Seven Signs you’re a Coffee Addict!

My name’s Sam and I’m… a coffee addict. Got the T-shirt, literally! No two ways about it. The black stuff equates to my writing fuel… well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! And putting together this blog post wasn’t difficult, as all of these signs apply to me. How about you?

One…Your favourite barista knows exactly what you drink, you go in there so often. For me, it’s either a small, black Americano or a medium one with an extra shot of hot water. Or, occasionally a small hot chocolate. My local barista always seems to be able to read my mood and guess!

Two… You’ll make a detour to go to your favourite coffee shop. Often, when I need a couple of items from the supermarket, instead of walking to the nearest ten minutes away, I’ll march a whole half-an-hour into town just so that I can get my coffee shop fix!

Three… You rate places by the standard of their coffee. Museums, garden centres, airports, department stores… Their actual purpose as a building is secondary to your caffeine needs!

Four… You have a top table in your head of your favourite cafes for certain hot drinks. My current one – for hot chocolate? Marks & Spencer first, followed closely by Le Depart cafe in St Michel, Paris (I visited last week!), then Waitrose and finally Starbucks.

Five… You suffer the classic coffee-addict’s weekend migraine. Supping your Americanos or Lattes from seven am each day, when you are up and out to work, you body starts to suffer from withdrawal when you have a lie-in on a Saturday and deny it that first early caffeine hit.

Six… Even if you are staying in the coffee shop, you order your drink in a take-away cup because it stays hotter for longer and delays that sad moment when your caffeine is all gone.

Seven… You don’t one hundred per cent trust anyone who doesn’t drink coffee. Tea? That’s a bit namby pamby 🙂

And, just for me,  I think I ought to add on eight… You write a novel about your favourite drink! The New Beginnings Coffee Club is set in a lovely village cafe, run by a rather gorgeous, enigmatic barista called Noah.

It’s a must-read for caffeine fans!

 

 

 

 

Padlocked in Paris!

Last week I enjoyed a lovely trip to Paris. I worked there ooh, thirty years ago, and soon remembered how to navigate my way around the underground and ask for the most important thing, in French – a cafe and gateau! In fact, my romantic memories of the place inspired my 2014 novel From Paris with Love. And not much had changed. The underground still smelt musty! The Sacre Coeur still stole my heart. It was perfect April weather, with blue skies and lots of pink blossom. We enjoyed Tunisian tagines in St Michel, the bustle of the shoppers in the Champs Elysees and husband and I got a little carried away, kissing under the Eiffel Tower 🙂

However, there was one thing that was unexpected and different – padlocks, bearing sweethearts names, EVERYWHERE. Apparently they used to be fixed largely on one of the Parisian bridges, the Pont des Arts, but by 2015 there were almost one million. Structurally, the bridge was beginning to suffer with the weight, so the authorities cut them off.

However, undeterred, tourists now fix them in other places – for example in a statue’s hand…

Or on a pavement chain…

I really enjoyed reading the different messages engraved on the variety of coloured locks – although to others they could be seen as environmentally destructive or as eyesores. And whilst I appreciated them, would I follow this tradition myself? Apparently this symbolic gesture has been made for centuries across the world and padlocks can be seen in many capitals now. But what if you break up badly with your partner or spouse? Would you really want a permanent symbol of that relationship existing or even standing proud? Personally, no! Certainly not if it was in my locality. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was out of sight, in another continent.

Still, it inspired me, as a romance writer. My heart warms at the thought of  besotted couples wanting to express their love in such a public manner.

To me they simply add to the beauty of possibly the most charming city in the world.

 

Where To Find Inspiration

As an author, I am often asked where I get my inspiration from. People not connected to the writing world are amazed that us pen-pushers don’t run out of ideas. But – it may seem obvious to say it –  there is inspiration to be found all around us, if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Here are some of the places that have provided stories for me.

