Visiting Tarbert and the Tarbert Book Festival

Readers of this blog will remember an announcement I made back at the beginning of September to say I’d been shortlisted  for the Tarbert Book Festival’s writing competition . At the end of last month I went up to Tarbert with my partner to attend the book festival as well as doing some sightseeing of our own in the area.

While I didn’t win the grand prize (that accolade goes to the very talented Frances Ainslie for her lovely story, Nights with Mary-Anne), I did have a wonderful time getting to meet and chat with many interesting writerly (and not so writerly) folk. I even received a compliment on my story from Janice Galloway (a prize in itself).

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Here I am, reading my shortlisted story.

In addition to the awards reception on the Friday evening at The Loch Fyne Gallery where short-listees read their stories, I also attended the Saturday of the writing festival.

On Saturday morning I participated in Anne Hamilton’s inspiring and fun writing workshop. As well as discussing setting (which was the inspiration for the writing competition), Anne talked about the importance of writing for its own sake. She said that so many people these days talk about writing, but never do it. She then went on to give us some practical hints and tips for both starting writing and for finishing what we begin. The piece of advice which most spoke to me was Anne’s admonition to leave the editing until after the story was written. I have a difficult time with this, always wanting to tweak and polish as I go. But, as Anne said, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I will try to keep this in mind the next time I’m tempted to edit before finishing a piece.

The second session I attended was Janice Galloway’s. She was reading from her latest collection of stories, Jellyfish, and discussing the writing of them. She said that how you tell a story is more important than what is actually said. The writer’s voice is incredibly important to the telling of the story because our books are, ultimately, about us as we are their creators. She went on to say that self-consciousness is the enemy of good writing, which must be natural. It’s about interpreting and presenting vulnerability. She then read an extract from one of the stories in her new collection which was captivating. After the session I had to go and purchase my own copy and get it signed, of course. 🙂 What she had to say resonated with me and is something I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

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Later that afternoon I attended Shirley McKay’s excellent talk about her historical fiction crime collection, 1588: A Calendar of Crime which takes place in Tudor Scotland. Her talk was fascinating and I was very much drawn to the idea of crime being integrated with historical fiction—it sounds tricky but satisfying, particularly when the crimes take place during such a dramatic period of history. When I was in my late teens I became particularly interested in this period of history (I’ve no idea how this came about as I lived in California) and so it was a lot of fun revisiting that history in Shirley’s talk. I’m looking forward to reading her books at some point too.

That evening at Stonefield Castle we were treated to an excellent whisky tasting by local distillery Springbank, followed by a hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable talk by Chris Brookmyre. Of course, besides being funny and giving some colourful anecdotes from his writing life, Chris also dispensed good advice. My favourite of which was his definition of writer’s block as reluctance to make a decision about your story. He said that sometimes you just have to finish the work and make a decision about where you’ll take it, even if it’s not what you thought it would be. He said that sometimes where you think a story will go isn’t where it actually ends up. I thought this was an interesting approach to it and worth sharing. (For another insightful approach to writer’s block, see this post by Colorado-based writer Kele Lampe: https://theshadowsanctuary.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/carving-up-writers-block/ ).

While the following day of the festival held several exciting events which we would have loved to have attended, we chose to do some exploring instead as we only had a couple of days in this beautiful and enchanting area of Scotland. We chose to hike to the White Shore, through the woods along the northern side of Tarbert Harbour. Later we took a ferry to the nearby village of Portavadie where we walked a short stretch of the Cowal Way. Both were beautiful and refreshing to experience. On the Friday, before the reception, we’d visited Tarbert Castle, which we also enjoyed.

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Tarbert Castle

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Hebridean sheep who “occupy” the castle.

And on our absolute final day in Tarbert we took a ferry all the way to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, mostly to experience being on the sea (this was thanks to a local tip as we would never have known about this ferry journey otherwise). Because the ferry only went once a day, we were only able to get off for a few short minutes, but at least we can say we’ve been there 😉 . The journey itself was spectacular. We saw two pods of porpoises swimming alongside the boat as well as a mother porpoise and her baby. We also saw a seal playing in the water. The previous day, on the ferry to Portavadie, we’d also seen seals in the distance. Magical doesn’t even begin to cover it. Seeing the Isle of Arran gently hover into view on a misty day was unforgettable.

