Happy Halloween! Here in Scotland, Halloween has a long history. As child, I went out guising where you went from house to house dressed up and carrying a bag filled with treats. Unlike trick or treat, though, guisers had to ‘earn’ their treat usually by singing a song or telling a terrible joke.
If you were lucky, you would return home with a bag bulging full of treats, though often the bulk would be made up of monkey nuts. To this day, I can’t eat them. Those red skins get stuck between your teeth for days…
Halloween lanterns weren’t made from pumpkins either, as you didn’t get them in Scotland in those days. My dad used to make them from hollowed out turnips, and he didn’t mind eating the filling afterwards. Turnips my be an integral part of Scotland’s national dish – haggis, neeps and tatties – but you’ll never persuade me to like them.
My Wattys2020 award-winning book, Beautiful Biters, is out today. Here’s the blurb…
Nineteen-year-old Maya has too much on her plate. Trying to protect her younger sister. Struggling with crushes on unsuitable guys.
Justin is a newly converted vampire, battling to resist the urge to kill and desperately worried about his brother, converted at the same time but AWOL ever since. If the authorities find him first, he’s toast.
When the two of them meet through the vampire Maya earmarks to help her with an exciting project aimed at making money, both are taken aback by the mutual attraction.
And while living in this bleak world poses its own hazards, not least because those in charge are too ready to ride rough shod over vampires and happy to accept backhanders, Maya and Justin still need to cope with the day to day stuff. Going to college, fighting with your mum, obsessing over the food you can’t eat, dealing with unpopularity and online trolls.
Here’s what the readers said:
“I enjoyed this book SO MUCH. I couldn’t stop reading – I just wanted to know what happens next. I think the world you’ve created is brilliant and so clever. It’s a really, really fun take on vampires that I’ve certainly never come across.”
“This is the very first time I’m going to say this to a client: your novel is amazing! Jesus, what a ride! What a pleasure to read!”
“Great job! Lots of fun, creative AF, very well written!”
“I started the book this morning and it was so addicting that I read it all in just a couple of hours. I would 10000/10 recommend this book to anyone and everyone.”
“The style of the book was really different than what I typically read on Wattpad so I didn’t know what to expect but I definitely wasn’t disappointed.”
“Ughhhhhhh I love love love this book!! It’s amazing!! So well written. I devoured it in a day! Keep it up!!”
“I admit this came up in my recommendations and glad I ended up taking myself into reading this story. I’m surprised I finished reading it within three days. :O” “Amazing. Love romance between Maya and Justin and challenges they face. Backstories. The world building. And people that are supporting Maya on MyTV and people (friends and family, unexpected allies) that have her back. Also, amazing response to reader comments and work put into re-editing this story. All in all, wonderful work and I wish you good luck with writing. :)”
“This was an ASTOUNDING story!!! I admit, I initially clicked on this just bc it was a vampire story…. but the world you have created – so raw and believable – powerful, I really felt as though I was there, watching it all unravel!! ❤❤❤”
I write because I find bending words into shape hugely satisfying. The plot problem-solving element appeals too—so if a character does this, which results in that, how does the action move the plot on—kind of thing.
Inspiration comes from many things. During lockdown, I wrote a book based on a feature I heard on Radio 1*. When the UK’s shut-up-shop was announced at the end of March, Matt Hancock, the UK’s superb health secretary [inserts sarcasm font] was asked if people who had just started dating could still see each other.
Answer—no. But he did suggest if folks had recently hooked up, now was the ideal opportunity to find out if that relationship might work. The ultimate test. Locked up in one location 24/7, your only escape that one hour of allowed outdoor exercise every day.
Some days later, Radio 1 spoke to couples who’d done this. Met on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc., and realised the new precautions against the spread of Covid-19 meant they wouldn’t see each other for weeks.
Right at the time when people had just hooked up for those heady first few dates. Hormones at the explosive stage, libidos fired up, every waking thought filled with the person they’d just met and what they wanted to do with them…
The people phoning into Radio 1 made that leap of faith and moved in with each other. My mind boggled. Fancy that! You’ve had three, four dates with someone and suddenly you’re in close proximity. Sharing a bed, bathroom, TV viewing habits, meals. Idiosyncrasies. Weirdness around food. Differing attitudes towards cleanliness in the home, etc. What an irresistible idea to explore.
And so A Leap of Faith was born—a couple who’ve only known each other three weeks and who make the decision to bunk up together. Even better, if the protagonist comes with too many pesky secrets and a long time aversion to talking about her past.
