Above the Clouds: Writing in Bulgaria
At long last, the new book has reached its final stages and the action has moved from the deserts of Iraq and Jordan to the icy mountains of Bulgaria. To the ski resort of Borovets, to be precise, which is 1350 metres (4430 feet) above sea level in the Rila Mountains, about 73 kilometres (45 miles) southeast of the capital, Sofia.
I was there about three or four years ago and took a load of pictures precisely so I had a feel and a flavour of the place for when I reached this stage of writing. It’s been very useful to look back over them now.
Take this shot, for instance, up a mountain in Borovets. I’d completely forgotten that, at somewhere around 7700 feet, for quite a lot of the time you were above the clouds, it was like looking down on a misty ocean.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is actually a list of words connected with snow, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Arctica from Dartmouth College Library:
Anniu – snow intended for melting into water for drinking or cooking
People You Hate on Planes
I can still remember the first time I ever flew on a commercial jet, as a fairly small child going to Malta on a family holiday. It was a huge adventure, including being trooped up to peer into the cockpit to watch the flight crew at work.
I remember sitting in the exit row, and being asked to change seats with my parents because we were about to make an emergency landing and I could barely reach the door release, let alone be expected to operate it. I thought all flights were greeted by a cavalcade of fire engines and ambulances on both sides of the runway.
Ah, what balmy carefree days they were, when you could carry just about anything onto a plane and pre-flight security was all but nonexistent.
These days, flying is a means-to-an-end endurance test rather than a pleasure in itself, even in the comfy seats. Long lines and partial disrobing to get through the metal detectors and body scanners and X-ray machines, liquids in dollhouse-sized bottles, all electronic items unpacked and laid out for inspection.
Hey, we all have to do it, so the guy who’s in a bad mood or the one who thinks he deserves different treatment because he’s some kind of big shot in vending machine sales make me grit my teeth a little. Not too much, I admit, because it’s all fascinating research for the next time I have to write a pompous arse.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is talion, from the Latin talio, and meaning retaliation. The principle that the punishment should be the equivalent or identical to the crime – the death penalty for murder, for example. The imposition of that punishment. Hence the Latin lex talionis meaning an eye for an eye.
Writing Out of Season
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who suffers from the winter blues. In some ways, I suppose it’s the perfect frame of mind to write a story that is, in places, as dark and harsh as the weather.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the section I’m writing at the moment is set in Jordan, in merciless sunshine and 40-plus-degree heat. Hot countries provoke a different way of looking at things, and a very different way of life, to temperate climates like the UK. Can't imagine the Romans built many open-air amphitheatres while they were here.
Our weather here can be rather wishy-washy. Warm-ish in the summer, cold-ish in the winter, any extremes invariably take us – and our infrastructure – completely by surprise.
Not that they don’t experience occasional freak weather in Jordan. When I was last there I remember tales of tourists being snowed-in to the town of Petra, home of the famous ancient Rose City, and being taken in by local residents for over a week until the roads could be cleared.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is wayzgoose, which was a holiday given by a master printer to his workforce around the time of St Bartholemew’s Day in late August. It usually marked the end of the summer and the beginning of working by candlelight. There have been suggestions that the word originated because the master printer would give his people a feast, at which would be served a goose fattened on the stubble fields after the harvest – wayz being a bundle of stubble or straw. So, in modern parlance, if your computer printer isn’t working, it’s wayzgoosed!
When A Tree Falls In The Forest . . . the end of the Pioneer Cabin Tree
O ne of the saddest pieces of news this week, to my mind, was the story of the Pioneer Cabin Tree at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California. The tree, which had a ‘drive-thru’ hole carved in its trunk in the 1880s, blew down last weekend in heavy storms that swept across the north of the state.
The Pioneer Cabin tree, which shattered on impact.
I’ve always been fascinated by giant sequoia trees, and one of the highlights of an early visit to America was going to the Sequoia National Park to gaze dumbfounded at the General Sherman tree. At the time that tree was reckoned to be the largest by volume, measuring 275 feet tall and over 100 feet in circumference at the base. The first major branch was 150 feet up, and although it looked insubstantial from ground level, the branch was reckoned to be more than six feet in diameter.
But the most mind-blowing thing of all was the fact that the General Sherman tree was estimated to be somewhere between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. That’s a staggering age for any living thing on the planet.
It boggles the mind that this tree put its first shoots above the soil when the Greek Empire was in its heyday and the Roman Empire wasn’t even a twinkle in anybody’s eye.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is teterrimous meaning extremely foul, ugly, or horrible, from the Latin teterrima, meaning most foul.
