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 importance of setting: Sarah Leipciger and Rosamund Lupton at The Chiswick Book Festival

Recently I was lucky enough to attend part of The Chiswick Book Festival. It was an interesting affair with several sessions covering everything from children’s books to marketing. I attended four sessions on the Saturday, including two on the book industry/marketing and two featuring authors speaking about their work.

My favourite session was called “Extremes—testing the resilience of plots and people in the wilderness”. It featured London authors Sarah Leipciger and Rosamund Lupton in discussion with Cathy Rentzenbrink. They spoke about the importance of setting for their novels, both of which take place in harsh, isolated wilderness.

Sarah Leipciger’s novel is called The Mountain Can Wait.

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Here’s my review:

A beautifully written, poetic debut novel about a reluctant father raising two children on his own in the wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

When a young woman’s body is discovered on the road, the victim of a hit and run, the authorities begin searching for the young man whom they suspect hit her. But who would have done such a thing, and why? And will the driver himself remain unscathed by his actions?

When Tom Berry’s wife, Elka, left him with their five-year-old son, Curtis, and their three-month-old infant daughter, Erin, he struggled to cope. Erin refused to eat and had to be taken to the hospital where she received a feeding tube. Curtis never understood their father’s quiet ways and preference for being alone, not to mention his fondness for hunting, an activity Curtis always disliked.

Tom’s work with the forestry service means he lives away from home for part of every year. During this time Erin and Curtis often stay with their grandmother, Samantha. But now that Curtis is older, he has his own place which he shares with a friend. Next year, Samantha will go away to university. With Tom’s planting company becoming successful, he might finally be able to purchase the cabin he’s dreamed of owning for years now. A cabin at higher altitude, where he can hunt, fish and live out his days in the peace and solitude he’s always craved.

Leipciger’s novel deals with the aftermath of events. The setting is described so vividly as to be almost a character in its own right, but she doesn’t let her descriptive powers get away from her. Her writing style remains grounded in the harsh and unyielding wilderness it represents, while remaining fresh, rich, and above all else, compelling.  

Sarah noted during the session that her main character, Tom Berry, was born out of the mud of the landscape that he lives in and where the story takes place.  Her characters all struck me as an organic part of the landscape they inhabit and this was one of the aspects I particularly enjoyed about her novel. Indeed, Sarah herself is Canadian and grew up in a similar environment.

Rosamund Lupton’s latest novel is called The Quality of Silence. It is written, in part, from the point of view of a young deaf girl, Ruby, who has landed in Alaska with her mother, Yasmin. Having never visited Alaska before, she and her mother must traverse the wilderness in search of her father who has mysteriously disappeared and whom the authorities refuse to divulge any information about.

I was struck by the amount of research Lupton carried out in preparation for writing the novel, and also by the fact that her protagonist was a young, deaf girl. Rosamund Lupton said that one of the reasons she made Ruby deaf was because she herself is deaf in one ear and this was something she wanted to explore in her writing. It also meant that Ruby would experience things differently which would make for an interesting character. Rosamund said that as the landscape was new to her characters she was able to explore it along with them, as it was new to her as well.

I was impressed by her courage in writing about a place she was unfamiliar with as I think this is something many authors want to do and are warned against. My novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, was based, primarily, on research. As a writer, I find a sense of freedom in discovering new places, people and plots through my writing.

After hearing so much about The Quality of Silence, I just had to get my own copy.

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I can’t wait to read it!

Have you been to any book festivals recently? If so, what was your favourite session, and why? Do you like novels with a strong sense of place? And what do you think about the adage to “write what you know”?