Last week, Radio 1 got in touch with one of the couples they’d spoken to at the start. Like a lot of people listening, I was on tenterhooks. In a world of relentless bad news—the Covid-19 cases are climbing steeply in the UK once more—please, please let Nigel and thingie (I can’t remember her name) still be together.
They were! They’d exchanged the l-word! They were dead happy! The nation, much in need to stories to cheer us up, rejoiced.
While I try to figure out how to add an email sign up pop-up to my website (it a) has to be free, and b) incredibly easy to do) this week’s blog is an invitation to you, dear reader, to join my mailing list.
On the goals list I set for 2018 way, way back in January of this year, I wrote ‘mailing list’. This, the gurus of self-publishing who all sell far more books than I do, promise me is a must-have. You can promote directly to readers, it doesn’t depend on a pigging algorithm which could change any second (a la Facebook, a la Amazon) and it is still the best return on investment when it comes to marketing, even though three billion things have happened since emails first arrived on the planet.
Apart from bull-dozing my family into handing over their email addresses (and I won’t even bother asking on the premise they’re unlikely to report me to the Information Commissioner for breaking the GDPR rules*), this will not be an extensive list. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m keen to get to the end of the year and say, “Well, EB, you ticked off a lot of the stuff on that list. Round of applause and a glass of fizzy wine for you.”
Ten Little Stars
One is also supposed to offer an incentive to join the list, a freebie the price you pay to someone to hand over their precious email address. Sadly, my killer white chocolate and raspberry cake isn’t the kind of thing I can hand out this way. A pity, because that cake is the bomb. Instead, my freebie is Ten Little Stars, an e-book collection of short stories. Some of them focus on characters who exist in my books and add back story to give you a better picture of them. Others are ones I entered into competitions—one’s a winner and the other was highly commended.
Another thing I promise is that I’ll keep the content less sales and more chatty. No-one likes sales bombardment or bombardment by emails. I unsubscribe rapidly whenever whatever mailing list I’ve signed up for—wine, self-publishing and cats all feature—gets a little too enthusiastic with their postings.
So, if you’d like to join my mailing list in return for a free collection of short stories, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I’m not yet ready to embrace auto-responders, I’ll be emailing you back to say thanks individually, so it might take a little longer than usual. If you want it, I’m happy to hand over the recipe for that cake so you too can embrace its delightful deliciousness.
And of course, the usual rules apply. I promise not to sell your address on, I’ll use it only for the purpose of sending out MY newsletter and I will guard your address as carefully as I take care of my beloved and incredibly spoiled cat. Promise, cross my heart and hope to die.
*Here’s hoping, hmm—or Christmas will be very awkward.
If you want to do Scotland’s scenery justice, there are few better ways than exploring it on a motorbike.
Last weekend, Sandy and I joined my brother and sister-in-law for a trip through the Highlands’ stunning terrain, taking in Callandar, Killin, Fort William, the Bealach na Bà pass, Applecross, parts of the North Coast 500, Ullapool, Glencoe and Tyndrum.
There were large stretches of the road where we were the only vehicles and while the weather wasn’t kind on the Saturday, by the time Sunday evening came around, the winds had chased off all the dark clouds and the sun made an appearance as we sat outside the FBI (Ferry Boat Inn, geddit?) in Ullapool drinking beers and wine.
I set my Highland books in a fictional village, but it is part-based on Strathcarron, which is at the head of the sea loch Loch Carron in Wester Ross, describing my village as one long main street beside a loch, a hotel at either end, and I’m almost disappointed when I pass through these places and don’t see the fictional characters I created—Gaby pushing a pram, Mhari spying on her fellow villagers, Lachlan up to no good, and the red-headed Jack, attracting everyone’s wide-eyed attention.
Strathcarron is just before the Bealach na Bà pass (pass of the cattle in Gaelic). The latter is something of a mecca for motorcyclists. It winds its way through the mountains of the Applecross Peninsula, offering breath-taking vistas of rugged landscapes, towering peaks, and deep valleys.
The road ascends to a height of 626 meters, providing awe-inspiring panoramas of the surrounding countryside and the nearby Isle of Skye, although on the day we did it, there was a lot of over-hanging cloud.
I was glad of that sometimes. The steep gradients and hairpin bends make you gulp and in parts, you find your mind screaming, Don’t look down!
