January—cats, squirrels and libraries

Happy 2020—I’m far too late with my new year wishes, but the nice intent is still there. May the new decade bring you what you want (so long as that doesn’t harm others).

The bed is a bit crowded these days…

In Chez Baird-Birnie, we are adapting to life without Freddie and with two cats. One argument cat lovers always put forward for the adoption of new cats post the previous one’s departure is that cats all have their own unique personality. You don’t take on a new one, find yourself endlessly comparing its traits to its predecessor and finding the replacement wanting. Our new two stimulate endless debate, especially because we now have a boy and a girl.

I think Lucy is the smarter cat (feminist bias here, definitely), but William is far bolder and keen to venture outside whenever he can. He’s also much stronger, leaping higher, further and far more often. Ms Lucy, I sense, looks at him rather like modern-day baby boomers regard their grown-up children. “FFS, I thought I’d got rid of you ages ago, but you’re still at home/have returned here again?! Why, why, why…?”

The nippy sweetie

There is a Scottish description ‘nippy sweetie’, used to describe someone who is sharp-tongued or peevish. (And usually used in a faintly misogynist way just for women, but that’s a whole other conversation.) Lucy is a literal nippy sweetie in that she does bite. They are not painful or aggressive, but little nips to warn you to back off. William ‘proves’ my not particularly scientific theory that neutered males are more affectionate and softer than the ladies…

Feed me!

And she is the boss, except when it comes to food. With two cats, you usually need to supervise meal times to stop one stealing from the other. William gets super-excited at food times and once he’s wolfed his, his mother’s helping is fair game. She’s a much slower eater, a habit I find interesting as shouldn’t life with William have taught her to eat more quickly?!

As per instructions for new cats, we kept them both inside for two-plus weeks so they got used to the house. Thought to themselves, “Well, this is a nice place. Hot and cold running humans happy to let us sleep on the beds and not too cross when we decide the wallpaper is much better than a scratching post.”

I’ve always put collars on cats and I suspect Lucy and William weren’t collar wearers previously.  They don’t like them very much but the collars operate the cat flap. If it is not magnetically controlled, two of our neighbour’s cats would come in.

Cat invaders

In the Freddie days, I didn’t mind Mr Biggles and Loki visiting us because he wasn’t bothered. My new pets, on the other hand, are not confident enough to deal with that kind of encroachment on their territory. As they bicker among themselves in the house anyway, it would be silly to add another cat to the mix.

Mind you, neither cat has worked out how to open the cat flap from the outside yet. Next week, I’m going to have to squat in front of it waving something super-tempting. A bit of raw steak, perhaps…

Aside from cat caring, I’m in the midst of typical start a new year activities—yoga and sauna sessions, culling spending on silly things, reducing my meat and fish consumption, and going for plenty of walks. This post’s  featured image is a squirrel I encountered in the Kelvingrove Park. They’re bold fellows who will come within a foot of you, especially if you rattle a bag of sunflower seeds at them.

I’m attempting to write another book in the Highland Books series, number four… At some point soon, I’m going to run out of ideas for what I can do with the characters but I’m good for another 160,000 words (roughly two novels).

I published a box set of books one to three this week and I’ve already sold a few of them. A bonus—if the box-set sells in decent quantities, I get 70 percent of £7.49, instead of £2.99 and £3.99 and the only money I spent on it was the cover because the editing/proofreading had already been done.

Another January resolution was to use my local library more. In the last couple of years, I’ve grown lazy ordering far too many books on my e-reader. Libraries struggle for funding these days, so it’s important for them to demonstrate use in communities. As a lifelong voracious reader, libraries have provided me with tonnes of free entertainment over the years. I’ve been to Dumbarton Library three times this month already and picked up The Testaments by Margaret Atwood via the order service. (It’s much better than the TV series, which is now beginning to feel far too dragged out.)

A cool fact for you… I publish my books wide, i.e. not just on Amazon but through Kobo, Apple, Google Play, Barnes & Noble and more. Because of this, my e-books are available on OverDrive, an online repository for digital content. If you ask for one of my books in your local library, I’ll get a bit of money and you’ll get my books for free. If you’re so inclined, I’d be grateful if you could ask!

Wattpad – the algorithm kicks in (and why I’m bitter-sweet about it)

Oh readers, where art thou? I finally got to experience a bit of the ol’ algorithm magic (does anyone else always get that word wrong when they attempt to spell it?) on Wattpad. I’ve been on the story-telling and reading platform for four years, drifting along mainly unnoticed.

