Greetings from the north, where the summer weather has returned to normal (cold and wet) and lockdown continues. Unlike our compatriots in England, we won’t be flocking to the pubs this weekend as licensed establishments in Scotland are not yet allowed to open.
(And I’m perfectly okay with that. Heck, what’s a Sunday Times wine club subscription for if not to power us through?!)
Anyway, I continue to get my kicks from the small things… Last Sunday, for instance, I visited Marks and Spencer’s food hall for the first time since March. Reader, I went DAFT. Marinated anchovies! Port Salud cheese! Artichokes in dressing! The best burgers ever. (It’s a bold claim but Marks and Spencer’s often justify their adverts for amazing food).
Marks and Spencer has always been a food shop you linger in, jumping from aisle to aisle and back again as you work out what to spend those precious pennies on. The pandemic has robbed us of that joy… but maybe it’s a good thing. I emerged with one paltry bag of shopping and £59 down. What might have happened if I’d spent longer in there?!
There is always the joy of cats too… We started this ‘thing’ where we feed them a chewy stick as a late night snack. I don’t know who enjoys it the more—me or the cats. As you can see from the picture, the treat isn’t doing little Lucy’s tummy any favours. And I’m rocking the granny slippers, right? Ahem.
Book sale royalties for my books on Amazon hit an all-time high in April. There’s a two-month delay getting the royalties, so the money went into my account at the end of June. Pleasing. I say that; there’s a caveat. A friend and I (Caron Allan) had a conversation recently where we discussed what number of book sales might send our hearts soaring. And agreed that we are impossible to please.
Is it that the curse of the writer? One day, you hit your personal best—and yet, the inner critic starts up straight away. Very good, Emma, but why isn’t it XX-amount? And what happens tomorrow when it drops back to the dismal normal? The mass buying of e-books does seem to have slowed, however, as countries begin the gradual (or rushed in places… England and the US, I’m looking at you) process of emerging from lockdown, and I noted fewer sales in May and June.
As summer as at its peak, my thoughts have turned to Christmas. I’ve embarked on the fifth and final (for now—who know how I might feel a year from now) Highland Book—Highland Christmas. I know, ten out of ten for originality. But it seems lot of people out there love Christmas-themed books.
I’ve also finished my urban fantasy/paranormal romance book (for any of you unfamiliar with the genre, its basic meaning is vampire romance) and if you are so inclined, you can read it on Wattpad for free: https://www.wattpad.com/story/207891524-beautiful-biters-an-urban-fantasy-paranormal
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).
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…
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.
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!
Highland Wedding, the third in my Highland Books series, is out now…
When you write romcoms, the wedding industry is an easy target. People queue up to offer you unnecessary rubbish, lending themselves to wonderful satire. What I never understood was the whole chair cover thing. You book a hotel, buy their wedding package—food, drink, number of guests, etc.—and they expect you to cough up a fee for white covers neatly wrapped over the bleedin’ chairs with a bow on the back.
Hopefully, I’ve managed to make it as amusing as I can. Here’s the blurb:
Ask a man to marry you and the rest is a walk in the park, right?!
When Gaby springs a proposal on Jack, he is happy to say ‘yes’. As are the Lochalshie residents, delighted at the prospect of a wedding instead of the more usual funeral. They have ideas for the nuptials coming out of their ears…
With the local landlord piling on the pressure, their friends demanding hen parties in Ibiza, a would-be wedding planner too ready to criticise and a new guy on the scene who is easy on the eye, will Gaby and Jack get their happy ever after?
You can buy the book on Amazon (I’ll put it on Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play, etc., in the new year). I’m also planning a box set of the three books and there’s the gorgeous cover for it, thanks to yummybookcovers.
The cat-shaped hole in our home
Finally, I wrote about the sudden loss of my cat earlier this month. Freddie was a special fella and he is in my thoughts a lot of the time. There are a lot of cats out there in shelters requiring a home and we had a cat-shaped hole in our house needing filled…
Meet Lucy and William, a mother and son ginger combo who are currently feeling their way around our house and into our lives. We got them from the local SSPCA shelter on Christmas Eve and whereas the charity’s policy is not to allow people to adopt animals as Christmas presents (rightly so), this was definitely the best gift I received.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting on my blog in 2019 and all the very best to you and yours in 2020.
