Bowerbirds, mountain trails & surprises: Varuna Writers’ Residency

I’m coming to the end of my first week of my residency exchange in Australia (thanks to the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre), so I thought I’d check in.

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Singapore was a good idea. It’s a really safe and lovely city to explore, tranquil and small but with plenty going on. It meant I adjusted to the time zone before arriving in Australia (Singapore is 7 hours ahead of Ireland, The Blue Mountains, 9 hours). There was a Tapestry of Spiritual Music festival on, so I got to see/listen to some amazing world music, distracting myself from jet lag while filling up on creativity before a month of concentrated writing.

Let me describe Varuna…

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A particularly impressive maple

It’s a beautiful house and garden, only ten minutes walk along a track to some amazing marked mountain trails. There’s quiet, focused time every day from 9am until 6pm, and then we gather (up to five writers) each night for a fabulous dinner. The house has an extensive library – each room is themed (I’m have the UK & Ireland shelves) – as well as old guest books of writers who have stayed here, and every room has a biography of Eleanor Dark, the writer who originally owned the house. My room is quirky and comfortable, with a delicious reading chair and a window next to the bed that connects to the workspace. The window overlooks the garden and the autumnal trees, with continuous noise from cockatoos, rosellas, parakeets, and galahs.

Seeing as I’m on the other side of the world, and I love nature, I’m taking time to enjoy and explore the local environment as well as write. Some of my favourite experiences so far include…

A top deck train ride through the mountains

  • Discovering a bowerbird’s bower, complete with collected blue items (three females and one male present)
  • Chatting to an elderly gardener who recommended a book, then later delivered a copy as a gift to the house! (The Tree of Man by Patrick White)
  • Walking mountain trails as morning mists rise or the sun sets
  • A flock of ten black cockatoos flying overhead
  • Following new sounds (birds, lizard, bark peeling)
  • A shy (and rarely seen) lyrebird crossing my path while I was writing in the mountains in the early morning – watching it forage for food
  • Learning about (and meeting) Australian authors (I’m halfway through and loving just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth)
  • Discovering an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’
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A female bower bird, offering a prized blue gift. 

As for my output, this is the first time I’ve had a month of uninterrupted writing time in about six years. My editors notes on The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 are due any day, and so this week has been all about settling in, finding my stride, and working on multiple small projects – some finishing off, some new – including short stories, creative non-fiction, an interview, blog posts and starting to world build for my next project. It’s been steadily productive. The evening chats, resources and focused time have led me in some unexpected directions and everything feels a little bit calmer, on track and richer.

We all know how up and down writing is as an occupation, and confidence in my writing has taken a bit of a knock. Mainly due to exhaustion (publishing three books in 12 months takes its toll, and the fourth book has been challenging as a result), but also fear (I’m out of contract after this next book), juggling too many things (eye roll!) and some harsh self criticism. And so part of my aim here is to take a step back, take stock and reset. Thankfully, that has begun.

You might think that a writing residency is a holiday, but that’s an inaccurate description. In some ways it is, because I don’t need to shop or cook and I’m not freelancing, but it’s concentrated time to think, plan, create. Let me give some examples of how a retreat can help…

1) As part of my residency, I had a consultation with Carol Major. I gave her some new work (short stories) which felt risky and scary, but it’s been a while since I’ve had chance to work on anything completely new due to contracts and deadlines. Our chat gave me a real boost, asserted that yes, I can still come up with fresh ideas and turn them into something worth reading, while igniting my hunger for more. This is a huge relief.

IMG_04832) I’ve been trying to write about my difficult relationship with my mother, and its proving extremely difficult. Deciding to work outdoors in the sunshine, I stumbled upon an ‘aboriginal interpretive walk’ in regenerated land. The walk had informative plaques and gorgeous scenery, and immersing myself physically and mentally to its past, present and future, was really inspiring. It gave me a different perspective for my essay and fed into the tone, adding a new strand. It’s also sparked a short story idea, yet to be started, that I aim to write during my time here.

That’s the thing with writing; there are always humps and slumps. And I believe there should be – if we’re not challenged, how can we strive for better and improve? As I go into the second week, I’m feeling much more positive than I have done in months. Let’s see what the week brings…

An Australian Adventure!

