Category Archives: Writing

Narrow Lanes

We flew out of Tromsø last Sunday. Despite the threat of strikes and potential airport chaos, for us everything went without a hitch. Flying out of Tromsø is spectacular. The island the city inhabits is still surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Snow-capped mountain peaks and Tromsø from the air

Andrew and I arrived in Edinburgh in the evening, then the next day we took the train, via Carlisle, to Settle in the Yorkshire Dales. My dad met us as we climbed down onto the platform. It was both wonderful to see him after two and a half years, and jarring at the same time as he stood well back: the first time we’ve met and not hugged immediately in many years.

I had booked an AirBnb – an old workers’ cottage in Upper Settle. Our intention was to quarantine for a week before moving into my parents’ house, but our plans changed with the sad death of my mother-in-law. Instead of quarantining, Anna joined Andrew and me and we drove to Glasgow to attend her funeral two days ago.

Driving in the UK again was something of a challenge. When I bought my car two years ago in Norway, I went for a sturdy SUV. it had to be suitable for winter driving and potentially farm roads. I wasn’t looking for an automatic, but as luck had it, that was what I got. Mum and Dad’s manual, diesel Polo couldn’t be much different. Add in the fact that the national speed limit in Norway is 50mph and I hadn’t driven on the left for three years and starting out was something of a challenge. Our practice run into Skipton was … interesting! Sixty mph on the narrow, winding road seemed impossible. I kept slowing down to go through the towns and villages, only to realise I was already only doing forty. I was amused then, when Dad solemnly bade me not to drive too fast as I set off a couple of days later to drive to Glasgow.

John also flew over and joined us for the funeral, which was only very small, but which fortunately went well. He returned with us to Yorkshire, and so yesterday afternoon, for the first time in many years, John, Anna, Andrew and I all sat in my parents’ conservatory together.

Though I was in the UK in spring, with Anna, it’s different being back in Yorkshire. The contrast with the northern Norway summer is striking. Where the growth around Troms is short-lived, wild and uncontrolled, here the green has a quiet maturity, with its dry stone walls climbing the fellsides and the clustered grey houses on steep lanes. The rest of this entry then, will be a few of the photographs I’ve taken this week, in sunshine and showers, both in my parents’ garden and as I’ve wandered round the town.

Green fields and drystone walls – view from Ingfield Lane
Dry stone walls and graceful trees

Submissions and Sickness

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

It’s holiday time, and my phone keeps pinging with reminders of upcoming flights and stays. Konstantin is housesitting for me, so I know that Triar and the guinea pigs will be well cared for. Lots of other things are bubbling along. I signed the house contract this week. On first of August, I will be a house owner. So far, we have a TV and stand, a washing machine and cooker, a desk and chair, and one bed. Fortunately we have a month between buying the house and moving out of our current flat, so there will be time to rectify that. Hopefully by the time we move in, we will at least have two beds and something to sit on!

Last week, I mentioned that Ger had submitted The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic to ten publishers. So far, two have turned it down. Ger tells me this is quite normal. I believe Harry Potter was turned down by twelve publishers, so I am staying positive for now. I am in the final stages of getting the storyline for book two finished. Hopefully I will find some time to write during my holiday. Due to Covid we won’t be going out and about too much, so I will be able to escape to the fictional town of Invercorrich on the west coast of Scotland. I will also be staying with my parents for the last two weeks of the three weeks I’m taking. I haven’t seen them since December 2019, so being with them again will be truly wonderful.

Just to slightly complicate matters (as if they weren’t already complicated enough) I have been vaguely unwell for a few months and finally heaved myself to the doctors about three weeks ago. She referred me to Tromsø for a colonoscopy, which was done on Thursday. Probably the less said about the procedure the better, though I survived the process without having to have sedation or painkillers, which was a bonus.

There are flowers on all the roadsides, even around the hospital, so I will share a few pictures here.

The good news is that my intestines are in good shape. The bad news is that the doctor I saw in Tromsø agreed with what I was initially concerned about, which was that there is probably something going on with my pancreas or bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder any more, so it’s not that. He said the next stage was an ultrasound, but given that I was going on holiday for three weeks, he decided he would do that there and then, rather than wait. He couldn’t see anything big, which is good, but he says I will have to return for an MRI when I get back. He suggested that my bile duct might be blocked, possibly by a stone or stones, which wouldn’t be that surprising. There were complications after my gall bladder was removed, and now and then signs of stones passing (a very distinctive feeling, for anyone who’s experienced it). So all that is slightly hanging over me. I know the UK has an NHS, but it would be much less complicated if I didn’t have to use it.

Anyway, all my photos this week are of flowers. I went up to Tromsø a day early before the colonoscopy and went out to explore the Arctic-Alpine Garden near the hospital. There was a cafe there, which I would definitely have stopped at for an ice cream, had I not been banned from eating anything. Next time I’m up there if it’s fine weather, I’ll definitely pop in. I began with the intention of taking photographs and taking down names, but the labelling seemed somewhat erratic, or at least some plants seemed to have spread and others perhaps died back, so I’ll just spam you with the gorgeous flowers and hope you enjoy them, as I do, without ever knowing their names.

