the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

Having a blast at the Mani Lit Fest

Over the weekend, I was delighted to present a workshop and talk at the Mani Lit Fest in the Peloponnese, Greece. The invitation came as a good excuse to continue our itinerant lifestyle and we’re spending the next month roaming around the country. Stoupa makes a delightful starting point and the Mani Lit Fest was a wonderful event to be involved with. I delivered a Get Creative! workshop where I shared prompts and exercises to generate ideas for short fiction. One of the participants had read This Much Huxley Knows and throughly recommended my novel to the gathered group. The following day, I gave a talk about my experience of being published by small presses. This was well received and an email arrived soon after from a member of the audience who said my input was thought provoking and reassuring.

There was a real buzz around the Lit Fest. The highlights for me included a talk from James Heneage (founder of the Chalke Valley History Festival and Ottakar’s bookshop chain) who shared stories from his new book The Shortest History of Greece. Carol McGrath gave a hilarious presentation on Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England (the name of her forthcoming non-fiction book) and then there was a delicious introduction to the cookbook Salt and Honey from Nicholas Tsakiris and his daughter. (David followed a chilli lentil recipe last night which was very tasty.)

The Lit Fest was held at a local restaurant where the venue created a cocktail in honour of Huxley. A non-alcoholic drink (Huxley is only seven years old) can you guess what it contains?

There was also delicious cake (enough for two) called Ekmek Kataifi. It’s made with a layer of syrupy shredded filo pastry, another of vanilla custard, a layer of whipped cream and topped with pistachios. It goes very well with Greek coffee although I think it’s also good with tea.

If you’d like to enter the Mani Lit Fest Flash Fiction Competition (I’m the judge), send up to 1000 words on the theme of return. The competition is free to enter and is open until 30 November 2021.

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Unusual connection

I received a direct message on Twitter this week from Rob Casey, a stand up poet, writer and performer who lives in Bridport. He teaches creative writing at Exeter College and is the Bard of Exeter City Football Club. While he was watching the first match of the season for Manchester City (against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Man City won 3-1), he noticed something about the kit that was relevant to me.

Training kit
Away kit

What do you notice? Love a bit of paisley, I do. Indeed I think the tear drop pattern is so great I named my first published book Paisley Shirt. It is a collection of short fiction and the title story is about a Polish man returning to visit a neighbour in the UK who helped to look after him as a child. With twenty-six other stories in this smart, square book there’s a lot of fiction to enjoy. Novelist and short story writer, Maria Donovan kindly endorsed the collection and says the stories are ‘sensitive, surprising, unnerving, tender and crucial.’ It’s easy to get a kindle copy or a paperback by popping over to Amazon. And, if you’re interested, you can read more about the history of the paisley pattern here.

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Milking an idea

I posted information last week about Covid19 writing opportunities and since then I’ve had two Coronavirus stories accepted for publication. Out of the Box is about cutlery trapped in a canteen during lockdown and it was shortlisted in the Staying Home competition run by Hammond House Publishing. You can read the story here.

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Once I get an idea for a story, I figure it’s worth milking, so I wrote another Covid19 lockdown story this time related to the experience of a wedding ring confined to a jewellery box. This was published by Pandemic Magazine and you can read the story here. There’s a great illustration to accompany my story, so it’s worth popping over for a look.

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Pandemic writing opportunities

Coronavirus has inspired even more people to write fiction. This is a good  thing because stuck at home or venturing out, anyone can take a leap into the world of their imagination. I have long argued that as humans we all need a creative outlet, be it gardening or cooking or painting. Writing is one of the most accessible forms of creativity because the resources required are no more than a piece of paper and a pen. And, with only the hand moving across the page, it’s not physically demanding either (although some of us do complain about writer’s bottom!)

In Dorset, our local history centre started a project in early April requesting people keep diaries of their experiences during the pandemic. The aim is to ensure that future generations can look back on the present day’s experience and understand the impact of Coronavirus across the county.  I look forward to reading the Corona Diaries when they are published.