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My home for the next month!

The time has arrived… I’m off to Australia to write for one month. As this goes out, I’ll be boarding a plane for the first leg of a long journey…

I’ve been to Australia before (see image), and usually I travel straight through; but the journey is tough, so I’ve booked a few days stop over in Singapore on the way.

I’ve never been to Singapore before, so I’m looking forward to some exploring. At least half a day will be dedicated to buying and writing postcards home, as well as visiting the library and a bookshop. Even in cities I seek out nature, so I’m particularly excited by this Southern Ridges walk that I found – 10km of footpaths above the city, connecting several parks!

After that, it’s on to Australia. A month with other writers, focusing solely on my work. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m so grateful to Tyrone Guthrie Centre for their generosity and support. I’m also grateful to the Arts Council of Ireland for awarding assistance with the flight costs – it’s a big boost and at just the right time.

Writing is, and will always be, a roller coaster of uncertainty. This is an important journey for me on many levels, as the last couple of years have been tied up with writing deadlines and book promotion, and it’s been really, really busy, with no time to sit back and take stock of what I’ve achieved. I’ll soon be out of contract – The Book of Revenge: Nine Lives Trilogy 3 is my last contracted book and is getting closer each day – and so that means soon, I’ll be starting again from scratch.

It’s time to write a new book, hopefully something that a publisher will want to buy, and to go on submission again. But what do I want to write next (I have three first drafts and lots of ideas)? How long will I take (being out of contract will be exciting but also scary)? When will I start (right away or take a break)? Do I stay within the same age group or branch out? Will it be good enough?

Questions like these need to be answered – and there’s nothing like travelling to the other side of the world to do it!

I’ll be blogging once a week from my writing cave and I can’t wait to see what happens. See you in a week or so when I know which way is up!

Writing About Music in Caramel Hearts

I have to write in complete silence. And yet, music plays an important role in my new young adult novel, Caramel Hearts. The main character, Liv Bloom, is obsessed with Johnny Cash, and his music is referred to at crucial moments in the book, usually when tensions are running high. Many people have asked me about this contradiction – not being able to write with music yet writing about it – and so I thought I’d share how and why I incorporated music into my novel.

IMG_5691About Caramel Hearts

Caramel Hearts tells the story of Liv Bloom, a 14 year-old girl with an alcoholic mum, trying to make sense of her world. It’s a gritty coming of age story, with real cake recipes throughout, structuring the story. While Liv’s mum is in recovery, she is looked after by her older sister, Hatty, who should be at university. The sisters are very close, but tension is running high. When Liv stumbles across a cookbook that was handwritten by her mum, she decides to bake the recipes. This takes her on a voyage of discovery, but a series of bad decisions and a school bully land her in lots of trouble. It’s a very real story about family, friendship, modern-day poverty, and the effects of addiction.

Why does music feature?

Liv is a character desperately searching for two things; she wants a closer relationship with her mum and she also wants to fit in with the world around her. She’s living in tough circumstances, both financially and emotionally, and is pretty lost; she’s feeling disconnected with everyone and everything. I think that music is a really powerful medium; it has a language of its own that speaks to people on different levels. Music feels deeply personal and accesses emotions in a way that nothing else can. In short, it’s a connection and an escape all at once. I remember music being very important to me when I was younger, and realised that this connection/escape was exactly what Liv needed. In music, just like in her new baking hobby, she can find solace.

Why choose Johnny Cash?

Johnny Cash might seem like a strange choice for a 14 year-old girl, but Liv is living in poverty and has very little money, so she only has access to the music her mum or Hatty likes. She listens to her mum’s Johnny Cash albums for two reasons: it gives her an emotional release but it also provides a connection with her mum in her absence. Johnny Cash was the perfect choice for Liv’s mum, because she is a troubled soul who can’t let go of the past, and uses it to hide from her current problems. I already know (and love!) Johnny Cash’s music, but I did listen to his music on repeat before writing certain scenes, to make sure that the songs I chose were right for the book. The songs had to reflect the story and tension – they had to emphasise the emotions.

