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The Joy of the Island Ferry

One dodgy home video of the trip across – bit of dad video!

I am enjoying one of the great boons of island life today, a trip on the ferry from the Isle of Lewis to Ullapool on the Scottish mainland. It’s a trip I’ve been making for nearly 13 years now and a trip that is certainly more comfortable now that the “Loch Seaforth” ferry is taking me over. We used to ride on the “Isle of Lewis” ferry and a view of the toilets in bad weather was almost guaranteed!

Today is a typical murky day in February and the ferry is reasonably steady as she rides across “the Minch”, a piece of water with a serious temperament. On a good day, the scenery is wonderful and the ferry trip most enjoyable as you stroll on the upper deck. On a bad day, you stagger around, huddled inside from the elements, hoping the seasick tablets will work to their full effect.

The ferry is an integral part of island life, it’s the most common way to get off-island and the only way to take your car with you. Many of the islanders work on the ferries, even if they are not the ferries serving their own island. In my novel “Surface Tensions”, Donald, one of our heroes, is a ferry worker and the first encounter of the mermaids happens from the ferry. It is major news when there’s a ferry cancellation, and in winter, this occasion caused by the weather is not uncommon.

Le Mans start to leave the ferry!

The ferry also brings the freight to the island, including our groceries and any of the materials in the local shops. If the freight ferry fails to run, then we often see the buying of copious amounts of milk and bread as everyone panics, leaving the shops looking like a Cold War day in Russia.

Living in one of the remoter parts of the UK, you find things you take for granted in other parts suddenly become more important, more controversial and hopefully more appreciated. In my novels I try to include these little pieces of Island life, as they are part of what makes the way we live out here. In some ways life is freer out here but we depend on the regular trips of the ferry to keep us stocked with our daily dose of the mainland normals.

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It’s Right Windy!

This week the weather on the Hebridean island where I reside has been, as a guest at my wedding once commented, right windy. We’ve seen the power of nature once again up close as causeways were closed, and roads and streets flooded. Thankfully everyone seems to have stayed safe.


Living with the more extreme weather up here becomes part of life. I belong to an archery club who, if we shot outdoors at this time of year, would have to shoot sideways to let the arrow return to the target. We cancel meetings when the conditions look rough and non-essential travel is not advised.

Here’s a few youtube clips to give you a flavour.


I’m currently writing my second Highland & Islands Detective novel and the extremities of the weather are going to feature quite heavily. We’re on the Black Isle this time but with winter comes snow, sometimes in a mere dusting, other times in large dollops. The changing features of the season and the frustrations it causes make writing about the landscapes of northern Scotland fascinating. Linking them to the problems suffered by my two detectives helps bring a realism to the stories and gets past the simple picture perfect beaches and moors the brochures sometimes show.


Whilst I stretch the detail of how people misbehave in the Highlands, I never feel the need to “big up” the weather and its impact. For a writer, the elements and how they deal with the landscape and us mere humans give a tapestry to write against that is second to none. From water to land, snow to rain, wind to sun exposure, it all happens here in one of the most dynamic weather patterns there is. They say up here, if you don’t like the weather just wait an hour. And they’re right!


Change is always rife with the Highland weather and that means challenge, picking your time for whatever jobs you have and taking the moment when it comes. No wonder it paints a great scenery to write a story over.

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A View From Outside at Christmas

This year I am working over Christmas, and not the writing kind of work (although I may sneak a few words in here and there as ever). In my day job, I have been relatively fortunate to have avoided Christmas Day working over the last few years but this time around it’s my turn, and fair enough. This has necessitated the observance of the festival (man, that’s so formal sounding) a few days early so we can celebrate as a family. The upshot of this is that the rest of the family get two Christmas Days and I get a quiet house once I come off shift.


Being a shift worker, at this and other times of the year, has allowed me to see how everyone’s reality is different. For some, life is lived away from those they love with only brief visits home to look forward to. Others have a mechanical nine to five routine that seems to be rarely upset. For myself, working an eight day cycle into a seven day week, things are always fluid. Noone has the same life, work is often different, family is never the same and our own abilities vary vastly.