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What is it with me?

Just when I gain the skills and confidence to be good at something, I decide to move on and try something new. I can see this pattern in my writing. First I was all enthusiastic about flash fiction, then writing a novel. Poetry got shoe-horned between the two and now I’m into children’s literature. Others like to consolidate their learning and deepen their understanding but I’m more interested in starting the next new project. What is it with me?

 

I came to reflect on the meandering journey of my writing career when I shared with a friend my new passion for cycling. It started with a bad knee. When I came back from Uganda into lockdown UK, I decided to use the full one hour per day of time we were allowed to exercise. Hence my runs lengthen from 6km to 8km and I was out every single day. I knew from half marathon training that running each day is not recommended but I became so focused on running further and faster that I ignored my better judgement until my knee buggered. Then even walking was painful and after a week of elevating my leg and applying frozen peas, my knee was better. So, as lockdown continued and my need to get out every day grew, I took up cycling. I was amazed that my lady shopper bike that had never been used since arriving in Dorset in 2007 still had tyres fit to cycle on.

When I started to become fit in 2017, I so enjoyed swimming. Loved going back to the sport I enjoyed as a child and even re-taught myself how to swim front crawl and regularly completed forty lengths of the pool. The only trouble with swimming is the drag of getting to the pool only to end up wet and cold. So, running was an improvement on that. I could start my exercise on leaving the front door and running in any weather certainly warms you up. Now my passion is cycling. This is good to do in the time of Coronavirus because you have to grip the handlebar and there’s no chance of touching anything untoward while out and about.

So with this background in changing exercise routines, should I think about doing a triathlon? Certainly not. It’s one obsession at a time for me. And so for my writing. It’s all about children’s literature at the moment. This week finds me busy making contact with book bloggers who specialise in children’s picture books and I’ve also attended several sessions at an online children’s literature festival. So with the publication of Pan de mo nium scheduled for December, what is my next project going to be? I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s got something to do with podcasts.

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Waterloo Festival 2020

The Waterloo Festival has been running for ten years and it’s a great celebration of community and creativity. St John’s Church is behind this venture and works with partners in the area to generate a variety of creative happenings during the festival month of June. I’ve entered the annual writing competition for three years in a row and I’ve been fortunate to be amongst the winners each time. In previous years there has been an opportunity to share our stories in the church and I love taking the opportunity for a trip to London. I have a particular fondness for Waterloo. Coming into the station by train, I catch sight of the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben between high rise buildings.

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Photo taken from the sky for Pixabay NOT the train!

During my London life, I worked for a charity with offices is situated in The Cut. After work I often met friends or went to one of the shows at the Old Vic or the Young Vic which are both nearby theatres.  Indeed the National Theatre is only around the corner and walking along the South Bank of the Thames is one of my favourite things to do. A scene for my novel The String Games is set there:

Where the path narrows, Imogen lingers watching the Thames. Waves of slate and mottled brown weave together like twine. It’s low tide and the river has shrunk, making a beach. Imogen leans against the railing and a glimpse of winter sun is a reward for leaving the office at lunchtime. A woman is standing by the water’s edge and in the shallows there is a boy in wellington boots …

This year the Waterloo Festival has gone online. At the launch of the ebook anthology  ‘Transforming Communities’, I met lots of fellow writers via Zoom. There was a chance for chat and some winners read their stories. Here we all are, spruced up for an online party.

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Thanks to Euchar Gravina director of the Waterloo Festival 2020 for hosting the event and Gill James for organising the competition.

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Scratched Enamel Heart, Amanda Huggins

Here’s a treat for you. Amanda Huggins joins The Writer is a Lonely Hunter to answer a few questions about her latest (fabulous) short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart.

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About Scratched Enamel Heart

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

About Amanda

Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea, which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards, and a second collection, Scratched Enamel Heart, which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which is currently shortlisted for  a Saboteur Award.

