Monday, 3 August 2015

Creative writing inspiration is all around you

One of the most frequently asked questions of writers is 'where do you get your ideas from?' The answer is they're everywhere. One of the simplest ways to start writing creatively is to pick three random words and make up a story.  

Here's an example: This afternoon I spotted a smiley cat on Twitter with the phrase 'Smiling is contagious' and knocked out the short story below using those three words in about 30 minutes. It's a bit rough but you'll get the idea.  

Smiling is contagious, that's what they say so why is it so hard? There's my mum sitting in the corner knitting away sharing the latest gossip with... With... I can't remember that man. Why can't I remember him? Who is he? My mum must know him well, see how he looks at her, there's a sense of long suffering patience in that glance. 

Hello, I'm here. 

I want to smile, to redirect their attention to me but I can't. I have to wait, like him, until the needles stop and my mum looks up, and when she does it's as though she sees him for the first time. The knitting is discarded as they both move towards me. 

My mum's holding my hand, stroking my forehead. 

'Hello love, me and your dad have been hoping you would wake up. You've been in an accident and your jaw is broken, so don't try to smile sweetheart. The doctors have reset it and you'll be back to your old self very soon. Everything's going to be alright.'

I feel him take my other hand in his, the coarseness of his builder's palm against mine and I recognise my dad's touch. I remember the moment I turned away, inattentive, running out of the house and into the road. 

The impact as I bounced onto the bonnet and into the window shield. 

The sound of tyres screeching, my bones shattering and my dad's work boots thundering across the tarmac. 

They'd been talking about divorce and I couldn't bear it, the thought of my parents splitting up. They weren't the kind, that happened to other families, not ours. 

Look at them, how they've come together over my broken body. They've remembered why they love each other and realised that the little irritations that had threatened to tear them apart aren't that important, I can see it in the warmth of their smiles. 

As my mum says, everything will be alright now.

The end.

Creative writing ideas come from snippets of conversation, a line in book you find interesting, a tweet, a Facebook post, a blog post, the newspapers, a story in a magazine, a gravestone, a moment in history, a memory, a film you've just watched, a TV show you enjoyed, the way someone applies their lipstick, the way someone crosses the road, a child running in a park, a girl crying in a bus stop, a man playing a melancholy tune outside a shop. Ideas come from anything and everything, you just have to pay attention and go where the story takes you as you work out who, what, where, when, why and how.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review of I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers is a slow burn novel, one that stealthily ratchets up a nerve jangling level of tension with each turn of the page. The story within begins quietly during the sleepy heat of a summer afternoon when Michael Turner enters his neighbour’s house to ask for the return of a tool he’s loaned them. 

As Turner slowly makes his way through the house he reflects on the first time he met his wife, how their mid-life romance had bloomed into love and how their differing needs had eventually shattered their relationship. These memories are interspersed with Turner's befriending of the couple next door as he tries to cope with the grief and the anger he feels over the way his wife died, due to her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The significant twist is incredibly well written, the whole scene feels as though you're watching this nightmare scenario unfold in slow motion as Turner suddenly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is forced to revaluate everything he thought he understood and believed.

Who is to blame when a decision is made on the facts that present themselves, and those facts are disturbed by a split second of awareness when it's already too late to change the outcome? Is it possible to forgive or be forgiven in circumstances that revolve around the question 'what if?' What if I'd not done this, or that? Is redemption possible? These are the themes in the thought-provoking new novel by Owen Sheers.

I Saw a Man is a finely balanced, insightful and powerful novel that explores the impact of violence and how grief, blame and the desire to redeem past errors of judgement can be deeply complex, as each decision made by Turner ripples outwards causing unbearable pain and torment for himself and everyone involved. Pack this stunning literary thriller in your suitcase this summer for an unnerving and unforgettable reading experience.

Published by Faber. With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Owen Sheers is a novelist, poet and playwright. He is Professor in Creativity at Swansea University. A stage version of Owen’s verse drama Pink Mist premiered at Bristol Old Vic from 1st – 11th July. A live recording of Owen performing Pink Mist can be downloaded here (well worth your time). Owen recently wrote a ballad dedication for Hew Locke’s ‘The Jurors’, performed at the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, and one of the best plays I've ever seen was 'The Two Worlds of Charlie F' written by Owen Sheers at the Nottingham Theatre Royal. Find out more at and follow the author on twitter: @owensheers.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

My top 10 perks of being on a low salicylate diet

It has been six weeks since I started the low salicylate diet to control my extreme reaction to salicylate in food, products and medicines. Salicylate is a chemical that occurs naturally in plants to different degrees and it is also manufactured for use in nearly everything: from shampoo to scent, soap, make-up, processed food, cleaning products, toothpaste, plastics, the list is endless. 