At this time of year, when we are meant to think about peace and understanding, it occurs to me how quick we are to judge someone else when we have no idea of their circumstances, rather assessing them as if their position was our own. As a writer it helps fuel conflict in stories, but in real life it leads to misunderstanding, anger and so often hate. If we are to live up to the Christmas ideal, we need to try and put ourselves in others shoes. But if we can’t then we need to simply accept other peoples’ struggles as the struggles they see them for, not as we see them.


In the Christmas nativity story, understanding the shock, fear and fortitude of a young mum to be requires an understanding of not just circumstance but also of the make up of the woman herself. To have gotten to know Mary would have allowed a better understanding, but from our dim view, it’s easy to misread the difficulty of the situation and turn the story into a simple fairy tale.


So this Christmas, try to look deep. But where we cannot see, then let’s make sure we are not filling the blanks up with soil from our own field.

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My First Detective Thriller

One of the joys of living in a place for a long period of time is that you get to see it in its fullness, good and bad, different and passionate. Couple this with a desire to write a different genre of fiction than I previously had and you begin to understand the genesis of my new novel “Water’s Edge”. But little did I know where the writing process would take me.


I live on a conservative island where changes that cut against both traditional and religious views can dominate the debate. Yes, there are extremes in this, but there is also a vast number of people who simply want to get on with life and learn how to get by with everyday necessities. But often the extremes of the argument do not allow this to happen. And it was this effect that was to dominate my main character.


Seoras Macleod, born and raised on the Isle of Lewis returns after a long time away, forced by his job to make a return to the scene of the worst moment of his life. The death of his wife years before has dominated his personality, and left in him a conflict with his God and his view of life. Through the resultant clash, I was able to throw the newer way of seeing things against the older conservatism and hopefully find the good and bad in both.


In societies the unspoken, lying beneath the veneer of normal life, shows where things are really at and I use the murder of a young woman to drive my detectives through this layer, exposing the lies beneath. This caused my murder mystery to become more of a thriller, events becoming less of a conundrum and more an act of social discovery. But still some have said they didn’t see the perpetrator coming.


Ultimately the book explores how wholly different characters can find support in extreme circumstances to drive through their mission when the house of cards around them starts to kick when toppled.


“Water’s Edge” my first Highlands and Islands detective thriller is available in paperback right now in my own store, or at Amazon (UK / US / AUS / CAN). If the eBook is your preference then you can pre-order here until the 1st Dec 2019 when it goes on full release. Check the 3 chapter sample out here. And let me know what you think. Book 2 is underway because all things come to the surface eventually.

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Beware the Brandished Torches!

One of the hardest things in writing is telling a story about a place everyone knows, The fact is they live there…, with you…, and like you they know everything about the locale. Except they don’t. And neither do you, the writer. This is because everyone views any place they interact with and contribute to through their own experiences. This is what makes stone-walling seem like honourable defence, one person’s bigotry seem like justified anger and one person’s paradise another folk’s hell.


As a writer taking on the challenge of story telling about the area around you, even if the characters are fictional, though based on various people one knows or has had experience of, you have to be careful. Not in case they come for you in the night, pitch forks at the ready and dipped flaming branches giving the night sky an eerie glow and your feet a hot toasting. Not in case some people don’t speak to you, offend by who they believe themselves to be in your story. No, the part to be careful of is to say what the story wants to say.


Stories are generated from thoughts and deeply held observations or beliefs and therefore deserve to be written in their entirety, not altered for passable consumption. And should the writer fear having caused offense if they are actually describing what is? Surely worse happens. They could simply put the book down in boredom. Now that would be devastation. So write to your observations, your revelations, your take on this life.


And so remember me, when you see the brandished torches, or the small boat with the man, hands tied behind his back and walking a modern day plank into the sea. They will say, he wrote to his convictions, he called it as it was. Short career though!

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The Changing Face of Evil

Don’t panic, you’re not about to get a lecture on the current terrible state of the world, rather a bit of an observation on the dark characters we seem to be getting on the screen and in our books.