Submissions and Steampunk

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

This week has been very intense. So much so, that when I thought back and realised I had been to my first audit on Monday, it’s hard to believe it’s the same week. The long daylight hours are quite disconcerting, though they also mean that everything is growing at an enormous rate, so I’ll throw in a few pictures of all the flowers and undergrowth as I go along. The audit was in the abattoir, or at least in the meat processing plant attached to it. My colleagues Ann and Ronny carried it out and the areas that came under particular scrutiny were traceability and recall.

It was fascinating to see the planning and processes that go into ensuring that the meat that’s sold to the public can be traced, not just right back to an individual animal, but to the batch of plastic that’s used in packaging and the temperature range in the lorry that transports the product onwards. We also got to see mince being packaged, from the time they place it into a huge funnel, to it being arranged into individual squares in a grid pattern on a conveyer, which withdraws suddenly, dropping it into plastic containers which are sealed and marked. I hadn’t noticed before, but the packets are marked with the same oval mark, with Norge and EFTA and the individual number of the abattoir, that we use to stamp the meat itself when we examine it and pass it as fit for consumption. It was also interesting to see how cleanliness is achieved. We had to change our protective clothing multiple times as we passed through the different areas.

The writing whirlwind that started last week also continued. My agent is Ger Nichol at The Book Bureau and she is in Ireland. The contracts were signed last weekend and after about four days of intensive editing, she felt The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic was ready for submission. I will give you the blurb I sent her, though I’m not sure how much of this she uses, or whether she’s changed it for sending it to the publishers.

“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.

Ger sent it off on Wednesday to ten editors at well known publishing houses, and now it’s another waiting game. There’s no guarantee, even at this stage, that it will be picked up, but this is way further than I’ve ever got before. The Hope Meadows series was sold to Hodder before I was involved and would have gone ahead with another writer if I hadn’t been chosen. This time the work is all my own, though if it hadn’t been for Lara Wilson egging me on through the pandemic, even though I was in Norway and she was in Belfast and Glasgow, I definitely wouldn’t have got this far.

The rest of this blog is going to be about Tromsø, where I spent Thursday and Friday at a Mattilsynet meeting for all the staff in our region. In particular, I want to rave about a restaurant we went to. Regular readers will know what a foodie I am and how much I love new restaurant discoveries, and what could be better than a real Italian pizzeria in the far north of Norway?

I must admit here that I didn’t have high hopes when I discovered we were going to a pizzeria. Pizza is very popular in Norway and (as in the UK) a lot of it is adequate but by no means exciting. Casa Inferno certainly looked pretty good as I walked in. It has a steampunk theme, with a brutalist style ceiling – all steel rods and exposed air conditioning pipes. Somehow, it achieved a very cosy feel. There were a few old things scattered among the copper lampshades and retro-futuristic decor. This gramophone on the bar was probably my favourite.

Box gramophone and Steampunk Bible book

We started with antipasti – selection of olives, various cheeses, hams and salamis and some most delicious red pickled onions. It was served on shared platters and looked great, though for once, I forgot to take a photo. It was the pizzas that were the real revelation though. It’s a long time since I’ve had a proper wood-fired pizza, created by an Italian chef. The pizzas were for sharing too, but by some miracle, the one that was placed in front of Konstantin and me would have been one of my first choices from the menu.

Autunno – a white pizza (no tomato sauce) with fresh mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, pecorino cheese, guanciale meat, onions and pine nuts.

The next pizza brought to our table was even more spectacular. The Inferno was quite literally, flaming hot.

Inferno pizza, literally on fire when brought to the table.

The Inferno had tomato sauce, spicy salami, olives, fresh chilli peppers, onions and chilli flakes. It looked even better, once the flames died down.

Inferno pizza, after the fire.

As we were waiting for desserts and coffee, I took a few photographs, including the steampunk weapon at the top of the page. It was only at this point, that I realised there was an actual wood stove for the pizzas. No wonder they were so wonderful!

The final indoctrination, and the realisation that this was somewhere I really wanted to come back to with the offspring, was with the dessert. I was going to order what I thought was a chocolate fondant, when Hilde pointed out that it was not actually chocolate fondant, but chocolate fondue. I guess chocolate fondue isn’t technically very difficult, nor is it particularly Italian, so far as I know, but it was certainly fun! And along with an espresso coffee laced with amaretto, it rounded off the meal very nicely.

Chocolate fondue with fruit and biscotti.

Casa Inferno Website.