This week, reads of my book Highland Fling leapt from 3.5k to 11k* in six days and every time I open the app, I have 50-90 notifications awaiting me and my phone beeps all the time. (This is why, I guess, many people who experience online popularity burn out. It’s overwhelming. Either that or they hire a virtual assistant…)

The success is bitter-sweet. If only I was getting that many reads on Amazon, I would be raking money in! But it is gratifying to the ego.

Writing failures

As I’m British, I’m now duty bound to tell you about my many writing failures to make up for the above boastfulness. Social media often creates an unrealistic portrait of people’s lives—their successes and triumphs held up there; failings hidden from sight.

Highland Fling by Emma Baird

Here are mine:

A) My first book sold less than 70 copies, with about half of them coming from sales to my mum. Boxes of that ruddy book still sit clutter up my house. Always, always opt for print on demand as a self-publisher and concentrate on the e-book.

B) I have spent so much on advertising Highland Fling, my profits on the book are titchy. It feels like running to stand still. (Unfortunately, it is now almost impossible to sell on Amazon unless you advertise.)

C) The stand-alone books I wrote get very few sales. Mainly, this is due to a lack of advertising but stand-alone books are notoriously hard for unknown authors to sell.

D) I keep trying to carry out all the steps ‘proper’ self-publishers do—setting up a mailing list (mine, 11 subscribers, killing it), being active on social media, hashtagging left, right and centre, having a professional-looking website, etc., and am useless at them all.

E) I have been rejected by numerous agents.

F) I have entered a good few writing competitions and got nowhere.

G) Whenever one of my manuscripts comes back from an editor/proofreader, I am horrified by how often I repeat myself and my ignorance of correct comma use.

Why it’s worth it

So why continue? I love writing and have harboured the desire to be one ever since I won a national poetry** competition when I was seven years old. As I got older, writing books seemed like an impossible dream. I chose jobs I thought would be about writing—journalism, contract publishing and press and PR management, the latter absolutely not, and bumbled along. My 40th birthday came and went and I took stock. Emma, you can work in unsatisfying jobs for the rest of your life or you can take a chance…

I quit and started writing on a freelance copywriting basis, scribbling my first novel in between times.

Full disclosure. I’m married and I have a husband who is happy to shoulder the bulk of the bills. And I inherited money when my beloved dad died, so the path I’ve chosen isn’t available to everyone. I recognise that privilege and I am thankful every day.

I do not make a lot of money and it is supplemented these days by a part-time job at a university. The odds of writing success are stacked against me as it’s such a competitive industry. Finding your readers is difficult and exhausting. I’ve netted myself a fan club on Wattpad, who send me lovely messages. Will that translate to sales? Most likely, it won’t.

On the other hand, I grew up with optimists. My parents were/are sunny-natured folks who tended/tend to look on the bright side. A lot of that happiness rubbed off. And realising a childhood dream is… amazing, fulfilling, exciting, glorious… I plan to write for the rest of my life successful or not.

Thank you for reading.

 

*In Wattpad terms, 11k is nothing. The popular books on there have hundreds of thousands even millions of reads. I’ve a long way to go before I reach Wattpad star status.

**I went through a period of writing turgid poetry in my early 20s. Luckily for the world, the internet was in its infancy then so they can’t be found anywhere online.

 

 

 

This week I’m… #amwriting

This week I’m #amwriting

Selling books… sort of. To date, I’ve ‘sold’ 465 copies of my free book, Ten Little Stars. I ran a promotion for the book on Kobo* (£3 for a week) at the start of March and downloads have been consistent ever since, averaging 15 a day.

So far, it has translated into one sale of one of my other books, though I can’t prove the two are related, but no sign-ups to my mailing list yet (I advertise both in the free book). I think, however, this is a long-term process so I’m not discouraged. And it is gratifying that at least someone is reading my stuff.

The fab thing about publishing a book yourself is that you do get to change it easily. Seeing as Ten Little Stars is doing so well on Kobo (#361 in fiction and literature anthologies), I added the first chapter of my about to be published rom-com, Highland Fling, to the book in the hope that I can fix it in folks’ minds. and they will rush to buy it when it comes out…

The picture at the top of this post is an extract from Ten Little Stars. I’ve been experimenting with images for Pinterest and Instagram. I’m a words woman, rather than pictures so I took an extract from the book, blew up the font size, used the snipping tool to make a file in Paint and voila – a neat little extract in a picture.

#amwriting update

Finishing off the sequel to Highland Fling. Stand-alone books don’t work as well in the indie world as a series, so I took two of the support characters from Highland Fling and gave them a story of their own. It means I get to stay in Lochalshie, the Scottish village I made up which is based on the town of Arrochar in Argyll and Bute. If Highland Fling is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice as most romance novels are, Highland Heart is more along the lines of Persuasion, thank you Jane Austen.