Nice Tie

I think it all started when we started taking what would have been traditionally evil characters and creatures, and made them a bit more friendly, more human (if indeed we are friendly). Suddenly werewolves were simply shape shifters following a social change agenda, wronged and mistreated. Vampires were just unlucky people who didn’t want a break in the summer sun. And ghosts were actually helpful, misunderstood souls who were in the wrong place due to some supernatural accident.

Noone knew his years on the dole


I remember growing up and evil was evil. Often there was no understanding of why the bad stuff was happening, why these dark things of the night wanted to do these horrible actions to us. They were simply evil. It seems with changing times and the acceptance that old ideas about different lifestyles, race and social classes are erroneous, our characters seem to reflect that. In fairness I remember it starting in “Cabal” by Clive Barker, a super novel I thoroughly enjoyed but one that invoked sympathy for the dark things, even if they were all far from perfect.

“Don’t you just love him and his lights!”


Maybe it is a good thing that art mirrors the times we are in, but forgive me if I crave that unfathomable entity that simply wants to destroy because that’s what it is. It has no understandable social make-up, no difficult back story, no sad tale of its own – it is simply evil. And it is distinctly un – human, bearing nothing of our qualities, unfathomable. I guess it’s because against such a thing we can throw the full weight of our aggression and defence, knowing there is nothing to understand, nothing to rectify in its past. Today’s depictions don’t allow us that luxury and in truth, neither does real life, and it really should not.


But this is fantasy so give me one more malevolent, undeniably evil being to pit my fragile heroes against. You know you want to.

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A Spielberg Masterclass

This week I have been hit by the cold and was forced to actually take Sunday as a proper day of rest. Therefore I was found on Sunday morning at about 9am watching “Bridge of Spies” , huddled on my sofa, fighting to breathe properly through my nose (yes, those are violins you are hearing).

Bridge of Spies DVD cover


Now I have to say I am a fan of the spy genre, Len Deighton and John le Carre being authors I love but this was a rather unknown story to me. However it was more than a spy movie, rather it was a masterclass in telling a story.


What struck me about this film was not Tom Hanks’ acting (although as the main character he was superb) or that of anyone else in the film (Alan Alda was sublime). It wasn’t the terrific locations, especially Berlin in its coldness, snow on the ground and lawlessness breaking out. Rather it was the way Stephen Spielberg can hit your emotions from the blindside.


At one point Hanks character is crossing from East berlin to West Berlin after successful negotiations and looks out of the train to see the recently built wall. So far all has been fairly pleasant in the film but at this point you see the hopeful escapees brutally shot down off the wall and it hits you hard. The shot is brought back to mind as Hanks is back in the USA having completed the mission successfully and is somewhat warmed by the response he receives on a train. But looking out the window he sees a backyard wall with kids jumping over it and you are immediately taken back to that sucker punch.


A story would not be true to itself if it didn’t show that uneasiness we all have with finished results, knowing that despite success there is more evil or unfairness left in the world. Unless it’s a child’s movie the platitude does not really sit well with us.


Having watched the film, I found myself thinking about how Spielberg sets his audience up, rolling them through those confusing sides of life, of every person, so we end up with a rounded picture of what is happening whether we like it or not. And seeing it on film only makes me want to do it on paper. In a world where characters are often one dimensional or simply purporting one side, depth of writing that can enhance our world view with all its complications can only be a good thing.


Watching this film made me remember why I love films to be begin and why I love reading. The challenge made to ourselves as viewer and reader is surely what makes it all worthwhile.

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Is Everything Better with a Mythological Beast! Why yes!

My wife was recently reading the tales of Greek mythology to our children and as we talked about the wonder the kids had over some of the stories, I desperately tried to remember the names of the various heroes and heroines. I also tried to bring to mind the origin tales of the mythical beasts that are a core part to these stories. Generally I failed but in my defence I have too many mythologies in my head and too many creatures of various shapes and sizes – one of the dangers of being an urban fantasy writer.

It seems that in our mythologies there are always creatures that are built on, but have surpassed, those that inhabit our planet. Why have simply a horse when you can stick a pair of wings on it and let it fly through the sky. Why have whales or sharks when you can have a creature that has tentacles to smash ships and drag them to the deep. We seem to need to that difference, that strangeness.