From Adulting to Textalyzer, via Hygge, Lemmium and Post-Truth: the best official words of 2016
First of all, a very Happy New Year to everyone. I hope we leave behind the mostly miserable twelve months that was 2016 and step over into the next twelve with better things to look forward to.
In one respect at least, though, 2016 was a good year. It was a good year for new words and a number of them have officially passed into the English language by being accepted into the leading dictionaries. Here are a few of my favourites.
Behaving in a responsible and mature way, particularly in regard to the accomplishment of mundane or boring tasks. Also used ironically on social media to highlight behaviour the user actually considers to be childish.
The mix of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ to form Brexit, but in this case to denote someone who supports the UK leaving the European Union. Follows on from ‘Grexit’ with regard to Greece’s membership of the EU.
Someone who limits their political or societal activism to signing online petitions rather than taking any real-world action.
For a dozen more 2016 neologisms well worth working into your 2017 conversation and blogs,
read my Murder Is Everywhere blog
The dreaded Christmas round robin with a twist
Christmas is approaching with frightening rapidity, mainly because I’ve had my head down in a book – writing one, not reading one, although I’ve been doing that as well. I’ve also been trying to get my house reconstruction finished, sort out my annual accounts, do Christmas present shopping, and prepare to move again for three months.
The rest of the time I’ve been merely loafing.
So, my sending out of cards this year has been, well, nonexistent, if I’m honest. Fortunately, I have a Jacquie Lawson eCard account and know how to use it, so I won’t entirely fail to keep in touch. No, you can’t stand an eCard on your mantelpiece for visitors to admire, but they’re lovely pieces of animated artwork all the same.
I’ve also been contemplating newsletters. Not only because I realise just how long it is since I sent one out to my readers, but also because it’s at this time of year you tend to receive family newsletters along with Christmas cards from people you haven’t seen in donkey’s years.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is amicide, meaning the killing of a friend.
Oddments – crime news from the UK
As well as the major stories in the news this week, there have been quite a few smaller items from the UK that caught my eye, for different reasons.
Cyber blackmail is on the increase. According to the police, webcam blackmail cases have doubled in the last year, going from fewer than 400 to over 850. The NCA (National Crime Agency) admit, however, that many of the victims don’t report the crime, so actual numbers are likely to be far greater.
Contrary to what you might expect, the majority of victims are males between 21 and 30, who are befriended by fake identities on social media and persuaded to perform sexual acts in front of their webcams.
The blackmailer will then usually demand money or they will post the videos online, or share with the victim’s friends, workmates, and family, in a moved dubbed ‘sextortion’. It’s believed that online blackmail of this type has led to several suicides.
If you’re targeted, the NCA advises not paying anything or communicating with the criminals, but to take notes and screenshots of all messages, temporarily suspend your social media accounts so the evidence is preserved, and report the incident both to the police and to the social media site where the contact was made.
Your password cracked in seconds? Your house up for auction and you didn't know?
Read more on my Murder Is Everywhere blog
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is stibogram, meaning a record of footsteps, as opposed to ichnogram, meaning a forensic record of footprints.
Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place
The contrast between body and brain at the moment is vast.
My body is in Iceland. Iceland Noir in Reykjavik, to be precise, where the weather is hovering around the freezing mark, but the wind is cutting that down through the skin until my bones are exposed. At this time of year it feels a hard place, from the crumpled black-lava landscape to the low-lying buildings hunkered down into it.
The last time I was here – for this event two years ago – my memory has tamped down the cold until it was no more than a mild chill. So, this time although I brought with me gloves and many layers, I neglected to bring a hat. The pain of ear-ache from the bracing walk from our quirky Air B&B to the Nordic House alongside the ice-strewn lake that first morning inspired me to dig out the custom ear defenders I normally wear for flights. At least now it is only my outer ears that freeze, rather than two throbbing points at either side of my brain.
The trick, I discovered, is to greet as many friends as possible as soon as you are inside. That way you can quickly lure some of their heat into your frozen cheeks. Only works if they arrived at least ten minutes before you did. But then, of course, you can return the favour to new arrivals.
And there are plenty of friends to greet . . .
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is mancation, which has come to mean a men-only vacation, but actually has its origination back in the eighteenth century, when it meant maiming or mutilation. Considering a modern-day mancation often involves very male pursuits, perhaps the two are not so far apart after all . . .
What does Home mean to you?
