An online friend asked a question yesterday: why do writers write? Is it out of love for writing or necessity? The question made me think. Here’s my, thoughtful, answer:

I used to create cartoon strips, about our household, as a kid. I’d love to go back to this subversive activity but, as my freehand skills aren’t great, it would probably be by using some kind of computer programme. As the Benjamin of the family (perhaps as unfairly indulged as Joseph), my earliest literary creations reflected my counterfactual belief that it was me and the dog contra mundum. My elder brother, who still has all his Marvel and DC comics from the 70’s, loved them. Alas, my infant creations didn’t survive long. Neither, tragically, did our lovely foxhound and it was this early loss and the much later acquisition of my beloved tan terrier, Ben, that powered Angels With Hairy Faces – a plea for humanity in our relationships with dogs, who can inspire us so profoundly.

One afternoon in the 80’s, at St Andrews University, an American neighbour in the student residence pushed a short story under my door. I was so intrigued by this action, and by the creation of this elaborate lie on paper, that I don’t think I even commented on it to him. For this I am truly sorry. Affirmation is so important to writers. I can’t remember what it was about, I just recall my first understanding of the magical agency involved in literary creation. During these years I began to write poetry, St Andrews is an extremely poetic (and pretentious) place. I still do, although I find my own poems even harder to evaluate than my prose. But sometimes I feel a powerful emotion that just won’t be communicated any other way. I felt this, as a new(ish) vegan, watching The Levelling in 2017 and by happy accident I was working my way through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, on poetry forms, at the time. The result was a villanelle.

Although I wrote some liberal student newspaper articles (which I thought radical) in a confessional and impassioned style which would now be called blogging, my first attempt at short story was inspired by dreams and memories and freewriting in the early 90’s at a college in California where I received the most excellent and author-empowering advice on asking for feedback:

  • Don’t say if you like or dislike it, if you think it’s good or bad, that doesn’t help
  • Don’t suggest changes, tell me what it does to you

A few years later, I revisited my infantile work with a caricatured melodrama in daily instalments starring my co-workers in a hotel on the Isle of Skye. To date, they have been my most appreciative readers. Never on a Sunday survives somewhere but is not for publication! Neither is my Mormon Christmas mystery, written for American flatmates, or the various (lively) extrapolations of dreams and desires I have since written as birthday presents for various gay men. People enjoy their dreams coming true but what they really appreciate is getting a mention. Mostly. (Do ask!)

Reading the Tales of the City series back in Scotland started my long preoccupation with the oddities associated with relationships between bisexual/gay and strait (sic) men. (We’re not bent, we’re broadminded.) That had various manifestations (on and off the page!) and culminated in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries. Tricks of the Mind was an escape from caring for my Dad who had dementia but it was also an exploration of the puzzling power of clairsentience widely experienced by empathetic people and usually explained away. This started a pairing of an aspect of esoterica I found fascinating with an underlying emotional drive. So The Lovers is a meditation on the cycle of life portrayed in Tarot but also on the urgency of love (all in a plot about hospital closures). Shades of the Sun (still my favourite) is a Scooby-Doo type adventure complete with creepy manor and masqued villain combining a now obscure branch of astrology with grief and PTSD. Qismet was meant by me to showcase my amazing ideas on education but the characters (Bruno, Justin, Imogen and Clara, principally) would have none of it and instead it became a ghost story about the evils of trying to rewrite the past. Often the motivations of the characters will remain unclear to me until the end. Then I understand not only what I’ve written, but why I’ve written it. Most of the time they just don’t let me in on their secrets until they really have to. Imogen and that crypt being a prime example! Tir nam Ban was born from the waves of the North Atlantic as they strike mysterious Hebridean isles. Of course it was inspired by many lives on many islands and in many communities, some of them mine, but really I wanted to do justice (however obliquely) to both the Celtic faerie tradition and Christianity and also to use a juxtaposition of sex and socioeconomic slavery to illustrate the rottenness of social respectability.

My academic work benefitted from my growing literary confidence (at least I thought so, a dense critical theory lecturer found my style ‘journalistic’) and Dreaming Anarchy was in the ethnographic tradition of thick description. Now I think I chose to write it for my Master’s dissertation because I was so tired of all the words about words about words, ironic lives lived cynically at a half-remove, that I wanted to live and publicise a more embodied politics. And you don’t get much more embodied than living up the Pyrenees with no electricity or plumbing.

