This time last week I was in prison – My visit to HMP Thameside’s book club

Eighteen months ago, when my debut novel, The Sister, was No.1 in the charts, I was invited along to HMP Thameside to meet their book club. Immediately, The Fear hit and I quickly declined. Not because of the environment, but because I had a massive phobia of public speaking. Those who read my blog know that after turning down numerous talks, I was asked to speak at the Althorp Literary Festival last year and eager to attend, I had a course of hypnotherapy to help me overcome The Fear (you can read about that here). I’ve since spoken at, and enjoyed, several events so when HMP Thameside’s librarian, Neil Barclay, got back in touch and asked if I’d reconsider, grateful of a second chance, I said yes.

I had never been in a prison before and my expectations were very much centred around what I’d seen on TV, rowdy tattooed men in orange boiler suits, and as I queued up to be booked in I started to wonder, for the first time, what I’d let myself in for. It was a surprise I had to be fingerprinted before I was granted entry, and not by ink and paper but by a scanner. (‘Mum, did you think it would be like an 80’s cop show?’ my son asked when I told him that later. Umm, yes.) My photo was taken, my ID checked and then I was given a visitor’s pass. After storing my possessions in a locker I was directed to the next room. Here, I was met by an officer who asked me to remove my boots so they could be scanned. As she snapped on blue latex gloves I felt a flicker of unease but the search was soon over and another officer arrived to escort me to the library.

One of my first observations was how many doors there were. Each one needing to be unlocked and immediately locked behind us. Listening to the slam, the twisting of the key, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I knew I would be there for months, or even years and anxiety bubbled.

In the library I was greeted by the prisoners who participate in the book club and the creative writing class and it struck me, as my eyes swept around the room, at the different clothes (not an orange boiler suit in sight) the different ages, races, that these were just people and my anxiety dissipated.

We talked about my books, about writing, but more importantly, we chatted about mental health. I relayed my story of how finding myself with a disability in my 30’s lost me my mobility, my job, my home and caused me to develop clinical depression. I shared how I was at rock bottom, thinking my life was over, my best days behind me. My fears that no-one would employ me, love me. But eventually I picked myself up and overcome depression through mindfulness and forged a new life. A new career. Although, they didn’t tell me why they were in prison, and nor did I want to know, they shared how they felt. How they coped.

Time flew by and after signing some books the men were escorted back to their cells. I ate a delicious lunch at the staff bistro, cooked and served by the prisoners. Later, I had a tour of the prison. I experienced what it was like in both a single and double cell and chatted to the men who lived there. It was heart breaking to visit a room full of toys and books where the men could record themselves reading a story to send to their children and that really reiterated that their sentence isn’t theirs to bear alone.

It’s now been a week now since my visit. A week in which the people I met are still very much on my mind. A week in which I am still trying to process how I feel. Despite my expectations, the images I had built up in my mind, ultimately these men were people, like you and I. Some were anxious, bewildered, depressed and frustrated. All were respectful and polite. There were repeat offenders, that was inevitable but I also met men who wanted an education, the chance of a better life. Hope. There are no victimless crimes but could any one of us take a wrong turn? Although I’ve never broken the law I’ve made bad choices, rash decisions. Mistakes.

I’ve offered to go back and run a workshop on mindfulness. As well as helping with depression and anxiety, imagine if learning to live in the moment, pausing to think rather than having a knee jerk reaction, could stop just one person reoffending? Mindfulness is all about choice. I chose to visit the prison, and I was free to leave at the end of the day, but sometimes I think – what if I wasn’t. It’s a sobering thought.

I was presented with a gorgeous bouquet, a ‘Wish You Were Here’ mug, and a thank you card.

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B. A. Paris – Bring Me Back Launch Party

 

One of the best things about writing is the sense of community amongst authors, and the friends I have made. I first met B.A Paris while her phenomenal debut, Behind Closed Doors, was storming the charts, and I had newly published The Sister. It’s been lovely to share our experiences as new writers, and cheer each other on over the past couple of years. It was a privilege to attend the launch of her third offering, Bring Me Back last Thursday.

Lisa Milton from HQ, me, B.A. Paris

If you haven’t read it yet, you really should! This is a dual narrative story, and B has written from both a male and female perspective. The male voice, Finn, is excellently executed and the story of Finn’s girlfriend’s disappearance, 12 years previously, had me hooked. Had she run away? Had he killed her? You’ll have to read it, to find out.