My body cannot tolerate much of this chemical and when I'm exposed to too much I suffer from a toxic overload which can generate the following side effects: bloating, IBS, insomnia, asthma, memory loss, brain fog, number and letter reversals, temporary hearing loss, sleep apnea, hyperactivity, itching, blackouts, blurred vision, dry eyes, difficulty in swallowing, a crawling sensation under the skin, angioedema, swelling of hands and feet, these are just a few of my symptoms.

Many foods, spices and herbs are rated moderate to high, to very high for salicylate. In combination with my asthma meds, these foods were slowly killing me. However, two days into the low salicylate diet many of my symptoms rapidly began to vanish. 

Here are my top 10 perks of being on a low salicylate diet

1. I’ve dropped down from a size 18 to size 14 in six weeks. Mainly because I’ve only used salicylate free products and eaten low salicylate food. The salicylate free shampoo and conditioner by Cleure is fantastic. I don’t have to use much and I only have to wash my hair every fourth day. Lemon juice and olive oil makes amazing furniture polish, but my favourite homemade cleaner has to be the white vinegar and baking soda combo, it eats grease and makes everything cleaned with it look brand new. I've also had great fun raiding the fashion sales for the first time in 10 years to buy an entirely new wardrobe of clothes, which has reignited my passion for wearing dresses. 

2. Having an hospital confirmed allergy to potatoes is very helpful, as I’m not tempted to eat jacket potatoes lathered in butter, chips or roast spuds, and have to avoid anything containing things like potato flour, which is in a surprising number of products. 

3. Eating out is challenging, mainly due to my hospital confirmed spice allergy, but on a recent visit to Harrogate I discovered Jamie’s Italian to be an obliging restaurant that accommodated my needs. (Thank you!)

4. I don’t suffer from food cravings. In fact these days I often have to remind myself to eat.

5. My quality of sleep has massively improved. I no longer experience sudden energy spikes at 11am, or wake up at 2am chucking off the bed clothes due to overheating. Instead I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6.30am raring to go.

6. I've gradually come to realise that my system does not like grains through making recipes with and without them and measuring my reaction afterwards. Some have a bigger impact than others, symptoms include swelling, feeling dopey and hives. I'm still experimenting in this area. I made Scotch pancakes with banana and a drizzle of maple syrup this weekend which tasted delicious but I did feel less alert afterwards, although not as wiped out as I do if I eat pasta or oats. Today's experiment is swede chips!

Update 4 August: My system doesn't like even the smallest drizzle of Maple Syrup or golden syrup, it goes straight into what I now realise is a sugar crash. It's an interesting reaction because I've been tested for diabetes more that once and it always comes up negative. I'm looking on that as good news. My body does love chopped banana, chopped pecan nuts and natural yogurt though. I may try normal no sugar pancakes just to check out if I'm reacting to the flour.

7. The Failsafe Cookbook by Sue Dengate is a life saver for the salicylate sensitive as it offers a starting point for working out which foods affect your system. For me the changes this book has helped me to make have been more than worth it. Six weeks ago I constantly wondered when the food I was putting in my mouth would finally send me into anaphylactic shock, now I'm learning what works for me and what to avoid. Cooking from scratch is much better for me than trying to source pre-made alternatives.

8. My peak flow, which measures my lung capacity as an asthmatic, has risen.

9. Travel is still possible, although I think self-catering will be my preferred option for overnight stays in the future.                       

10. It’s good to feel awake and alert after months and years of ill-health. It's a pleasure to breathe, to walk upright and not feel dragged down by excessive bloating, to sleep well, to laugh and enjoy the company of friends, many of whom didn't wear scent the first night I attended the Theakston Crime Writing Festival just so they could hug me, which was much appreciated, thank you! 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Review of I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh is a masterclass in misdirection, inside these pages is one of the most well executed plot twists I've read in a long time.

The prologue begins with a mother who is picking her son up from school and as they walk home he is knocked down in the street by a hit and run driver. A powerful opening scene with moments of intimacy emphasising the closeness between mother and son, before darkness falls and his brief life ends.

Two threads run side by side through the novel. The first is DI Ray and trainee detective Kate's investigation of the hit and run case where a five-year-old boy called Jacob has been killed in a hit and run accident. Ray's marriage is struggling due to his workload while Kate's young and keen to prove herself. 

The second thread is Jenna, a sculptor, whose suffering since Jacob died is so overwhelming she walks away from her current life to begin new one in a tiny cottage near the South Wales coast.