This week’s blog falls at an awkward time. I would say that I’m moving house, but that doesn’t quite cover it. More accurate to say I am moving back into my house. The house is the same, but different, from the one I moved out of several months ago.
Those who know me will be aware that the last few years have been a period of some upheaval for me, including being of No Fixed Abode, as it rightfully declares on this blog.
I can’t deny that it’s been an interesting time in all senses of the word. I’ve taken to pet sitting on an international scale, and borrowed everything from sofas to yacht berths and frankly luxurious guest rooms and apartments from friends around the world.
But somewhere to call Home has a particular appeal.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is grinagog, meaning a foolish fellow who grins without reason, and comes from The 1811 Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose.
Protecting What's Yours — How Far Should You Go?
A couple of days ago I came across a news item in The Guardian for a security feature intended to protect bikes – both pedal and motor – from potential thieves. Called the SkunkLock, it initially looks like a standard carbon steel lock, but it’s filled with a chemical, which – if anyone cuts about a third of the way through the metal outer casing – is released. The manufacturers claim that although this chemical is entirely legal, it will induce vomiting in 99% of people.
The idea came from San Francisco, where bicycle thefts are legion, and is being Crowdfunded as we speak. One of the inventors, Daniel Idzkowski, came up with the idea after a friend’s expensive electric bicycle was stolen while they were at lunch, despite having two $120 mechanical locks attached to it.
Of course, there are ways around the SkunkLock. The would-be thief could simply pick the lock, or wait until the gas supply is exhausted and then go back to finish the job. But as with most security measures, they’re intended for deterrent rather than outright prevention.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is thanatology, meaning the scientific study of death, including not only the forensic aspects, but also the wider psychological and social effects. It comes from the Greek Thanatos, death, and the suffix –ology, again from the Greek, -logia, speaking.
Handbags at Dawn: unseemly argle-bargle among UKIP MEPs
I’ve been glued to the news this week waiting for the next Trump time bomb to explode. The latest one has been ticking since 2005, with yet another example of the ‘interesting' attitude of the Republican candidate for Leader of the Free World towards women. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
However, things have been equally entertaining on this side of the Atlantic over the past few days.
British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Dispatch Box, House of Commons.
If you’ve ever listened to or watched Prime Minister’s Questions from the House of Commons, you’ll know that British Members of Parliament can be a fairly rowdy lot. There’s a good deal of heckling goes on, and it seems to be the sole purpose of the Speaker – a post currently held by John Bercow – to try to keep some kind of order, much like a grumpy umpire at a tennis match back when John McEnroe was still playing.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is argle-bargle, which originates from the Scottish phrase argy-bargy, meaning anywhere from a lively discussion or relatively amicable if somewhat heated debate, to an argument or confrontation of moderate intensity, somewhere between a spirited debate and a fistfight. It employs reduplication, a repeat of one part of the first word in the second, much like mumbo-jumbo or another Scots phrase, catter-batter, meaning to wrangle. Argle-bargle would typically be used when the speaker is intending to sound either juvenile or pejorative, take your pick.
Bouchercon and Beyond - New Orleans to Cape Cod
As I write this blog, I am still on the road after Bouchercon in New Orleans. My mind is a jumble of impressions, both good and bad. Mainly good, it has to be said. Here are a few of them I'd like to share with you.
New Orleans street, down near the French market.
Why can't a terrace of houses in the UK look this cool?
Lovely to catch up with friends from the UK.
(l-r) me, Kirstie Long, Caroline Raeburn, John Lawton
at the Soho Press party. Pic courtesy of Cara Black
For this week's blog, I've swapped pen for camera. Enjoy my 28 images of a very memorable US tour.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: preparing to travel in the States
I was intending to blog about today's momentous date – September 11th – today, but Jeff Siger's 'Fifteen Years Later' blog from yesterday has said it all in a far more moving and arresting way than I could. I can clearly recall watching events unfold on the TV news and thinking that things would never be quite the same again. He, on the other hand, was there.
So instead I'm going to look forward - for the next couple of weeks, at least.
Next week I'll be on my way back to New Orleans for Bouchercon, and I can't wait to see the place again. I went there last when I was researching DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten, which, as the title might suggest, has the Big Easy as its setting. Back then, I was lucky enough to spend some time with fellow mystery author Toni McGee Causey and her husband, Carl. Louisiana natives, they were brilliant guides, showing me the hidden parts of the city that proved invaluable when it came to background for that book, including the incredible giant scrapyard, Southern Recycling, where old school buses and the engine blocks from container ships go to die.