While staying in Banavie, we witnessed two yachts negotiating Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal, a waterway that stretches from Inverness to Corpach, near Fort William, connecting Scotland’s east and west coasts, and designed by Thomas Telford.
The locks at Banavie are a prominent feature of the Caledonian Canal. They consist of eight interconnected locks that raise or lower vessels a total of 19 meters over a distance of 457 meters.
It is an impressive engineering feat and allows boats and vessels to navigate the height difference in the canal, making it possible for them to travel between Loch Lochy and Loch Linnhe (though it takes forever for them to get through it).
Returning home on the Monday, we drove through Glencoe. I’ve done it plenty of times, but the Monday was the first time it had ever stayed dry and while there were plenty of tourists—other bikes, coach parties and walkers/climbers—from my pillion position, I was able to stare at the towering mountains and the cascading waterfalls and imagine them in the millennia before the advent of people.
My favourite meals of the trip were what we ate in Ullapool. The coastal village is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains and the waters of Loch Broom. Wherever you stay, there are scenic views of the harbour and the nearby Summer Isles archipelago.
It is an active fishing port, and this is reflected in what the village’s pubs, restaurants and cafes offer. My travelling companions raved about the fish and chips on offer in the Seaforth Bar, while I tucked into the vegan fish fillets, mushy peas and chips.
(And paid the price later. As a type 1 diabetic, I follow a low-carb diet to help with blood sugar control, and the vegan fish fillets and chips is carb overload.)
On the Monday morning, we found a tiny café, The Bothy, doing a roaring trade in breakfasts, thanks to the caravan park nearby. Two scrambled egg rolls, one bacon roll and a full Scottish breakfast later, we were back off down south, replete, refreshed and determined to make the trip an annual event.
The photos above do not do the trip justice, mainly because I’m a terrible photographer but also because the experience and the scenery demanded full attention, and when I take photographs, the process removes me from the immediacy of the moment.
But I sincerely hope this has inspired you to visit these locations and experience the splendour of the Highlands for yourself if you’ve not already done so.
Artists Town, my coming-of-age novel, is currently part of a free book promotion at Hello Books. Here’s the blurb…
First love—it will change your life for ever…
Daisy has been dragged along on a family holiday against her will. Still, the holiday has its compensations. Katrina, the resident ‘cool’ girl who takes Daisy under her wing, and her gorgeous, older cousin who sends smouldering looks in Daisy’s direction.
Is this holiday about to change her life for the better?
The escape from London has affected Daisy’s dad. He has madcap schemes in mind for how he’s going to invest in the town’s small businesses and improve them. But where is all the money for this coming from?
Daisy finds love, a close friendship and freedom in her new life but the secrets that lie buried there are about to surface, and their revelation will be explosive and life-changing.
Set in the early 1990s, Artists Town is a heart-warming coming of age tale that explores friendship, first love, learning to be cool and navigating life’s challenges. Featuring relatable, engaging characters and situations, the story will suit anyone who remembers growing up in the 1990s in the days before mobile phones and social media, those with a fondness for small-town life and those who like love stories with a twist.
Here’s what the reviews said:
“Took me only 3 nights to start & finish this book. I absolutely loved it. Took me back to my teens, it was funny, uplifting, and also very sad.”
“YA Fiction at its finest and COMPULSORY for diabetic teens’ parents.”
Last weekend, the coronation took place in the UK, but there was only one queen as far as the Weegie Beegies were concerned…
(She’s even got her crown on, as you can see in the picture above.)
The Weegie Beegies is the jokey name for the book group I have belonged to for the past twenty years. The name, for those of you unfamiliar with Scottish patter, comes from the informal term for a Glaswegian—weegie—and beegie plays on the book group initials.
Last year, discussions were held about a celebration event marking the 20-year anniversary, and a boat/barge trip was mooted, but did not happen for various reasons.
We finally got round to it on 6 May, the date close to one member’s birthday, and what a memorable afternoon it was. If you’re looking for something different to do in Glasgow, I can’t recommend a trip on the Navvies’ Barge highly enough.
The canal boat is located on the Glasgow section of the Forth and Clyde Canal and offers boat trips for up to 12 people (our party consisted of eight) and involves a peaceful two and a half hour meander along the canal.
The 35-mile long Forth and Clyde Canal is a fascinating piece of Scottish history. It crosses central Scotland from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, and opened in 1790, the first canal in Scotland and the largest engineering project at the time.
