Attention to detail


I haven’t had a lot of time to write recently because of family commitments. However, I have snatched moments to think. I’m lucky to live in two different countries throughout the year and I’m in Italy at present for my six-month spell. That seems an apt noun, because Italy brims with enchantment for me. One of my favourite types of outing here is to explore new places. I don’t have to pay to go into a museum or religiously follow a guide book to show me round. It’s the details that appeal: a fountain in a tiny piazza, geraniums cascading from old terracotta pots, an original display in a shop window, the stitching on a costume in a small-town palio, an archway with inscriptions in mediaeval Italian, faded frescoes in the cathedral cloister, piles of aubergines on a market stall…I could go on and on. I’m not a good photographer by any means but I’ve realised that (apart from snaps of family), my albums are full of details. Let’s face it, Italians are strong on this:
“To create something exceptional, your mind-set must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.” (Giorgio Armani).

I like detail but viewed from interesting angles. My favourite books reflect this. I have a famous quote by Anton Chekhov pinned on my notice-board near my desk: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” As writers, we are told to be careful not to tell our readers our story, but to show them. We should aim to suggest rather than to tell in full. In this way the reader’s imagination finds its own wings.
To date, “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is my favourite read of all. I know this is a book I’ll jealously keep on my bookshelf forever and read again and again. It’s a very moving novel that tells the stories of a young, blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and Werner, a German orphan who is drawn into the Hitler Youth. The reader experiences the Second World War through these two youngsters via stunning, beautiful imagery. Simple details say a lot.
“Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet. He knows about everything – radios, diamonds, molluscs, birds, flowers, locks, guns – but he also writes a line so beautiful, creates an image or scene so haunting, it makes you think forever differently about the big things – love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facts of the human heart…” (J. R. Moehringer).
I am not surprised that the book took Doerr ten years to write. You must read it yourselves to savour his talent. It’s too hard to pick out a single quote – each page is a treasure trove – so I opened the book at random and here is one example:
Page 26 from Zollverein:
“Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields.”
From those two lines I’ve deduced that the two boys need the piles of old machinery. This haul is like treasure to them. They’re agile and probably young, because they clamber. They’re desperately hungry – they can’t get enough of the berries and even weeds are needed to fill their empty bellies. But Doerr hasn’t bluntly told me those things. He’s shown me through detail – with just the right measure.
“Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau).

One of my much thumbed text books is “The Creative Writing Coursebook” from the University of East Anglia.
In Chapter 2, Julia Bell writes about developing a “sharp eye for details” in the world around us, so that the writer can construct “vivid, believable narrative”. She continues:
“But we have to unpeel our eyes, re-sensitize ourselves to our environment …focusing too much on irrelevancies will throw the reader off the scent…In many ways it is what you filter out that focuses the reader’s eye on the important details…break up your gaze into jigsaw bits, then fit it back together on the page.”

My final thought for the day (well, it is Sunday), may be considered airy-fairy but I feel that through writing and the capturing of detail on the page, we can help ourselves connect with the world in which we live.


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Roots and Traditions


Today, the 15th August, Ferragosto (the Assumption), is a huge feast day in Italy. Traditionally, there is an exodus to the sea or the countryside. Many people return to their home villages to celebrate with families. Typically, a delicious picnic or lunch is the order of the day. No corned beef sandwiches in Italia, but plates of pasta and roasted meats, salads, cake and fruit washed down with good wine.
And it is an excuse for parties and catching up with friends who have ended up far from their home towns, usually in order to find work. In the Alta Valmarecchia where we spend our summer months, there is a variety of feste to choose from. Some of them have been celebrated down the ages but others are fairly new. There is the 45th annual frog and wheelbarrow race in Fresciano, donkey races in Caprile, in Badia Tedalda, the recent “Salita Divina”, where wine and cheese tasting is carried out (reverently) along the Stations of the Cross trail, the “Festa della Marrone” (beer festival) in Palazzi and, something I want to catch next Saturday, a play (“Il bandito e il cacciatore” – “The bandit and the hunter”) enacted in the open air to celebrate the transumanza, which I wrote about in my latest book, “Now and Then in Tuscany”.DSCN1035DSCN1034DSCN1040
A tradition that, sadly, may die out in our village, because there are insufficient youngsters to organise the event, is the Palio dei Castelli. This happened annually until two years ago towards the end of August. It is a jousting tournament on horseback, played out by representatives of local villages. We were honoured to take part as the Lord and Lady of Fresciano and had to parade through the street and piazza dressed in heavy velvet robes (plus tights for my husband).