The Zeitgeist – I am fascinated by what grabs the public’s imagination. With my new summer novel, Breakfast under a Cornish Sun, it was the TV series Poldark. Women across the world seemed enamoured with this programme, especially the lead character. And this got me thinking, what would it feel like to meet your fictional hero in real life? Kate Golightly finds out, in my story, when she heads off to the coast to find her very own mining hero! Likewise, the public’s obsession with Downton inspired my debut novel, Doubting Abbey.

Whereas the inspiration for my Christmas bestseller Mistletoe Mansion was the public’s obsession with celebrities and the gossip magazines featuring them. The main character, Kimmy, lands a house-sitting job in a posh area and becomes friend with a famous person – and discovers that the celebrity life-style isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all…

Locations – places you have fallen in love with, over the years. For me, obviously rugged, brooding Cornwall. Plus Paris (as in my novel From Paris with Love). I worked there as a young woman and never forgot its romantic, bohemian feel. My honeymoon was on a Greek island. The cheery village feel and stunning sunsets inspired the setting for my award-winning 2015 novel Game of Scones. My novella, How to Get Hitched in Ten Days was set in a fifties diner after I’d eaten in one which blew me away with its fab American memorabilia, and reminded me of the film Grease. So think back over your life and places that have meant something to you. Draw on that passion. The setting doesn’t need to be exotic, just somewhere you can get excited about as a background to your characters’ stories.

Cornwall sea

The Tabloids/Magazines/Reality shows. Well, they do say life is stranger than fiction! If an article makes you gasp enough to tell your family or friends about it, then that is probably something worth writing down. I founds these forms especially useful when I used to write short stories for women’s magazines. And they don’t need to be the sensational stories – perhaps the heartwarming ones  instead, like communities pulling together to overcome adversity.

People. Keep your eyes and ears open. Tap into conversations you hear in a shop or pub. Speak to people on the till or in a queue. I’m a very chatty person and can’t help but strike up conversations. It is fascinating what people will tell you. I know many of the workers at my local supermarket – the one that plays darts, another who goes camping, the lady whose son has a Masters degree in astronomy, the man who works on local radio… I listen to the ups and downs they go through. I’ve also spoken to fellow customers who are on a health-kick or lonely ones who are widowed… Everyone has a story and are often keen to share it if just prompted by a friendly word or smile.

Moments of emotion – whether that is something sad, moving, hopeful, happy or funny. We all experience these on a day to day basis. Draw on the incidents that really make you feel something and stay in your mind. They could provide material for a plot or character. Keep a record of them in your notebook. Like in the short story I wrote about someone who accidentally poured hollandaise sauce over a pudding, instead of custard – that was based on me and my laidback husband still polished off his dessert! How that had made us laugh. Or the time we got burgled whilst we’d gone on holiday. We’d left the house in a terrible mess. The neighbours thought the criminals were responsible and we didn’t confess it was us. Oops! Cue a few feelings of shame!

spotted dick

Also, don’t be afraid to tap into your own mood when writing. Don’t hold back. I was in a very happy, sunny, shiny place when writing Game of Scones and I think that probably showed. Whereas this year has brought challenges and I think that is reflected in the heartache a couple of characters deal with in Breakfast under a Cornish Sun. So be your own inspiration, because that will mean the writing has real meaning, is heartfelt and true.

Creating settings – it’s all in the detail!

In under two weeks – goodness! – my sixth novel, Breakfast under a Cornish Sun is launched. I can’t wait to share Kate Golightly’s story. The book was huge fun to write, partly because I adored the rugged yet picturesque setting. Cornwall seems to be a favourite location amongst writers – as do Paris and Greece. Yes, hands up, they’ve inspired me too – see From Paris with Love and my summer 2015 bestseller Game of Scones.

