Pining for pubs…

Highland Chances, the fourth in my Highland Books series, is due out next week—Thursday 18 June 2020.

I started writing the book on 1 January, a time that now feels as if it was in the dim and distant past. Who knew how much our lives would change? I write this from a privileged position. No-one I know contracted the virus and died, and so far—though that is likely to change—neither has anyone lost their job.

Still, 1 January 2020… a very different time. My books are all set in the present day, and yet that version of the ‘present’ day’ has now changed for so many people all over the world. I write about pubs, public gatherings, people hugging left, right and centre. If someone had told me on New Year’s Day, “Hey, you do know you’re chronicling a world that is about to disappear with some aspects of it never to return?”, I might have tipped my head to the side in disbelief.

Motorbike tours

Highland Chances centres around a village pub/hotel in the north-west of Scotland. Most summers, I clamber on the back of my husband’s motorbike and we roar off in search of scenery, castles to visit, pubs where we’ll eat booze-soaked lunches (well, I do; as the driver he refrains), B&Bs with lochside views and indie hotels.

Not a trip to the Highlands, but Kirkcudbright where I grew up … the street created when the creamery was demolished is named after one of its original founders, my great-grandfather.

[In one Nairn establishment years ago, I shared its small gym with Tilda Swinton, no less. She asked me if I’d finished with the Swiss ball at one point.

Will many of these small places survive? April is/was the start of the tourism season in the UK. The road outside my house, the A82, should have been packed with cars heading north—especially because the weather throughout April and most of May was so warm and dry.

Social distancing in pubs

Now it’s mid-June. Pubs, restaurants and most hotels remain closed, while their owners grapple with how they can implement safety through social distancing in spaces where people are meant to squeeze together, all of us enjoying humanity at close quarters.

The best holidays I’ve taken with my husbands were those motorbike trips around Scotland. I can close my eyes and summon up a jumble of heavy velvet curtains, twin beds pushed together, the smell of chips that lingers everywhere, crisp white linen tablecloths, bacon for breakfast and wooden tables you need to shove beermats under the legs to stop them wobbling.

Not all the food is good. Some places charged a fortune for a glass of red wine. Depending on the time of year, there’s often a layer of boredom that hangs in the air—a place too quiet; its staff simply going through the motions.

Now, that was good grub…

And yet, so many of those pubs and hotels may well vanish. Will we speed through small towns and villages with too many buildings boarded up or marked with tatty for sale signs? The thought of it makes me want to cry.

On the upside, a surge in domestic tourism might be on the cards. Most people may feel like me—reluctant to fly anywhere for a while. Particularly if you need to quarantine upon return. Will they surge to pubs and hotels in their own country when they reopen, having been starved of such entertainment for months?

Time will tell. I hope so.

Highland Chances is available for pre-order here.

Writing in lockdown

What day is it—March the 97th as someone asked recently? One set of 24 hours segues into the next with little to differentiate them.

COVID-19—you’ve well outstayed your welcome on planet Earth. Not that we wanted you in the first place.

But boredom and confining ourselves to our homes is a tiny price to pay when the alternative is mass infection and deaths. So far, I know five people who have had the virus and recovered. No-one close to me has died. Fingers crossed tightly that continues.

Small pleasures…

The powers that be have now deemed it okay to get in your car and drive a short distance to a local beauty spot to go for a walk. My husband has promised me a trip to his golf course and a meander over it.

One of the regulars at my online Pilates class is now a grandma. We clapped. She has seen the baby from a distance.

Any meal I make that involves a creative reimagining of ingredients retrieved from the freezer or the back of cupboards (one year old? More?).

3D book cover for Highland Chances by Emma Baird feel good fiction storiesThis new and beautiful cover for the latest novel in my Highland Books series, Highland Chances… the graphic designer who made it for me is herself finishing off her latest book—a chick lit novel that features people travelling to New Zealand and working in cafes and bars, etc.

Did it now count, she asked, as historical romance?

Highland Chances, coincidentally, touches a lot on working from home. But similar to my designer friend, the book also has that feel of a time that will not return for months if not years. People in pubs. Large gatherings. Big parties in offices. Shaking hands with strangers*.

Some weeks ago, the radio station I listen to (BBC Radio 1—I’m way, way out of their target demographic) featured a couple of stories of people who’d only been dating for a few weeks when the lockdown kicked in.

As a writer, I found that impossible to resist, even though it feels crass and exploitative… But hey, writing is truly narcissistic. That urge to put it down on paper (well, the screen) overrides everything.