Thanks for reading. Have a lovely week everyone,

Winging It…

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

I’m going to start with a couple of photos this week. I need to find a way to stop myself huddling inside through the winters here. Having just lived through my second, I have come out the other side hopelessly unfit again. Still, I have made a start, and Triar and I took our first outing up the track that leads to Kistafjellet, which I discovered at the end of autumn last year: Changing Wheels, Changing Weather

Triar waits for me as I take a picture of the fjord and mountains beyoned

I won’t make it up Kistafjellet before I go on holiday in two week’s time, but hopefully I will when I get back. It’s a long walk, but not technically difficult and there’s a good track all the way up, so it’s a good mountain to start on. I walked for about half an hour, which isn’t that much, but the track is pretty steep. I got as far as this river, before turning to come back.

In other news, I have found an agent who wants to sell my book. Having written the Hope Meadows books with Vicky Holmes, I have been hoping to write something that would be all mine and published under my own name. This is part of the letter I sent the agent last Friday, along with part of the manuscript.

“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.

I finished writing a while back and had been looking for an agent, but hadn’t been very active in pursuing it. After something of a break, I looked through The Writers’ and Authors’ Yearbook last Friday and something about this agent caught my eye, so I sent off a submission. Since then everything has happened at high speed. Anyway, I don’t want to say any more right now as we are at the contract stage and it’s not quite complete. Suffice it to say, I think I’ve found someone I can really work with, which feels brilliant!

More pictures now. Thomas, Gry and I were driving back from a case yesterday when we noticed the almost-perfect reflection of mountains in Skøvatnet, the lake we were driving beside. It was so still and so beautiful that Thomas actually turned the car round so we could all go back and take some pictures.

There was something of an unexpected coda to last week’s post about the dead eagle. Line, who oversees our animal health and welfare team, commented on my Facebook post last week to say “Good job”. I was slightly surprised then, when she called me midweek to talk about it. She sounded a little tentative as she opened up the OK Program instructions for the year and asked me which protocol it was I’d followed. She opened up the familiar sheet with the instructions and polite dissection photos and I told her that yes, that was what I had done.

It turns out that though I had very carefully read and translated the instructions, I hadn’t given the same attention to the explanation at the top, which said that this form was for the use of hunters who found birds when they were out hunting. My eagle had been found by someone out hunting, but apparently the form I should have filled in, as a Mattilsynet vet, was actually to be found on MatCIM, the emergency monitoring channel that we use to track outbreaks and emergencies. Had I found the instructions on MatCIM, I would have discovered that there was no need to take the wing at all, and the swabs alone were enough. Still, she said, probably the Veterinær Institutt down in Ås were pleasantly surprised to have received my carefully packed eagle wing…

She apologised for laughing, but I actually thought it was funny enough to relate it to the three colleagues with whom I sat and ate lunch a few minutes later. They all thought it was hilarious too. So I was laughing for what remained of the day and was still giggling to myself as I drove home. After all, there was no harm done, it had certainly been an adventure and anyway, I love things that are just too ridiculous. The lab haven’t got back to me yet, so I still don’t know whether the poor old eagle died of bird flu, but don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.

And finally, I’ll leave you with another midnight sun picture. Have a good week!

Carry that Weight

Sunrise/sunset: 09:52/ 13:14. Daylength: 3hr21min

I love being a veterinary surgeon. I am in the privileged position of having a career that is built around helping animals and in addition, I get to spend some of my days driving round in wonderful scenery and meeting farmers and their animals, and that’s something I value highly.

But there is a flip side to being a vet, which I discovered very early in my career, and that is that there is a lot of responsibility and that sometimes we find ourselves dealing with very heavy events.

I qualified when I was twenty two and started working at twenty three, and still have a stark memory from that time when I had been sent out to euthanase an old lady’s dog. I had driven out to her house and was still green enough to be worried about the process itself. Even when you’ve done it a thousand times, there’s still a risk that something untoward will happen, but you learn to navigate around potential difficulties, explain the possible issues beforehand and cope on the odd occasions when something unexpected does occur. On that day however, I was still completely green and very nervous. The old lady grabbed my hand and looked up at me from her chair. “I don’t want her to go,” she said. “Can’t you take me with her as well?”

I had no idea how to respond then and I probably still wouldn’t. Fortunately I had a wonderful nurse with me that day who did manage to say something and even after all these years, I remember how wise she was in comparison to me. Nowadays, when things get tough, I have more experienced people like Hilde and Thomas I can call on. Good colleagues are incredibly valuable in a crisis.

This week has had a couple of those moments when I have been reminded of how fragile everything can be. The first was the discovery on Monday that there had been a horrible event on Sunday in which a number of animals had died. I can’t give details: the investigation is still underway. But the quiet Monday I had planned, where I caught up with some overdue paperwork, was disrupted completely as I ended up driving to Tromsø with some of the animals that had died so that post-mortems could be carried out. There’s an extent to which, when tragedy hits, you have to act first and deal with the situation before you start to think too deeply about it, and that’s what I did. It wasn’t until I came home at the end of a twelve hour day, that I had time to process what had happened and what the animals had gone through, and then I cried briefly and hugged Andrew and Triar and then posted on Twitter, asking people for pictures of their pets and what they loved about them, so that if I woke in the night, I’d have something lovely and positive to read.