from Mass 3

It seemed incongruous at the time that two inglesi should be processing in a very Italian parade, but it shows how times change; how traditions evolve with populations constantly on the move. Badia Tedalda is a small town of 500 inhabitants but there are about forty African immigrants temporarily housed amongst us. Who knows what traditions they might introduce to Tuscany? Most are economic migrants from Nigeria, come to Europe to seek better lives. Once their papers are sorted, they disperse. It is a huge social problem and Italy bears too much of this burden. I feel the rest of Europe should be more caring about this situation. Many Italians remember how badly they were treated when they moved abroad after the war to escape dire poverty and they are always generous and charitable to people in need. My friend, Sergio, went to France. “I decided I would never treat another human the way I was dealt with when I stepped on foreign soil all those years ago.” In April 1929 members of my own family, on my maternal side, boarded the SS Samaira and set sail for New York. My grandfather decided not to stay. Who knows how my life would have developed if he had remained.Beary boat
I’m re-reading Cesare Pavese’s “The Moon and the Bonfires” at the moment. The main character, Anguilla – an orphan who knows nothing of his parents and who was ‘bought’ from the orphanage – returns to his Italian mountain after twenty years in America. Slowly he pieces together the past as he had known it as a boy.

“Thus it was that for a long time I thought this village where I had not been born was the whole world. Now that I have really seen the world and know that it is made up of a whole lot of villages, I am not sure that I was so far wrong when I was a boy.”

We’re all travellers in this world in one way or another, desperately seeking something or other that might simply be in front of our eyes.
Happy Ferragosto!



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The emigrant’s suitcase


In the south of England, finding a ruin to renovate, or a plot of land to build on is the stuff of dreams and beyond the pockets of many. We have helped three British families find their “place in the sun” in our pocket of Tuscany. Call us lousy business people: they were all past guests in our Mulino – and now we’ve lost their bookings. (But gained friends, I hasten to add).DSCN3170DSCN3163
On all my recent walks along dusty tracks and old mule paths in the Apennines and beyond, I’ve seen more ruined houses than I can count. As I walk by and see ivy and old man’s beard strangling crumbling walls, exposing fire-places that family and friends used to sit around to keep vigil in the winter months – or shelves littered with mouse droppings – I wonder about all the folk who used to live there. Up on the hill above me is the village of Montebotolino, where nobody lives permanently anymore. A few of the houses have been done up for weekenders, but many more are reduced to piles of stones. It reminds me of a simple poem.
In “Il treno degli emigranti” by Gianni Rodari (1920-1980), a peasant travelling away from his village talks about the contents of his suitcase stowed above him in the luggage rack. Roughly translated, it goes like this:
“It’s not big or heavy. I’ve packed a little soil from my village so I don’t feel lonely on my journey… and a suit, a piece of bread and fruit and that is all. But I didn’t pack my heart. It wouldn’t fit. It didn’t want to leave to travel across the sea. It’s waiting, faithful as a dog, in the earth that no longer provides me with bread. I’ve left it in a tiny field, up there on high. But the train’s rushing past and I can’t see the field any longer…”valigia-550
Who knows if the peasant ever returned? From the evidence of ruins I pass by, not many did. And now that the Italian State has imposed a tax on second homes, there are more and more country homes for sale, as owners cannot justify the payments. These simple dwellings, passed down within the family, since their ancestors left to find work in America, France, Germany or the industrial cities of Italy, are no longer viable. Once upon a time they might have been used for family holidays in August, but now it’s cheaper to go to a hotel for a week than pay these taxes.
The passing of a way of life is sad. But, there is cause for optimism too. Our friend, Piero Valentini, and his wife, Manuela, put on sumptuous lunches every Sunday, creating dishes from old recipes and based on products gleaned from the countryside. Diners flock for miles to savour this gargantuan, fifteen-course meal. And in a hamlet above our Mulino, the younger members of three farming families are diversifying, by resurrecting old traditions. We can buy hand-made cheeses and other dairy products, and jams made according to their grandmothers’ recipes. They are having to keep their livestock penned inside during the day because of wolves – but that’s a story for another day. For now, let’s just wish the youngsters well and support their efforts.DSCN2918DSCN2910DSCN2923DSCN2928