Celebrating my mum’s birthday. Brenda B celebrated her birthday on Friday, so we gathered together at my sister’s house for a family celebration on Saturday. My sister outdid herself with the food – pulled pork, two different types of salad, sausage rolls, sausages (get the feeling we’re pig mad in my family?!), potato salad and a birthday cake made from individual chocolate brownies.

Sleeping with your cat is good for you. Fact.

Spending quality time with the cat.

Well, why wouldn’t you? He’s a lovely bundle of furry fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*May the universe rain down blessings on Kobo and the excellent tastes of Canadians in general, to date the biggest proportion of the Ten Little Stars down-loaders country-wise. 

This week I’m… #writerslife #amwriting

This week, I’ve:

Found out more about the Tudors… My friend bought me a couple of tickets for events at the annual Aye Write festival, a reading and writing festival that takes part in Glasgow every March/April. We’re both big Tudor fans; the fact that none of them were nice people and some of them downright dreadful doesn’t deter us.

portrait of Mary Queen of Scots

The first talk was by the historian and broadcaster, Kate Williams, discussing Elizabeth and Mary, the rival queens. Throughout her life, Mary was betrayed by those around her—from her half-brother, the lords at court, her husbands and finally Elizabeth herself. Kate Williams pointed out that Mary adopted many of the same statesmanship practices as Elizabeth and yet they didn’t work in Scotland for various reasons. The historian felt her mother’s sending her to France as a young girl was the first mistake, and if she had a time machine Kate Williams said she would have gone back to the 16th Century and stopped Mary going to England after her lords revolted against her.

Henry VIII

The second event focused on Henry VIII and the men around him, where writer Tracy Borman argued the king wasn’t “the one dimensional monster” he is often portrayed as. I’m not convinced, but her talk was fascinating and I loved her suggestion that Henry’s father was a long-lasting influence on his son. Fact fans—Henry VIII died on what would have been his father’s 90th birthday.

Friends, I’m not terrible cultured. I love book events because they are… er, short. Yes, and thought-provoking too but my focus isn’t required for too long and I have been to few book launches or events that I haven’t found worthwhile. I like hearing a writer read his or her own work as it adds something special to the experience. Some years ago, I heard the late author Andrea Levy read from The Long Song and it was spine-tingling.

Bird-watching in the Levengrove Park. So far, no-one’s told the weather spring is upon us. The daffodils have poked their heads out only to find themselves battered to bits by wind and rain. However, on Sunday the rain and winds took a well-deserved rest, and I took myself to the local park nearby for a bid-watching session organised by the local rangers. Since taking up bird-feeding last year, I’ve discovered a new-found appreciation for the birds of this fair island, whose numbers have nose-dived in recent years. As usual, humankind and its greedy acquisition of everything around us, is to blame.

Book sales

And finally, I’ve saved the best bit for last—selling books. In the last week, I’ve sold 107 copies of Ten Little Stars. Some qualifiers dear friends; the book is free. I paid £3 for a promotion deal on Kobo*. But I think any writer will tell you, the currency of readers often feels more precious than hard cash. I’m not that altruistic. My long-term aim is to be able to write full-time and make an income from it. I have four books for sale and only one of them has made me money so far. My years of not selling fiction don’t discourage me—visibility is my main problem—but the 107 sales in one week are gratifying. The Kobo dashboard tells me the bulk of them are in Canada (home of Kobo), but I’ve sold in 19 other countries too—from Latvia to Turkey, Australia to South Africa, the Philippines, the UK, Spain and others.

I’m one year older this week. Inside, my eighteen-year-old self survives though she objects to the wrinkles and grey hair, and sometimes pipes up, “Still, Emma? You keep doing this and have yet to get the message it doesn’t work?” To celebrate, Sandy and I went to Inverary for the night, travelling through snow-topped hills and past sun-danced lochs, ate sublime food at the Inverary Inn and drank wine. As birthdays go, it was hard to beat.

*Dear other writers—Kobo promotions and ads are three hundred times easier and more effective than Amazon ads.

Patreon – Supporting Creatives

This week, I decided it was about time I became a Patreon. For those of you who haven’t heard of the business, Patreon offers artists, writers and other creatives payment through a voluntary scheme where you can sign up to pay the person regularly.

YouTubers, podcasters and bloggers often use Patreon, and Patreon subscribers get extra material such as additional audio content, Q and A sessions with the creator and more. I’ve been listening to The Creative Penn podcast for two years, and I’ve learned a lot from Joanna Penn and her guests.