As Jenna's shattered spirits gradually begin to repair she rediscovers a love of photography and begins to form new friendships with her landlord, Iestyn, and Bethyn who runs the local campsite. There's even a hint of romance with the local vet, until the past comes back to haunt her when the police come knocking at her door.

I Let You Go is an excellent psychological thriller that explores the grey areas of loss, grief, guilt, denial, anger, depression and acceptance, where nothing is quite as black and white as it seems. A compulsive, one-sitting read, that'll have you one the edge of your seat from start to finish.

Read an extract from the novel:

When I wake, for a second I’m not sure what this feeling is. Everything is the same, and yet everything has changed. Then, before I have even opened my eyes, there is a rush of noise in my head, like an underground train. And there it is: playing out in Technicolor scenes I can’t pause or mute. I press the heels of my palms into my temples as though I can make the images subside through brute force alone, but still they come, thick and fast, as if without them I might forget. On my bedside cabinet is the brass alarm clock Eve gave me when I went to university – ‘Because you’ll never get to lectures, otherwise’ – and I’m shocked to see it’s ten-thirty already. The pain in my hand has been overshadowed by a headache that blinds me if I move my head too fast, and as I peel myself from the bed every muscle aches. I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go into the garden without stopping to make a coffee, even though my mouth is so dry it’s an effort to swallow. I can’t find my shoes, and the frost stings my feet as I make my way across the grass. The garden isn’t large, but winter is on its way, and by the time I reach the other side I can’t feel my toes. The garden studio has been my sanctuary for the last five years. Little more than a shed to the casual observer, it is where I come to think, to work, and to escape. The wooden floor is stained from the lumps of clay that drop from my wheel, firmly placed in the centre of the room, where I can move around it and stand back to view my work with a critical eye. Three sides of the shed are lined with shelves on which I place my sculptures, in an ordered chaos only I could understand. Works in progress, here; fired but not painted, here; waiting to go to customers, here. Hundreds of separate pieces, yet if I shut my eyes, I can still feel the shape of each one beneath my fingers, the wetness of the clay on my palms. I take the key from its hiding place under the window ledge and open the door. It’s worse than I thought. The floor lies unseen beneath a carpet of broken clay; rounded halves of pots ending abruptly in angry jagged peaks. The wooden shelves are all empty, my desk swept clear of work, and the tiny figurines on the window ledge are unrecognisable, crushed into shards that glisten in the sunlight. By the door lies a small statuette of a woman. I made her last year, as part of a series of figures I produced for a shop in Clifton. I had wanted to produce something real, something as far from perfection as it was possible to get, and yet for it still to be beautiful. I made ten women, each with their own distinctive curves, their own bumps and scars and imperfections. I based them on my mother; my sister; girls I taught at pottery class; women I saw walking in the park. This one is me. Loosely, and not so anyone would recognise, but nevertheless me. Chest a little too flat; hips a little too narrow; feet a little too big. A tangle of hair twisted into a knot at the base of the neck. I bend down and pick her up. I had thought her intact, but as I touch her the clay moves beneath my hands, and I’m left with two broken pieces. I look at them, then I hurl them with all my strength towards the wall, where they shatter into tiny pieces that shower down on to my desk. I take a deep breath and let it slowly out.

Clare Mackintosh will be taking part in the New Blood panel at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Saturday 18 July.

I bought my copy of I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh from Amazon.
Follow the author on Twitter: @claremackint0sh
I Let You Go is published by Sphere and is a Richard & Judy summer read and a Sunday Times bestseller.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Review of Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Sean Michaels has reimagined the life of the inventor and Russian spy Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of the first electronic instrument - the Theremin - in 1920. 

Lev's ability to capture sound from thin air made him a useful asset to his home country as someone who could invent unique and discreet spying equipment. In the novel Lev is sent to America to spy and invent whatever his Russian handlers demand for his home country. Yet despite an outwardly lavish lifestyle, where Lev is fêted by the rich and famous, he's never truly free to lead life on his own terms. In many ways Lev was as much a prisoner of his innate talent as he was a conductor of world events with each new invention. 

The novel begins with Lev on a ship being transported back to Russian and to pass the time he writes a long letter to Clara, which also serves to explain his life story. He has spent the last eleven years in America and while Lev's obedient to the state the sense of loss he's experiencing leaks through the phrasing, which becomes more detached, restrained and clinical the further he sails away from Clara. As the novel moves to Lev's time in a Russian Gulag, his feelings for Clara become an invisible thread that keeps hope finely tuned so that he can continue to function in a place where death is the preferred form of escape.

While Michaels is careful to state that his novel is a work of fiction, full of 'distortions, elisions, omissions and lies', this is no way detracts from the emotional power of the writing. The sentences have a sense of rhythm that's quite breathtaking at times, some are short, no more than four or five words yet they resonate with meaning. The description of the sound of a theremin was so evocative I could hear it, like a forgotten memory, it sent me in search of the sound on YouTube where I found the love of Lev's life, Clara Rockmore.