The launch party took place in a private area of the bar in Waterstones, Piccadilly and the 5th floor location gave us a stunning view across London, by night. We drank wine and ate canapés including salted chicken and mini burgers. Russian Dolls feature as part of Bring Me Back’s plot and although I’m a chocoholic I couldn’t bring myself to unwrap one of these chocolates as they looked so pretty.

B gave a heartfelt speech, there are always so many people to thank. Writing a book can be quite solitary but publishing one takes a village.

You can find Bring Me Back on Amazon here.

FREE books up for grabs (each comes with an adventure)…

“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”
Henry Miller – The Books In My Life (1969)

Books and adventure are two things in life I adore so I’m super excited to have combined the two by opening a BookCrossing account.

BookCrossing is the act of giving a book a unique identity so, as the book is passed from reader to reader, it can be tracked. There are currently a staggering 1,834,453 BookCrossers and 12,253,261 books travelling throughout 132 countries. The BookCrossing community has been active since 2001 and is free to join and take part.

BookCrossing’s online archival and tracking system allows members to connect with other readers and follow their books through tagging and tracking their individual books by marking them with BCIDs (BookCrossing Identity Numbers). Each BCID is unique to each book – once it’s registered on the site, the book can then be followed and journaled forever. BookCrossing is free to join and free to play. So don’t be ‘shelf’ish with your books – read and release!

I’ll be using BookCrossing to give away signed copies of The Sister, The Gift and The Surrogate, as well as passing on books I’ve bought and read.  You can follow my account here to see what I’m up to.

The first book I’ll be giving away this week is a signed copy of The Gift and a limited edition bookmark and next year I’ll be popping a book in my bag regularly when I go out so I can distribute books both inside and outside my home county.

As well as giving, I’m also hoping to track a few down and read outside my usual genres.

Do join in!

A day in the life of author…Tracey Scott-Townsend

Hmm writing in a ‘shed’ with no wi-fi distractions may be the key to being more productive. Tracey, do share more about your day.

 

For a good deal of my writing life (which began full-time in 2010) my office has been a shed in the garden. As it happens I’m currently packing up my shed in preparation for a house move so I’m having to work in the house. I find this distracting, due to my two captivating rescue dogs wanting my attention so much of the time. I also have other intrusive business going on at the moment, mostly stemming from the house sale.

At our new home in Hull I’ve created a cosy ‘shed’ by dividing an alcove off from the main part of the spare room. I hope I feel secure and isolated (in a good way) in there in the same way as I do going out to a dedicated space in the garden.

But let’s imagine for now that I`m still working in my shed – it’d be a shame not to show you around. My mini-palace is no ordinary garden shed. I have electricity and a wood stove and rugs hanging in there. I have photos of my kids on the bookshelves and one or two of my old paintings on the walls, too. Research notes and reference photos are also pinned up under the window, along with a calendar on which I mark the daily progress of my writing. In winter I have the stove burning merrily with the copper kettle coming to the boil on its flat top.

My day begins with a catch up on social media before I exit my bed. The first task downstairs will be to provide `strokey time` for the dogs, who act like they haven’t seen me for a year. Then I need to give Luna her Turmeric paste, followed by her YuMove tablets and her anti-inflammatory medicine. She’s less than 2 years old but she has severe hip dysplasia. I`ll probably need to wipe down the kitchen after my 18-year-old daughter has blasted through it. She’s my youngest of four and about to leave home as her brothers have already done, so I’m much more indulgent with her than I was with the others! I try to leave any other housework tasks until outside of work hours but sometimes it’s difficult to ignore them.

I always describe the feeling of closing the shed door behind me and sitting at my desk as like childhood visits to church. Okay, I’m not saying my shed is holy or anything but the atmosphere inside is to me kind of spiritual…

If I’m working on a new novel – which I am at the moment, only my progress has been interrupted by all this house moving business – I set myself a word-count target of 2,000 – 3,000 per day. I divide the target into more-or-less equal portions so that I know what I need to achieve in each session and I must reach the targets before I allow myself to take a break. (Even if I’m writing absolute drivel. Absolute drivel can be improved later.) I can also work out roughly how long it’ll take me to complete the first draft of a novel by sticking to the daily target. My novels are usually around 80,000 words long. Not that I won’t end up getting rid of at least one-third of it during the second draft but at least it’s a reason to keep going at the outset. Spending two years working as a secondary school teacher really helped me with targeting and time-management.