How does the music work in Caramel Hearts?

The music helps to convey tension, mood and emotions; I found that the recipes and music complemented each other perfectly. The music helps convey the nuances of heightened emotions; hurt, disappointment, anger and hope. It’s these nuances that transform a character from words on a page into a real, believable, living being in the reader’s mind. And surprisingly, there was one particular scene that was entirely driven by the choice of song Liv listens to (no spoilers!) so the music element affected the story more than I expected. I didn’t go into much detail about the music – I would find it really difficult to capture it on the page. Instead, I let the song choices speak for themselves.

How about you? Do you write with music on, or do you find it too distracting also? Do you write about music or use music in your writing? I’d love to know what works for you. 

Where I Write – Travel & Writing

I’m currently getting ready to fly out to Australia to stay at a writer’s retreat for a whole month, thanks to the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre awarding me their 2017 exchange programme, and needless to say, I’m very excited. It’s a month to just write, in a new environment, surrounded by other writers. It’s not for everyone, but to me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and after a very busy, very tiring two years, the perfect tonic to reset and figure out what’s next with my writing.

Every writer has their own routine and their own requirements to be able to sit down and write. If I’m at home, I like scented candles and I choose one that suits my mood and what I’m writing. I also like silence. If I listen to music, I end up writing the lyrics down instead of my story (does anyone else do this?). I tried listening to classical music but any kind of crescendo and I’m pulled right out of it. So, silence it is, then. Mostly. I live in the countryside so I can hear cows, sheep, horses and, of course, my dog.

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I also enjoy working in cafes where there’s a buzz. Where people are talking but you can’t distinguish the words; that’s an ideal spot because I don’t accidentally write their conversations down. I have written in cafes all over the world including Australia, Thailand, Spain, Italy and Cambodia. When you don’t understand the language, it’s even better – it’s so easy to zone out but you don’t feel alone. Writing can be lonely sometimes.

I also like to take writing breaks abroad – hence my excitement with Australia – as I find a new environment (and sun!) lifts the spirits and motivates. In 2015, I went to a writing retreat in France, just outside of Carcassonne. The sun and natural surroundings were stunning and I made this short video about why I chose that spot and what I liked about it. The information is out of date (The Book of Learning, Caramel Hearts and The Book of Shadows are all published and on the shelves) but I thought you might like to hear my thought processes when picking a spot to write.

I think environment affects us very much, and this is why setting is always an important feature in my books. If you’re writing and you get stuck, I find that movement and a change of scenery really help. Put the pen down or the computer away and take a walk – you can always bring a notebook with you, if you need. Walking stimulates the blood flow to your brain and also lifts your spirits. So it’s a win/win! Some of the best ideas come when you’re away from your desk, and I find I untangle the trickiest of plot issues or character flaws when I’m in motion. By the time I return to the spot where I’m writing, I’m all set to continue on. I can’t wait to see what Australia brings to both my writing and my process!

What about you? I’d love to know more about your own writing spaces. Do you find your environment affects your writing? Where do you like to write and why?

Belonging to Your Tribe

fullsizerender-77There may be prehistoric wildcats, an amulet, imaginary worlds, a pet rat, and a mechanical shark submarine in the Nine Lives Trilogy, but behind it all is twelve-year-old Ebony Smart; a girl who just wants to belong.

So, why did I choose to write about belonging?

One reason is that I remember being the new girl in a school playground, looking around me and trying to figure out whom to talk to. And what I could possibly say. Everyone else was in a group or pair, and seemed quite happy with their little tribe. I can remember quite clearly that feeling of being on the outside, looking in through an invisible barrier and not knowing how to cross over it.

I also remember the times my brother and sister didn’t want me to join in their games. They were quite happy with how things were going, and adding me into the equation would feel like an interruption – so they didn’t want my input. At the time I felt crushed, even though I pretended that I didn’t care. Later, I would get my revenge by stopping one of them from joining in – but to be honest, it never felt like a nice thing to do and I felt just as bad as if I’d been left out.