It is always a challenge to set a book in a location not familiar, in terms of everyday life. In fact one of my books (firmly unpublished and kept under the proverbial literary bed!) was set in Ancient Egypt. Some settings are so inspiring that they alone are the motivation to write an entire book. This happened with my novella, How to get Hitched in Ten Days. I’d visited an amazing fifties diner and instantly knew I just had to base a story in one. So what have I learned from the process of creating different settings, over the years? Well, I’m no expert but here are my top tips.

 

Cornwall shareable 2

 

Firstly, it’s all in the detail. Take my undiscovered masterpiece (!) set in Ancient Egypt. I tracked down an egyptologist on line and they agreed to answer all my questions for £1 a pop. I was determined to make my book as authentic as possible. And I take the same attitude towards setting my stories in modern countries – even though I have visited Cornwall, Paris and Greece. A sure-fire way to guarantee authenticity and detail is to focus on the five senses. Take your readers on a complete, sensual journey.

Sight – don’t forget the small things. Like sand stuck to the bottom of shoes after a day out. A passing gull with a chip hanging from its mouth. The width of the kohl around the eyes of a pharoah. The different colours shooting across the sky during a sunset.

Cornwall shareable 4

Sound – listen to a Youtube video filmed in the setting of your choice. The car horns in Paris. The donkey’s bray or chirping cigales in a Greek village. The fishing boat’s horn at a seaside resort. The sound of cheesy music from a passing ice cream van.

Smell – the stink of fish and seaweed as you walk through a harbour such as the one pictured above. The car fumes in Paris or wafting pastry smells from bakeries. Crocodile dung in Ancient Egypt! Close your eyes and imagine you are walking in your characters’ shadows. Think smoke from barbecues in the summer or aroma of hot red cinnamon wine if it’s cold.

Taste – oh yes, go to town with the food! The different textures and levels of spiciness or sweetness. All those details will really get the reader involved. How the food feels on the tongue. Is the aftertaste mild or bold?

Touch – wet sand squelching between toes. Scratchy beach grasses brushing against legs. Weather-beaten fishing boats. Scaly, slippery fish. Cobbled pavements under the feet. The sleek, smooth glass of glitzy buildings. The breeze through your hair by the coast or at the top of a landmark.

Below is an extract from my new Cornish book, as best friends, Kate and Izzy, drive towards Port Penny harbour:

…the road narrowed into a path and we cut through the tiniest whitewashed stone cottages, with doll’s house doors and uneven foundations. The roads turned to cobbled avenues and I marvelled at cute plant pots in tiny front gardens. An occasional cat crossed our path, as I pointed out funny house names like Seas the Day and Sunnyside Up. Tens of gulls squawked above our heads and, as we approached the wide harbour, I breathed in a fishy stench, which hit the back of your throat.

 

Secondly, also describe all the smaller aspects of the larger, more imposing parts of your setting. To do this I study Youtube videos and do lots of research online. Draw a map if that helps. I did this for Taxos, the Greek village in Game of Scones, and also for the stately mansion in Doubting Abbey. This will make it more real for you and, as a consequence, more real for your readers. Reading tourists’ reviews on TripAdvisor is also immensely helpful. I did this for my Greek book as I couldn’t exactly remember the details of Kos centre and I came across some vivid descriptions of various fountains and buildings – how safe or crowded or well maintained they were and what you could see from each angle. Also read local tourist guides and try to get a sense of the atmosphere surrounding big landmarks, to make the experience more personal.

In this extract, in From Paris with Love, Gemma is sitting on the steps of the Sacre Coeur:

“I gazed back down at the City of Light. When we’d first arrived, I’d just about been able to make out the details of roofs, chimneys and aerials. Now, however,everywhere was liquorice black, as if the starry sky had fallen to earth, just like that children’s story where Brer Rabbit thinks the moon has dropped into a pond. Lights twinkled and towards the right stood the sparkly Eiffel Tower.