Transporting good and passengers
It allowed seagoing vessels to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow and facilitated the transport of goods and passengers across the country. When the railways and roads came in, its use declined and it was closed to traffic in the 1960s, reopening in 2001 thanks to funding from the Millennium Commission and is now managed by Scottish Canals.
Profits generated from Navvies’ Barge are reinvested or used to support charitable causes and community engagement with the barge and the canal.
We brought our own food and booze. It rained for first half of the journey and the sun came out for the second, allowing us all to sit out on the back.
Reader, a lot of Prosecco was consumed. There was a sing-along too. Those Gen Zs jogging or dog-walking on the tow paths might have been tempted to film us and upload the result onto TikTok, captioning the clip Why Middle-Aged Women Should Not Be Allowed Within a Mile of Wine…
All in all, it was a brilliant afternoon out.
PS – if I’ve tickled your tastebuds for Scottish life, I have a series of romcoms set in the Scottish Highlands and available on Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Barnes and Noble et al…
There is something very satisfying about owning a physical copy of your own book—a LOOK WHAT I DID moment that never comes from staring at a thumbnail of the cover on a screen.
Draft2Digital recently launched a super-easy and free print service for indie authors, so I’ve created paperbacks for the remainder of the Highland Books series, which had previously only been available in e-book form, and two of them were delivered this week.
Although the proof copies I ordered are not as pretty as the custom-made ones I have for Highland Fling and Highland Heart, the interior I formatted using Atticus software is just as good, if not better.
Because we don’t have the purchasing power of big publishers or the economies of scale, indie authors like me can’t sell paperbacks cheaply, so our print novels must be priced in the region of £12-£15, if not more, which is why most of our sales are e-books (95 per cent for me in April so far, which is about standard).
But when one kindly soul emailed me the other week asking whether there were print versions of the other Highland Books because she had enjoyed the first three so much, that spurred me on.
I live for those comments…
I still need to create and order copies of two of my other Highland Books, so that I can add them to my vanity book shelf, which is pictured below.
What I’ve read recently
As I raced through two books that I took out of the library this week, I’ll plug them here: Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, and Rose Tremain’sLily.
The first book’s premise was intriguing—a historical fantasy about a man who has been alive for centuries—and I borrowed the second because I remembered how much I enjoyed Restoration by the same author.
Reading is a personal and subjective experience, but both books have sold plenty of copies, so what makes them so popular?
I’m about to embark on rewriting one of my books with the lofty goal of trying to create a best-seller (more on that later), so I’m analysing everything I read right now, trying to figure out what makes it resonate with so many people.
(This, incidentally, doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of reading.)
Here are my thoughts on How to Stop Time and Lily:
They are page-turners (both professional and Amazon reviewers agree on this). Short chapters, with a hook at the end of each and plenty of tension (i.e. a sense of something bad about to happen).
They are immersive—on the pages, the worlds of Elizabethan London (How to Stop Time) and Victorian London (Lily) come to life.
Because the main characters evoke our sympathies, we’re rooting* for them to find happiness/succeed.
The character’s actions make us wonder what we would do in similar situations.
*For my Australian readers, I know this word has a different meaning in your country… 😉
What I’ve watched (spoilers ahead!)
We came to The Last of Us a bit later than the rest of Western Civilisation, but once there, it took us less than a week to binge through the nine episodes, me occasionally with my fingers in ears, a habit that dates back to when I was a child and the Daleks appeared on Doctor Who.
Again, I’ve been attempting to analyse what made the series so popular:
Pedro Pascale. (I’ll leave that there… feel free to disagree and I’ll fight you in the comments).
The character arcs, particularly Joel’s, who goes from hardened, cynical mercenary to someone who will fight tooth and nail for Ellie, and Bill’s, who moves from survivalist loner to compassionate carer in episode three.
An ensemble cast—it keeps things interesting by flitting between a variety of characters and their backstories.
The tension is there in bucketloads because you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time waiting for something horrible to happen.
The focus on humanity and their adaptability to the reality in which they find themselves, rather than the infected, prompts the viewer to ask themselves, “What would I do under those circumstances?”
Re the above bullet—the ending. Was Joel right to save Ellie at the expense of humanity? And would Ellie have been able to provide the cure anyway…?
And finally, the giraffes. Just because.
The How to Write a Bestseller Experiment
Where to go from here… I’m in the middle of an existential writing crisis.
I muddle along, writing fiction that doesn’t sell enough to recoup the money I spend on covers, critiques, proofreading, etcetera.