She has been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

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Questions for Amanda

Your stories in Scratched Enamel Heart are set in different countries and locations. How do you decide on a setting for your story. What is the importance of the place in the development of your story?

It has always been important to me that my fiction has a strong sense of place – something I’ve carried over from my travel writing. Sometimes an idea for the setting comes first, and the story that follows is inspired and shaped by certain aspects of the location. The landscapes and cities in which the stories are set became important characters in their own right. They can reflect emotions or influence characters’ behaviour – such as the way the wait for the monsoon rains affects Maggie’s decisions in ‘A Longing for Clouds’, and the heat and desert landscape have an effect on Miranda in ‘Distant Fires’ – two stories set in the sensory overload of India. Closer to home, a snow-filled London becomes a major character in ‘A Brightness To It’, forming a soft-edged cocoon around the main characters. Two strangers bond in a soulless hotel room after a chance encounter, and are protected from the reality of the outside world by the beauty of their snow-changed environment – yet the city is only temporarily altered, and this reflects their own fragile situation. In ‘Red’, Mollie is trapped on Oakridge Farm with her mother and violent stepfather, and the vast spaces and relentless red dust of the American mid-west are a contrast to her confinement. The open plains and the endless highway offer freedom, yet the landscape is also hostile and bleak, holding up a mirror to her predicament. One of my favourite locations is Japan. My stories are often about displacement and alienation, trying to find connection, about lost characters in big cities. This can go hand in hand with the notion of things never being exactly as they seem, of them being a little off-centre, misunderstood, or lost in translation – and Japan is the perfect backdrop to reflect that.

The stories in Scratched Enamel Heart range in length from a single side to several pages. How do you decide the length of each story?

It’s not often that I set out to write a piece of fiction of a particular length. I’m usually exploring an idea without knowing where it will take me – it could end up being 300 words or 3000 words. Sometimes, when a longer story isn’t working, I find it can be pared right down to a one-page story that works much better. However, I am writing longer stories most of the time right now, and in doing so I seem to be going against the trend. As more writers are turning towards short flash pieces, I find I’m leaning towards longer fiction!

Congratulations on signing with Victorina Press for the publication of your novella. It’s good to have you onboard as a fellow Victorina Press author. You’ve also had a collection of poetry recently published, the wonderful The Collective Nouns For Birds. What’s it like being a writer of short fiction, long fiction and poetry? How do you manage your time?

Thanks, Gail! I’m already enjoying working with the Victorina team – and it’s lovely to share a publisher with writers I know, such as yourself and Chris Fielden. All our Squandered Beauty is my first novella, and is based around the title story from my first short story collection, Separated From the Sea.

The Collective Nouns for Birds began to take shape when I was snowed-in at a cottage in the North Pennines. I didn’t plan to write a collection – I was just feeling my way at first, as I hadn’t written any poetry since my late teens. However, I discovered I really enjoyed writing it, and the poems started to come together as a loosely themed body of work. A review by Amanda McLeod sums it up better than I can:  “Huggins explores…all the ways in which we lose things, the clarity and sometimes sadness that retrospection can bring. There is the transition from childhood to adulthood, the parting of lovers and friends, loss of life, of special places.”

I don’t think poetry and short fiction are always that different from each other. My prose style leans towards the lyrical/poetical, and I tend to write narrative poetry, so for me there is a real crossover between the two forms. Sometimes a poem will morph into a short story and vice versa – there are a couple of poems in my collection which also feature as flash pieces in Scratched Enamel Heart.

Longer fiction is a relatively new direction for me, and once again it’s something that has come about by accident rather than by design. Both my novellas have developed from short stories, and in each case it was because several readers wanted to know what happened next after those original stories had ended.

I sometimes find it difficult to manage my time – especially as I have a day job four days a week – but once I’m committed to a project then I always finish it before moving on to the next thing. I already have a ‘next thing’ in sight actually – and it may well turn out to be the longest writing project I’ve undertaken to date!

Wow, Amanda. You are so prolific. Good luck with your next project!