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I always think blogged sounds rude, but it’s an expression I’m growing used to – along with other writerly terms. So, before I forget, I was recently blogged by Tony Riches: a gentleman who is very supportive of other authors and very generous with writing and publicity tips. Here is Tony’s interview

This year I have learnt that it is not enough to sit and write at my desk if I want my books to be read. The marketing is far harder for me than writing but it is a necessary part. At times I feel overwhelmed. Will I ever get there?QUEENS HOUSE Thank you to talented Ben Harvey for another photograph which sums up my mood.


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New paths along old paths

Today I walked two miles to take an envelope to friends who are returning to England tomorrow. It contained a Contract I had signed with Endeavour Press, an independent publishing company based in London. They have taken on “Tuscan Roots” and “Now and Then in Tuscany”. All along the dusty track I had last minute nerves: was I doing the right thing? Why didn’t I continue to promote these books myself?

As I walked, ideas for another book started to drift into my head. Inspired by abandoned houses in our valley, I feel there are stories still to be told; ghosts from the past knocking at my mind. I passed a trough that may have been used in the past for animals or laundry by the local women. In it lay a piece of discarded barbed wire, like a symbol.DSCN3103DSCN3093

And then, more ideas presented themselves and I stopped to jot them in my notebook. Afterwards, I realised I hadn’t thought this way for a while. I’ve been so preoccupied with marketing my first two books, I had no space to think of my next projects.

Once home and after I’d delivered the envelope, I felt freer and I wrote a 75 word submission for Planet Paragraph. It may well not be accepted, but it marked a turning-point for me.

“Up the track I trudge, air scant, broom and orchids withered now. Holm oaks sough in the Scirocco wind and cicadas blast my ears. By a crop of sandstone, a lizard scurries over crisp leaves. My heart thumps, the terrain is arid. I stop to guzzle water from my flask and scribble in my notebook.  Perched on the Apennines, high above me, sits a huddle of abandoned dwellings. Ghosts whisper to have their stories told.”

The photo below wasn’t taken today because I was on my own and it was hot. This is Tuscany when it drizzles. The village of Gattara that I am looking at has plenty of stories and I shall weave them in. My heart feels lighter now.


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Words, words, words…


They’re one of the most important ways to communicate. Obvious – but we take them for granted at our peril – and I’m not just talking about authors. I’ve been thinking about words a lot recently. Finding the correct ones to advise, console, instruct, write…  Personally, I need to learn to cut out unnecessary words. Less is more; make each and every word count and earn its living. When editing, think about the phrases on the river stones that I use to remind myself on how to shape, prune, improve my work…DSCN0334

At a Sunday lunch in a local restaurant last week (Sunday lunches are definitely not “less”), we were sitting opposite a pretty, intelligent young Italian called Elena who was good at semantics.
For some reason I had been telling my friends how much my lovely husband adored his muck heap (polite expression); how his eyes lit up when the local farmer brought a trailer load of the sheep manure down our track for my husband’s “orto”. They laughed. Elena then asked me, “Did you know that the Italian expression “lieto” (meaning delighted to meet you), stems from the same Latin root, “laetus”, meaning manure?”
We thought she was joking but it turns out she’s spot on and my husband is at one with the Romans in their appreciation of sheep and cow shit.DSC06886
So, I started to ponder about other words and their derivations and then, on Twitter, I posted a photo of what I thought was an orchid. (I follow a friend I’ve never met who is an expert). That is not an orchid, he retweeted. It’s broom rape.
I thought it an ugly name for an attractive plant. To cut the semantics short, the rape part of the name does not signify something violent and ugly. My expert informed me it could also be called a broom turnip. Click went my brain. Rape in Italian means turnip. DSCN2882
As authors, words are out tools. We mustn’t take them for granted.