Unless you’re the lucky (unlucky?) regular receiver of booty calls, the phone that rings in the early hours of the morning rarely signals good news. The one I received last week no exception to that rule.
The small animal hospital in Glasgow—a request to phone them message left on voice mail, as my phone is on don’t disturb mode through the night. I pressed ‘return call’. The back shift had left for the day; the on-duty vet said she’d find out and get back to me.
The second she spoke to me again, I knew what was coming. My cat, the fabulous and super-spoiled Freddie, had been brought to the premises in the early hours—no sign of life on arrival. Her colleagues had checked and there were no obvious indications of cause of death, but cats struck on the road (where he’d been found) often die from internal bleeding. I live near a busy dual carriageway. We knew he crossed the A82 from time to time late at night. On Friday the 13th, his luck ran out.
We drove to the clinic, umm-ing and ah-ing. Should we see him? I said no. Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of road kill; a different prospect entirely when it’s your pet. My husband said yes. He wanted to say a final goodbye. We arrived. Positions reversed; Sandy now worried that the sight of our poor dead cat would trigger tears in front of strangers. I can tell him plenty of times that it is okay for men to cry. But too many years of west of Scotland masculine culture will beat the message, Thou Shalt Not Weep, into a man.
The vet, a kindly soul, took us into a consultation room and explained what had happened. “What does he look like?” I asked. “I know he’ll be stiff.”
“He’s okay,” she replied. “There are no obvious injuries, apart from a small wound on his chest.”
We gave our assent. Bring him in. She returned, cardboard box reverentially held, its exterior decorated in a funereal fleur du lis. I jumped up, compelled to witness its opening and the revelation of precious content.
“Hey, darling boy. Look at you, all dirty…”
The Good Samaritan
I stroked his face and tickled him under the chin. Freddie adored a chin rub. I ran my hand along his body. As the vet said, no obvious signs of what killed him. I leant into the box and kissed his little face.
Goodbyes said, could the vet let us have the phone number of the person who brought him in? She checked and returned with a name and phone number.
Later that day, I spoke with the Good Samaritan. He and his wife had been visiting her parents who live further up our street. They came across Freddie, who was alive at that point but spasming. They moved him off the road and wrapped him in a blanket her mum supplied when told. An ambulance stopped, said they weren’t able do anything but provided another blanket. Another woman appeared; she researched vet services. The small animal clinic in Bearsden—25 minutes away—was identified. The man and his wife phoned them and the clinic said they should bring Freddie in.
He died on the way there.
Pictures and promises
My little cat—one, two, three, four, five, six people all doing what they could to save him. Later that weekend, there was a knock on the door. The Good Samaritan and his wife, Dave and Laura, armed with a huge bunch of flowers, Laura in tears. “Our cat,” I told them, “had a brilliant life up until that twenty minutes before he died. We promise you.”
“Show Laura the pictures!” I instructed Sandy. True, my husband has always had far more pictures of Freddie on his phone than ones of anything else. Laura saw Freddie at his worst. I wanted her to see him curled up on our bed, sprawled on sunny spots in the garden, perched on the sofa and doing his best to open packets of Whiskas by himself.
(He could, you know.)
Acts of kindness
My other promise to Dave and Laura? I will remember your act of kindness for the rest of my life.
They don’t even live in my town.
And others’ too. My mum cried when I broke the news. My sisters phoned; animal lovers both. Our sister-in-law delivered a card and flowers. The friends I told came up with lovely words of comfort. My neighbour burst into tears as Freddie had visited her house regularly, mooching for food. A work colleague listened to the tale, glassy-eyed.
Human interaction and love never ceases to astonish me—the powerful together pull of it when you ask really matters.
The house creaks, empty and incomplete. I glance at the spare room automatically when I walk past, looking for Freddie who used to sleep in there. The draught from the front door moves the living room one and our eyes dart there, waiting for him to walk in. I take ham out of a packet, pole-axed with longing for my little cat who’d jump up if you held small pieces of meat above his head.
