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Want to encourage the creative urge in your kids? Embrace your own.

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When I was about three years old and my sister five, our dad, a bank manager who commuted to his London office each day, decided to re-decorate our suburban, three bedroomed semi-detached house in Essex.
In the process of this fairly mundane and entirely unremarkable task, he decided, almost inexplicably, to create a colourful painted mural up the stairs.

At the time, I thought this creation was wonderful, and something that everyone’s dad did. It perhaps took me until I had my own children to realise that it really wasn’t.
I’ve been decorating the upstairs bathroom myself this past week and although I have created murals in my children’s bedrooms at various points, I’m just not brave enough to do it elsewhere in the house. But I wholeheartedly wish I was.

Nothing appeals to children more than the feeling that their world of imagination and fun can spill over into the serious, sterile universe of the grown-ups. I can still remember that picture snaking up the twisting staircase, with perfect clarity. There were green hills, blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I’ve no idea if it was any good in an artistic sense (sorry Dad) but to my younger self this really didn’t matter. It was magical.

My sister is now a rather wonderful artist herself and I write novels. We have both embraced the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to explore your imagination and follow it to wherever it wants to go.

Does this tendency have anything to do with that mural my father painted for us over 35 years ago? Well, I can’t prove it, but I definitely think it might have. In which case, maybe I should really consider making a similar gesture to my own children.
Because how can we expect our offspring to show their creative side if we are never prepared to reveal ours?

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My top tip for lifelong success: get plenty of rest

imageI enjoy reading a ‘self-help’or professional coaching book as much as the next person. Being self-employed for the last few years means that using such resources is pretty much obligatory.

But I always feel there is an important element missing from their advice. Of course, no one ever became a successful business person/entrepreneur, sports star or philanthropist by lounging about all day. However, those people who are motivated enough to read these guides and move up through the ranks in organisations, or set up their own businesses, I suspect, tend to be quite obsessive-compulsive about work to start with. As such, the advice given should take this into account.

I make this generalisation based purely on personal experience. I have published eighteen books in five years, alongside being a full-time mum. I also run numerous social media sites and write blogs to complement the book publishing. To achieve this level of output, there’s no doubt you have to be a tad obsessive about the work process. I don’t tend to observe weekends or holidays as any barrier to running my business.

Having said this, I have learnt the hard way, the importance of incorporating plenty of rest time into the working day. Five years ago, I suffered a bout of physical and nervous exhaustion that was debilitating and horrible. I still feel the effects of it now. So, I am careful about not allowing my compulsive nature to drag me down that road again.

I must stress that it isn’t often easy to put the brakes on. But I now ensure I take regular rest breaks and even naps, if necessary. For a relatively young woman who is used to being fit and active, this often makes me feel lazy, and like a bad role model to my children. In my youth, I used to loathe lying down during the day, I would certainly not have been able to actually sleep. But life has a way of wearing you down. Sleepless nights with babies and young children, jobs which put you under continual pressure and place you in situations that cause nervous anxiety. Additional events such as moving house or jobs, illnesses within the family, can heap on even greater burdens.

Over the years, these pressures build up, especially when holidays with young children are harder work than being at home and there are fewer opportunities to properly re-charge the batteries. The fatigue creeps up on you. Most of us don’t notice the warning signs.

Please take the advice of someone who has temporarily slipped over that edge. You cannot maintain lifelong success without plenty of rest. Reading, watching TV and surfing the web are enjoyable leisure activities, but they aren’t necessarily restful. Sleep is crucial, as is time spent alone, without interruption. These things are harder to enshrine within the working day than you might imagine, but they are essential.

Don’t feel guilty about taking the rest needed to maintain good health. It’s a non-negotiable. Your creativity and productivity will benefit, but most importantly, you will be able to manage the long haul. We are bombarded with images of people being extremely active on social media. I’m going to counter this today by attaching an image of someone doing absolutely nothing, which is just as necessary for our professional and personal wellbeing.

BLENDING FACT WITH FICTION

The RetroReview

BLENDING FACT WITH FICTION

There has long been a tradition in literature of combining the real with the imagined. In fact, as anyone who dabbles in creative writing will tell you, it is quite impossible not to do so. Only if you are creating an entirely new universe where you wish to challenge perceived ideas about everyday life might you avoid having to blend truth and fiction.