I turned around, and gazed up at the awesome Sacre-Coeur church, illuminated by an amber glow. A Native American band played nearby, with their drums, flutes and pipes. Chat, laughter and ciggie smoke filled the air. Necking wine out of a bottle, a tramp sat next to us and directly in front was a group of camera-clicking Japanese girls.”

 

Thirdly, cut out relevant photographs and stick them above your desk, to really “get in the zone”. I did this with From Paris with Love as inspiration for the restaurant where a lot of the plot was based. I also posted up a copy of the Parisian underground. Don’t be lazy. Readers are educated people and won’t believe in the story if they spot an obvious mistake. Find the right Metro station to get off at the Eiffel Tower. Work out the exact time it will take a taxi to travel from the airport to your little Greek village.

 

Fourthly if you can, visit places in real life similar to your setting, if you haven’t actually been to the location. Doubting Abbey was inspired by the series Downton Abbey, and well after the book was published I managed a trip to Highclere Castle (see below). But the stately home in my story is quite different, and to get a taste of aristocratic life whilst doing the ground research, I visited Lyme Hall near me and took a tour of the house, writing notes on everything from the artefacts to door frames and just imagining how it must feel to live in such grandiose surroundings.

 

downton house

 

 

Finally… remember, a glamorous or particularly appealing or distinctive setting isn’t everything. For some novels the plot and characters carry the story and the setting, whilst important, isn’t such an crucial element. In Breakfast under a Cornish Sun it is significant because Kate Golightly heads off to that coast to find her very own Poldark (the fictional hero of a well-know Cornish book and TV series). Yet in my current work-in-progress (still under wraps, so I can’t give much away!) the setting is kind of incidental as the plot is about more of an emotional than physical journey for the characters.

 

breakfast under a sun small

 

 

 

Sweet Talk from awesome author Jenny Oliver

jenny oliver photo

 

Hello Jenny – lovely to have a fellow foodie on the blog! Food features heavily in my own writing – cupcakes In Mistletoe Mansion, my summer novel Game of Scones speaks for itself and in the latter’s standalone sequel,  My Big Fat Christmas Wedding, Pippa specializes in baking scones and pasties… yum! Clearly you  love writing about food as well, going by the titles of some of your books, like the Cherry Pie Island series, The Little Christmas Kitchen and The Parisian Christmas Bake off… Do you bake much in real life? I see from your website that you come from a family of “star bakers”!

Hey Sam, thanks for having me! I was excited to see your cover reveal for My Big Fat Christmas Wedding – it looks amazing!

Thanks so much! As a fellow Carina author, I’m sure you’ll agree their covers are fab-u-lous! So… back to food – how important is it in your personal and writing life?

I do love writing about food and I have an incredibly sweet tooth so can never resist a stop for a cup of tea and a cake. When I have the time I bake at home, and I’m looking forward to baking more with my son when he gets a bit older – I have really fond memories of standing on a stool by the kitchen counter when my mum was baking and being able to lick the spoon. My favourite recipes are a very easy all-in-one chocolate cake from a tatty old cookbook that everyone in the family has photocopies of because it’s such a winner, and my grandmother’s lemon cake which is insanely good and a close guarded secret recipe.

I really enjoy describing the texture and appearance of sweet foods and I think this comes from being brought up by a mother who was an ace baker – suet puddings, pies, cakes, all gooey and melt-in-the-mouth and… I could go on!

I can relate to that! My mum was a midday supervisor at a primary school, when I was younger, and used to bring home the recipes to bake. I can remember frequently tucking into seconds of carrot cake, suet puddings, rice puddings… Mmmm! I believe your mum is Russian and has inspired your interest in all things culinary, so would you say your palate is very cosmopolitan or are you a bigger fan of the British staples?

Ooh I like everything! Probably more than the cultural influence was the insistence that we should at least try what was on the plate in front of us, even if we didn’t finish it, and I think that lead to a pretty rounded palate. The Russian heritage has had most influence on seasonal celebrations – Easter especially – and instead of a wedding cake we had Malakoff Torte, made by my mum, which is probably one of my most favourite foods in the world!

