The Year of the Horse comes galloping in!

According to Chinese Astrology, the Year of the Horse (one of 12 signs of the Zodiac) begins today and will end on 18th February 2015.  I have to say I’m rather excited about this for a number of reasons:

a)      born in 1954 my birthday falls under the sign of the horse;
b)      one of the occupations in my portfolio working life is as a horse whisperer – working with people and their horses to improve communication and performance (see for more details);
c)       I spend a lot of my life with my own horses and ponies; riding, training, and generally ‘hanging out’.  Horses have been a passion since I could first walk and talk;
d)      hopefully we will see plenty of literary references in the media to the horse this year;
e)      Chinese astrologers are recommending that people born under the sign of the horse who will be 60 during the year should have a big party ‘to balance the luck’.  Well, I’m all for that, given that I was too ill on my 50th to get out of bed, let alone go party!yearOfTheHorse2

Goldie 14th June 09
Jones’ gorgeous mare, ‘Goldie’

What characteristics are people born in The Year of the Horse supposed to possess? Let’s consider the positive ones first: they will be ‘sanguine, sharp-minded, dress fashionably, gifted with a silver tongue and have acute insight . . .engaged in intellectual activities and sports’.  All true of course! And the negative ones? Well, never mind about those . . .

Mirren and I like astrology and believe it has some merit both in our lives and for our writing.

We find it useful, for example,  in working up characterisations.

Continue reading “The Year of the Horse comes galloping in!”

Come on Eileen!

And Maureen, Kathleen and Corrine.  Let’s also have Mary, Margaret and Marilyn.  And of course Dougie, Jimmy and Billy. Without forgetting Theresa, Kevin and Gerard.  Ah, those names from the 50s and 60s.

And here’s what they might have been wearing.

When Jones and I were building our characters for Eight of Cups, we had a real trip down memory lane sharing names from our schooldays.  Jones contributed a few Welsh ones of course – Bethan and Beti.  I had my Morags and Ionas.  In the end we plumped for Patricia, Diane, Lesley, Alix (previously known as Sandra but socially climbing by the time we met her), Nancy and Carys.  Their bell-bottomed, flowery shirted male friends were Michael, Willie, Gerald, Nick, Trevor and JJ (the American one).

Now, however, if we end up writing about their grandchildren, we’ll have go for Kaitlin, Naeve, India, Amber, Lewis, Sonny and Buzz!

Working with friends on ideas for this year’s Bookmark Festival in Blairgowrie, we chatted about fantasy writing.  My problem with that genre is often focused on struggling with the characters’ names, finding it difficult to remember who is who. But I’d never pondered how the author comes up with the names in the first place.  Bruce Crichton gave me some tips:

Continue reading “Come on Eileen!”

The forgotten bookshelf: my life flashed before me


Yesterday, I had a surreal experience. While dragging myself round a typical Saturday’s chores, I was waiting for the tumble dryer to complete a 10 minute towel softening stint, when my eye was caught by an adjacent bookshelf. My tumble dryer is located in a cupboard on the upstairs landing – a multi-purpose storage area, home to a mini Chinese laundry, innumerable boxes of family photos, a spare uncomfortable futon for the foolhardy who’ve imbibed one too many, and loads of books gathered over the years, and shelved in no particular order.  Or are they? I was taken aback, and taken back through the years by an apparently random shelf of books which seemed to encapsulate the key periods and interests of my lifetime.

Heidi by Joanna Spyri – the mountains in summer, the wildflowers, the alpine hut, sleeping on a bed of straw.  It was a far cry from a life in a Dundee suburb, one of my very first loves and prompted a detour to visit  Heidi-land while in Switzerland a few years ago.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – a school reader, and the first novel to touch an invisible place where roots, primeval attachment and a burgeoning sense of identity lay. One of the few books I have returned to several times over the years.

Across the Great Divide  by Jim Wilkie – a history of professional football in Dundee, evoking memories of pride, excitement and quality time spent at Dens Park with my late father every second Saturday from age 10 to 18.

Everything Elvis by Helen Clutton – the book of facts I could probably have written myself such was my appetite for all things Elvis from the days of Blue Hawaii onwards!  Very useful on quiz nights. Continue reading “The forgotten bookshelf: my life flashed before me”

Multi-tasker or monkey mind?

Mirren was delighted but not surprised to hear that a study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, had found striking differences between the ways that men’s and women’s brains are wired to work.