The podcast is aimed at indie publishers, but it doesn’t concentrate on the marketing part of the business. Marketing is crucial for any self-publisher, but entire podcasts on the subject become dull after a while. They target a certain audience too—the people who have enough completed projects to market, when many of us are looking for advice about creating covers, finding a good editor, creating the right author mindset in the first place.

All aspects of writing

Joanna’s show talks about many aspects to writing—from growth, to protecting your intellectual property, scaling up your business and the craft of writing. Every podcast begins with news about the publishing industry which is always fascinating and useful.

Joanna is known for content marketing. Her podcast is a prime example. The aim behind content marketing is creating a relationship with audiences—in the hope they buy something from you, eventually. My two years’ free listening to the show needled my conscience. If you enjoy it and use it, pay for it…

I listen to a lot of podcasts and many of them are also Patreon-modelled too. So far I’ve ignored the pleas, though occasionally I unsubscribe, deciding that if I’m not willing to pay, I shouldn’t listen. The same applies for online news sites that ask for subscriptions, such as the Guardian. As I’m too mean (and also poor) to pay, I try not to read them.

Advice for diabetics

I’d love to make one of my blogs Patreon supported—the Diabetes Diet one is the more likely candidate as I write this with a doctor and we have useful advice to offer. (In contrast, this blog is a collection of witterings, the majority of it irrelevant to most of you.) But the Diabetes Diet website would need a design overhaul first, and some thought put into how you work a blog for Patreons so they get more than your average viewer. The idea is something to consider for 2019.

One of Joanna’s oft-repeated messages is the importance of multiple streams of income, so you aren’t dependent on one pay master. I have multiple streams of income; it’s just that none of them make me big sums of money. On the other hand, a varied working life makes me very happy. Picking the hours I work or don’t is another bonus. If I weigh up money versus happiness, I come down hard in favour of the ‘h’ word.

On a separate topic, the week kicked off well when my sister sent me a link to a Wikipedia page that mentioned me. My alma mater’s notable alumni included Emma Baird, author. (It’s an awfy wee school.) Whoop, whoop.

Cornwall, coke in jars and controversial queens

This week, I…

Spent time in Cornwall

Mum and I had family business down south. Britain may be a small island, but travelling there from our part of the world isn’t easy. For me, it involved a half-hour walk, one hour and twenty minutes on the train, 15 minutes on a tram, one and a half hours on a plane and another two hours in a car until we arrived at the marvellously named London Apprentice village. The best bit of the journey? The car part from Exeter, driving on the road that passes alongside Dartmoor. Wild country and fabulous skies—folks, that bit of sky they use in the BBC Poldark production is representative. We drove into the sunset and talked about anything and everything.

Emma Baird mega breakfastOn the way back, my mum and I stopped off at a truckers caff for lunch, Tanya’s. We opted for the mega breakfast, pictured here. And this is the receptacle (below) they used for my diet coke. I want one. Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s pictures cover the place, and the tables are littered with pretty tea-sets. Not your typical truckers’ caff—though I’d hate to stereotype a trucker. Perhaps he or she raises a dainty wee finger as they sip their tea. And tucks into a mega breakfast of bacon, sausages and a couple of fried eggs whilst reading the meaningful quotes on the walls.

Made pickled eggs

I adore eggs. Poached, fried, scrambled, omelette-d or, my favourite, hard-boiled and mashed with mayonnaise, they are brilliant in any form. So far, I’ve given the pickled egg a wide body swerve. Then, I ate one in a gastro pub that had been pickled with beetroot. And I cursed my younger self. This form of the egg could have been part of my life eons ago. What a waste.

Reflected on the force for the good that is the worldwide web

Yeah, yeah—social media pressures, Twitter trolls and fake news aside, when you add up the pros and cons the scales tip in the balance of favour for the internet. I’ve met so many wonderful people online—and later in person too. Lately, I’ve benefited hugely from two online connections. I wrote a book, Highland Fling, and one of those connections—an editor with many years’ experience—volunteered to be a beta reader. He devoted far more time to my project than he should have done, exfoliating his way through my book so the rough scrubbing reveals a far more polished piece.

I posted the book on Wattpad and a reader stumbled across it. She made suggestions for improvement. My book featured a graphic designer and my reader was—a graphic designer. My book included a New Zealand character and my reader was—from New Zealand. Bear in mind that my following on Wattpad is pitifully small. The odds I attract someone who a) comments and makes useful comments, b) has experiences that relate to what I’m writing about are stacked against me. Oh universe, thank you for your kindness.