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Some quiet storytelling

Another reason I wanted to look at the theme of belonging is because it’s an important part of our human existence. How could we have survived this long if we hadn’t formed social groups? We all need to belong to a tribe of some kind, so we can feel safe, loved, and respected. For some people, their tribe is their family; but not everyone is lucky enough to have a family for one reason or another. Your tribe might be your friends, your sports team, or a group of people that share your favourite hobby.

It can be difficult to find your tribe, and the dynamics will often shift. There’ll be awkward moments with fallouts, disagreements and upset, but these will usually sort themselves out over time and with a bit of effort. When you belong, it’s just as much about forgiveness and compromise as it is about having fun and enjoying each other’s company. You might have to bite your tongue or apologise sometimes, but your tribe will do the same for you. There’s no right or wrong way to belong – so long as your tribe makes you feel safe, happy, and confident, and you feel like you can be yourself, it’s a good fit.

But if you’ve ever felt lonely or left out like Ebony Smart, guess what? There’s probably someone else nearby feeling the exact same way. So why not seek them out and make your own tribe? Or, if you already belong, let them join in and see what they can add to your tribe? There are no invisible barriers – only the ones we create for ourselves.

(Note: post originally written for Girls Heart Books)

Caramel Hearts & Foodie Fiction

In my book, Caramel Hearts, there are real cake recipes throughout. These recipes structure the book and are weaved into the story.

FullSizeRender (44)The book is about a teenage girl with an alcoholic mum, trying to find her way in the world. When she finds a handwritten cookbook that belongs to her mum, she decides to bake the recipes and begins a journey of discovery. Here’s the blurb:

Can a book full of secrets reveal the past?

Liv Bloom’s life is even more complicated than that of your average fourteen-year-old: her father walked out on the family when she was young, her mother is in a recovery centre for alcoholics, and her older sister is struggling to step into Mum’s shoes.

The only person she can turn to is her best friend Sarah, who gets her out of scrapes at school and is a constant source of advice and companionship. One day Liv discovers a book of recipes written in her mum’s handwriting, which sets her off on a journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation – but a theft, a love rivalry and a school bully are just some of the many obstacles on the way.

So why did I add recipes to Caramel Hearts? Basically, the recipes were integral to the story. I love food and I love books and I think they work really well together. Food is a vital part of everyday life and it evokes such emotive responses; as soon as someone describes something they’ve eaten, your taste buds tingle and you can imagine the smells in the air. Food stirs emotions and brings back memories. Likewise, books have the same powerful impact, and when I came up with the idea for this book – with the handwritten cookbook at its centre – I wanted to combine the two to create a truly emotional journey.

The idea is not a new one, and I love to read about food in books and stories. Here are a few of my favourite food in fiction moments…

A House made of sweets! – Hansel and Gretel by Brothers Grimm

Although the tale is very dark, the idea of a house made of gingerbread and other sweets is so enticing – would you be able to resist it? I’ve always loved art and the description of the house in the book – and sometimes, accompanying illustrations – inspired many hours of designing bizarre and unusual structures made of clouds and tinned sardines!

‘Snozzcumbers’ – The BFG by Roald Dahl

I was smitten with snozzcumbers from the minute I read about them – disgusting vegetables that smelled really bad sounded strangely inviting. As a child that loved weird food (my favourite foods were winkles and olives), I was convinced that I would actually like snozzcumbers. I still want to try one! I also loved the inventive name.

‘Funny but delightful supper’ – The Railway Children by Edith Nesbitt

When the family moves into their new home, they have only the bits and bobs that they packed up from the store cupboard. The meal is strange, but a sense of hope and resilience pervades. ‘There were biscuits, the Marie and the plain kind, sardines, preserved ginger, cooking raisins, and candied peel and marmalade’. Doesn’t it sound delightful?

‘Drink me, eat me’ – Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll

I was always a curious child, desperate for adventure, so the idea of food making you grow and shrink so you could pass through ‘off-limits’ doorways blew me away. And then of course, there’s the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – such fun! I used to dream of characters I would invite to my own.

‘Please Sir, Can I have some more?’ – Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

As much as food is emotive, lack of food says so much more and this scene really sticks with you. Poor Oliver! But the scene shows how brave he is, and it means you can really root for him throughout. It gives you a hint that things will get better for him in the end.