During my breaks I return to the house, check on the dogs and generally move around a bit. Quite possibly I’ll be forced to pick up a snowstorm of stuffing from the latest cushion or soft toy disembowelment! I have a cup of tea and/or my lunch. On a sunny day I leave the back door open so the dogs can come and go in and out the house all day. I might have my shed door open while I’m working as well. I often prepare the evening meal early in the day, during one of my breaks. Back in the shed for another thousand-word session I feel refreshed, as though I’m beginning a new working day. If it’s going to get dark early I might take the dogs for their walk during my afternoon break, but at the moment while it’s light until nine I tend to take them out after work. A daily walk (two in the winter when it’s no fun for my husband to take them out in the pitch-dark early morning) is essential to me both physically and mentally. I’m lucky in that I live near a riverbank, a large, wooded park and a hilly common so I have plenty of opportunity to commune with nature. I’ll need to walk further to commune once I’ve moved permanently into our house in Hull. My walk talks a minimum of half an hour.

An advantage of working in the shed is the lack of Broadband because if I’m really good and leave my phone in the house I get a lot more writing done.

My husband comes home about six and that’s also my official work-finishing time. If I’m tantalisingly close to my target but not quite there I take a little extra time in my shed. He’ll most likely offer to take the dogs out for me if I haven’t done it yet – but that’s not really as good a thing as it sounds as I won’t then get the exercise I so badly need… but sometimes you can’t fit in everything! I much prefer working in my shed to being in the house because once I’ve typed the daily word-count I close the laptop and zip it into its bag. Then I lock the shed door after me and return to other business. Having the shed makes writing so much more like actually going out to work. I’m never distracted by housework in my shed.

I tend to spend the whole time that I’m preparing, cooking and serving the evening meal talking about my characters and their fictional world while Phil listens patiently. Or possibly he’s not listening at all. When I was writing my first novel, The Last Time We Saw Marion, I used to read a chapter to him every night in bed. I soon realised he was falling asleep a few pages in. Pity I didn’t try that on my children when they were little!

After dinner I like to make sure I’m up to date with email correspondence and then have another catch-up on social media. I like to watch a drama programme in the evening so if there’s nothing on TV I select something from catch-up or Netflix. I’ve recently watched complete series’ of Raised by Wolves, based on the childhood of Caitlin Moran, Peaky Blinders, which I was introduced to by my son and I’m now working my way through Orange is the New Black.

 

 

Thanks so much Tracey for sharing your day. We have the same taste in TV! You can find Tracey’s blog here and buy her books on Amazon here. 

Love your libraries – authors campaign against closures #amreading

I’ve banded together with other local authors to voice our distress at the planned closure of potentially 21 libraries in our county. The letter (featured below) has featured in this evening’s paper ((you can read the full article here) and the fabulous Sue Bentley spoke out at the recent meeting discussing these cuts. Support Option 4 here – Save our Libraries. Every voice counts. 

 

To Northants County Council

Re: The proposed closures of Northamptonshire libraries

We are all authors who live in Northamptonshire. We decided to get together and write to you with our thoughts about the proposed cuts to the library service in our county.

We all oppose any cuts to the service. We grew up using libraries. The free access to books was pivotal in our formative years and we collectively believe it was instrumental in our careers – the love of the written word, formed in our childhoods, shaped us as people and as the writers we all went on to become. Some of us are from impoverished backgrounds: Louise Walters remembers using the mobile library when it visited her remote Northamptonshire village. Louise rarely bought books, and those she did buy were usually from jumble sales, so the library was essential. Rhian Ivory grew up in a village in Wales, too small for a library, so she and her family relied on the mobile library service, and it was a positive and unique experience. As author Sue Moorcroft points out, we should never take it for granted that people are able to buy books, even second hand. In this era of “austerity” any book purchases are out of the question for many. The library is for some their ONLY way of accessing books.

From a wider perspective, times have changed, and these days libraries are much more than shelves of books. They have become a vital hub in their communities. From the Sure Start centres, to IT training, to rhyme time, to reading groups, to information about all kinds of services – our Northamptonshire communities benefit in so many ways from having in their midst functioning, local authority run libraries. As Jane Isaac points out, libraries bring people together, and that is particularly important in remote areas where bus services have been cut or are non-existent. Mark West asks, what happens to the kid who has to do his homework online (because that’s how the teacher has set it) and yet has no access to the internet at home? What about the person who needs to fill in an online application form in the same circumstance? What about older people, perhaps afraid or unsure of modern
technology, who want to keep up with their families online?