After Bouchercon I'm picking up a car and going on a road trip. Fellow Brit thriller author, John Lawton and I have just brought out our first joint project, called AN ITALIAN JOB, and teaming up to do some bookstore and library events together seemed a good way to celebrate.
I know at first glance we seem an unlikely combination for such a collaborative effort. Lawton's books are meticulously researched historical espionage tales. I write contemporary crime thrillers. Our writing styles are very different. But that, in part, was the challenge of it - working on producing a story written by both of us, without people being able to see the joins.
For details of our US tour - from Houston to Cape Cod - do read the rest of my Murder Is Everywhere blog
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is logomachy, meaning an argument about words. It comes from the Greek logos, meaning word or speech, and machesthai, meaning to fight.
Not One For The Ladies? Women in the spy genre
A month or so ago, I came across a piece in one of the national UK newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, detailing the ‘twenty greatest spy novels of all time’.
The books dated from Rudyard Kipling’s KIM from 1901 and Eskine Childers’ RIDDLE OF THE SANDS (1903) up to SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron, published in 2010.
Monument to Yulian Semyonov in Yalta
In between are the likes of Joseph Conrad, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Graham Green, John Le Carré, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton, among others. There’s the odd more unusual choice, such as Russian author Yulian Semyonov’s SEVENTEEN MOMENTS OF SPRING from 1969, apparently written at the urging of the chief of the KGB as a propaganda exercise that became greater than the sum of its parts. Fascinating to see the Cold War from the other side of the curtain.
But, only one female author’s work makes the cut . . .
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is goya, an Urdu word meaning 'as if' and often used to describe the suspension of disbelief or transportation that comes through good storytelling.
Advance on Retreat? The value of getting away from it all
For years I’ve heard about people going away on a writer’s retreat. Usually a large house or collection of picturesque cabins in some rural idyll, where you could go to be alone with your muse during the day, and gather in the evening for literary discussion over the dinner table and a few bottles of decent claret.
Or something like that.
writing on the move
Truth is if I ever had to write about a writer’s retreat, I’d have to make it up. I’ve never actually been on one.
Perhaps it’s because I come from a journalistic background, where I didn’t so much have a muse as a tight deadline and an editor with a big stick.
(Usually with nails in it.)
Back when I still had a day-job, I’d write fiction anytime, anywhere. In the car on the way to photoshoots, in hotels and waiting rooms. Entire chapters were written on flights. The idea of needing to go somewhere, well, special in order to put words on the page seemed wholly unnecessary.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is magistricide, meaning the killing of a teacher or master, from Latin magister, meaning a master, chief, superior, or teacher, from magis meaning more or great.
What century is this anyway? A bit of a rant against misogyny
As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m currently partway through renovating a new house. (The house being new to me, rather than a house that is actually new.)
Now, I consider myself a fairly practical kind of person across quite a wide range of subjects. Not an expert, but … capable. Comes from being a bit of an autodidact, I think. If I happen across something I find interesting, or useful, I go about acquiring knowledge on it. And the more that information is widely and freely available, the easier it is to obtain.
Sometimes, however, information is nothing without hands-on application. So, it’s not enough for me simply to watch a How-To clip on YouTube, I want to get out there and also acquire the real-world skill.
Having helped complete a self-build project with my ex a few years ago, I had no qualms about taking on a property I knew needed Work.
WORD OF THE WEEK
This week's Word of the Week is eucatastrophe, meaning the sudden resolution of events in a story to provide a happy ending. It is said to have been coined by JRR Tolkien, who added the Greek eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, to signify a reversal of fortune which ensures the protagonist does not meet the apparently inevitable sticky end.
Fantasies, Festivals and Foolishness: The Ultimate Writer's Staircase; appearing at the Chelmorton Festival; and the dumb things I've managed to do to myself recently
The news of the past few weeks seems to have been one pummelling catastrophe after another. So, please excuse me if I plump for a lighter topic today. I’ve been feeling in need of a bit of respite from the doom and destruction all around us.
I receive a regular email of news items, and one caught my eye in the Huffington Post about a couple who painted their staircase to look like a stack of all their favourite books.
It looks particularly effective with their daughter perched on the top step, like a scene from Alice in Wonderland (which, I note, did not make the cut).
My painting talents extend more to Dulux gloss and emulsion rather than oils or watercolours, so I was wondering how I might best reproduce the effect without needing the talent to go with it.
A quick Google search later, I found this example . . .
Take a look at 'this example' - and the books I might choose for my own staircase -
at my Murder is Everywhere blog►
Boris, Brexit & Bollox: John Lawton's view