I’ll Grind His Bones to Make My Bread’ – Jack and The Beanstalk

 This scene always has me on the edge of my seat. I loved the rhyme as a child; it was so simple and yet so threatening – perfect for games designed to scare your younger brother! The atmosphere is so tense, I often reread this scene when I’m writing, to compare. If my scene isn’t as tense, it needs more work.

‘Turkish delight!’ – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My favourite sweet as a child was Turkish Delight – it’s still one of the only sweet things I like! I was so jealous of the Turkish delight bribe as we were only allowed sweets on a Sunday when I was growing up. I did consider whether, like Edmund, I would betray my family for some of rose-flavoured deliciousness; I have to admit, I thought it was a fair trade!

Looking at this list, it’s quite clear that I’d have been an easy target in a storybook or fairytale! I’d love to know,what are your favourite ‘food in fiction’ moments? Is there any food that evokes special memories when you see, smell or taste it? And does anyone else love winkles and olives?!

Note: this post was initially written for Girls Hearts Books – a great site, all about books, writing & reading – check it out! 

Writing Seascapes: The Book of Shadows

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My local pier

The sea is one of my favourite things. I find it intriguing, enchanting and at times, frightening. The sea is beautiful yet unpredictable. It whispers and calls, lulls and calms, and yet, it can be ferocious and murderous too. Did you know that seawater covers around 71% of the earth’s surface? That’s a lot of water to marvel at!

Despite its size, the sea is not a vast watery nothingness like many people believe; there are islands and reefs and ravines, and so much is hidden from view. The tides are in constant flux and below the waves, the sea is teeming with life. A wild and unruly beast, it is this incredible mix of qualities that made seascapes a prominent feature in my latest book, The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2.

I live on the Atlantic coast in Southwest Ireland and I spend as much time as I can near the sea and on the sea. We have a small punt that we use for catching mackerel and pollock in the summer, and we often see lots of creatures such as jellyfish, dolphins, minke whales, and basking sharks. Then there are the seabirds including manx shearwaters, terns, guillemots, and gannets – so don’t be surprised when you find these creatures woven into my stories!

Even though my Nine Lives Trilogy is a fantasy story, it is important to me that the characters and events are believable. This means that the seascapes and high seas adventures had to be realistic as well as exciting, and so I’ve taken lots of inspiration from my immediate surroundings. There’s nothing better than heading out into open water, all your senses open, not knowing what you’ll encounter or how the journey will impact your story. It’s also fun interrogating fishermen and sailors for details that might add to your tale.

fullsizerender-77Did you realise, for instance, that it is considered unlucky to set sail on a Friday? Or that a tiny spot of rainbow portends rain? Did you know that fishermen prefer to use a clinch knot on their lines? Or that 30 foot long basking sharks might peek inside your boat (the young ones can be quite inquisitive)? Can you tell a schooner from a sloop? Finding out details like this is really fun and even though they’re not the focus of the action, they bring an extra atmospheric element and sense of realism.

Some of the place names in The Book of Shadows are real, while others are complete fiction. Gun Point, for instance, is an actual place, and so is Roaring Water Bay – these are the real names of places where I live (I just shifted them a little, geographically). Gallows Island is based on a mixture of Cape Clear and Long Island (I can see Long Island from my home); I needed to fuse the landscapes, but I also wanted a more sinister name, so I made that up.

History also plays a part, as West Cork was a haven for pirates in the 17thand 18th centuries. It’s a fascinating era, and so part of The Book of Shadows involves some pirate action – and not just regular pirates, but also black-hearted devils made of darkness and shadows. The idea for these creatures came after reading about the real-life ‘Barbary raids’ of 1631, when pirates kidnapped the inhabitants of Baltimore. They represent the darker side of the human psyche.

I hope you enjoy the seascapes and sea life that appears in my stories. And if you have any high seas adventures or facts of your own that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!

Happy writing x

Please note: this was originally written for Middle Grade Strikes Back as part of my The Book of Shadows blog tour. It’s a great site covering all sorts of topics, including #CoverKidsBooks – go check it out!