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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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Waiting on a Dust Jacket

The Proofcopy of my last Hardback, Dagon’s Revenge

The song says the waiting is the hardest part and it’s a truth that is too easy to dismiss. I’m currently expecting my proof copy of a hardback of “Darkness on a Foreign Shore”, my first role-play book. I ran a Kickstarter for that project and we were vey successful. I’m keen to give out the pledges my backers signed up for but I am waiting to see how the interior artwork looks before getting all the books ready to post and letting the finished product go on sale.


Christmas is a funny time for books as hardback sales go nuts and eBooks can often take a wee hit. I haven’t written anything particularly seasonal yet and so I am not in a mad push for a specific book other than getting behind “Water’s Edge”, my just released Hebridean detective thriller novel. And so I’m in a kind of limbo where I carry on with the daily write (a pandemic novel by Dictaphone and the follow up to Water’s Edge on the tablet) as well as other projects. But my eye is on the post.


You see the first time you hold a finished book in your hand is quite special. There’s a sense of completion, a little pride and a general satisfaction before the inevitable draw of breath as you launch into the marketing. There’s also that feeling of the start or continuation of something, depending on whether it’s the first or later book in a series. And unlike an eBook it’s tangible, the feel of the paper, the book in your hands, flicking through pages and placing the copy on the shelf.


This time I’m waiting on a dust jacketed hardcover which is a first for me. I did produce hardcovers before but they were hardboard, the last being Dagon’s Revenge. This time it’s something new and there’s more than a few butterflies flying around my stomach. But as I wait, I’ll keep writing, keep plodding on, for there’s nothing else I can do but pass the hours until the book arrives. Kids are lucky, at least you know the night Santa comes!

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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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A Change will do you Good!

One of the ruts to fall into with writing is to simply write the same thing over and over again. I’m not talking about when you have a good series and you need to keep churning out the books for the readers who are keen to read more and more. Rather, when times get tough and you stay put on your favourite genre and keep doing the same thing. Terry Pratchett spoke of reading other genres to keep the writing of your own material fresh and I think it’s productive and refreshing to try another type of writing, even if your love for a particular genre still burns strong.

The book purchased from Jonathan Green


I used to love the Fighting Fantasy books back in the eighties and I was lucky enough at the UK Games Expo, to meet a man named Jonathan Green, author and one of the biggest names behind that type of book. I bought a copy of his latest book, based on the wizard of Oz, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, it actually got me thinking, maybe I could write this kind of book

If you’re not familiar, these books allow you to make different choices in the story and this directly affects your hero journey. Decisions come back to haunt you and often there are a number of endings. They also tend to be highly varied in topic, from fantasy adventures to star ship captains, ninja warriors to explorers and wild west cowboys.

Cover art for the new novel by J Caleb Clarke


I decided to write a spy story but based in the second world war when many female spies were sent by the allies to France. It’s a classic set-up as you make decisions that could cost you your life, based on scanty information and guesswork.


And so I set about mapping out the adventure, writing the paragraphs for each option and winding various paths back into each other, desperately trying to hold the whole thing together. I don’t need to tell you, it was a lot of fun, a lot of work and an education in seeing things from all angles.

The cover for the book


Now I have a first book in what will hopefully become a series of books, suitable for teens and young adults but perfectly enjoyable for any age above. Testing so far seems good, not just in the number of errors but in the enthusiastic responses of the players.


In order to fund the book I have also begun a kickstarter, a place where fans and interested parties or people can put up funds in return for rewards. These funds will ensure the book will be launched successfully, and with a little advertising revenue to go with it. You can check the action out at the Kickstarter website. Please do and support this new venture of mine, it’s a right good ripping read and a lot of fun as you replay situations you initially made a mess of.


I’m already thinking of book 2 and the nautical theme it’s going to have. But only if we float this first book. But then that’s what it’s all about. Branching out, learning more, so that when I turn to my traditional fantasy writing, I’ll be a better story teller and a more accomplished writer.

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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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Need a Creative Holiday?

I’ve not long finished running a course in writing your own novel and amongst all the advice about planning, writing and editing a novel, I also spoke a bit about when things go pear shaped and then adapting. Currently I have quite a number of projects on the go, including making a zombie card game, oddly enough, and this week our plans were thrown to the wind by the unfortunate illness of a family member.

Without going into any personal details, it has caused me to take on board the words of advice I gave out during the course, namely that writing is there to support life and not the other way round. Not my original words either but a paraphrase of Stephen King. One of the difficult issues when you take on a love of your own such as writing, crafting or even zombie card games, and make it into a business, it is easy to find things becoming a slog or taking such importance that you can end up hating them for how they dominate your life.


I told my writing course that one of the most important processes to master is to separate your business self and your creative self, maintaining a tension between them. Your business head will always look for the money but it’s too easy for the writer to get forced out, become less creative, or to get stressed at producing stories they never wanted to in the first place.


From normal work we always take a holiday during the year to let ourselves recharge and wander off to new things. Sometimes I think we need to do this with our creative selves, let our imaginative processes just happen with no goals in mind for a while. While it might not produce something we can sell or market, it gives the creative a holiday when they can simply indulge in the joy of creating. For a writer, this can be the short story that’s been kicking at you over the weeks, or that character you wish to create that you don’t know if anyone will like, and frankly you don’t care!


Take a creative holiday when it all gets too much and let your art support life before it crushes it.

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Just the Time of Day

The focus was sharper in real life!

I’m looking across at a harbour, late at night after the sun has gone down, and the dimensions of the port are not as I remember them in the daylight. There’s a series of white markers that link to some low level uplighters, standing proud and indicating something of importance. To the left of this, and after a period of drab pipes and beams, are a dazzling array of white beacons, broadcasting their resilience into the night. In front of this are long tubular rays, shimmering like warning markers before the industry behind them.


What I find remarkable is the change between this view and that of the daytime where the actual structures that stand out are those that are not lit up this evening. There’s a whole building that stands as an impressive roundhouse, iconic to a degree but which at night looks like a failed bus shelter. And the water in front of the structures in this dark becomes part of them, increasing the visual depth and warmly leading us to the dazzling lights beyond.


So what, you say? The what is that depending on the time of day when stories are set, the whole ambience and the perceptions of the characters are changed, producing different levels of fright, perception, awe and awareness. Approaching this harbour during the day it looks like a Scottish ideal, whereas at night it becomes more of an unknown, a journey of discovery and has senses more on edge.


This brief tableau has made me think more about when things are happening in stories and to couple that onto the what is happening to produce a more accurate and pleasing tale. Placing myself in situ has become an even more involved task than it already was and in my mind I need to swing around more before jumping into the action.