Those of us with children all cite the library as a welcome resource, somewhere to take the children, to meet other parents, and to tap into services such as the Sure Start centres. Louise Jensen says that going to the library with her sons was often the only time she got to interact with other adults and meet other parents. The educational opportunities found in a library are valuable, and adults and children alike use libraries not only for entertainment, but also for research and discovery, and for help with projects and homework. Louise Walters home educates her children and the local library is an essential resource for home educators, who have no access to school libraries.

We as a group cannot support any of the three “options” proffered by the Council. They all involve the closure of at least twenty-one small libraries and the withdrawal of the mobile library. As Sue Bentley says, public libraries are a vital part of our cultural heritage, a rich resource for everyone. They are also, of course, that rare and precious thing – a public space where people can spend time without the expectation of also spending money. The closure of its library would be a severe blow to any community, impoverishing the whole area in so many ways.

We therefore support “Option 4”, which is to keep all of Northamptonshire’s existing libraries fully operational and fully funded, and all to remain the responsibility of the Council.

Yours sincerely,

Sue Bentleyhttp://www.suebentley.co.uk: Sue Bentley is Northampton born and bred. She is the worldwide best-selling author of over 70 books for children, YA and adults.

Jane Isaachttp://www.janeisaac.co.uk: Bestselling author of the DI Will Jackman series.

Rhian Ivoryhttps://twitter.com/Rhian_Ivory: Carnegie nominated author of The Boy who Drew the Future, bestselling YA novel, Hope and regular user of Towcester library and lifelong supporter of libraries.

Louise Jensenhttp://www.louisejensen.co.uk: International No. 1 bestselling author of psychological thrillers The Sister, The Gift and The Surrogate. Lover of libraries.

Sue Moorcrofthttp://www.suemoorcroft.com: Sunday Times and UK Kindle bestselling author; published by HarperCollins and major publishers around the world. Supporter of libraries.

Louise Waltershttp://www.louisewaltersbooks.co.uk: Author of Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, published in 15 languages. Independent publisher. Regular user of the mobile, Brackley and Middleton Cheney libraries.

Mark West –www.markwest.org.uk: Award-nominated horror and thriller writer. Lifelong supporter of the library.

A day in the life of… writer Misha Herwin

Always interest in writer’s habits this post by Misha sharing her writing habits really resonated with me. Oh how I’m used to those 3 am sessions! Misha, what does the rest of your day hold?

I love the way my day can start and end at any time. I can wake at three in the morning, my brain teeming with ideas and sneak out of bed, snug in a fleecy dressing gown, into my cold office, switch on my computer and begin. On mornings like this the story flows, my fingers can scarcely keep up and by the time my husband has woken up and brought me a cup of tea I have the greatest feeling of satisfaction.

The tea is pretty good too. Hot and fresh, it’s the kick start to getting showered and dressed.

On other days, I’m the one sneaking downstairs to make tea, so that I can get my five hundred words written while husband sleeps. Sitting at the keyboard, writing, is exhilarating.

I don’t stop to edit or think, just let the story carry me along and I always finish half way through a sentence, so that it is easy to pick up the thread again next day.

This writing exercise may, or may not, have anything to do with my work in progress, but over the years, I’ve found it is essential to keeping my creativity flowing. What’s good too, is that since no one is going to see what I’ve written, anything goes.

That’s another thing I love about writing. Those first drafts, can and will be rubbish, but unlike any other job, no one need ever see them. In fact, there are probably very few mistakes a writer ever needs to own. Most horrors can be buried deep on the hard drive, or deleted so that they vanish without trace.

Once I’ve flexed my writing muscles, I look at my emails. Mostly good stuff, sometimes even an acceptance for an anthology that will send me whooping with delight to tell Mike and anyone else who might be remotely interested the news. The rejections I keep to myself, to be mulled over in private.

Next FB and Twitter. I haven’t really mastered (or should that be mistressed?) Twitter, but I love FB. I’ve re-connected with family members and old friends and could spend most of the day reading and commenting on posts.