Our events here however, have been rather overshadowed by the news that Norway is experiencing its first ever outbreak of bird flu in domestic hens. Periodically last winter, there would be reports of bird flu being found in wild birds and Norwegian hen keepers have strict rules about outdoor access for their birds. When migration is happening, they all have to have a roof over them at all times. It had struck me, when doing our twice yearly emergency readiness exercise that if there was an outbreak of a serious illness in our area, that we would be in the front line and would be part of the team who had to go out and deal with the consequences. What hadn’t really struck me was that before we attended, there would likely be another vet who had been called out and might have been exposed first and a farmer too, and that they would be even more at risk, because they wouldn’t know beforehand that layers and layers of PPE were necessary.

This only came home to me when I read where the outbreak had occurred. It was (is) in Rogaland, where I used to live and work. Before I got the job here, I had applied for a job working with chickens down there, and it struck me that I could potentially have been that vet. Then it struck me further that the vet in question might be someone I know. It turns out the vet is indeed someone I know and they are still dealing with the possible fall out. So now I am hoping that there is nothing more serious to come, but the weight on them must be very heavy indeed.

But there was some lightness this week too. I have a busy few days planned, with lots of farm visits to different types of animal and with lots of different colleagues. Yesterday morning, I headed down to the fast boat in the dim pre-dawn November light. I was going up to Tromsø, where I would meet Birgit and we would visit a pig farm in the area. It was a routine visit, taking samples and carrying out a welfare inspection as part of Mattilsynet’s campaign to improve pig welfare.

The boat trip was a wonderful start to the day. The waters between Finnsnes and Tromsø are sheltered by islands and peninsulas and so it was a very smooth journey. It was getting lighter as we travelled and we went from farmland backed by low hills to much more sheer mountainsides, their peaks shrouded in snow and clouds. I had brought a book, but in the event, I couldn’t stop looking out of the window. The sunrise (picture at the top of the page) came when we were only a few minutes outside Tromsø. This is definitely a trip I want to repeat in my spare time.

The farmer was lovely. His pigs all looked in very good shape and he proudly showed us his sheep afterwards. Not all visits are like that, but it is great to see healthy animals being cared for well.

And it was fantastic to meet up with Birgit again. She had driven down from Storslett for a meeting the day before and had stayed overnight in Tromsø. She had her dogs with her and after the visit, we stopped briefly to give the dogs some fresh air. Kvaløya is beautiful. As I work in this area, I often look around me in wonder and think how lucky I am… as well as that I want to spend more leisure time exploring these different areas.

There was just time to stop for something to eat before I headed back on the boat. I ate a very tasty smoked salmon and cream cheese roll and was very pleased to see that the coffee shop were selling Senja Roasters‘ Christmas coffee. It was a good end to a very pleasant trip.

People and Parties, Blue and Gold Light

Sunrise/sunset: 09:11/ 13:52. Daylength: 4hr41min

At the end of last week’s blog, I touched on the subject of the RNIB and on the happiness I felt having been contacted by a number of women who were interested in talking to me about being blind or severely sight impaired (which one of my correspondents described as being “the new term for blind”). As I mentioned last week, one of the characters in my new novel (Gail) is blind. She has a guide dog (Beth). I think there is a common assumption that those with a guide dog have no sight at all, but that isn’t the case. I am also planning a second book in the same series, which will have a major storyline around the relationship between Gail and Beth. I am very touched by the enthusiasm for my book. And it’s been lovely, hearing from new people and learning about different perspectives. A couple of the women have also shared websites that give added insight into their lives and I wanted to share them with you.

The first is a fascinating insight into how Samantha Leftwich sees the world. She uses photography to try to replicate different aspects of her vision. Her artwork was showcased in an exhibition called Windows of the Soul:

https://www.windowsofthesoul.art/samantha-leftwich

The other is a blog by Lynne Nicholson about living with Charles Bonnet Syndrome which she describes as “my brain being deprived of visual stimuli […] inventing it’s own version of the world around me.” Lynne writes about making her way through the world and some of the technology that helps with that navigation. Here’s the latest post on her blog:

Was that a dinosaur?

The weather is incredibly changeable at the moment. There had been snow, but by last Sunday, it had disappeared again. Looking for somewhere new to walk, I drove up onto the Lenvik Peninsula. (The Norwegian word for peninsula is “halvøy”, which translated literally means half island, which pleased me when I looked it up.) Turning up a random road, I parked the car near a waterfall under a bridge and headed up on a pathway that wove uphill through woodland.

Waterfall as it emerges from an old arched stone bridge

Though the snow was gone, the ground was frosty and the colours muted, but with touches of the glorious autumn still visible.

Blue and pink sky behind bare trees on a frosty hillside
Frosted autumn leaf

Triar was very happy, of course. He loves exploring new places.