There is a definite precedence for this within the Sci Fi genre. Even then, authors will find that they still have to use some elements of the familiar, otherwise their readers will not be able to empathise with these newly imagined worlds.
When writing my first novel, ‘Aoife’s Chariot’, I decided to create a fictional Scottish Island called Garansay which would exist alongside real places. The island is based on the Isle of Arran, where my father grew up. There are certain mountain ranges and features that…

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The conservative streak of the psychological thriller

imageI’m not having a pop at psychological thrillers. I’ve written one myself and it remains one of my favourite genres. But as such, I’ve noticed a certain moral streak that runs through many of their narratives.

Last night I re-watched the 1990 film based on Scott Turow’s legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. It’s years since I first watched it, or read the book, which can arguably be described as a classic of the genre. So revisiting the story, I was struck by its parallel with modern psychological and crime novels in it’s central theme.

All great fiction has a moral message, the better stuff is just more subtle about it’s preoccupations. It occurred to me last night, that the moral message of many psychological thrillers is essentially a conservative one. We live in a modern society, where divorce is no longer shunned by polite society. Many children now grow up in  extended family units, with parents and step parents playing equal roles.

But in the psychological thriller genre, deciding to leave your family, or worse, setting out on an extra-marital affaIr, will inevitably result in cataclysmic consequences for both the perpetrator and their family. Call to mind the eighties film, Fatal Attraction, and you will get the general idea.

I suppose the subject matter is inevitable, given that psychological thrillers are often grounded in the domestic setting. Yet, it surprises me that in the last thirty years, when our society has evolved in so many ways, the suspense novel remains resolutely unchanged in its message. The family unit must be preserved, and preferably the first marriage, or chaos and violence will ensue.

Despite the shifts in modern lifestyles, I believe this essentially conservative warning still appeals. It must do, because the genre is more popular than ever. I can understand the allure of the message, we feel a sense of schadenfreude if we ourselves are safe in our own family unit, and are warned of the terrible danger which would befall us in succumbing to temptation. The readership are often women, perhaps reassured by the tales of disaster which exist outside of the ‘safe’, domestic sphere. If their husband were to stray, punishment would be harsh and complete, to him and his lover.

In saying this, a new strand of the psychological thriller has taken the morality of the domestic novel in a different direction. Recent releases, such as BA Paris’s Behind Closed Doors, have taken the issue of domestic abuse as their central theme. In these circumstances, a family unit can be broken, without the usual dire consequences.

Yet, the moral message remains a stark one. You can leave your spouse – but only if physical or emotional abuse is involved. If you’ve simply grown apart, or become attracted to someone else,  if you leave, you must pay a terrible price.

I’m sure that not every book in the genre follows this pattern, mine does not. But I’ve read enough in the last couple of years to indicate this moral message is as strong as it was thirty, or even a hundred years ago. Modern detective novels, particularly those that focus on police procedure, tend to reflect social change more effectively.

The psychological thriller seems slower to change its central message. Whether, as readers, we still require these moral tales to help maintain the family unit is the subject of a whole other debate.

In a culture that exalts achievements, we need to recognise the hidden power of not-doing.

imageReading an article by comedian Lee Mack this afternoon, about his writing methods, proved to be a revelation to me. It wasn’t his habit of retreating to his shed each day, in order to pen his BBC sitcom that surprised me, it was his attitude to alcohol.

The child of publican parents, Lee Mack gave up alcohol himself a couple of years ago. His reason was not directly health related, he simply claimed to be tired of how our culture ‘shoves alcohol down people’s throats’. He feels so strongly about the issue that he fought against the sale of his show, Not Going Out, to the freeview channel, Dave, because of their alleged links to funding from beer companies.

This deadly serious stand made by Mack seemed unusual for a comic. If anyone has ever been to a comedy club, they will know they are drink-fuelled environments. One must assumes it takes a confident stand-up to perform to a stone-cold sober audience.

This makes Mack’s stance all the more impressive. He is an established name these days, no doubt having amassed a significant wealth from his tv appearances. However, to propound a view that could result in him being labelled a kill-joy or a preachy, Puritan type, is risky for someone in his profession.

His words struck a chord with me. I’ve not drunk alcohol myself since Christmas, and often give up for long periods. Like Mack, I don’t do this because I believe I drink too much, but because I’m uncomfortable with the relationship we have with alcohol in this country.

Since turning forty three years ago, I’ve become more aware of my mortality, I suppose. I drank socially in my twenties (when I was extremely sociable!) and my philosophy is that one shouldn’t push their luck. It can’t be a lifestyle that can be carried on indefinitely. It has also become all too apparent that my metabolism is on a downward  trajectory as I approach middle-age. The truth is that I’d rather give up the empty calories of a glass of wine of a night than have to diet!

