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Time for a Reality Check

Every year, before my birthday, I do a reality check. Being a mid-winter baby, I am prone to melancholy and need to ground myself for the coming year. It’s a salutary exercise as it means stripping away fantasies and unrealistic expectations. It’s akin to severely pruning your favourite rose bush in the hope of a more abundant crop of blooms.

Facing the truth about yourself and your circumstances doesn’t come easy to everyone. There’s a need to be conscious about what is happening in your life which doesn’t involve media influence or the rampant competition to be more special than the next. It’s hard enough maintaining being you without the exhausting mirror- gazing to seek out the next flaw that you feel needs fixing.

With so much so called fake news around, it’s difficult to know what to believe about the world, but so much easier to know what to believe about yourself since you are your best and only authority.

I am not part of that bold generation who like the laser beam to be shining on me all the time. In truth, it makes me feel slightly uneasy. However, I’m going to share with you my ten point reality check which will guide my sixty second year beginning with the least talked about. I’m not self-pitying or looking for sympathy, in case you think I am. These are the facts.

  • I am a year older than I claim. I mean, my birthday marks the end of my 62nd year on Planet Earth and the beginning of my 63rd. Same for all of us.
  • There are many things I can no longer do comfortably. One of my birthday gifts is a walking pole. Call it Nordic, Martian, what you will, but the reality is that I need support when climbing the mountain sides in my beloved Peak District.
  • My weakened eyesight and poor spatial awareness means I am a danger on the road. I can no longer fantasise about driving again. My optician doesn’t recommend it.
  • I miss going out to work. Writing at home is a lonely business. I am lonely. That’s the truth.
  • No longer as confident as I once was, I rely more on other people for validation. This year I won’t look for it from social media. Only from people whose opinions I trust.
  • For those of you who’ve ever  listened to Garrison Keillor on the radio and the tales of Lake Wobegon, “where the children are above average”, - that’s me.  I wanted to be able to hold clever conversations, be an eloquent writer, an artist… all sorts of things but the truth is… I sit at 6.5/10. Even my fitness level hovers around that.
  • I’m a decent person. I try to help people where I can and don’t expect anything back.
  • I’ve learned to accept what I can’t change and I’ve let go of controlling outcomes but I overthink. I am my harshest critic.
  • I try to listen more than I talk and I don’t offer opinions unless I am asked for them.  These days I think more about “Other” than Me. I also think about death. A lot.

My list is much longer than this, but I appreciate stuff like this can become monotonous. Reality checks are important if we are to find a level of acceptance about our limitations at any given time. This way we can clear the decks of the pressures we put on ourselves and move along our individual path, one step at a time.

It’s Blue Monday. My birthday is tomorrow. January 16th. According to the astrologers, there’s a mega planetary line up on that day. A stellium of six planets. It’s supposed to bring positive changes. That’s good. It might lift the melancholy that sits on my shoulders every winter, like a damp tea-towel.

Happy birthday to all Capricorns reading this. Keep climbing that mountain but settle where it feels the most comfortable.



A setting for your novel

So many books I read are set in major cities, especially London, so when I decided to set The Cruelty of Lambs in Birmingham (UK), some people were really surprised.  ‘Birmingham? What on earth for? There’s nothing there!’ Or worse, ‘Nobody’s going to want to read a book set in Birmingham.’

  In my thinking aloud this week, I’ve decided to talk a little bit about choosing a setting for your novel, although I could have a rant about how Birmingham is as good as anywhere for a book and the fact that the city has got over a hundred green spaces including 2,400 acres of parkland in Sutton Park on the north side of the city. The Future Can’t Wait, my new novel coming out this September, features this treasure of a woodland complete with ponies and deer.

  Right now I am writing this from the village of Olden in Nordfjord, with snow -capped mountains in the background, a mixed hillside of conifers and birch trees and multi-coloured wooden houses nestled into the clearings, a sliver of a road connecting them to the village. Already this is giving me some ideas of a possible short story. Check out my new 1 min video Where to Set your Novel which shows the scenery I’m describing.

  Choosing an unfamiliar backdrop can be fun as it means you can travel to do some research. I tend to visit a place to write in the atmosphere which you can’t get from secondary resources. It’s the sounds, the smells and the chatter of the locals that provide the depth to a story although many people have successful written about places they’ve never visited, the danger being you can make major errors that are picked up by people with local knowledge.

   Try being a tourist in your home town and see it through the eyes of a stranger. Look above the shop fronts at the architectural gems or study a cluster a trees at the end of your road and see what makes them a bit special.  Focus on anything that you might take for granted but that a visitor to your story might find fascinating. A medieval building tucked behind a factory of block of  60s flats might go unnoticed by people passing on the bus to work but you can throw a light onto these hidden gems and write a whole story around them. Consider the different periods of time and the changes in everyday life and work. What are the connections between then and now?  One of the best ways to do this is by taking a walk with a local guide or talking to the staff at the tourist information centre.

  I’ve lived overseas, including Iran which I prefer to call Persia and could write several novels set in different time periods which would now doubt fascinate and appal some people. For my third novel, I chose to return to my Peak District roots which still requires going ‘home’ to get a renewed feel of the place and check up on what’s changed over the passage of time.

  My holiday reading has included The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon, a fellow Derbyshire writer. She could have set her story anywhere but the mere mention of some places I know gave me a cosy feeling. I felt we could have gone to school together in the sweltering summer of 1976 which is one of the key time period for her debut. What I really liked was that all the characters live in the same street.

I guess my message is this. Don’t think you have to make a setting exotic or dangerous or that you should write like a travelogue. Leave that to the tourism marketers. Write a good story even if it’s about life at the end of your road.


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