Triar at the top of the hill

There was a wonderful fall of snow on Monday night, so of course I took some photographs when I took Triar for his evening walk. As I’ve mentioned before, the light at this time of year has a bluish tinge, even when the sun is up. At night, I was struck by the beauty of the golden light which shone through the snow clad trees and reflected on the water.

Friday ended up being a bit of a wild day. There was an office party planned for the evening and I was taking sausage rolls. It had been a long week, so I asked Hilde on Thursday if I could work from home, and I was planning an early finish to give me time to bake. There were a couple of meetings to get through and then I didn’t have too much left to do.

So much for my carefully laid plans. The first meeting was at 08:30 and was about our ongoing list of farms where we know the welfare needs some work. I had done a lot of work on these cases a while back, checking through the paper trails, creating historic timelines so that it was easy to see what the long-term problems were in each case. In the meeting, I discovered that our team had a new deadline and new Excel sheets to fill in regarding those histories, as well as creating new timelines for how we are going to tackle the cases in the coming months.

It was quickly obvious that I was going to have to go into the office to tackle these new deadlines. Having done much of the legwork, I hoped it would be a case of simply copy and pasting the information, but experience has taught me it’s hard to do that with the limitations of a laptop screen. Anyway, regardless of that, I needed to meet with Thomas to plan the next steps.

So at the end of the first meeting, I grabbed everything and rushed down to the office. The second meeting of the day was about to start and I just had time to get myself a coffee before it began.

The second meeting was our departmental meeting and as I don’t play a leading role in anything yet, I was starting to relax again, when Hilde sent the second curve-ball of the day flying at my unprotected head. There are, apparently, two confirmed cases of coronavirus in the slaughterhouse. Anyone who had been there in the course of the week was to take a rapid test. There was a mask on my desk, put there a while back and discarded, so I slapped it on. I’d been to the abattoir on Tuesday, so that group included me.

After that, I was impatient for the meeting to end so I could go and get the test. Obviously my urgent face-to-face meeting with Thomas was going to have to wait! We didn’t have any tests in the office, so after a brief discussion with Hilde, I headed off to the pharmacy to see if I could buy some. Having done so, I headed home to take the test. The fifteen minute wait before I could see the results felt very long, even though I knew the chances that it would be clear were good. I hadn’t been in close contact with many non-Mattilsynet staff, all of whom had already been tested and were clear. There was more hanging on it than my meeting with Thomas, of course. I have been waiting weeks for the office party and to miss it would have been awful.

Luckily the test was clear. I headed back to the office, calling in at the health centre, on the way, to book an MRSA test that I need to have before I can visit pig farms to check for it. No good me going out to check if the pigs have it, then contaminating the swabs or worse, giving it to them.

The party was fun! Lots of people brought food and so there was a wonderful spread. I wasn’t drinking, but some people were. There was an amazing feeling of a return to something I hadn’t realised how much I was missing. We sat close together at the tables, which in itself felt novel and not normal, as it used to be. Some people were drinking alcohol and unexpectedly, one of them began to get rather “tired and emotional” and that seemed nostalgically wonderful too. He talked at one point about how much he had missed this, and how we must do it more often and the whole room listened and then toasted him.

He really struck a chord when he said we have to create a new normal. The vast majority of people are vaccinated. It’s not perfect as the vaccine isn’t perfect, but likely this is as good as it’s going to get. There are no new developments left to wait for. There are still local lockdowns, where the risks are higher, but so long as the hospitals are not swamped, there’s an extent to which we now need to let it go.

I will leave you with a photograph of Thomas. As regular readers will know, Thomas is from South Sudan and his dazzling white Sudanese outfit was definitely one of the high points of the evening.

Thomas looking magnificent in clothes from his homeland, South Sudan

Mixed

Sunrise/sunset: 02:50/ 22:44. Daylength: 19hr 54mins

Last week, I sent the manuscript of a new book I’ve written to a friend. It’s always a nerve wracking moment, showing something you’ve created to another person. Lara is very well read and I was optimistic that if there was any storyline or character that was completely off key, she would tell me.

It’s been a tough project. I started it a couple of years ago in a lull between the last two Hope Meadows books. It’s about a veterinary practice in Scotland: partly wish fulfilment, I think, but also an exploration the life of older women. In this modern world, where women are supposedly able to have everything, they often end up juggling job and family and find themselves trapped in situations rooted in decisions made years ago when their children were young. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (the scriptwriter behind the TV series Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley) and I hope I’ve achieved it.

To my intense joy (and relief) Lara loved it. Practically minded and knowledgeable, she also pointed out one or two technical points about veterinary practice and rules and regulations. Once I’ve ironed those out, I will be faced with the search for an agent.

In the UK, it’s close to impossible to get a novel published without an agent. In this age of computers, so many people write that all the major publishers have inserted a buffer between them and the great writing public. They will only look at fiction sent to them by an author’s agent, so now I have to look for one. Those who have followed my progress for a very long time might know that I was with Peter Buckman at the Ampersand agency (he put me in contact with Victoria Holmes, who led me through all six Hope Meadows books) but he admitted before we set off that Womens’ Commercial Fiction (which is what I write) wasn’t really his thing, and so at the end of Hope Meadows, we parted. He has since contacted me when he got wind of another vet project, so we remain on good terms, but what I really need is someone I can bounce ideas off, so that is what I’m going to look for.