But there are other considerations too. My parents were never big drinkers when I was young and I’d rather my children didn’t see me with a drink in my hand every evening. Despite what we know to be the damaging effects of  heavy drinking, it is still glamorised as an activity by popular culture. In novels and tv dramas, our most popular heroes and heroines often enjoy a drink, especially the female cops.

i am a crime writer myself and I have tried to buck the trend slightly with my lead detective, DCI Dani Bevan. She is uncomfortable with alcohol-culture in the police because of what happened to her mother (you’ll have to read the series to find out what!) I know that my fellow writers will claim that they are simply reflecting reality with their character’s actions. This is understandable in many respects, but perhaps as writers of popular fiction, music and television, we should see ourselves as part of creating the prevailing culture, not just reflecting it.

The older I get, the less I feel I’m missing out on a ‘big’ drinking night. To be honest, I find a night out with drunk people boring. Twenty years ago, a London bar or pub with my friends would have been the place I most wanted to be, but times change. I can’t handle hangovers, for a start.

So I found Mack’s view refreshing. In our social-media centred-culture, much of what we gain kudos for is related to what we do – holidays, theatre-trips, sporting achievements, and also what we consume – the food and drink. Perhaps we’ve lost touch with the value of not-doing. Of how our UK based holidays reduce our carbon footprint, and our avoidance of alcohol or caffeine might be of benefit to the perceptions of our children, in addition to reducing our impact on NHS services.

Like Mack, I run the risk of being boring and preachy with this view. I’m not a fitness fanatic and I think people should eat what they like, but I don’t think tobacco, drugs or alcohol should be glorified in our culture. Mack remains a very witty man and his writing is excellent. I’m sure he doesn’t mind how he is viewed personally, as long as his work speaks for itself.

And I believe there is a role for taking an ethical position in the creative arts, as there is in any other profession.

 

A day devoted entirely to pampering Mum. But which one are we referring to?

The RetroReview

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In the UK we will are celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend. The cards and gift suggestions have been on display in the shops for several weeks already. I have always believed Mother’s Day to be the only genuine article, viewing other related festivals such as Father’s Day and even Sibling’s Day to be simply constructs of the greetings card industry. So I was surprised to discover that Mother’s Day itself is actually a fairly recent construct.
I always assumed that in Britain we celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’, which is a Christian festival dating back to the 1600s and involves saying prayers in church to honour the Virgin Mary. But according to my research, this festival died out in the 19th Century. The custom of adhering to Mother’s Day was only taken up again when American servicemen re-introduced the concept during World War Two. So, although in the UK we tend to…

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Is it time to re-examine our attitude to the weather?

imageLike the vast majority of the U.K. this week, my schedule has been disrupted by the unusually cold weather and resultant snow. My daughter is still at home with me, as her secondary school is closed for the third day, whilst my son has returned to his local primary (in the same town).

I know that the headmaster of the secondary school will be subjected to criticism for his decision. But in my opinion, his judgment has been correct. The school has a largely rural catchment area, covering tens of miles. Country roads are impassable to the school buses and the large site itself covered in ice and snow.

Despite the severe and unpredictable nature of the weather this week, I feel there is a strong majority opinion in the country that we must be able to carry on exactly as normal. This means that schools and clubs should continue and the roads made passable by the local council and landowners.

But with public sector budgets cut to the bone and the nature of the weather system unprecedented in its longevity and persistence, I’m not sure we have the right to make this assumption any longer. I work from home as an independent novelist, so you may argue that I am immune to the worst effects of the deterioration of the climate and therefore don’t have a right to judge.

But if these freak weather phenomenon keep happening, we are all set to suffer. Power and food supplies will be disrupted if transport grinds to a halt. So, is it time for a re-think to our approach? I work in the digital world and it feels to me as if some of the answers must lie in a better use of new technology.

Schools (who are not required to provide childcare for parents) could easily devise an online curriculum to be accessed on ‘snow days’. Teachers can be available to answer questions during allotted ‘lessons’. Many businesses could adopt a similar practice with their administrative staff. Meetings could be conducted through Skype.

This would remove a huge pressure from the road systems. Emergency services and police could focus on getting essential goods around the country, rather than digging lone drivers out of drifts. It would also be safer for the workforce and their children.

I can sense that many folk would be uncomfortable with this solution. Perhaps imagining that they would be left entertaining their children at home for weeks on end. But this is not how these bad weather snaps tend to work out. We would be looking at a week, max. In some parts of the USA, these lost days are added onto the end of the summer term or in September, which could be another option for us.