Watched a critically acclaimed film

Not. The reviews of Mary Queen of Scots have been… mixed, to put it kindly. I saw it and read the user reviews on IMDB afterwards. An awful lot of people didn’t like the colour-blind casting. The predictability of the ‘PC gone mad’ type statements depressed me. Professional critics didn’t touch on this, thank goodness—slagging off the pace and disjointed story instead. Me? Bits of it appealed (and Saoirse* Ronan steals every scene), but as a whole—ho hum. If you love scenery, cinematography and costume, though, you will be in heaven. I thought of Dartmoor and the journey I’d made with Mum and the tumultuous times our wee island has experienced in the last two thousand years.

And yet despite the doom and gloom we have now—Brexit, climate change, the rise of the far right that threatens the freedom of us all and the weird isolationism promoted as the answer to all our woes—I love my life. I’m thankful for aspects of it every day. I do my best to limit the damage I do to our beautiful planet** so I can pass on what I can in good conscience to whoever comes after me, and the little things bring me joy:

  • Pickled eggs
  • A lovely review
  • A sunset that holds your gaze too long
  • An actress who invokes a massive girl crush
  • The kindness of strangers I’ve never met.

Blessed.

*for the love of God, can anyone tell me how you pronounce the name?

**apart from the diet coke consumption, Millennials and Gen Z, I am SORRY about that.

Five Things You Learn from #NaNoWriMo

Emma Baird on NaNoWriMoWhat do you learn about yourself if you decide to embark on a fool-hardy challenge such as committing to writing 50,000 words in a month?

Yes, folks I’m the sort who over-promises and under-delivers to herself all the time. What does November lack, I pondered, what with the part-time job going through its busiest month of the year, my freelance clients all ramping up the work they need and TV not helping by adding distractions to my life such as the premiere of Outlaw King* on Netflix and The Little Drummer Girl on the BBC?

Obviously, I should add writing a rom-com novel to the month’s to-do list, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

But NaNoWriMo has surprised me. Forcing yourself in front of your laptop every day as a blank page blinks at you and your fingers hover above the keyboard refusing to do anything has proved enlightening.

Here’s what I’ve got from the experience so far:

  1. A sense of perspective. Forcing yourself to write 2,000 plus words every single day makes my day job, copy writing, seem a dawdle. What, you want 500 words for your blog? Is that all? Easy-peasy.
  2. You have to tell your inner editor to jog on. Nothing to see here, dear. Come back some other time and tweak that sentence, copy and paste or add in the correct punctuation but at this moment in time YOU ARE NOT WELCOME.
  3. The inner editor isn’t invited but the inner geek pushes her to one side. The dashboard on the official NaNoWriMo website throws up figures that change every day. How many words you’ve written, numbers needed to finish on time, average length of each writing session etc. And if there’s anything I love, it’s personal data. The NaNoWriMo dashboard has just joined the Fitbit one as things I spend too long swooning over.
  4. The value of plotting. As anyone who has read my previous books can attest, I prefer throwing things at a book and seeing if they stick to working out what MIGHT happen in advance. This time I’ve outlined every chapter and am now a convert. Plot outlines work! Who knew?
  5. Abandon all social life all ye who enter here. Yup, that kind of writing schedule takes over your life. From taking your laptop on trains as you commute, to knocking back invites, switching the TV off at night and turning down offers to test out the offerings at a gastro-pub in Glasgow, my life is deadly dull. Temporarily, I hope. Otherwise, I’m not going to make a convincing writer in the future if I have no interesting life experiences to draw on.

And the biggest revelation of all? I’ve fallen back in love with writing. I’m head over heels. Before this, I was plodding my way through re-writing a book I’ve never liked. Ye gods, it was tedious. I’ve been forced to abandon it, and now switching on the laptop every day to fire off 2,000 words or so never feels like a chore. I look forward to it and at the end of every session, I know I can keep going if I want. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s heady.

It’s still early days. By week three, I’ll probably reach the bit where I hate the book, think it’s the worst thing anyone has ever had the misfortune to write or read and wish my characters would just sort themselves out with no help from me.

In the meantime, chapter 10 beckons…

#amwriting #nanowrimo

*I was forced to commit Netflix infidelity for the first time to watch the film but blimey it’s immense, ladies and gentlemen. The scenery will blow your socks off. 

Murder, Mayhem and Indie Publishing

Dear lady, this month thou shalt stand up in front of people and attempt to inform and entertain… Not much of a tall order is it?