John has been home for the weekend for the past three weeks and as it was lovely weather yesterday morning, I took the afternoon off and we went out with the dog on Senja. Serious walking is out for the moment. The deep snow on the mountains is beginning to melt. Water begins to run underneath it, and so as well as being slushy and almost impossible to walk through, there’s also a risk of avalanches. So for now, we contented ourselves with a stroll near Vangsvik. We found a lovely little harbour where the water was so clear that both John and I thought it would be a lovely place for a scuba dive. Though we have some kit in the flat, it’s so long since I’ve been that I will need to contact a club for retraining if I decide I want to jump back in.

I also stopped on the way back to take some pictures and was delighted to find the start of a hike which I had never noticed before. At four hours (probably five or six at my pace – Norwegians walk everywhere much faster than I do) and with a well marked path, it sounds perfect.

If the view at the beginning is anything to go by, the outlook from the top must be stunning. In a few weeks time, we will have 24 hour daylight, and even though I’ve woken to snow again this morning, it can’t last forever. Though spring is still trying to hide, there are definitely leaf buds on the trees now. Maybe a midnight hike will be in order. Roll on summer!

Reflections

It’s a while since I have written about writing. It was my failure to make sufficient progress towards publication back in the spring which sent me on my veterinary odyssey, and that is something about which I have no regrets. However, stuck at home and physically incapacitated for the past week, I have forced myself to write again on a regular basis. I have been making slow progress with my aims, and this can only speed things up, but I thought perhaps this would be an opportunity to share my journey with the people who read my blog.

A bit of history first. During the five years I was in Norway, but unemployed, I wrote two books. In the period between February 2012 and June 2014, I sent out sixty seven submissions to literary agencies, and  three to small independent publishers regarding these two tomes, largely to either deafening silence, or to painful generic rejection letters, which ranged from the bright and polite, to the blunt instrument, seemingly sent only to cause injury.

To those who have never written, this perhaps seems odd. Writing the book is surely the hard part, you might think. The reality is that the huge majority of books that are written these days either remain unpublished, or are self-published (often in e-format) to languish in the realms of the unread.

There have been some bright points in my journey. The first book I completed and submitted for inspection was Tomorrow. The standard format in the UK for submission is to send three chapters of your book, and an outline of your plot, and then wait (usually a couple of months) for a reply. After weeks of negativity: silence initially, then a short flurry of rejections, I finally received the response I had been hoping for: a request from a literary agent for the rest of the manuscript.

It was at that point that I suddenly found myself full of self doubt. I hadn’t taken the time to ask people to review my work. I had produced it and polished it, and I thought it might be alright, but the one person who had begun to read it, after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, had never got back to me. In feverish excitement, I contacted her. She seemed reluctant to hear from me. I finally managed to drag the information from her. She felt that although the book had started well, the ending was awful. As if I had suddenly run out of ideas and had just hurriedly drawn everything together. What was the incentive of one of the main characters, she asked me. She couldn’t understand why he would have acted as he had, taking large, unfavourable risks with no apparent motivation. Frantically I started to read through my book. She was right. It made no sense. Over the course of a weekend, I botched a vapid rewrite of the ending. I couldn’t change much. There wasn’t time, and it had to fit in with the synopsis I had sent. Within a day of sending the full manuscript, I had received a rejection from the agent.

Ready, Vet, Go was the second script I sent off. This time, I thought, I had it right. I had completed. Read and re-read. I had supplied the text to friends and family, who had responded with delight.

The silence this time was even worse than on the first occasion, but after a long delay, there was a small glimmer of daylight. Two agents paid me the compliment of sending a personalised commentary on my chapters, even as they told me they didn’t want to read any more. To give you an idea of the “positivity” of these entries, I will reproduce one of the letters here, without naming the agent involved.

Dear Sarah McGurk

Your veterinary details ring true but you need a much greater depth of characterisation and a stronger plot.

I regret that as I am taking on very few new clients at present this is not something I could successfully handle.

Thank you for letting me see your work.

 

After a pause for recovery, I wondered what I should do next. I had more writing ideas, and yet I still felt that Tomorrow, contained an original plot twist that should surely draw people in. Some ideas came to me about how I could change the ending. After some six months, I was ready to re-submit. Again, mostly there was silence, but there were two positive responses this time. The first, to my surprise was from one of the independent publishers. They wanted to publish my book. The unmitigated delight I might have felt was tempered. They wanted to publish it as part of their Romance range. Although Tomorrow is a love story, I had been aiming at more serious women’s commercial fiction. Would Romance readers want to read a story set in the accident and emergency department of a Glasgow hospital? I had worked in animal emergency and critical care. I hadn’t pulled my punches about the sometimes awful working conditions in the NHS.