It has to be better than the uncertainty and risk-taking which currently accompanies bad weather. I have seen much being made on social media about how overcoming the awful conditions is a sign of ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’, yet too often this undefinable concept gets confused with irresponsibility and inflicting unnecessary hardship on yourself and others.

Five years ago, I suffered a nervous and physical illness brought on by overwork and stress. I’ve always been a healthy, ‘resilient’ person who turns up for every appointment and never took a sick day off work in ten years. Until I collapsed with an exhaustion I didn’t even fully know I was suffering from! So when I hear about staff being required to undergo an ordeal to overcome the bad conditions and getting praised for their resilience, it makes me sad.

Everyday life is often already tough enough for most people. It is a misplaced idea of strength to try and battle against a weather event. We need to encourage a shift in perspective that reflects a more respectful appreciation of our environment. If we step off the conveyor belt for a few days, our world will not collapse in on us. In fact, we may be buying ourselves an extra few years of productivity down the line.

I am much better now and still work hard (as I did throughout my illness) But a legacy of tiredness remains. I know my limits and have to stick to them. I will be setting out into the cold wind and snow later to pick up my son. The effort will exhaust me for the remainder of the day. I am certainly not the only person who will have had this experience. It doesn’t make us weak or without value to society.

In fact, I always think there is an old-fashioned machismo to the claims I see on social media from headteachers who proudly announce their school is the only one staying open in the area. That they’ve  been out since dawn scraping the paths. These managers need to put aside their desire to meet and complete a personal challenge to consider the wider picture. Should they be encouraging their staff and parents to take to the roads? Is it of benefit to the local area? To the students?

It will undoubtedly take a long time for attitudes to change and it will have to come from employers and headteachers. They need to look beyond their individual institution or company, viewing themselves as part of a wider network. Perhaps the only way to ‘overcome’ these weather events is to accept their power over us and recognise that we will need to adapt to accommodate them as part of our lives.

 

 

Is the front man (or woman) more important than the show?

With the new series of ITV’s Endeavour starting this evening, I thought it was worth revisiting this question.

The RetroReview

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With the new series of Endeavour starting this evening and the latest instalment of  BBC franchise Top Gear (minus Clarkson, May and Hammond) being imminent, I though it was worth re-visiting this issue.

The many twists and turns of the ‘Clarkson fracas’ debate of 2015  opened up the question of how important a single individual is to the success of a tv show. As a writer, I find this concept fascinating. It is almost like asking whether the Sherlock Holmes mysteries would have been as successful without the leading character (the answer to this being a very definite ‘no’, as Conan-Doyle was required to bring the pipe smoking detective back from the dead after an outcry from his readership).
But occasionally, a popular show, which would appear to utterly rely upon a certain acting star or lead character for its success, actually fares perfectly well without them. There are a…

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Katherine Pathak #books in order

The fully updated list for 2018

The RetroReview

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I realise this looks like an incredibly self-indulgent topic for a blog, but I know that people Google this question and don’t necessarily get the information they are looking for. If I blog it, then the list will be more accessible in searches, so please indulge me!

The Imogen and Hugh Croft Mysteries:

Aoife’s Chariot

The Only Survivor

Lawful Death

The Woman Who Vanished

Memorial For The Dead

The Ghost Of Marchmont Hall

The Flawed Emerald and other stories

The DCI Dani Bevan Novels:

Against A Dark Sky

On A Dark Sea

A Dark Shadow Falls

Dark As Night

The Dark Fear

Girls of the Dark

Hold Hands in the Dark

Dark Remedies

Dark Origin

The Dark Isle

Standalone psychological thriller

I Trust You

If you have any questions on the order of the books or the nature of the two series, please private message me through my Facebook Author…

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Reasons to be positive about 2018!

imageAs we approach the end of another year, it is inevitably a time for reflection. 2017 has proved a challenge for many. Whatever your political views, we are undoubtedly going through a period of uncertainty.

But over the last few days, I have been reminded of the reasons why we should be positive. For many years, I have compiled a Christmas quiz for family and friends. I hadn’t managed to do it for several seasons as my young children were demanding of my time and my duties had expanded to include the pressie wrapping and the food!

But this year, an unexpected fall of snow postponed our visiting plans and I found myself compiling the quiz to keep a pair of disappointed children happy. What I noticed, when planning the game, were certain notable differences from how it used to be. It was much more tricky to find obscure questions and images than it would have been five or ten years ago.

It abruptly occurred to me that this was because of the growth of instant news and the ubiquitous nature of social media. Personalities have become immediately recognisable, as their images populate our timelines on a daily basis. This includes political figures like Emmanuel Macron or David Davis, as well as Meghan Markle and Ariana Grande.