There has been a lot of talk about Substack and its benefits for writers, with famous names (Salman Rushdie) publishing novels on there, not as famous names serialising their books and becoming success stories (Elle Griffin) while others treat audiences to their amazing insights and wisdom (Dominic Cummings*).
[*That was sarcasm, by the way.]
I’ve been blogging on and off for 12 years now and have never really got the hang of what to write about/how to position this blog. If I was starting now, I would do things very differently.
Substack is supposed to make it easier for you to monetise your content, providing you can persuade enough people that is worth paying for. That’s a big ‘if’, though.
As a writer of only middling success, I don’t want to publish a novel on there but I came up with the idea of a regular newsletter—the How to Write a Bestseller Experiment, where I embark on a mission to produce one and document what I do.
It would focus on craft—turning the first draft of a book I’ve already written in a popular genre (crime/thriller) into something that is page-turning, gripping and enjoyable—and building a ‘platform’.
I know, horrible, horrible word but it does seem as if you make life easier for yourself if you build anticipation and then launch your book, rather than the other way around, as every celebrity who gets a book deal can tell you.
I’m very much a LOOK, THE SHINY NEW! type of person, forever jumping on bandwagons, convinced the next big thing will work for me. Only for it not to.
But to use the old cliché, it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.
Wish me luck! And if anyone reading this is on Substack, let me know in the comments and tell me about your experiences there. Thank you!
Here’s a fun fact for you… I share the same birthday, 17 March, with King James IV of Scotland. This was news to me, something Sandy and I discovered over the weekend while staying in Stirling for a couple of nights.
We are members of Historic Environment Scotland, which cares for Stirling Castle, so we paid the castle another visit. Whisper it… Stirling Castle is far superior to Edinburgh Castle in my opinion. For one thing, it doesn’t get the same volume of visitors. Second, the history behind it is absolutely fascinating, and it is more aesthetically appealing.
Anyway, the point of our stay in Stirling was to have a mini-break for my birthday, and when we arrived at Stirling Castle on Sunday, Historic Environment Scotland had put on special festivities commemorating the 550th anniversary of the king’s birth.
James IV is recognised as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs (albeit this is not particularly high bar–two Stewarts managed to get their heads cut off, another was forced to abdicate after only three years on the throne). He was in charge of a significant expansion of the Scottish royal navy, included the founding of two royal dockyards and the acquisition or building of 38 ships.
He was an avid supporter of the arts and was interested in the law, literature and science, even dabbling with dentistry and bloodletting. With his patronage, the printing press arrived in Scotland, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen were founded.
He oversaw the construction of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Falkland Palace, as well as substantial work at Linlithgow Palace, Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. The education act passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1496 introduced compulsory schooling.
At Stirling Castle, we watched a musket demonstration. Turns out there are a lot of sayings that originate from late Medieval musket use—a flash in the pan and scraping the bottom of the barrel being two of them.
The James IV castle tour revealed he was only 15 years old when he ascended to the throne, having fought his father, James III, to claim it. Medieval Scottish rulers tended not to live long, happy lives and James IV himself died in battle, during the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513, in which some 10,000 Scots were killed.
Nowadays, the castle’s great hall has been renovated and the exterior painted with ochre-coloured limestone to resemble what it would have looked like the early 16th century. The royal apartment has also been designed to resemble what it would have looked like it did in those days, and two restoration projects have restored the Stirling heads, wooden carvings of James V’s family members and the local nobility that he commissioned to show off to the world his right to rule, and a recreation of a 15th century tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn.
Both projects, which used 15th century techniques, colour palettes and materials, are quite something to see.
The views from the castle are spectacular and it is easy to understand why our ancestors picked Castle Hill for a fortification.
We stayed at The Allan Park, a B&B that is also serves as a pub and restaurant. Blimey, the breakfasts… the Eggs Florentine (poached eggs on a muffin with spinach, mushrooms and Hollandaise sauce) reminded me yet again why the egg is the most magnificent food stuff known to humankind, while the vegetarian fry-up included veggie haggis too, a very nice touch.
We ate out on the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, returning to The Allan Park on Sunday evening for another delicious meal, and where the waitress asked me if I was a Mum, winking when I said no, and suggesting I change my answer because they were offering free glasses of Prosecco to all mothers in honour of Mother’s Day in the UK.
(Do fur babies qualify?)
When it came to finding people to land on, the travel bug gave me a wide swerve. Mini-breaks in the UK are far and away my favourite type of holiday. Castles and museums, pubs and restaurants, not too far to travel and with a much lower carbon footprint than flying…
Our next holiday is the Peak District in the summer, and I can’t wait.