We will get another pet, one I’ll speak to in a silly voice, over-feed and assume uncomfortable positions in bed so he or she can sleep on me. Like Freddie, his predecessor Corrie, and Jazz the one before him, I’ll adopt from a shelter and shower him or her with love.
For now though, we rest, we reflect, we look at pictures of cats needing their forever home, and tell everyone we know about the extraordinary kindness people have shown us, and the comfort we have taken from it.
Do you like character lists at the start of a book? I do most of the time, though sometimes it’s hard to work out why they are there. Jilly Cooper did it a lot – probably because latterly her books contained so many characters it was hard to keep track of them.
I didn’t put a list in my romcom Highland Fling, but then added it to the version on Wattpad because I wanted to set the right funny note from the beginning.
Read on and tell me if the following list of characters intrigues you…
Gaby—the heroine of this story, fleeing a relationship gone wrong and too fond of the fictional Jamie Fraser.
Jack—an attractive Scottish red-head who frowns too often and refuses to take advantage of his resemblance to Jamie Fraser.
Mena—a fabulous, and fabulously-spoiled cat.
Katya—Gaby’s long-standing friend and an expert on Vitamin C and the signs that signal a person is lying.
Kirsty—the fabulously spoiled cat’s owner. Annoying and far richer than anyone her age ought to be.
Mhari—an about-to-be ‘friend’ of Gaby’s. A woman who has turned nosiness into an art form.
Dr McLatchie—a GP with an unhealthy interest in other people’s genitals.
Stewart—part-time coder, full-time bore and dog walker.
Scottie—his dog. Loves food, walkies and sitting in the pub, which is just as well given it’s his owner’s favourite place to be.
Jolene—a surprise in more ways than one.
Jamal—owner of a general store in which you can buy anything and everything, including over-priced smoked salmon, organic chicken and venison.
Dexter—an American, fond of hyperbole. Able to do the downward facing dog AND put his feet flat on the floor at the same time.
Ashley—the owner/manager of the Lochside Welcome, and maker of out-of-this-world pizzas. No-one is better at the 12-inch than this guy.
Big Donnie–a chap tall of height and big of berth. Wears a Barbour jacket at all times and displays an unhealthy interest in paintings of women.
Lachlan—an international man of mystery. Dodgy.
Ryan—a douche-bag. End of.
Guest appearances—Alex Jones and Matt Baker of The One Show. Also, Caitlin Cartier, a reality TV star and ‘self-made’ billionaire at the age of 21, thanks to the beauty company she set up. Some of you might think she is based on a real-life person. The author refers you to her disclaimer where she tells you everything in this book is fiction and any resemblance to real-life characters completely co-incidental.
This week I’m…
Drinking olive oil
We’re back from a week in Crete, where it’s obligatory for any tour to talk about extra virgin olive oil and its many health benefits. The Cretans splish-splosh it on everything, so it’s not surprising they are the world’s biggest consumers of the stuff getting through an average 36 litres a year.
Because we’d opted for the hand-luggage only flight, we could only bring back a measly 100ml of the stuff but I promise my meals from now on will contain liberal amounts. As gastronomic destinations go in general, Crete is tremendous. I ate one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever had—lamb kleftiko, a paper packet of tender meat oozing luscious thick gravy, and juices-soaked carrots and potatoes added in.
Recovering from mozzie bites
Seriously, did those little gits love me because I’ve got sweeter than usual blood? By the end of the week I’d counted 26 bites and my husband kept wrestling me, strait-jacket style, to stop me scratching them. If you ever want to experience the perfect definition of instant gratification—and why it isn’t worth it—get yourself a dozen or so mosquito bites and claw at them with long nails as soon as they begin to itch.
Result? Two seconds of relief and then bites that get infected.
A resident told us this year the island has suffered more than usual. The Cretans themselves were experiencing problems too. Chania’s newspaper says the problem has been caused by cutbacks in Government spraying programmes and in the past few years, the population has gone wild.
Every bar and restaurant we went to had its own resident cat, who could spot a sucker miles away. Here is the picture for proof. Up they came, positioning themselves beside your chair and yowling furiously until you gave them a bit of whatever you were eating.
My theory is that Cretan cats and cats in hotter countries are further along the evolutionary chain than those in the UK. They’ve lived alongside humans for far longer, and most of the ones we came across aren’t at all skittish around people. They are very noisy too. The cat’s miaow was developed to communicate with humans, but you don’t meet that many ‘talkative’ cats over here.