My signature quiz, once considered rather challenging, didn’t seem so difficult any longer. The realisation of this fact, I found heartening. When I looked back through the year, I viewed events with a more positive slant. We are undoubtedly better informed as a nation than we used to be.

Whatever the political climate, this is a good thing. It isn’t as easy to make false statements and get away with it. Facts are instantly checked and corrections go viral. This development makes it far harder for those with vested interest to block progress with misinformation. We can also influence the course of foreign policy by petitioning parliament in individual cases, such as raising the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran and forcing Boris Johnson to meet with her husband and actively negotiate for her release. This would not have happened without social media pressurising the foreign secretary to act.

The new digital age has been of great benefit to me as a writer too. It is now possible to become a bestselling author without being represented by one of the great monoliths of the publishing world. This is good news for everyone. There is greater competition in pricing as a result and a wider range of voices heard.

So, there is plenty to feel positive about as we embark upon a new year. I know that developments in digital technology have their limitations, but the up sides are really exciting. We are all more knowledgable and more literate as a result of social media. It is a leveller, not a development that benefits only the elite. This can only be a good thing, as we enter the uncertain future.

Happy New Year!

 

Five years on

imageFive years ago, during a holiday to the Isle of Arran in Scotland, a series of events changed the course of my professional life.

We have holidayed in Arran since I was a child. My Dad was born in the main village of Brodick and his family have lived on Arran since the 16th Century. He eventually moved to the south east of England for work, but ensured that we never forgot about our roots in the Western Isles.

I don’t know what was different about the summer of 2012. The buzz of the London Olympic Games hadn’t really reached the remote farmhouse on the western coast of the island where I was staying with my husband, children and parents that August. The weather was good, I recall, which may have had a part to play, as it’s by no means a given in this part of the world.

But it was evident not long after we disembarked from the ferry, that this trip would be special. I began to feel the irrepressible  urge to run through stories and dialogue in my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my notebooks with me, as I would have these days. So the words went unrecorded.

Then, on a fresh, sunny day, my Dad and I set off on one of our favourite walks; up the hill from the tiny settlement of Thunderguy, to the beautiful, crystal clear waters of Coire Fhionn Lochan. A loch nestled idyllically amongst the peaks with its own white gravel beach. A magical place, where my sister and I used to swim as children and a popular walk on the island.

This particular ascent was an unusual one. About halfway to the Lochan, we spotted a lady’s handbag amongst the rocks and scree. We assumed that a fellow walker must have put it down when resting and forgotten to pick it up again. I placed it in a more obvious position on a tall boulder, but left it on the hillside. Not knowing whether the owner had been heading up or down.

As we approached the ridge which marked the end of our walk, it became apparent who the owner of the bag was. A woman was descending the narrow path fast ahead of us.  She asked shakily if we’d seen her handbag. We replied that we had and tried to explain its general location before she continued down the hill in something of a panic.

Dad and I continued to the Lochan, where we sat on a rock on the beach and ate our packed lunch. The view was so glorious, we forgot about the lady and her lost bag. Until we stood up to begin our trek back down the hill, when we became aware of a kerfuffle at the brow of the ridge. A pair of walkers were becoming concerned about their friend, exchanging worried words. The lady we passed still hadn’t returned since going back to search for her bag. We told them we would keep an eye out for her on the way down.

We did see the lady again. She had struggled to find the bag, it not being as easy to retrace your steps on the rocky hillside as we had imagined, despite the well trodden path. In the event, the lady was fine and ultimately re-united with her property, but a fledgling seed had been sown in my mind.

A story was beginning to crystallise. I didn’t know what form it would take, but several ideas had interested me; the issue of the lost bag – what if there was something very valuable or perhaps incriminating inside? And then the idea that even a supposedly familiar landscape can become quite alien in certain circumstances. I was sure that I wished to explore these concepts further.

Upon our return to Essex, I geared up the laptop and began to write. Within a few weeks I had penned the prologue to my first novel, Aoife’s Chariot. By the following July, the book was finished.

In the five years that have followed that summer, I have written  a further sixteen books and given up my teaching job to pursue my writing career full-time. Why that particular holiday was special; triggering a compulsion to write and tell stories, I really cannot say. Perhaps it was simply the right time.

Arran has always been an important place for me. It is an island where you can feel quite free from the concerns of everyday life. The location probably allowed my creative tendencies to flourish. I can’t be certain. But that particular fortnight in the summer of 2012 undoubtedly changed the course of my life for good.

 

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