Ultimately my decision was made for me. The Society of Authors read the contract I had been sent, and pulled a million holes in it. Not that I shouldn’t go ahead, they said, but I might be better considering self-publishing, rather than tying myself into a contract that might lead to nothing, or at best, might leave me with a successful book for which I would receive only a tiny percent of the profit.

At least though, here I had proof. An editor of an independent publisher had read my entire manuscript and had felt it was of publishable quality. The second “high” point came from the same agent who had sent me the above e-mail. This time though there were no punches pulled, and precious little positivity about Tomorrow itself, there was an invitation.

 

Dear Sarah McGurk

You write with emotion but your novel has very little sense of place, and I was totally unconvinced by the film star angle.  I do think it is a mistake to write this in the first person as it reads more like a memoir than a novel and it will be hard to sell as it does not fit any category.

Have you thought of writing about a female vet? – if you could get a strong narrative hook it could be very commercial.  As this stands, I can’t see a market for it.

Thank you for letting me see your work and do think about a vet series, which I should be interested to read.

 

Again, for those who have never written, this perhaps doesn’t seem such a huge step, but for anyone who has battered their head off the veritable brick wall presented by the literary agencies of the UK, the suggestion that someone might actually be interested to read some of my future work seems to me like a big deal.

So at the moment, I am revamping Ready, Vet, Go! I have added a narrative hook, I have brought forward the female vet and I am ramping up the plot. Shortly I am going to need some people to read it for me. It’s difficult for me to stand far enough back to see the whole of my work. I am stitching in new sections. I can’t tell if my repairs have produced patchwork or something that looks as good as new. So if, around Christmas, you might be willing to help out, I would very much value your time. I ask you to bear in mind, this is a work which might still need changes. If you are hoping to read a perfectly thrilling book… well you might be disappointed. What I need is feedback. Even if you don’t finish reading, I would want the information on where you stopped and why. So I guess what I am looking for, is people who will not be afraid to be blunt. Bear in mind that I am the person who called my boss “Scary Boss Lady” online where she could read it. I need the same cheek from you.  Believe me, very little could be more painful than the feedback I have received from all those agents. I don’t need just to know it is no good, I desire information about where I am going wrong. So if you like reading, and you have some spare time and a strong constitution, then I would be delighted to hear from you. Let’s face it, if you have read this far, you must at least have some stamina. This time I want to get it right.

 

Summer at Hope Meadows

Summer at Hope Meadows, Lucy Daniels

It feels strange to finally be able to talk about Hope Meadows. Because it will be published under a pseudonym, I was unsure at first whether I would be allowed to mention my involvement. Right now the first book is undergoing its final edit. I am gearing up to the idea that I might be writing features, giving interviews or even attending book festivals. I have also just received the wonderful storyline for the second book in the series, so I am about to be very busy.

But I should start at the beginning, with the e-mail that Peter Buckman sent.

The e-mail was from Victoria Holmes at Working Partners. She explained that the first major success Working Partners had, was a series of children’s books called Animal Ark. This gorgeous series (she said) featured twelve-year-old Mandy Hope, the daughter of vets Adam and Emily who ran the eponymous Animal Ark surgery in the idyllic Yorkshire village of Welford, and her best friend eleven-year-old James Hunter. Together they had rescued animals from every imaginable peril, making friends young and old, two- and four-legged.

Personally, I had not come across Animal Ark. The first in the series was published back in 1994 and by that time, I was working in a large animal practice in Scotland, which left almost no spare time for reading.

Animal Ark proved to be very popular, selling millions of copies, round the world. As the series was now reaching its 25th anniversary, Victoria explained, as well as relaunching the original books, Hodder had commissioned a brand new series, featuring Mandy Hope as a newly qualified vet, returning to Welford to help run Animal Ark and open an animal rescue centre.

They were, looking for authors to submit sample chapters. Several would be asked to send their version, and the one they felt was most suitable would be selected to write the rest of the book. The remit was to write the first two chapters of Mandy’s story. Working Partners (in the shape of Victoria herself) would provide an outline of the plot and whatever guidance I needed. It was my job to fill out the storyline.

From the off, Victoria and I proved to be on the same wavelength and the project itself was fascinating. Not only did it give me a chance to share my veterinary experiences, it was both a challenge and an unexpected pleasure to work with characters who had so much background.

As well as the plot, I was provided with information about the characters, both new (for Hope Meadows) and old. I was also sent two original Animal Ark manuscripts. There was also the geography of Welford and the surrounding area to assimilate.

To give an example of the challenge, the outline for chapter one contained the instruction “Mandy’s childhood flashes before her, with memories sparked by every location of lovely Welford”  As someone who had never read Animal Ark, this could have been daunting, but I set to, trawling through the pages of Amazon, making use of their handy “Look Inside” feature. Having identified some likely memories, I asked Victoria for the manuscripts and at the same time, asked the librarian at the British International School of Stavanger, whether she might be able to obtain hard copies. One way or another, I pulled together some suitable history.