The study reported that on average men are more likely to be better at learning and performing a single task, such as navigating.

Women, meanwhile, were more likely to have superior memory and social cognition skills — making them better equipped for multi-tasking and creating solutions which could work for a group.

During a typical morning at her day job while dealing with emails, and using the time management principle of not handling the same metaphorical piece of paper twice, Mirren engages with a bewildering variety of topics. She performs the necessary actions of replying, phoning, following up, filing, checking, summarising, forwarding and best of all – binning – all the while operating an open door policy liberally used by staff requiring answers to a myriad of questions, all likely to begin with one of the following phrases

Where is …?

Do you remember what we were going to do about …?

Can I…? and

Would you mind just ….?

Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, her monkey mind is still roving the territory of medical practice.  Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamouring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.

None of this internal chattering, worrying and replaying of the day helps when it comes to switching to her other life as a writer.

So what to do?

Up in The Isle of Lewis, when working on debut novel Eight of Cups, Mirren would go for a 45 minute walk every morning after breakfast.  In a place where you can literally hear no sound other than nature (often the battering of the rain on the road!) she found the interlude helped her empty and still her monkey mind, and allow the germination and rumination of creative ideas.

Now living in Strathmore, and particularly at this time of the year, she stays in the warmth of her writing shed and practises a yoga breathing technique, concentrating solely on that one thing – no multi-tasking. And hopefully banishing the monkey mind!

Words, glorious words!

At a practice meeting recently, I asked fellow primary care team members to sum up their reactions in one word or phrase to our Practice Safety Questionnaire results. As is often the case, their responses took seconds but spoke volumes –

  • reassured
  • not surprised
  • I’m glad we all think the same. 

I was later reminded of the power of a few well-chosen words when reading and laughing at a scene in Karen Campbell’s novel ‘And This is Where I Am’.

and this is where I am

When Somalian refugee Abdi asks a local Glasgow worthy how business is going, the aforementioned ‘Jimmy’ replies ‘Fair tae pish’!

And closer to home, when a friend enquired by text ‘and how are you?’ I found myself searching for that colourful phrase from my Dundonian grandmother’s rich fund of local dialect: glessy-ersed.

One of the discoveries Mirren and Jones made when collaborating on their first novel Eight of Cups was that Mirren enjoyed writing dialogue, while Jones was drawn more to descriptive prose.

So here’s one for Jones, from Mirren’s current bedtime reading – Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore.

The front door looks as if it’s been shut for ever. The windows peer, reflecting the dark sky, giving nothing out of what happens inside.  A wave of senseless panic makes me fumble the car keys as I fit them into the lock. I won’t look back.

your blue eyed boy

See Mirren’s review on Goodreads for more detail.

Walking in the footsteps of Carys – a visit to Tregaron

Our fictional characters become so much a part of us, and are so clear and vivid in our minds, that when Mirren passed through Tregaron on her way to Aberaeron recently, she found herself looking for the old Vicarage where Carys from Eight of Cups was brought up. Of course she didn’t find the house itself but the Memorial Hall, the local church dedicated to St Caron and 13th century Talbot Hotel which is supposed to have an elephant buried in its grounds were all there. She enjoyed Welsh cakes and mature Welsh cheddar in the low-ceilinged bar of the hotel.

Mirren Jones at the Raglan Women’s Institute

We’ve long been impressed by the slick organisation and the breadth of talent that seem to exist in rural WI groups of which we’ve visited several as speakers.  We might see a room of middle-aged women, discussing days out to craft fairs or local agricultural shows, but there lies only slightly below the surface a rich seam of life experience and artistic expression.

Raglan WI web final

Raglan WI in Monmouthshire, will stand out in our memory for its beautiful prize-winning wall hanging, designed and sewn by its members to mark the Millennium, and for their sharing of incidents from their own lives which might prompt the idea for a novel or autobiography.  One member’s father was the first man in the valley to own a car. He was often called on to take pregnant women to the nearest maternity hospital where he would be greeted with ‘Not again Mr X!’ Another had a husband who witnessed 60 years ago the detonation of the atomic bomb tested near Christmas Island in the South Pacific.  We were there to entertain them with tales of our writing partnership and readings from our debut novel Eight of Cups which is contemporary women’s fiction.  They certainly entertained us back.  And then, of course, we enjoyed one of their legendary suppers!