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Walking in the mountains

DSCN0543I went walking this week. A trek usually sorts my writing thoughts and – if I’m honest – it’s a small way towards combatting the effects of pasta and Sangiovese on my Tuscan tum. I don’t like the gym and a brisk walk from 500 metres up to 800 asl gets my heart rate up and I’m rewarded at each turn by views.
This corner of Tuscany, like many other rural areas, has seen an exodus for work by the population ever since the end of the Second World War. One of the remaining farms near us is run by our Albanian friend, who in turn left his native country to better his life.DSCN2767 June here is a time of hay cutting and fireflies and there are signs of hard work in the meadows. I’ve tried taking photos of these fascinating insects but I’m not clever enough. I’ll leave you to imagine hundreds of pinpricks of sparkling lights in our meadow. Stars above and below us.
My destination today was the home of our eighty nine year-old friend, Evalina. She’s one of the most intelligent ladies I know, brimming with wisdom and profound sayings. She left school young to help her father on the land and no matter what I say to her, she feels inferior because of her lack of education. She’s suffered a great deal and is wise from the school of life.DSCN2785 Evalina is full of stories and she helped me with ideas for both of my books. I love listening to her. She was very concerned at how hot I was – perspiring from my hill climb – and went to fetch a towel, proudly telling me she’d had it since the day she married. “They make them from rubbish nowadays,” she said as she gently wiped my face and neck, adding, “I’m your Italian mamma.” I joked with her, saying she’d be forbidding me to go dancing next. She laughed and went over to her stove to prepare coffee.DSCN2784  I think it’s really important to record the old folks’ experiences. The past builds our present and future. I came across a phrase from 2,000 years ago and my theory was understood even then_To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what%.My head brimming with new ideas for stories, I walked back downhill to Il Mulino. I was still hot and a plunge beneath the waterfall was a welcome end to my open air “circuit training”.DSCN2799 In our little pool on the Marecchia, there’s clear, refreshing water, plenty of tadpoles this summer, the occasional harmless river snake and dragonflies that hover tantalisingly over bleached stones. I can never capture them on film. But I know someone talented who can. Our young friend, Ben Harvey, is an architect. He’s passionate about his job but he has another passion – photography. Look at his stunning photograph, a reward for patience and knowledge.DRAGONFLY Why not take a look at his website for more wonderful photos. Here are Ben’s photos 

Wow, eh? We should all take time to nurture our creative gifts in our busy lives.

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First blog post

My first blog and what do I write about? There are so many other blogs out there. Why am I starting another? I read an interesting article in The Times last week about Ian Rankin. “Rebus and the case of the tweeting novelist” was the headline. He has confessed that his writing speed is “slowing down” and attributed it partly to the demands made on authors to promote themselves on social media. “The notion of locking yourself away and writing all day has pretty much gone.” If authors are on line all the time, how can they produce their books?
With this in mind – and also because I think it is boring to constantly self-promote – I want to widen the purpose of my blog. I’ll share a little about the stunning locations in Tuscany where I write and we’ll see how we get on.
For six months of the year, I live in the Tuscan Apennines. I love this stunning countryside

and I realise it impacts on my writing. More of that another time. But here are a few photos to set the scene. And that will be enough for today.

June 13th 2017

I haven’t managed to do any writing this week on my WIP, which has nothing to do with beautiful Tuscany. I’m busy with Mavis and Dot from the British seaside.DSCN2105 But I have been interviewed by a Canadian Blogger. I “met” her on Twitter and it is exciting to think my words might spread across the sea to a country I’ve never visited. I’m sure the sun shines over there too, but I always picture Canada covered in snow and ice. What do I know?

Here is Kristina Stanley’s interview: Kristina Stanley’s interview



June 17th 2017

Snail-pace progress on my WIP. I need to strike a balance with social media. But it is definitely working. I am meeting new readers and a wonderful blogger called Jessie Cahalin popped up on my Twitter feed. I was attracted by her handbag icon and contacted her. (Leather handbags and Italy go together, you know).  This morning she published an interview we did together. Click below to see:

Interview on Books in my Handbag blog






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