I am not sure whether all the writers who submitted were quite so demanding of Victoria’s time. It seemed like hundreds of messages were batted back and forth as we discussed technicalities about the new storyline, historical and geographical details and even exchanged some friendly information about ourselves. By the time I set down the last full stop on chapter two, I was addicted.

As I contemplated what I had produced, there was an incredible feeling. The urge to write more was excruciating. It was no longer just about getting a deal with an agent and publisher. The project itself had become a burning need. I had added touches that I felt were all mine, yet somehow they seemed integral. It was hard to imagine the idea that someone else’s version might be better. That in nine months time, I might have to buy and read those chapters again, in somebody else’s words.

I was a veterinary surgeon. That had to be an advantage. But I was also a novice writer. I’d had nothing published and the deadline for the completion of the first draft was only a couple of months away. Would they be willing to take on someone with so little experience? With a strange sensation of loss, that I might never, ever get to write any more, I sent off my two chapters on the thirtieth of August and held my breath.

 

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Major Characters

For those who have read Animal Ark, the main characters in Summer at Hope Meadows will be old friends. I’d like to share a little bit of information about them, their interactions with one another, and how I have tried to tie up their past with their present situation.

First, Mandy Hope herself. For those who haven’t read Animal Ark, Mandy hope was last seen at the age of twelve. She is the adoptive daughter of veterinary surgeons Adam and Emily Hope. She and her best friend James had a wonderful childhood, roaming the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and looking after the animals they found.

For the new series, Mandy has reached the age of twenty seven. She has qualified as a veterinary surgeon herself. The story begins with Mandy returning to Welford, the village where she grew up, to help her parents in their practice.

I must say that I enjoyed writing about Mandy. She shares so many of my own traits that I found it easy to find her voice. I suspect the biggest difference is that she is more earnest than I am. In the children’s books, she comes across as quite a serious character. Those who know me well will know that I have a dry sense of humour, which sometimes tends towards the cynical. Mandy is more idealistic.

She is also self-aware, will fight for her own needs and stand up for herself when necessary. As someone who tends towards the passive, I found it empowering writing a character who was much more assertive than I was when I was in my mid-twenties.

Like me, she is very uninterested in clothes and make-up, which is just as well, because I am truly ignorant about both those things. In the original guidance Victoria sent, there were instructions and links about the aural haematoma operation Mandy had to carry out.

I joked to Victoria that while the other authors probably followed them assiduously, I had written that element off the top of my head. However, I did have to search online to find out what a shift-dress actually was.

In book two, Mandy recently had to apply mascara. I had to suppress the urge to write about all the clumps in her eyelashes as I personally, have never managed to apply mascara without them appearing. If anyone knows the secret behind this important life-skill, please feel free to drop me a line.

Adam Hope is Mandy’s dad. In the children’s books, they have a warm, but teasing relationship. Mandy is sometimes to be seen out on her bike, whipping him into shape (not literally you understand) as he takes to the lanes around Welford to run.

I found his character and the relationship between Mandy and Adam quite straightforward to understand. It is based on both mutual respect and teasing. Adam’s eyes are always twinkling. Even though his hair has more grey now, he still teases Mandy. But now, Mandy sometimes gets her own back for all the years of ribbing.

The relationship between Emily Hope, Mandy’s mum, and Mandy is more subtle and at first I found it difficult to get a handle on Emily’s character. I am sure, when I started to write, she was coming across as insipid. This was cured when I spent a day in the library at the British International School in Stavanger. The librarian had already come up trumps by obtaining a copy of Sheepdog in the Snow for me. But it was one of the English teachers, Mrs Rhodes, who came and asked what I was doing, who finally helped me see Emily clearly.

Fortunately for me, Mrs Rhodes had read many of the Animal Ark books. I was amazed when she announced that her favourite character was Emily. She felt that Emily’s relationship with Mandy was wonderfully warm and based on an often unspoken trust.

When I read the books again, I began to notice this important trait. Mandy grew up with a mum who trusted her judgement enough to give her a great deal of freedom to make her own choices. That faith has allowed Mandy to grow up with a quiet self-confidence.

Finally, to James Hunter, who in the original series was Mandy’s best friend. I don’t want to give too much away, but the opening chapter in Summer at Hope Meadows is a big one for James.

When they were younger, James was a steadying influence on Mandy. Now, although they are physically further apart, they still look out for each other. There is a real sense that when both their lives enter periods of chaos, they view one another so clearly that they instinctively see what is best for each other: indeed more clearly than they can see their own path.

The most interesting thing for me, has been writing about characters with so much back history, which has to guide how they will react now. I know that when I get time to go back to my own stories, I will take much more time to write down events from their past. Mandy, James, Emily and Adam are now so clear in my head that they almost write themselves. And that is a very pleasurable way to write.

Thanks to Jan-Arne Hagen and Steinar Sirevåg for the photos.