I based it loosely on the Great British Bake Off show. Years ago, the programme’s hosts were Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, who were notorious for their dreadful baking puns and sly innuendo.
To give you a flavour of the book, here are some of the ones I came up with for my book. Don’t groan too much…
Sue, fluffy pink jumper clashing with her bright orange hair, stepped forward, beaming at us. “Welcome, contestants, to this year’s Best Baker UK! Why was the ninja so good at baking pastries?
“Because he had a black belt in martial tarts, of course.”
Kimberly and Sue cosied up to Rob as he chopped up a large handful of pistachios, tiny flecks of green flying off the chopping board. “Ooh,” Kimberly said. “I do love a chunky nut or two, don’t you, Sue?”
Sue, straight-faced, shook her head. “Nuts ground to a paste are my preference.”
Kimberly and Sue rocked up at my bench. Sue picked up a sausage, letting it dangle from her fingers. “Ooh, I love a sausage early in the morning!”
Sue’s joke might be the most obvious one in the entire world, but I played along. “Absolutely, Sue. The bigger the better too, eh?”
“No, no, no,” Kimberly chimed in. No-one but me could see the tightness in Sue’s jaw as she waited for the reply. “The size of the sausage isn’t important. It’s what you do with it that counts.”
She tipped her head in Rob’s direction. To the left, a camera zoomed in on him.
Bread, bread, bread
As I kneaded the dough, punching into it, Kimberly glided up. “Woo, Lissie!” she exclaimed, helping herself to the sultanas piled up in a bowl. “Are you imagining a certain someone when you hit that bread?”
She added an exaggerated wink, directing her head to Rob’s bench.
Deciding that I might as well give Graham what he wanted, I thumped the dough harder for effect. “Not at all, Kimberly. Though it feels therapeutic. Do you want to try?”
“Oh, yes!” she said, digging her knuckles into the dough I handed over. “It’s the yeast I can do.”
“Amazon keeps sending me Rich Tea biscuits even though I don’t like them,” Kimberly said, picking up the tin of condensed milk on my bench.
Spending so much time with them in person meant you could anticipate the jokes.
“But everything’s okay now,” I replied, retrieving a tin opener from the utensil drawer under my bench. “As you’ve updated your cookies preference, right?”
She high-fived me; the move caught on camera. “Ha! Lissie, you should replace Sue. You’re much better at this than she is.”
Sorry about that! If you’d like to buy the book, you can do so by clicking on the button below.
Some years back, I went the book launch of Stonemouth, written by the late (and extremely great) Iain Banks, where he admitted he made up the town where the novel is situated because he despised doing research.
That little titbit lodged in my subconscious, as I did the same a few years later when I wrote Artists Town and the Highland Books.
If you create a fictional town or village, there’s no need to worry about confusing the site of the town hall with the derelict church or placing two streets close together for narrative purposes (and risking a chorus of criticism in the reviews from the town/village’s real inhabitants).
Nor need you fret about people from those places presuming you’ve used them somewhere in the novel and portrayed them in an unfavourable light. The author Brooke Magnanti at another book event I attended stated that she made up the setting for her crime thriller, The Turning Tide, so as not to offend her Lochaber neighbours.
Artists Town, a coming-of-age tale set in a small Scottish town, was inspired by Kirkcudbright, the small Scottish town where I spent my formative years.
Let me let you into the secret of Kirkcudbright’s pronunciation. Those of us born in this tiny town nestled far from the madding crowds in the south-west of Scotland grew up chortling whenever the rare occasion of it meriting a mention on the national news arose and presenters mispronounced it Cur-cud-bright, when it’s—clearly—Cur-coo-bree.
Other Scottish place name minefields include Milngavie, pronounced Mull-guy, Strathaven, pronounced Stray-ven and Bearsden, pronounced Brendan.
(Kidding, Bearsden is pronounced exactly as it is written.)
Like Brooke Magnanti, I didn’t want to offend the locals, so I changed the name Kirkcudbright in the book to Kirkinwall. But because Kirkcudbright is one of the few places in the UK with a castle in the midst of it, any locals reading it will recognise the location straight away.
Mackies Fish and Chips plays a key role in Artists Town, and I based the establishment loosely on a sadly no-longer there chippie, Polar Bites, which had an excellent (and well deserved) reputation for its take on the UK’s favourite dish.