Us Conductors is an original story of unrequited love that travels from America to Russia through some of the biggest world events from 1920s onwards, and is one of the most fascinating historical novels I've had the pleasure of reading. 

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy. Us Conductors by Sean Michaels is published on 16 July. Follow the author on Twitter: @stgramophone. 
Sean Michaels won the Giller Prize in 2014 with Us Conductors.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Review of The Defence by Steve Cavanagh

As soon as ex-conman, non-practicing lawyer and comfort drinker Eddie Flynn began to tell me his story I heard his voice in the classic tones of a lead character in Mob movies like The Untouchables.

Flynn’s in his favourite diner when a mobster pulls a gun on him, straps a bomb to his back and orders him to smuggle it into the courtroom where the head of the Russian mob, Olek Volchek, is being tried for murder, or they’ll kill Flynn’s little girl. 

Flynn has a mere 24 hours to plant the bomb. As incentives go Flynn has a pretty strong one as he’s been round he block and instinctively knows the Mob’s going to wipe him and his daughter out either way, so he's going to have think fast if he's going to save his daughter's life. As plot lines go this has an off the scale ‘how the hell is he going to get out of that’ hook that will pretty much keep you glued to your seat for the next 320 pages. 

Flynn was a conman first and foremost, and Cavanagh is relentless as he draws you into the mind of a born strategist who will do anything to save his daughter. Flynn's estranged from his daughter’s mother and wants to be a good dad but is haunted by the memory of his last court case and the Mob has just made his life a whole lot worse. Flynn’s not perfect, he’s got friends in high and low places, and he calls in every favour as his brain rapidly calculates and then recalculates the odds of every play he makes, in and out of the courtroom, in order to stay alive a little bit longer. The Defence is a breath-taking thriller ride, with epically high chew-your-nails-to-the quick levels of tension, I loved it.

Published by Orion. I bought my copy from

Steve Cavanagh will be taking part in the Irish Noir panel at Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 17 July.

Follow the author on twitter: @SSCav

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Review of The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

The story begins in London, 1841, with the discovery of a murder that Sir Robert Peel’s relatively new police appear unwilling to investigate.

Captain William Avery has just returned to London after serving in Afghanistan and is escaping from the ‘petty squabbles’ of home life. Carter uses Avery’s observations of the current London fashions to give the reader an idea of the man’s character: he is concerned with appearances, is disturbed by street smells and the ‘errant, ownerless children’ which put him in mind of little Nell from Dickens’s book The Old Curiosity Shop. 

Avery is on his way to meet Jeremiah Blake, who served with him in India three years ago. Both characters call to mind the relationship between Watson and Sherlock Holmes, but they have different strengths and weaknesses compared to that famous detective duo. Avery can be a bit of a peacock, easily flattered and prone to only seeing the surface of things, while Blake struggles to accept a compliment and takes nothing at face value. Avery’s determination to be liked eventually wears Blake’s initial curt reserve down and the banter begins to flow as they bounce thoughts and ideas off each other.

Blake and Avery are employed to investigate a series of murders that are occurring in the world of London’s gutter press by Viscount Allington, a man who has dedicated his life to helping the poor. During the investigation they have to navigate the politics of the time, where the rich suppress the poor and the poor fight back through various channels. Allington believes The Chartist ideas that the poor cling to in the hope of a better life are dangerous, while Blake believes that all the Chartists want is the right for everyone to be able to vote. When you read this scene it'll make you think about the politics of today as there are a few topical themes woven through this novel. Despite their differences Blake agrees to look into the case.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is how Carter brings Avery down from the lofty heights of being more concerned with image than reality, to a place where he emotionally engages with the plight of the poor through an unlikely friendship with a witness to one of the murders. This creates a stronger bond between Avery and Blake, as the latter has always understood how hard life is for the poor, although he has no illusions about what desperation can drive people to do.

Carter has done a tremendous amount of research into the politics of the time and the importance of printing presses and the free press that was in the early stages of development. The knowledge from these sources is shared through the characters, rich or poor, who have the most to gain or lose from it, embedding an emotional response in the reader so that you really care about the impact it has on the characters. 

The Infidel Stain is a gripping murder mystery that twists and turns through the darkest corners of London life in Victorian England, where true horrors can be masked by good intentions. I was hooked from the first page to the last, and I loved the insight to the explosion in publishing and communication due to the technological advances of the time.

With thanks to Penguin/Fig Tree for the review copy.

Follow the author on Twitter: @MJCarter10