Up there on this year’s to-do list, which always includes something along the lines of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, was’do a workshop/book event’. As someone who’d rather have a tooth pulled out sans anesthetic than stand up in front of an audience*, this is a biggie. I’ve published four books so far and this is my first ‘launch’.

Night and Day by Caron AllanTo ease the experience, I bullied roped in another writer to join me and billed it as a Q and A session. Given that most people think they have a book in them, why not appeal to that audience by positioning our event as an exploration of the world of indie publishing? And unlike me, my author chum makes decent money from her books. Who better to treat the audience to her wisdom?

Here’s the billing: Ever wondered if you could make it as an author? The internet, Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and more have made it ridiculously easy to self-publish, and the quality of books available in this sphere is better than ever, thanks to the wide range of self-publishing services now available.

Self-published authors Emma Baird and Caron Allan discuss Caron’s books, and her writing and publishing process from start to finish. Do you need beta readers? And what are beta readers, anyway? How do you typeset a book? What’s the best way to edit your work, and what free online tools are available for authors?

The discussion will address these and other questions, and we’ll also be happy to take any questions you want to ask.

Caron Allan is the author of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy and the Dottie Manderson mysteries. Her latest book, Scotch Mist, came out this year, and The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish is scheduled for publication early next year.

Caron published her first book in 2012, and her books have gone on to sell tens of thousands of copies and providing her with a full-time income. She lives in Derbyshire with her husband and three cats.

Emma Baird is a freelance copywriter and has four books to her name—Katie and the Deelans, The Diabetes Diet , The Girl Who Swapped and Artists Town**. She lives in Dumbarton with her husband—and yes, a cat.

Our event takes place on 19 November, kicking off Book Week Scotland.

 

*It’s in one of West Dunbartonshire Council’s local libraries. The audience will be small select.

**About to be five. Ten Little Stars, a collection of short stories, is out now.

 

 

Harrogate, Literary Tours and Good Grub

This week, I…

Visited Harrogate! As any hardy British holiday-maker knows, sunny weather is never guaranteed but the gods of fortune smiled on us. The sun shone brightly. No jackets required. We did our fair bit of sitting out in beer gardens to support the local economy. I know. Aren’t we good ‘uns?!

Harry’s Free Walking Tours offers you a guided walk around the main attractions and explains the town’s history from Roman times to its best-known period, the late Georgian and Victorian era when it was THE choice for the hoi-polloi wanting to take the waters.

The Royal Pump museum details what a typical spa day might involve. No surprise to see that drinking lots of water and taking gentle strolls is the main point. For some patients, the advice stresses, massage might be better than exercise… Heavens, wouldn’t want the rich and far too privileged to over-exert themselves, would we?!

Haworth Museum

Yorkshire has plenty of literary connections; the best known being the Brontë sisters. The museum in Haworth feels perfectly preserved in its 19th Century past. This year is the bicentennial of Emily Brontë’s birth, and the original of Branwell’s famous painting (below) is on display.

Various theories abound about why Branwell painted himself out. The first is that he didn’t—his oldest sister ordered it years later because of his subsequent alcoholism and drug abuse, and the effect it had on the family. Experts at the National Gallery, however, have studied the painting and their view is that he painted himself out at the time.

So, perhaps he was too critical of his self-portrait. Or the composition didn’t work. If you step back from the painting, it’s easy to see that four people would make it crowded.

A Typical Teenager?

My husband’s theory is that having three teenage sisters pissed seventeen-year-old Branwell off sometimes. He painted himself with them, took a hissy fit one day and thought, “Sod it, I’m not immortalising myself with those b****es.”

Works for me…

Harrogate’s literary connections involve Agatha Christie, who turned up there in 1926 at the Old Swan Hotel following a brief disappearance and country-wide manhunt. She claimed amnesia. Most theories for the disappearance relate to her husband, whom she divorced two years later.

In 2006, biographer Andrew Norman said he thought her disappearance related to ‘fugue state’, a rare, deluded condition brought on by stress or depression.

Writing Festival

The Old Swan Hotel is still there, and in July writers will gather there for the annual Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. I’m willing to bet the room Agatha spent her week there in 1926 is booked months in advance, if progress didn’t demolish it.

In another (sort of) literary connection to my holiday, I met up with an online chum. Caron Allan edited my book, The Girl Who Swapped, last year, and we struck up an online friendship. As a writer you spend a lot of time in your own head, battling voices that tell you, why oh why oh why do you think you can do this? Fool! Email exchanges with someone who shares your plight are invaluable.

Caron has also been very successful this year, and her story is hugely inspirational. She’s done all the right things—she has a website, she’s writing a popular genre (crime) and a series, and she’s figured out what works on Amazon advertising. We met at the National Rail Museum café and the three hours flew past in no time.