If you’re interested in learning more about Amanda, you can read a previous interview here.

Where to find Amanda

@troutiemcfish

https://troutiemcfishtales.blogspot.com/

Where to purchase Scratched Enamel Heart

Available from 27 May from Amazon 

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My review of Scratched Enamel Heart

This short fiction collection contains twenty-four emotionally-charged stories that take readers on a journey to households and communities in a range of countries. Through these stories, Amanda Huggins cleverly shows us the commonality of emotional experience. That feelings of isolation, love, grief, loss and regret occur in different backgrounds and cultures. And equally, that hope and the promise of a fresh start is possible. Amanda Huggins writes in a beautiful and empathetic way to immerse readers in the challenges and dilemmas she presents to her characters. As readers we care about these characters and learn from them. This is a truthful, authentic and essential read.

 

 

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A new way to plan your fictional stories

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A sunny morning in Stockholm

I came away from the Stockholm Writers Festival in May with some fabulous new approaches to writing fiction that I’d like to share with you. The techniques I describe are suitable for use in flash fiction, short stories and longer work. This post draws from separate workshop sessions I attended which were delivered by Jessie Lourey and Cassie Gonzales:

  • Jessie focused on using life experiences to fuel fictional writing. She recommends mining your life story to identify powerful emotions that can be invested into your characters. We’ve all experienced fear, power, joy etc and it’s by connecting with the emotions and writing them into your character’s story arc that it’s possible to create very effective fiction.
  • Cassie Gonsalez shared her approach to creating layered stories by using dialogue which is more than just expository. By thinking about the said, the unsaid and the unsayable, it’s possible to develop narratives that suggest a bigger story than simply the words on the page.

Applying the learning:

Years ago, I had coffee with a woman who told me a story about being terrified of storms. To prevent this fear being passed to her children, whenever there was a storm, she opened the curtains and gathered her children to admire the thunder and lightening while all the time she stood rigid and blinked back fear. I decided to use this as an idea for a story but because I’m not afraid of storms, I drew upon Jessie’s advice to identify an occasion when I was truly petrified and I remembered the time muggers set upon me. With these emotions captured, I then turned to Cassie’s advice.

Cassie shared a visual she had developed to analyse how dialogue works in fiction between two characters with a focus on the said, the unsaid and the unsayable. The idea here is to complete the model by identifying the emotions underneath the interactions between two characters in considering their wants, needs, loves and fears. (I added the word ‘theme’ to the grid where Cassie has used the term ‘third thing’.)

 

wants needs loves fears
Character 1  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Character 2  

 

 

 

 

 

theme unsaid unsayable

Rather than share the stories we analysed in the workshop, I’ll present how I used Cassie’s model as a planning grid to support the writing of a flash fiction piece, Chink, which has been published by Cabinet of Heed, issue 22.

 

Theme: empowerment

wants needs loves fears
Kate

 

courage

 

to be free

 

independence

 

being alone

 

Robert

 

possession of his wife to be in control power being alone
theme unsaid unsayable

 

The grid is a little difficult to explain without reading the story, so I suggest you read the two in conjunction to see if what I’ve mapped out fits with your understanding of the story.

Chink

A navy sky extinguishes the day. Sitting on the balcony, Kate reflects upon her laziness. No excursions to the volcano for Kate, just a sunbed, a pile of paperbacks and the company of Robert. Still wearing his shorts, Robert stretches his legs then scratches a mosquito bite on his knee. Kate is cool in her strappy dress. She reaches for the tumbler, drains the contents then crunches a sliver of ice.

‘One more before we go down for dinner?’ he asks.

 But he’s not even dressed. Hasn’t yet had a shower.

‘No thank you,’ she says. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Good.’ He sits back in his chair.

What now? She waits. Irritation makes her skin prick.

‘Are you going to have steak again tonight?’ she asks.

‘Think I’ll ask for it blue this time.’

Yes, so raw it’s almost mooing.