 

jenny oliver xmas cake

What is your signature dish, if you’re throwing a dinner party?

In the winter I tend to make Coq au Vin or some other kind of hearty stew! In summer it’s lots of salads, tabbouleh and an amazing moroccan chicken dish of Nigel Slater’s which is v easy and unbelievably tasty.

I know cherries are your favourite fruit… which is your favourite:

Vegetable – probably carrots or broccoli, but I’m more of a salad person – I have it with everything – and I love avocado.

Sandwich filling – this is very tricky. I like a lot of different sandwiches. But I’m going to go with cheese and pickle. Simple but very effective.

Dessert – if it’s a restaurant then always the chocolate option. If not then Malakoff Torte (as above) or my mum’s meringues.

Writing snack – plain chocolate digestives.

Can we expect any more foodie books from you in the future?

jenny oliver book cover

 

My latest book, Four Weddings and a White Christmas, has just come out and food plays a really important part in the story. Harry, the hero, is a chef and pours all his passion and energy into his restaurant and his food, leaving very little left for anyone else… Enter Hannah to change all that!

Sounds like a wonderful read, Jenny!

Thanks so much for joining me and now I must head straight for the kitchen – all this food-talk has made me decidedly peckish!

You can find out more about Jenny here

 

More Than Love Letters

 

love letters

 

At the weekend, my children were rummaging around in the loft, and stumbled across a bag of love letters I’d collected over the years – mainly from my time at university and periods in my life when I worked abroad. Phew. What an emotional journey re-opening them. In fact some I couldn’t bear to read as the first lines reminded me that they’d been written to me after I’d finished with someone.

Oh the pain. The heartbreak of unrequited love.  Most of us know it well. Strange to think that someone, somewhere might one day stumble across old letters they have kept from me, telling them how much I cared or putting on a brave face after I’d been ditched. (Hmm. Brave face. Not sure I ever did that very well.)

Yet, at the same time, it heartened me to remember those men fondly – to remember how, in my youth, I’d loved and been loved in return. The funny little drawings on letters brought a smile to my cheeks. Oh, the carefree life I used to lead with not much more to worry about than tomorrow’s lectures or what time to meet my girlfriends for a gossip about the latest chapter of our love lives.

Out of respect to the men involved, I vetted the letters, but the snippets my teenage children did read made us all sad that today’s youth will miss out on collecting these expressions of love. Those little post-it notes, saying “I miss you” or “ignore this note, I might be drunk”! Messages like that are now sent by text and can easily be deleted when the end of a relationship looms. Plus hand drawings can’t be included. On mine were funny faces and bunches of flowers, huge kisses, tiny ones, loopy hearts… all those things that personalize a message and make them special. Typing letters is so clinical and true romance can’t fully be conveyed by computer emoticons.

I particularly treasure the ones sent to me by a Parisian boyfriend. I can’t understand all of them now – my French isn’t what it was. But I feel a warm glow at the pet names we used to call each other and the private jokes we shared. What’s more, reading about our escapades makes me realize just how much I’ve matured.

I’m not that person anymore and, in retrospect, would have handled some of those relationships differently. Yet the mistakes I’ve made have made me who I am – hopefully a woman who is more assertive when needed, as well as being more sensitive to the romantic feelings of others.

So, I am glad I’ve kept them, along with the ones from platonic male pals, best friends and relatives. They make for a snapshot of my life back then. It’s nice to remember the footloose fun – yet take stock of the settled, happy life I now enjoy. Plus to read notes from much-loved ones who’ve since passed on.

So next time you think of texting your other half with some flirty message, why not tear off a post-it instead. Draw a fun picture, accompanied by some good old-fashioned handwriting. It’s a physical representation of your affection, that can’t be archived by some Big Brother watchman. It’s here forever, just like the deep-seated memories. It can’t be destroyed by time.