Gorgeous Grub

Finally, Sandy and I are greedy guts one and two. And by ‘eck (to use a local expression) did Yorkshire serve our unregulated appetites well. Thanks to its spa past, beautiful location and many conferences and festivals, the town’s well-served for restaurants, cafes and pubs. If there was a doozy, we never saw it.

The most famous of Harrogate’s five-star places is Betty’s Tea Rooms, a fairy-tale looking place from the outside, its windows displaying rainbow-coloured piles of macaroons. We, er, didn’t go. However, my standout meal was from the Blues Bar on Montpelier Parade. Yorkshire tapas are new on me, but blimey it makes sense to offer folks a small sample of imaginative interpretations of local dishes, doesn’t it? If they over-order as a consequence, on their heads be it.

My favourite was their Yorkshire rarebit mac and cheese, carb heaven for someone who avoids them in daily life. The resultant high blood sugars were well worth it.

 

 

 

Anyone else remember the early days of match.com? Here’s a wee bit of nostalgia for you…

2006

“… so, I’m trying this new thing. I refuse to proactively do anything. They have to contact me. If a man wants to see me, he needs to make all the arrangements. Thanks. Not too much! I’m also trying to cut down how much I drink.”

John filled her glass anyway. He knew her of old. If he didn’t pour the wine to the top, she’d only bug him in a few minutes’ time, demanding more. And the sofa wrapped itself so well round his old, cold bones. He’d no desire to give up its embrace any time soon.

“How’s it working out for you, the new thing?”

Really, this was unfair. When Lillian had arrived at their flat a few hours ago waving a bottle of Cava and desperate to talk about her love life, Kippy had promptly vanished. Oh, there was this painting he was working on, he claimed airily. Desperately sorry he couldn’t hang about to listen.

Lillian could claim dibs on friendship with them both, but she and Kippy had been close at art school back in the early nineties. And she’d always shown huge interest in his life. The rules of friendship and fairness surely demanded he repay the favour?

It wasn’t so bad for John though. Lillian made dramatic pronouncements. And she was so dreadful at intimacy, tales of her love life were almost always comedic.

Tragi-comedic, John supposed. There ought to be someone out there who’d be the willing recipient of Lillian’s considerable energy and intensity. Together, they could scream and shout at each other, and then make it up with mad, passionate sex. It was impossible to imagine Lillian in a relationship where a couple sat opposite each other in a restaurant and found they couldn’t be bothered with conversation.

Lillian had two relationships with married men behind her. One was careless, two made it look like a pattern, Kippy always said. When the second one ended disastrously—he promised to leave his wife, did so then returned to her weeks later, managing to wreck her happiness and Lillian’s in the process—Lillian turned to match dot com.

Her stories kept John and Kippy entertained for months. Her complaints were wide-ranging. Firstly, there were the unrepresentative photos. “Honestly!” Lillian exclaimed. “That picture was at least ten years out of date. All his hair’s disappeared. Did he think I wouldn’t notice?”

Then, there were the conversations that started up and suddenly went silent. “I thought we’d established a rapport,” Lillian said. She showed them the emails. Back and forth, back and forth went witty exchanges. Lillian would mention something, and the man would fervently agree. And then, nothing.

The first time it happened, Lillian had written plaintive messages. “Is something wrong? What did I say?” After a while, she left it. Ghosted, they called it. It was nothing personal. Maybe Mister ‘I’ve Got So Much in Common With You!’ had been conducting such conversations with a few other folks. And he’d met one lassie and fallen for her.

Lillian’s first “new thing” she applied to her dating life was to meet people very quickly. No point in getting into these long email conversations. You had to see the person as soon as and work out if there was a) chemistry; and b) well, just chemistry. A shared liking for Placebo’s songs played loudly on a Sunday morning mattered not a jot if you didn’t fancy a dude.

Lillian took a gulp of wine, the liquid turning her teeth and tongue black the way it always did. John wondered if those men she dated noticed that and it put them off. He and Kippy were lucky, he supposed. The mysterious gene that made some people prone to the black staining effect of red wine didn’t apply to them, even when they drank cheap shit.

“My new thing is working very well! John, I think this might be IT.”

Oh. Genuine pleasure. She was a terrific pain in the arse. Nosey, bossy, irritating and capable of outstaying her welcome every time, but John and Kippy discussed Lillian a lot. They rolled their eyes considerably as they did so, but they wished her well. Kippy said Lillian in love would be a God-send. She wouldn’t come around to their flat half as much, for a start. It was affectionate though. Who didn’t want their best friend to experience love? Happy ever after was too simplistic, but that’s what you wanted for anyone you cared about.

