old buildings are torn down to make way for new on an almost monthly basis, unless they are categorised as monuments. It is a city with a steady stream of incoming and out going migrant workers and a walk down the street in the city centre will provide your ears with a feast of different tongues. That is one of things I love about this city. It is one of the few places in the Netherlands where cultures really do mix it up every day. The main market square is proof of that every Tuesday and Saturday.
However, the current geopolitical climate also has an influence on how people interact and I have certainly noticed a slight increase in tension on the streets. Is this something that we can eradicate in the future? Can this country avoid a widening gap between rich and poor? Will we solve the problem of our youth steadily becoming disconnected from nature as developers try to get their hands on every available green space? These are all difficult but important questions that I wouldn’t dream of trying to solve in a blog post, but it certainly did me the world of good to see a group of people working creatively and sincerely towards starting the conversation.

10 Sep 2014

Back from the bonny glens

The 20th of July found us in the wee hours of the morning tearing up the tarmac between Rotterdam and Dunkerque. We had overslept. Despite meticulous preparations and planning, I still managed to set the alarm on my not-so-smartphone for a Saturday instead of a Wednesday. Luckily, all we had to do was throw on some clothes and get the heck out of Dodge.
We made it onto the boat with mere minutes to spare, and that concluded the most stressful part of our trip over.
I love travelling by ferry. There is something exquisitely satisfying about standing on the aft deck and watching the continent disappear slowly behind you. The weather was fair and calm and in no time at all we were watching the white cliffs grow ever larger. Once ashore, we pointed the nose of our trusty Seat north and reached the first destination of our grand Scottish tour by supper time.

The idea for this holiday was born out of a mutual love for camping and walking long distances. Unfortunately, it is not possible to camp out in the wild in many parts of Europe, but in Scotland, one can roam the wilderness freely and, in most cases, set up a tent for the night wherever necessary, as long as you don’t disturb the sheep and cows and don’t mind digging holes for certain ablutions.
We were also very keen to find out what it was like to sleep in a bothy. So, armed to the teeth with all the camping equipment we deemed essential, we had laid out a tentative plan of exploring four areas of Scotland. Starting in the Galloway Forest Park, we would spend a few nights there and then move up north to the isle of Skye. From Skye we planned to go all the way up to Durness, then make our way south to the Cairngorms. As a treat we also added on a couple of days in Edinburgh in a B&B to wash off the trail dust and remind ourselves of what real bathrooms look like.

Galloway Forest Park, our first stop, is a lovely area and proved quite a surprise. Most of the land there is owned by the Forestry Commission and is blanketed in coniferous forest. However, they are also trying to encourage walkers of all levels and ages to visit and discover their neck of the woods, so to speak.
While the marked trails are not quite as adventurous as some might like, it is possible to go off the beaten track with the help of an Ordinance Survey map. However, make sure you find out ahead of time what the terrain is like. We learned an awful lot about grass on our first hike, and most of it left us cursing the ground we couldn’t quite walk on. That said, the landscape is gorgeous and as we set up our tent next to a small loch, we had to admit that the slog had been worth every bruised shin and stubbed toe.

Our first wild campsite

After spending a few days in Galloway, we packed up the car and headed up to Skye. I realise I still have much to explore with regards to Scotland’s islands, but Skye really is my favourite place on Earth. The Cuillin mountains, the people, the sheep, even the tiny narrow roads. Everything about this island feels like home to me. We spent a good week and a half on Skye clambering around the mountain ranges and exploring the coastline. The Cuillins are an exceptional bunch of mountains and an absolute must for anyone who likes a bit of adventure in their hiking. We had a few hair-raising moments out there, but the absolute best was climbing up to the top of one of the lower ridges above Harta Corrie and literally standing in the embrace of those rocky old giants.

Our little cairn above Harta Corrie

It was with a heavy heart that I left my favourite isle, but we still had two other regions to explore before Edinburgh, so after a quick stop at the Talisker distillery, we headed back over the Skye Bridge and once again headed north. This time our destination was Durness. Interestingly, the further north you travel in Scotland, the bigger everything gets. Perspective skews somewhat and you lose a sense of just how close or far away the mountains are. Also, there really are not many people up that way. But, it is stunning. The surprise came when we reached Durness to find the landscape less mountainous and more like a tropical coastline, only a good deal nippier. The beaches up there are ridiculously beautiful... and there is no one on them.


Beach at Kearvaig

Our final stop on the hiking tour was the Cairngorms. In retrospect, we probably should have stayed up north and avoided this bit, but as we had gone off on this tour wanting to know as little as possible so we wouldn’t have expectations, we decided to go ahead even after rather negative reports from other hikers. Cairngorms is a bit like the Disneyland of hiking. The walks are not too difficult and very well marked (well, mostly) and so there are hundreds of other people all doing the same trails. After walking up north and rarely seeing another human being all day, this was a bit of an unwelcome surprise (yes, our misanthropic tendencies thrived up north). But, we were not to be deterred and had mapped out a route that would take us slightly off the more popular path. Intially, we thought we’d do it in three days, but the second part of the route was done so quickly, we decided we’d just carry on. Boy, was that a mistake. About an hour after lunch and well past the bothy we should have stopped at, it started to rain. Not hard, but constant. Also, there was no wind. Anyone who knows Scotland in the summer also know that no wind equals midges. So, we couldn’t really stop for long without being swarmed. Then to add insult to injury, just as we were coming to the end of the trail, I took us down a wrong turn that brought us out 7 miles west of where we were supposed to be. Long story short, we walked a marathon in a day. Happily, we did manage to laugh about it after a pint and large plate of fish and chips, so no real harm was done


Heather in bloom in the Cairngorms

And on that sore footed note, our hiking tour was done. We spent the next couple of days in the madness that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then headed down to England to catch up with family for a few days. So all in all a month of adventure, tents and bothies, midges and their nemesis Smidge, sunshine, mist and occasional downpours, crazy theatre types and familial warmth. The perfect holiday!

Coffee and Moonshine

Make mine a huge with a double shot of espresso, no make that a triple, and give me soya milk with extra foam and a truckload of chocolate s...