Anyway, here’s the intro:

The Leap of Faith

Things I don’t know about Tom:

  • What he takes in his coffee. If he likes coffee.
  • Who he voted for in the last election. Though I think I can guess.
  • When he came to Scotland.
  • His romantic history. A childhood sweetheart? A steady girlfriend up until now? Serial monogamy? Sexual encounters too numerous to list?
  • If he has siblings. His position in the family. (As the youngest child in a family of high achievers, I place a lot of stock in older/younger sibling dynamics and how that shapes you.)
  • His second name.

And yet tomorrow we are moving in together. More specifically, Tom will pack his bags into an old Ford Focus, drive the 35 minutes it takes to cross the city (less now we are in lockdown?) where I will welcome him with open arms. And try not to bleat, “Wipe your feet!” if he doesn’t do it automatically the second he enters my home.

Modern life, hmm? That old Abba classic keeps playing in my head, Take a Chance on Me. My family and friends queue up behind me, their expressions astonished. “Sophs! You’re, like, the least impulsive person ever! Why are you doing this?”

My brother nods his head fervently. My sister threatens a visitation. One where we conduct a two metres apart conversation. It takes place. I stand in the doorway and she yells at me from the garden gate, teenage daughter in tow, her phone in hand. She glances up briefly. “Yo, Aunt!” I sketch her a wave and hope it counts as cool in her world.

“Sophie!” my sister shrieks. “What do you know about this guy? He’ll have Googled you, you idiot! I bet he’s rubbing his hands together in glee.”

Her words are nothing I haven’t already said to myself. My mum’s face shimmers in front of me. Dark hair streaked with grey and wide-tipped glasses she pushes up her nose all the time. Her mouth twitches. “Well,” she says, “this is a turn up for the books! Devil may care. I love it!” In my head, she blows me a kiss. My eyes prickle.

I close my door, thanking Josie for her concern. Darla winks at me. Fifteen-year-old approval. I wait till her mother has turned to point her key at the car and wink back. Darla lifts her phone and mouths something at me. ‘Tell me what happens, yeah?’ my best guess.

The timing couldn’t be better though. As Josie’s ginormous pristine Land Rover pulls away, a dusty black Ford Focus slowly edges its way along the street, its driver alternately peering down and up—the universal look of someone using his phone to find an address.

I wave. He stops.

“Tom!” My enthusiasm is double, treble, quadruple what it might have been. Blame it on Josie. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

He gets out of his car and swears—the f-word too loud in our now traffic-subdued streets. “Jesus!” he says, the Irish accent turning it into Jayzus. “I’d no idea you were that grand.”

Things Tom doesn’t know about me.

Everything.

Thanks for reading! Highland Chances is now available for pre-order at Amazon here, and if you want to find out if Sophie and Tom’s fledgling relationship makes it, you can read the story for free on Wattpad.

© Emma Baird 2020

*Someone suggested that we employ the late 18th/early 19th century methods of greeting people a la Jane Austen from now on—a courtly bow or a small curtsey. An excellent idea, hmm?

March, maggots, mussels and miles of walking…

We’re 11 days into March and so far, there have been at least six dry days. In the UK, we slogged our way through the wettest February since records began—and that’s quite something when you live on this little island.

It’s a strange time too… the weirdness of living in a world where we’re terrified of a virus and how that translates. Cancellation of events. People changing their holiday plans. Signs everywhere telling you to wash your hands. The threats to the economy as the stock market quakes in its boots…

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you and your loved ones are okay. Stay safe.

Mussels for lunch

After my father died, my mum established a tradition where she, my sisters and I (without our families) meet up, which is always something I look forward to. The heady responsibility to book somewhere for lunch fell to me. Three hours (felt like) of TripAdvisor paralysis later, I decided on the Mussel Inn, somewhere I’ve always meant to visit and not got round to.

And very nice it was too…

Otherwise, I’m busy writing the fourth in my Highland Books series. I’ve finished it but it needs major tidying up. Think of it as a big house where a group of students decided to party hard all weekend. There’s spilt alcohol all over the floors, a mass of dirty glasses and plates everywhere and as for what those dodgy stains are upstairs, I dread to think…

Anyway, here is a short, spoiler-free extract. Enjoy!

Highland Chances

Ashley’s appearance took me aback. He seemed to have shrunk drastically, the head and shoulders sticking out the top of the blanket and sheets much smaller than I remembered. At the bottom of the bed, a frame held the blanket above a heavily bandaged foot, the skin there an inflamed, mottled purple colour.

“Have you bought food,” he whispered, one eye on the nurses pulling the curtains around the bed opposite. “They gave me porridge this morning that could hae doubled up as wallpaper paste. Nae sugar because of the diabetes, nae salt because of the stroke risk and nae cream as my cholesterol levels are sky-high. Made with water. Water! I’ve never tasted anything so flavourless in ma whole life!”

“Er… we’ve got tangerines?” I said, holding up the bag. Caroline had warned us beforehand that Ashley would beg for food. “And he’s got tae change his diet,” she warned. “Otherwise, the diabetes will kill him in five years!”