The Highland books, a series of romantic comedies/feel-good escapist novels, are set in the imaginary village of Lochalshie, which is a loose mix of Arrochar in Argyll and Bute, and Lochcarron in Wester Ross.
The Lochside Welcome, the local pub/hotel, is an important setting in the books and it resembles the Village Inn in Arrochar, appearance-wise, anyway. As far as I’m aware, it’s never played hosted the wedding of a reality TV star—also made-up—but given that she’s a member of a family who’ve been on MTV for many years and a ‘self-made’ billionaire whose fortune comes from a make-up and skincare company, there is no prize for guessing who she’s modelled on.
When you set your novels in bigger towns and cities, it´s okay to go with the real version, and I´ve used Glasgow, London, Norwich and even Great Yarmouth in my books, but small town settings will always be my preferred choice because it´s much easier to create a sense of community, which is why books and TV series set in smaller places appeal to so many people.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk on the internet regarding AI and its usage in the creative professions, including fears that robots will take over the fun stuff, concerns that students will use it to cheat by creating essays, worries about plagiarism, the ethics of attribution, and more.
I signed up for the ChatGPT research release because a writers’ forum I belong to mentioned its uses as a research tool, with the caveats that it’s not fool-proof, and its knowledge cut-off is September 2021.
Can ChatGPT replace human writers, I asked, and this was the reply:
As an AI language model, I am capable of generating text on a wide variety of topics, and I can produce content that is grammatically correct and coherent. However, while I can create text that mimics human writing to a certain extent, I cannot completely replace human writers.
Human writers bring their unique perspectives, experiences, and creativity to their writing, and they are capable of producing content that is emotionally resonant, thought-provoking, and insightful in ways that AI language models like myself cannot replicate. Human writers also have the ability to adapt their writing to different audiences and contexts, to inject humor, irony, and other forms of figurative language, and to use language in ways that are not strictly logical or predictable.
The first person pronoun use is already an attempt to ‘humanise’ and make the tool less threatening, which feels inappropriate. I fed that back to the system and received a polite reply, thanking me for bringing the matter to its attention, apologising for any confusion, and that it was more appropriate to use third person pronouns (the inanimate ‘it’) when referring to “AI language models like myself”.
The second paragraph of the answer used the first person pronouns throughout. Maybe I should have made that clearer—don’t use first person pronouns when interacting with me—but it felt a bit… rude, proving the humanising point.
Awe-inspiring poetry (or not)
In the interests of research*, I also tried a tool for generating poetry. It isn’t particularly sophisticated as the example generated when I asked for a haiku for my husband telling him I love him shows.
The greetings card industry might welcome it; the various poetry blogs I follow have nothing to fear (yet).
The observant among you may have noticed that WordPress now offers AI-generated paragraphs and art. The picture at the top of this blog is one example, as is the one below because I couldn’t resist asking for an image of a cat reading.
The image below that is what happened when I asked for a Vector image of a handsome red-headed man wearing a kilt. I leave it up to you to decide whether the picture it produced fulfils that brief…
For some weeks now I’ve been using Quillbot, a paraphrasing tool, to copy edit my fiction. I used it to rewrite the first paragraph at the top of this blog, and you can see that I rejected some of the suggestions:
While I have the system set to British English, it still generates Americanisms, such as suggesting I use ‘line’ rather than queue or describing someone as a basketball fan, when I said the character was a Hoops fan meaning Celtic FC, and the trunk of a car, rather than the boot.
Would I use Quillbot to replace a human copy-editor/proofreader? No. But I rewrite sentences myself now, guessing that Quillbot will reorder them, and the thesaurus element is a God-send.
AI for fiction research
As mentioned, the idea of using ChatGPT to carry out research related to my fiction appealed, so the first question I asked was, “how can you tell if someone has shot themselves or been murdered?” relating to a detective novel I’m currently writing.
The 300-word reply contained enough detail for my scene, where the amateur detective’s suspicions that his nephew did not take his own life are proved correct, to sound ‘authentic’, though an actual police officer/forensics expert might not agree.
It’s a vastly-sped-up version of using search engines and trawling through the results.
Writers worry about where all this is heading, myself included. There are so many potential pitfalls, ones I’m aware of, others I don’t have the imagination or intellect to come up with. ChatGPT says it can be used to generate drafts, as the final paragraph of the answer the AI tool gave me when I asked if it could replace human writers:
That being said, I can certainly be a helpful tool for writers and content creators, and I can be used to generate ideas, provide inspiration, or even generate drafts that can be refined and polished by human writers. Ultimately, I believe that the most effective approach to writing involves a collaboration between humans and AI, where the strengths of both are leveraged to create the best possible content.