If I’m scheduled to write a blog, this is when I will do it. Then it is time to concentrate on my current novel. Whether I’m writing or editing, there will be a great deal of getting up and moving around as I wrestle with a scene that doesn’t work, or a phrase that clunks, or a word that doesn’t seem quite right. If I’m really stuck then I’ll go for a walk and when the problem is resolved you can see me, standing in the middle of the street, or leaning on a wall, scribbling away in my notebook.

Before I’ve ventured out into the world, I’ll have put on my make-up. Even if I’m sitting at my desk, I hate to look like some creature that’s crawled out from beneath the earth. Once I’ve got my mascara, eyeliner and foundation on, then it is back to the writing.

Or, a cup of coffee and the crossword.

More writing might follow, or it might not. There are friends to see, reading and drama group to attend or family to visit.

Woven into the fabric of my day, is the mundane stuff of life, like ironing, hoovering and worst of all dusting. Boring jobs and yet if you write Women’s fiction, like I do, these are the background to the lives and loves and hopes of my characters.

At the end of the day, there is supper and a glass of wine. I try to switch off from work, but if a story is going round in my head, I might have to grab a pen and write it down. The evening, if not spent with friends, will be watching TV, a film, or reading.

I can’t go to bed without a book and there is always a pile on my chest of drawers, plus, of course, my night note book, in case I wake at three in the morning and can’t quite make it to the computer.

Thanks Misha. My chest of drawers looks a bit like that too! You can buy Misha’s latest book here and find her blog here

 

Paperback publication day & my hopes for this story!

It’s paperback publication day for The Gift, my second psychological thriller which has already been a global e-book No. 1 Bestseller. I’m SO excited for this book to reach a whole new audience.

The Gift is a story based around cellular memory, the concept that the cells of the body can store memories, and if organs are transplanted, these memories could also be transplanted with them. I first stumbled across cellular memory about fifteen years ago and was intrigued with the concept. Although this isn’t scientifically proven, there are an increasing number of doctors and scientists supporting this theory and further research is being carried out.

Endlessly fascinated I’ve spent years researching, reading up on real life cases where recipients have received donor organs, in particular hearts, and inherited some attributes of the donor whether it is a craving for the donor’s favourite food, or, in more extreme cases, speaking a different language after the surgery that the donor could speak, or suddenly being able to play an instrument the donor could play.

Could this really be happening? Is the heart just a pump or is it something more? It wasn’t that long ago the heart was thought to be the centre of all knowledge and wisdom. Is it more than we think?

I desperately wanted to write a novel around cellular memory but I was wary. It is a subject I felt that deserved sensitively handling. Where there is a transplant, there has to be a loss. A grieving family. A recipient who has perhaps been ill for a long period and the impact that has had on their family and friends. I considered all of these points four years ago when I wanted to start writing a novel and I decided I didn’t have the experience to approach a story that included organ donation with the sensitivity it deserved.

Instead I wrote The Sister, a psychological thriller based around a grieving girl and I found that despite the genre of the book I was able to write it with raw emotion and when readers read it and fed back how connected and empathetic they felt towards the characters, I decided to tentatively start to write Jenna’s story in The Gift.

Jenna is a 30-year-old woman who receives a new heart and begins to have disturbing thoughts and dreams. She becomes obsessed with her donor, Callie’s family, and she doesn’t believe Callie’s accident was as innocent as it was purported to be. Jenna is determined to uncover the truth behind Callie’s death, to bring her bewildered parents the closure they deserve, but as she begins to dig and discover the secrets surrounding Callie, she finds there is someone who wants to silence her, at any cost.

The Gift is fiction, and of course as an author I have taken artistic license with the subject of cellular memory and I’m sure readers will understand the need to do this but I hope I have handled the medical aspect and the loss with accuracy and respect.

My family and I have been on the donor transplant list for years. I know it’s not always something families discuss and it has been humbling to receive emails from readers saying after they read Jenna’s story they sat down and discussed their thoughts and wishes with their loved ones. My hope for The Gift is that it can continue to spark conversations about donation and perhaps encourage someone who might not have previously thought about it to sign themselves up to the register. Signing up really could save lives.

The paperback version of The Gift, published by Sphere (Little, Brown) is now available in all good bookshops as well as Asda, Tesco & Sainsburys. The Tesco version includes an additional short story written exclusively for their customers or you can order the paperback, digital or audio version from Amazon here