Unfortunately, part of the greater progress along the evolutionary chain is because they breed in vast quantities. We saw lots of kittens and young cats, and all kinds of amazing, unusual patterns. Again, in hot counties this is harder to control. Greece has suffered financially in recent years. There won’t be much money around for trap, neuter, release programmes.
For those of you outside the writing world, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual initiative encouraging writers to write the first draft of a novel or 50,000 words in one month. It sounds like a tall order, but if you break it down into 2,000 words a day every day, you’re in ‘eat that elephant one bite at a time’ territory.
My incentive is partly financial. I’m about to ditch Microsoft Word as I’m fed up of spending so much money on it every year when there are just as good freebies out there. Libre Office for example. And Scrivener is software specially created for writers, which you pay a one-off fee for. I’ve resisted it until now because I’m not keen on something that comes with a 45-minute tutorial. Manana never comes soon enough for me, so listening to that tutorial is a tall order. But Word isn’t great for working with long documents such as novels and I fancy Scrivener’s corkboard feature to help me plot.
How does this fit with NaNoWriMo? The folks that make Scrivener offer it at half-price if you complete NaNoWriMo. While on holiday, I outlined a plot using a one-page template I found online so in theory writing 2,000 words every day will be easier because I have an idea of what happens in each chapter instead of pantsing it.
I’m going to try my hand at a sweet romance, which will be a challenge for me. I’m filthy-mouthed (blame working in journalism and PR for that) so my novels tend to contain plenty of couthy language, the odd bit of sex and other adult themes. Sweet romance ‘rules’ mean no swearing, definitely no sex and the ‘climax’ is the kiss. Once that’s done, it’s game over. Sweet romance is HUGE in the indie publishing world and its top writers earn hundreds of thousands. As one writer put it, fans of ‘spicy’ romance, i.e. the sex stuff, will read sweet romance, whereas the opposite doesn’t usually apply.
Here are the first few paras:
“I didn’t mean to smash his heart into smithereens—and they were his words not mine—but if you want to make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs, don’t you?”
“Stop right there!” My best friend excels at bossiness. She gets up from the sofa and holds a hand out, traffic cop style.
“Do NOT mix up metaphors like that,” she begs. “Please. You’re hurting my ears.”
She’s a copywriter and very fussy about what people say in front of her. If you ever dare utter, do you know what I mean? at the end of a sentence, she jumps down your throat. No, I don’t know. That’s why you’re telling me. I cut that habit out after about the hundredth time she said it.
“Kelly!” I too am on the sofa in my about to be vacated home. I love this sofa too. It took me five visits to the SofasRUs (and all on the days when there were sofa sales so I wasted a lot of bank holidays) to find my perfect one. This is it. Dark red velvet, super squishy and big enough to fit four people, five if you know each other really well.
And tomorrow I say goodbye to this sofa. Just like I wave farewell to the coffee table I rescued from a junk yard, sanded down and varnished myself, the book shelves I built from flat packs accompanied by a lot of cursing, the laminated floorboards I laid one hot and sweaty weekend, the curtains…
Charlotte Amelia Richardson! My mother’s voice. This moping will not do. Kelly backs her up. Not in real life, but in my head; the two of them competing to see who can order me around the most.
Kelly rummages through her handbag and emerges with a large bar of chocolate that she waves triumphantly in front of me.
“Okay,” she says, “if you promise not to mix up any more metaphors and refrain from terrible clichés, I will break this bar in two and give you half.” She inspects the bar, checking the label. It’s the Oreo cookie one, tiny bits of biscuit crumb encased in thick slabs of chocolate.
“The much smaller half.”
I am not having that. I lurch forward and grab the bar from her hands, dancing away from her as she shrieks and tries to get it back. My fingers move fast, ripping through purple foil while Kelly howls, “No, no, no!” I jam it into my mouth, bite off a quarter and hand it back to her, tooth marks and all.
All’s fair in love and war, or love and chocolate, right?