He let out a huge sigh, holding out a hand to take them. “Better than nothing, I s’pose. Have a seat.”

Jack pulled me up a chair and got himself one so we could sit either side of Ashley.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Must be a relief to have a diagnosis.”

Ashley sighed. “Aye, I guess so. But Caroline’s already read me the riot act—nae sugar, nae salt, low-carb this and that, lots o’ exercise and sleep and she wants me to start meditating. Meditating! I’m no’ sitting on the floor cross-legged saying ‘um’ all day.”

Quite. I’d been given the meditating line too. I made Jack try it with me, the two of us sitting opposite each other on the floor cross-legged and concentrating on our breath. We lasted 30 seconds before I flicked my eyes open only to discover him doing his best not to snort with laughter. When I read that mindlessness was the new mindfulness, I cheered. See? Justification for watching too much of The Real Housewives of New York and/or Love Island.

“And as for that yin,” Ashley gestured towards a harassed-looking doctor walking past us in the corridor outside trailed by two students. “He came in this morning, took one look at my right foot and started muttering things about maggots. Maggots! This hospital is trying out a new treatment where they put wee beasties on ulcers to eat away aw’ the dead tissue. Have ye ever heard the like? Wee white things wrigglin’ all ower ye, and—”

The details were far too graphic for me. I heaved myself up and bolted for the bathroom, a shout of “Hey, that’s patients only!” ringing out after me. Up came that morning’s breakfast and last night’s supper.

“Are you okay?” Jack tapped lightly on the door. “The nurse has gone to fetch you some water.”

I unpeeled myself and attempted standing. Oh, this was ridiculous. Surely, I should be able to pick myself up? A further minute of undignified lurching and unbalancing convinced me I couldn’t.

“Er—can you give me a hand?” Thankfully, in my haste to escape Ashley and his far-too-graphic maggots description, I hadn’t locked the door. Jack tried and failed to hide a grin as he took in the sight of me sprawled on the floor.

Like what you’ve read? The Highland Books—Highland Fling, Highland Heart, Highland Wedding and the box set of the three books—are available on Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play, etc. Click on the links above, which will take you to the store front of your choice.

©Emma Baird 2020

 

 

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!

Highland Weddings and ginger cats

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?

Highland Books box set by Emma BairdYou 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.

Mists, mellow fruitfulness and books

This week I’m…

Revelling in autumn. You can keep spring. Autumn is GORGEOUS—the trees turning such beautiful colours and the spiders webs you spot on hedges, doors, railings (everywhere, really). Plus, we get to wear more clothes (always a bonus), dig out boots and feel less guilty about getting into bed with a book at 7pm just because. (For much, much better outdoor autumn pics, check out Sunshine and Celandines post about Strid Wood here.)

Wishing I was braver. This ties in with the paragraphs above. Enjoying nature means you automatically worry about the future, and the lack of action governments and businesses are making to ensure Planet Earth remains habitable. I’ve been following the Extinction Rebellion revolts, applauding as ordinary people glue their hands to pavements, deliver climate change lectures on planes and ultimately get themselves arrested. I love the ‘uncooperative crusties’ and what they are doing. “Emma,” I said to myself this week, “you could handle an arrest, couldn’t you?” Promise, promise, promise next year I will carry out action.

Eating more plant-based. See above! Most of the time, I follow a low-carb diet because I have type 1 diabetes and that is the way of eating that works best for me. It’s never sat well with how I feel about animals. (Love ‘em!) But I’ve been making more of an effort to explore alternatives such as tofu and Quorn and reduce how much meat and dairy I eat.

Eating at a Glasgow institution. Despite having lived in Glasgow or nearby for seventeen years now, I have never visited Rogano’s—Glasgow’s oldest restaurant. As the great Cunard liner, the Queen Mary, was built on the Clyde in the 1930s, a restaurant was refitted in the same Art Deco style and a Glasgow stalwart was born. The 30s feel is delightful and the food delicious. (I, er, veered away from plant-based, too tempted by the Stornoway black pudding topped with a perfectly poached egg and chorizo crumb.)

Publishing books. Ah yes! Highland Heart, the second in the Highland Books came out this week. Funnily enough, it begins in autumn…

Writing #romcoms and in series

End of September, Emma B, I said to myself. Book one in the Highland Books series, Highland Fling was released in June. I plucked a date out of the air and promised that was when I’d release book two to keep the momentum going.

The best laid plans of mice and men… However, I have put the cover, description and other meta date on Amazon and specified a release date on 10th October. It’s now available for pre-order here. Do you thrive under pressure? I’m about to find out just how much I do. Or don’t.

Highland Heart – the blurb

Anyway, here’s the blurb…

Highland Heart by Emma BairdAn absent boyfriend and a charmer close by—who would you choose?