There are writers out there who can produce genre fiction incredibly quickly–there’s the odd writer who can write a first draft of a novel in a few weeks–whereas ChatGPT could do it in minutes.
Does that mean that people writing popular crime, romance, thriller fiction with its clear, recognisable tropes could be out of a job, or will they still make as much money refining or editing the AI draft?
Will they still enjoy the endeavour as much? Will people want to read these books? There are already books on Amazon marked as co-created with AI.
Change is a’comin’
Whether we like it or not, the changes are here already and the only thing threatening them is potential power outtages in the future where people decide their electricity rations are best used for heating/cooking/lighting (electricity rationing will and has to happen if we are to stand any chance of passing the world on to future generations) rather than powering up AI systems.
When I set out to write this, part of me was tempted to use ChatGPT and/or WordPress’s AI paragraphs generator to come up with almost all of the blog, as the topic’s so vast and complex. I knew I would ramble, I wouldn’t come to any definite conclusions, offer stunning insights or do anything other than state the bleedin’ obvious.
The blog has taken me almost four hours to write, and a lot of mulling over in between.
But the creative drive’s a powerful one. There are so many of us who will always want to write (even vapid, self-indulgent and not particularly interesting blogs like this one), draw, paint, make music, act, sculpt, screen-write and much more, and hopefully, all fingers and toes crossed, human creative endeavours will always find an audience.
*also known as procrastination, a skill in which I excel.
My latest novel, Baked with Love, is now available for pre-order. The book features a fictionalised version of a well-known and loved baking show, so there are a lot of descriptions of cakes in it.
In general, there are a lot of descriptions of all kinds of foods in all my books, reflecting my other passions in life, cooking and eating. If I were any good at food styling and photography and filming, I’d run a food blog for sure. I toyed with the idea at one point and came up with the snappy (not) title, Emma Cooks the Books! along with fancy-schmancy graphics too, see above.
Anyway, as that did not happen (food blogs and vlogs look like a tonne of work – and many of them take place in immaculate kitchens, using state-of-the-art equipment that seems as if it’s being used for the first time), I’ve rounded up a collection of foodie pics and quotes from my books…
Well… the end of Happy Valley! What did you think?
The series writer Sally Wainwright receives a lot of well-deserved praise for her depiction of strong female characters, her ability to create conflict and ramp up tension and her characterisation and dialogue (“I might have singed one of your crochet blankets”).
I would be grateful for teeny-tiny percentage of her writing talent.
Oh, and did you know that George Costigan (Happy Valley’s Nev Gallagher) and Siobhan Finneran (Clare Cartwright) have acted together before? In a certain 80s comedy-drama also set in the north.
Click the button below if you want to see the NSFW clip.
Do you use the premium or business versions of WordPress, and what are the benefits and drawbacks?
Many of you who are reading this are also bloggers. I use WordPress’s bog-standard free version because it meets the majority of my needs, however I pay an annual price for the domain name.
WordPress for business is expensive—£240 per year (about $292)—for a lot of features I won’t use or need, though signing up for some of the premium services would also mean that the adverts and WordPress branding would be removed, giving the site a more professional appearance. I can also upload videos directly if I want to.
If I want to sell books straight from this site, which I do, the only option via WordPress is the business because you can install the required plug-in.
For the time being, I can link folks to my Payhip store, but best practise dictates that if you’re attempting to sell something online, you should make the transaction as simple as possible, i.e. one click.
Amazon will always account for most of my sales. Will this site generate £240 in book sales per year? Doubtful…
Can lifelong baker Lissie turn down a last-minute invitation to appear on the popular TV show Best Baker UK, even though her ex-boyfriend is one of the contestants?
Not a chance…
Her current boyfriend isn’t thrilled, and Lissie’s decision to put herself under the intense pressure of a reality TV show while spending so much time with the man who broke her heart six years ago appears to be a recipe for disaster…
But could Lissie uncover the truth about what happened all those years ago, prove herself to her grandmother, keep her boyfriend happy, and win Best Baker UK, forever changing her life?
A spellbinding, warm-hearted read for romance and Great British Bake Off junkies, Baked with Love is a thoughtful, unforgettable story with characters you will love about second chances, forgiveness, and the search for true love.