It made me sad to leave Tarbert but I’m consoled by the fact that there’s always next year.

Have you attended any writing festivals far from home and, if so, did you try to combine it with a vacation? I’d love to hear about your experiences so please leave a comment below.

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The Moth Catcher screening and Q and A with Ann Cleeves and Brenda Blethlyn

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On Thursday evening I was very lucky to be able to attend a screening and Q and A of one of Ann Cleeves latest Vera Stanhope mysteries, The Moth Catcher. I was invited to the event by Islington Libraries as I’m a member of one of their reading groups (yet another benefit of library membership!). For just a £6 entry fee I got entry to a Victorian Grade II listed hotel (The Courthouse Hotel in Soho, London), a free signed copy of the book, entry to the reception, a free drink and–wait, I’m not done yet–access to the film screening and Q and A. They even threw in some popcorn just to top it off! Tremendous value, especially when you consider that a drink alone in certain parts of London might cost you the best part of that.

Anyway, need I say that it was well worth it? Vera is one of my all-time favourite shows, on a par with Krister Henriksson’s Wallander, and I am notoriously picky when it comes to TV programmes. It was so much fun to see which of the actors I–or I should say, we, for I took the hubby along to this one–recognised at the reception. I was planning on trying to interview Ann Cleeves at the event but, alas, she was quite busy talking with other adoring members of the public and I simply did not get up the courage. Maybe next time. 🙂

After the reception we were treated to a private screening of episode three, The Moth Catcher, in the new series 6. I won’t say much about it here except that if you are following the series you won’t be disappointed. This is yet another atmospheric, socially insightful and gripping instalment in this very enjoyable series.

After the credits rolled, Ann Cleeves, Brenda Blethlyn (Vera), Jon Morrison (Kenny Lockhart) and Kenny Doughty (DS Aiden Healy), as well as the director, Jamie Childs, answered a few questions which were asked on behalf of the audience. It was very strange having gone from being absorbed in the show to having the actors there in front of us. 🙂

Brenda Blethlyn is much smaller than Vera, and, of course, far more stylish. The Vera in Cleeves’ stories is much bigger than Brenda Blethlyn (both taller and wider). As they couldn’t make Brenda taller, they decided to make her wider by adding layers of waist-length clothing. Brenda Blethlyn said that she thinks viewers can relate to Vera because she’s ordinary, like someone you might see at the bus stop and never know that they were a high ranking detective. Indeed, this is one of my favourite things about her character.

According to Ann Cleeves, the series would never have been made if it weren’t for her first Vera novel, The Crow Trap, being discovered by producer Elaine Collins in an Oxfam charity shop in North London (a huge stroke of luck for Cleeves as Collins was searching for a new story to make into a series, and a counter to the argument that having your novel sold in a charity shop is a negative experience for the author).

Jamie Childs who is originally from the area, talked about what an honour it has been for him to film in the North East as this is something he’s always wanted to do. He said that he grew up in Durham in the same colliery village where Billy Elliot was filmed and used to fish in the area with his granddad.

Ann Cleeves said that a knock-on effect of the show is that it has brought jobs to the North East again. There are now official Vera tours which sell in 130 countries, and tourism to the area is increasing. From what I’ve seen on the show, this looks like one of the most beautiful parts of the country and it’s somewhere I hope to visit before too long.

When Ann Cleeves was asked what advice she would give her young self that she would also give to a young writer now, she said that young writers should just keep writing. She said you have no idea if any of these things will happen to you, and if they do, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with luck.

I found her advice to be both humble and inspiring, as indeed she was.

I look forward to reading my beautiful signed copy of The Moth Catcher!

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You can catch up with Vera via the ITV player: http://www.itv.com/hub/vera/1a7314a0023

Get your copy from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00UXKJ0XA Or, your local library.

Catch up with Ann Cleeves via her website: http://www.anncleeves.com/

Follow her on Twitter: @AnnCleeves