From behind the mountains comes a rumble. Although Kate knows these steamy days can lead to storms, she hopes she’s wrong. Holding her breath, she clutches the armrests and counts. A flash comes before she’s reached number eight. She’s rigid in the chair but Robert gets up for a better look.

‘It’s coming this way.’ His voice is gleeful and he cocks his head. Doesn’t he know it’s ridiculous to swagger in flip-flops?

‘I’ll get inside.’ Kate reaches for her bag but when she turns, Robert is blocking the doorway.

‘Surely by now you can face it.’

She hesitates. Does he know what she’s thinking? What she’s planning? Of course not! Robert means the lightening.

‘Let me pass,’ she says.

‘No.’ He grabs her shoulders and manoeuvres her for a better view. Kate closes her eyes, resists his pinching grip.

‘There’s no point in struggling,’ he says. ‘You can’t be scared all your life.’

Kate breathes through her mouth, takes comfort from the steady pumping of her heart, listens to the gushes from her lungs. The crack and the searing light skewer her to the spot but she controls the trembling.

‘See, it’s not so difficult, is it?’

When the thunder comes again, she’s ready. This time with eyes wide open she waits for the crack and watches the chink of light brighten the gloom. A path to her future is illuminated. She can do it. She really can.

It is by using Cassie’s grid that I was able to indentify the theme of the story as empowerment. Rather than the storm diminishing Kate, by facing it, she is able to also face an independent future. It is ironic that Robert assists her in this journey by forcing her to watch the storm.

I hope this post is of use to you in your writing. If you’d care to comment, I’d love to hear what you think. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet voted for The String Games in The People’s Book Prize, please pop over to the website. All you have to do is scroll down to add your details, tick the newsletter box then press submit. It’ll only take two minutes to complete but I will be forever grateful!

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Copenhagen, Stockholm and the Writers Festival

I don’t watch much television but David and I thoroughly enjoyed the Scandinavian noir crime series The Bridge.  With Saga Norén as the lead detective (it is suggested she has Asperger’s), audiences follow collaborative investigations between Sweden and Denmark.  Before this programme, I had never been aware of the significance of the Øresund/Öresund Bridge in linking the two countries and this seeded an idea for a visit.

It was from a tweet by writer Lizzie Harwood, that I became aware of the second Stockholm Writers Festival (SWF) scheduled for the beginning of May 2019. The programme included writers I was keen to meet and became the incentive I needed to book a trip to Denmark and Sweden. Once the flights were organised, we left it to the last minute to find accommodation in Copenhagen and by chance, we ended up in a good hotel located close to the Langelinie promenade. Each morning we took a run to visit the Little Mermaid statue, then followed a path along the ramparts of the fort then bought pastries for breakfast which we ate on the rooftop of the hotel.

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After four nights in Copenhagen, we travelled across the bridge by train to Stockholm and stayed at an airbnb in the city. The SWF began on Friday afternoon with a celebration of winning writers from the First Pages competition, followed by a literary quiz and mingling in a bar. The festival brought together English language writers in Sweden and participants from other countries. On Saturday and Sunday there were a range of workshops offered, panel discussions, talks, opportunities for networking and one-to-ones with agents. I attended two workshops that were particularly empowering and they have enabled me to revisit pieces of flash fiction and develop them for publication. (One of these stories has since been accepted by FlashFlood, the National Flash Fiction Day journal which will appear on the website on 15 June.) The first workshop was delivered by Jessica Lourey who shared strategies to identify powerful emotions from personal history to feed fictional stories. The other was a workshop on developing dialogue delivered by Cassie Gonzales which highlighted elements of the said, the unsaid and the unsayable. The two inputs dovetailed to create a valuable resource in plotting fiction.

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Now I’m back at home and I’m delighted to be able to apply the new skills I developed at the festival. I’m also thrilled to be part of a new writing community and have connected with many participants at the festival through social media. Thank to you to Catherine Pettersson, founder of the festival, and all those who have supported it to make the event so successful.

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