We booked every room in this hotel,” he said, and the anticipation-already at fever pitch-heightened. If she held a hand out now, her fingers would shake.

He took her hand, his own warm, solid and enveloping. “We’ll sneak up there. Before anyone notices. I’ll order room service.

The follow-up to Highland Fling, Highland Heart follows the story of Katya and Dexter—lovers who met at a magical village in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, but who begin to drift apart.

She wants him; he wants her but there are thousands of miles between them.

Meanwhile, there’s a new dude in town. Zac is fun, flirtatious and determined to seduce Katya. The trouble is, can she resist? Especially as Dexter seems to be throwing himself into his work as marketing manager for a big reality TV star and her brand-new make-up company on a mission to take over the world.

And what about his relationship with Caitlin, the reality TV star he works for? Is it one hundred percent professional or are those photos that keep popping up in her Instagram feed as innocent as he professes?

Village shenanigans, an eccentric cast of lovable characters and a catch up with Gaby and Jack of Highland Fling fame, Highland Heart explores what happens once the initial spark wears off.

Reviews

Reviews of Highland Fling from Amazon.co.uk

It’s a great mix of funny moments and that ‘does he like me’ awkwardness. This book is full of witty dialogue, quirky characters you just know you’d recognise if you met them, and scenery that comes to life, making you want to hop in your car and go there.”

Took only 4 nights to devour this book, and I loved every page. The story and characters were very credible, in that the lead man is somebody I wouldn’t mind the “love guru” setting me up with. A great funny romantic read, ideal for holidays or a rainy day in.”

Reviews of Highland Fling from goodreads.com

A hilarious book full of quirky characters and deliciously super awkward moments. Gaby was easy to relate to and her love interest definitely swoon-worthy 🙂 Made me want to visit Scotland.”

The ‘deep’ series

I’ve finished Highland Wedding, the third book in the series. From everything I’ve read about successful indie publishing (and it works well if you’re traditionally published too), a ‘deep’ series is the way to go—i.e. five plus books.

My own reading preferences back this up. I’m happy to keep reading in a series even if I didn’t particularly enjoy the latest book in that series because the characters and settings are familiar. It’s not as much effort as emerging yourself in a brand new world.

I feel this with the author Lindsey Davis who writes crime fiction set in Ancient Rome. Most of the time I can’t work out the crime and I lose track of characters but I keep reading the books because the main characters appeal to me.

Crime is the easiest to write in a series because you can use a ‘fresh’ crime for each book and put the development of the main character (the detective or whatever) on a slow burn. I wish I could write crime. That and thrillers are my favourite ‘relaxing’ genre to read—nothing like escapism through psychopaths and the people chasing them, hmm?

What do I do for my Highland romcom books though? Highland Baby? Highland Divorce? Highland Tinder (or Gindr for that matter) and concluding with Highland Funeral? (The latter might not be a barrel of laughs.)

Anyway, a bit of thinking to do.

Highland Wedding #romcom

couple in wedding outfitsAh, the writer’s life… I’ve started the final book in my trilogy, the Highland Books. Called Highland Wedding, it’s a fascinating insight into the funeral industry… I’m kidding.

Highland Wedding is a rom-com starring the two characters from book one, Highland Fling. Here’s a short excerpt:

“Jack, will you marry me?”

Plenty of people are traditionalists. They believe, even though we are well into the 21st century, that it is still the man’s job to propose marriage. When I said to Katya I was thinking of proposing to Jack, she told me to go for it. The modern woman blah blah… before shuddering.

My best friend has a dim view of marriage, given her mother’s track record. And she hates the idea of being the centre of attention. As do I. Just not as much.

Jack and I live together and we share a cat—an old, grumpy moggie called Mildred. Not my idea, the name but her previous owner was an old guy who needed to go into residential care. The home didn’t allow pets (backwards of them) so we inherited her. I love Mildred. She thinks I’m okay and Jack she tolerates—just. This is the norm with cats. If dogs think they are human, a cat thinks it is God.

My point is there’s no need for Jack and I to get married—I just think we should. And I know our friends and neighbours in the small village where we live would be delighted. It’s a long time since there’s been a wedding in Lochalshie. Funerals are standard, but nuptials are few and far between. The only other candidates are our friends Stewart and Jolene, and Jolene point blank refuses. Katya says she reckons Jolene doesn’t want to tie the knot just in case someone better comes along. And with Stewart that bar isn’t high.

Back to my proposal… I’ve discussed it with Katya, sworn her to secrecy and chosen a date. A year—give or take a day or two—to the day we first got together, although we’ve known each other much longer than that.

The venue for where I pop the question? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the annual Lochalshie Highland Games and a rare sunny day in a remote village in the north-west of Scotland…