As a writer of fantasy I have to confess to making my own beasts up and delving into the mythologies of the cultures of the world for my next great beast. Indeed, HP Lovecraft decided that this earth’s horrors were not enough and those from a foreign planet were required. Tolkien wasn’t content with elephants and produced his oliphaunts. We thrive on the unusual and superlative.

But I have found one thing to be true in my reading and writing of fantasy. All the wonder of these beasts and their vivid and incredible backgrounds only ever highlight the one creature that is imminently more complex and interesting than these giants of fantasy – ourselves. Humans, or their derivatives (dwarves, elves, halflings, and more recently vampires and werewolves), are the truly strange creatures with their shades of emotion and actions, some dark, some heroic and some just foolish. But to highlight this complexity of character, we writers have to place alongside them that which is beyond the norm we are used to.

So, is everything better with a mythological beast? Well as far as fantasy writing goes, yes, absolutely but only to highlight that most complex and strange creature we call a human.

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Winter Flying!


Where’s your local airport? Mine’s down the road, a few miles away and played, and still does play, an important part in my life. Living on an island, flying is the quickest method to get elsewhere but it comes with its own little quirks, especially when you throw in island weather. It can be like mainland weather, just bigger!

For the uninitiated, planes like to land and take off into wind. Especially if it’s a strong wind. So on the island that means generally. Very generally. So far so good as we have 4 runways to point down. So one of them usually fits. Except at night when two of them usually don’t have lights. Hmm…

Then we add snow or hail. So it’s hard to see and the runway gets slippery. And if the runway isn’t the one we really want then there’s a crosswind. This means the plane approaches the runway in a side on fashion, “crabbing in”. 

So why tell you this? Well I’m in the air as I write this and these are just some of the factors facing me. Or rather, the pilots. They haven’t seen fit to let me have a go yet. Probably wise.

Producing books is similar. There’s a simple sounding template to begin with but then you add the “elements” and it becomes more fun! So they say. I’m still looking for the summer flying bookwise. I often make great plans to then get buffeted off my approach to land and book final production. However, next year I’m realigning my “flying technique” in order to make more “landings” and in a more controlled fashion.

Aircraft landings are called controlled crashes and I reckon book production is that to, a controlled maelstrom of activity and work. Still, practice makes perfect.

Anyway, wish me luck, runway approaching!
P.S. We made it! Only one way to celebrate. Coffee time!

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Genre or not to Genre?

Do you read a specific genre? If so, why? Why do we limit ourselves by looking only for books within a certain style, storyline or feel? I came to think about this because my novels tend to move across genres. Take “Crescendo!”, the first in my Austerley & Kirkgordon series. It has certain Lovecraftian throwbacks to it, so obviously it’s horror. But hang, it is set in the real world with a number of fantastical creatures and happenings in it. Ah, I hear you cry, its Urban Fantasy. Well, yes, but… It also has plenty of action and adventure in it too. And also investigators who have been described as old fashioned cop show buddies in that they can’t stand the sight of each other.

It’s hard boxing things in in real life too. Working in the emergency services, you have standard protocols and procedures but everyone will tell you there is no standard job. And in life there are no standard people. Variety and complexity is what makes life the vibrant maelstrom it is. And thank goodness, otherwise we would be board senseless by it.

Romance? Well maybe, but also fantasy and adventure

When I was writing “Surface Tensions” I was fortunate enough to have a group fund a developmental review of it. On its return to me, I was informed that it needed a serious plot change as the romance genre required a certain path to be followed. But surely the reader would see this coming? Do we really want to have the same things replayed to us. I understand seeking the same feel. I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series but I wouldn’t ever accuse him of simply replaying the same story even if his initial devices were similar in their instrumentation.

Terry Prachett – never simply repeating

Maybe I’m just too eclectic. I’d rather take stories in all shapes and sizes. Some I may like, some maybe not, but at least I won’t be bored into a rut. Let us all be eclectic and to the blazes with genre!