You can read the rest of this chapter on Wattpad here. https://embed.wattpad.com/story/164480382
Wish me luck…
This week, I’m…
Recovering from the Glasgow half-marathon
Glasgow’s half-marathon is popular as the course is flat (ish, not quite as my rose-tinted ten years ago experience recalled) and many people achieve personal bests. I was thankful for its flatness, but speed wasn’t coming into it. Glasgow joggers run the gamut of weather types in late September, and the day was no exception – overcast and cloudy at first, then bright sunshine, heavy rain half-way through and repeat.
The crowds turned out to cheer us on. Little kids high-fived as many runners as were willing (me, every time), witty signs read Good Luck Random Stranger! This is great practice for the zombie apocalypse, and someone who’d drawn the poo emoji and asked if anyone needed one yet…
Grateful thanks to my support crew—my husband, my mum and her partner Neil, who cheered me on at the start and the end.
A race always means a reward meal—I opted for a protein, carb and fat overload in the form of Beef and Mac ‘n’ Cheese. You can buy this, but have you ever eaten a shop-bought mac ‘n’ cheese that made you sigh in contentment? No, I thought not. Most manufactured versions stint on the best bit, when the dish should be more a case of, would you like some pasta with your cheese?
To continue the celebration theme, I washed the lot down with a decent helping of pink Cava.
Writing short stories
I’m not sure what this achieves, except that I’ve seen it written about in ‘places’. My search history* is too vast to revisit anything unless I remember to do so an hour later, so heaven alone knows where I read that or if it’s even viable. But I have read it a few times so here goes!
Book marketing experts also bang on about the importance of the mailing list—*sighs*—and this book might end up being my freebie incentive. Sign up to my mailing list** and you too could be the proud owner of this free book, kind of thing.
Making spicy stuff
This year’s chili crop will outlast us. Good people, we grew a lot of chilies this year as you can see. And I’ve already made the rookie mistake—gosh, aren’t they small, better put a few of them in YEOWCH—so it’s one or two per recipe max. Thankfully, they freeze. Our house is about to become Curry Central.
Dieting the cat
Freddie’s vet visit and vaccination beckons, and I’d like to escape the annual lecture on the size of him. He’s bordering on moggie obese. So, a few weeks of strict portion control, no treats and definitely no sly helpings of ham.
Yeah, good luck with that one.
*And VERY confusing for Google.
**Which will of course be 100 percent GDPR compliant.
This Week I’m…
Supporting independent publishers, a la Comely Bank Publishing. Lucy’s Lloyd’s Russian Doll is out now, as is The Blogger Who Came in From The Cold. Available direct from the publishers here.
Peeing to help medical research. I spotted a poster recently, recruiting volunteers for research into the effects of the low-carb diet. I like to feel I can be useful so I stuck my hand up and said ‘yes please’, secretly hoping they might do tests and say, ‘Well, you ARE a special snowflake aren’t you? Never seen anyone with so much this, that or the other.’
Part of the initial sign-up involves 24 hours of pee collection. Oof, really? I said to myself. Not sure those flasks will hold everything…
Attending literary events, a la Booked 2018, West Dunbartonshire’s annual festival in celebration of books and writing. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is described as ‘a wry and hilarious account of life in Scotland’s biggest second-hand bookshop and the band of eccentrics and book-obsessives who work there’.
Celebrating my wedding anniversary—five years ago and the original raison d’être for this blog. (Flaw in the plan was that a run-up-to-the-wedding blog has a shelf life.) Flowers, chocolates and maybe a wee trip out this weekend beckons…
A fellow writer, Russell Conover, updates a dedicated Friday Flash Fiction blog and my story was in response to one he wrote. Both of us share a love of cats, and over the years we have created lots of stories about a fictional feline known as Alice’s cat.
Life on Pluto
If they send a cat to Pluto, its life expectancy increases by 20 years.
So, your average cat should live about 12 years. A Pluto-tripped cat has the potential to miaow for three times as long.
Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to humans. Their life expectancy decreases by 10 years.
Alice was yet to travel to Pluto. Though if she did, she could time her demise to fit in with that of her cat. A world without her precious pet didn’t bear thinking about.
She checked Rocket Flights 2Go. March’s special offers included half-price interplanetary travel.
She signed up.
You can also read more flash fiction on the flash fiction website here.