“He’s taken his profile down from Match,” Lillian said, tilting her glass perilously close to John and Kippy’s beautiful cream sofa. The glass righted itself and John’s alarm eased.

“And as I say, I leave all the arrangements up to him. So freeing!”

John perked up at that. Oftentimes, Lillian contradicted herself. As she said, “so freeing”, doubtless she believed it. But there was no bigger control freak John knew than Lillian. She spent her life bossing others about. Allowing a man to make all the arrangements must kill her. He nodded anyway. You don’t disagree with people’s assessments of themselves. It never worked.

“I think it’s a variation of that old ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ thing,” Lillian added. “He thinks I’m not that bothered if I hear from him or not. Conversely, this makes me more interesting. I’m just unsure how long I need to keep it up.”

Ah, the crux of the matter! Yes, Lillian claimed it was freeing for her not to worry about arrangements, but he heard the longing in her voice. She desperately wanted to take control.

“How long have you been doing this, your new thing?” John asked, and she jumped in with her reply. The ongoing tactic had lasted three weeks so far. She and Richard (never Dick, obviously, Richie for short) had seen each other two times a week. And the last text message from him has suggested they go away for a weekend together.

Torture for someone like Lillian to leave all the arrangements for a dirty weekend up to someone else. “We’ve not had sex yet either,” Lillian said, wide eyed. “That’s another of my new rules. I decided I had to get past date six till that happened.”

John smirked at that. He had never been a promiscuous gay, but the thought of not sleeping with someone until you’d been with them for a set amount of time was an anathema. You had to shag early on.

“Katrina,” he said. “She did that years ago with Mick. Refused to fall into bed with him until a bit of time had passed. Just as well, really.”

Lillian frowned, summoning up long-ago memories. Mick had been a notorious ladies man. When Katrina found out his dark secret, she’d thanked the stars she’d never slept with him. Maybe it was more of a female than a male thing. You couldn’t separate the personality from the body.

“Oh yes,” Lillian said. “What was it he did again? I saw him a few months ago. Did I tell you? He was at this launch I was invited to.”

Asking lots of questions and not waiting for replies was typical of Lillian. John decided to address the last.

“No? How is the Rock ‘n Roll chef?”

Mick was a childhood friend of Kippy’s. He’d found fame and fortune in the early 90s as the first of a new generation of TV chefs. In the early noughties, he’d gone through a very public breakdown. Too much cocaine—as the experts always said, a sign you’re making too much money. He’d gone into rehab and these days, promoted a raw food diet as the cure for addiction and did TV, magazines and events as the Rock ‘n Roll chef gone good.

Lillian made disparaging noises. She was no more a fan of avocado smoothies than your normal punter. “Still far too good looking,” she said. “And these days fucking women he’s old enough to have fathered.”

They both grimaced. Was there anything worse than the man who refused to hang up his shagging shoes? Everyone looked at him and thought, Give it up, mate. You’re not twenty-five anymore. You’re beginning to look too much like Sid James.

“Two days’ time!” Lillian said, pushing her glass at John. A hint that he hadn’t anticipated her quickly enough. He pulled himself to his feet once more, telling her to keep talking as he searched out the red wine.

“My mini break, as Bridget Jones would put it! Because I’m doing this ‘no-show too much interest’ thing, what the hell do I pack? It could be abroad. Do I take shorts, for example?”

John filled her glass and prayed to the House Design gods that she still had the motor neurone skills not to spill it all over the lovely sofa. The glass tilted again, and a drop spilled out, the redness fanning out against the cross-grain of the fabric. They both watched it.

“Oops,” Lillian said.

John touched her shoulder. Years ago, he’d been in a flat where he’d spilt vodka and coke. The host had shrieked fit to wake the dead. He’d vowed from then on he would never make someone that uncomfortable. Even if the sight of that spillage kept drawing his eye, the minute spreading of maroon too attention drawing.

“Take shorts,” he said. “But only if they’re the 2004 spring-summer collection you did. Now, do you need me to discuss the perfect blow job? Gay men offer you amazing advice. Together, we’ll have him coming back for more every time.”

She nodded at that. Sex tips from a gay guy. Always a winning strategy. “Do you think this is it, John?” she said, the glass shaking slightly. “I want it to be.”

Oh. Who knew the secrets of the human heart? All you could do was offer optimism.

“Yes!” he said, fixing her gaze with his. “Absolutely! Now, tell me everything you plan to wear and what you’re going to do. We’ll work this out.”