Alchemy at the Chalkface was my homage to Dr Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and my analysis and application of his work first bore fruit in Only Say The Word when I realised that ‘Jesus loves me so you have to accept my lifestyle’ wasn’t a good enough justification for homosexuality when conservative Christians’ main problem wasn’t theological but biological: they just didn’t think it was natural. So I explored the nature of ‘nature’. That also helped with Life-Choice when I realised that women on both sides of the man-made barricades (and those very few trying to dismantle them) had completely different views on the nature of life in a woman’s womb, which their ethics (about what could be done with this life) followed.

Trans/Substantiation started as a departmental paper putting forward the view that ecumenical understanding on the Eucharist was being hindered more by metaphysics than theology but expanded when it struck me that beliefs about gender were exactly that: non-empirical and passionately held. This I found, shockingly, also to be true for establishment views on AIDS (as well as the more outlandish conspiracy theories on the syndrome) but here there was a kind of doublethink going on that, to a Roman Catholic, was very familiar. Researchers know (and so do readers if they read carefully) that the HIV-AIDS hypothesis doesn’t stand up but views contrary to those that sell the products of the pharmaceutical industry (a modern embodiment of Phillip Pullman’s Magisterium if there ever was one) are effectively no-platformed. Meanwhile multitudes of gay men, and Black Africans, especially, die from the known toxilogical effects of pharmaceutical drugs pushed onto populations whose mortality is considered inconsequential in comparison to profit. So, having ignored the subject for decades (because it frightened me) I simply had to write Silence and Dissent.

On a lighter note, there are my plays, dealing with dementia as subversive remembrance, homosexuality in the ranks, shooting shell-shocked soldiers, carpet-bombing and cold-blooded anti-Semitic murder. At least those are the topics of the two I’ve published so far, Mrs Atkins remembers and Redemption (the others are a bit more intense). I wrote the first out of my experience working with UK schools at WW1 memorials, my memories of my grandfather, blinded by mustard gas, and reading Lyn MacDonald’s The Roses of No-Man’s Land; the second because of a remark my Theatre Studies tutor made. It caused me to reconsider Dostoyevski’s negative portrayal of the old Russian pawnbroker, Alyona, and to try to imagine her life story.

Lastly, and just this week, I received the news that my booklet on nutrition, which I wrote out of concern for so many young people starving themselves (and ending up obese) is now an audiobook! Body-Logic is my first successful attempt at reaching the required level of quality in recording and editing (it’s been a very steep learning curve) but now I hope that, gradually, my novels and other reflections may be able to reach a wider audience for whom reading is either inconvenient or impossible. My inspiration for this move has been my mother, who can read but also loves to listen to story tapes.

Have I answered the question? Why do I write? For all sorts of reasons. Mostly because I feel I must, even the stories just have to come out. I’ve never been pregnant but I imagine it must feel like that – only a lot more overwhelming an experience! Do I love writing? Sometimes. But that’s really not the point. It’s about vivid reflection on life.


Thanks (again) to Dawn Hudson who has released her illustration ‘Writing Hand’ into the Public Domain.


Bruno in January

As January, at least in Scotland, starts and ends with festivity but is infamously dreich (gloomy) in between, I thought it would be fun to do a search through my inclusive mystery series set in Glasgow, using the word ‘January’, to see what the protagonist of the Bruno Benedetti books gets up to in this month of mixed feelings. First of all, I discovered that sometimes it’s getting up at all that’s his struggle:

Waking up at two in the afternoon, in January in Scotland, means that you have about an hour and a half of light left and that situation is just not conducive to having the will-power to do any of the popular January pastimes which the radio assured me everyone else was up and at: de-toxing, joining a gym and committing suicide. I couldn’t even do the other one of ‘pulling a sickie’ like one in four male Glaswegian employees – if the Metro was to be believed. I reburied myself under the quilt and then thought that Justin might be doing his exercises, so I got up. (Tricks of the Mind)

In fairness, Bruno was working night shift. The next book of the series, The Lovers, is set in the four months from June to September, so January doesn’t get a mention. But in the following book, the first month is reported as unseasonably warm, as Bruno takes a short cut through a graveyard that brings back recent memories:

It was as warm as February seemed to be getting – our halcyon days had been in January this year, much to the disgust of most Scots of the third age who seemed to feel it their duty to warn those ‘casting a cloot’ that we’d pay for it. I decided: I would walk to the station and catch the train. I would still have time to get back to my house. (Shades of the Sun)

January, in the fourth book, is when Bruno first realises that the house on Luggie Road is no ordinary residence:

I can’t remember when the noises started, but I remember the first mention of them. Christmas and New Year were quiet and while my family were remembering the sadness of last year, my friends were recalling the horror. I made an effort and celebrated Burns Night in the flat (which is technically a house but that word feels far too settled) and invited everyone associated with the school. And Simone. I was slightly miffed that she’d apparently dismissed any involvement in the project. So it was one of those funny coincidences, thinking these thoughts, that just when I was reaching for another veggie haggis off the supermarket shelf another hand shot out and grabbed it.  (Qismet)

My most recently-published novel skips over January in terms of events but speaks of Scottish sensibilities around Hogmanay  (New Year’s Eve) and prediction:

However there is a strong aversion in Scotland to presumption. Despite the widespread belief and practice of divination in its many forms, as well as the respect for prophecy, it’s considered extremely bad luck to presume that an expected event will actually happen. This might explain the rather laidback attitude towards formal arrangements that prevails in the Gàidhealtachd, and certainly my avoidance of all my North American friends just after Christmas who persist in wishing me ‘Happy New Year’s’ before the Bells. “When it comes”, is my perennial answer (which should always accompany well-wishing previous to an event) as there is the underlying awareness that the wished-for event may not occur at all. (Tir nam Bàn)

The book I’m working on now, tentatively named Transits of Terror, starts in March but I envisage it covering at least till the next May – and with two men and a baby all getting used to each other, January should be anything but uneventful!

Tricks of the Mind Smashwords Cover

Thanks to Petr Kratochvl for releasing the photo of “Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square”, a detail of which I have used for my cover photo, to the Public Domain.

How Not to Introduce Characters

Don’t introduce characters like this:

Lesbian transsexual Orcadian Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski (KFL for short) swinging single and sole proprietor of Deli Smelly, San Francisco’s waterfront’s latest and tastiest locally sourced organic Wiccan charcuterie – because, hey, meat may be murder but business is business – backflipped her perfect twentysomething bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a bençao capoeira kick that sent the head of her android Sensei, Maximilian 3PO-Boombox, spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede. Where all earthlings and earthcities were now located. Cos of the Pulse.

Readers won’t know whether they’re reading Anna Karenina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rotary Spokes or a Culture novel. Mostly they’ll just be confused. The author of this kind of fiction is generally the graduate of a creative writing course whose enthusiastic teacher has encouraged the class to ‘create diverse characters’. The result is like one of those toys that switch heads, trunks and legs – and what is supposed to be entertaining ends up as incoherent. Add to this confusion a method of direct exposition from narrator to reader similar in style to the rapid reading of T&Cs on adverts, and enjoying this style of writing takes a lot of hard work.

I admit that the opening scene of the first book of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries throws a lot at the reader all at once. However the reader is in the mind of the protagonist, and narrators are always unreliable. Tricks of the Mind is driven by a frustrated libido that makes Bruno mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when he enters, to find the object of his affection exercising on the hearthrug, his erudite consciousness is trying to focus on anything but the cheekily handsome face, glistening hard muscle and skimpy shorts of his cocky Cockney flatmate.

Readers hardly ever need to know a character’s surname, and the practice of varying between first name and surname (very common in thrillers) can cause them to lose the plot. Readers also don’t need to know everything at once. Let’s slow that example paragraph down:

Konstantina backflipped her perfect bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a kick that sent the head of her Sensei spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede.

Now it’s recognisably Sci-Fi girlpower chicklit. Let’s add some indirect exposition.

“Nice bençao!” rasped a metallic voice from the corner, “I told you the Terran martial art of capoeira was worth mastering.”

“Max it’s so creepy when you talk with your head off! Reattach!”

“And it’s very disrespectful when a student addresses her Sensei by its first name during training.”

“I mean no disrespect, Sensei 3PO-Boombox, I guess my mind is on the opening of the Deli tonight.”

The android reattached its head before replying. “Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski, your ancestors from far-flung Terra did not colonise this moon for the sole purpose of the provision of charcuterie!”


I still don’t want to read it because all it’s giving me is information. When I care (marginally) more about the Yodayadda of a robot than the preoccupations of a lovely young lady, something is clearly wrong. Let’s try another tack:

Konstantina was almost afraid to touch the shimmering green fabric. The fragile tunic, gift of her Orcadian grandmother, was one of the few remaining articles of clothing made on Terra. There were no silkworms on Ganymede. A silk tunic belonged in the Hall of Memory. It should not be worn by the sole proprietor of Deli Smelly on her opening night. Not even if Ivanya would be there. Not even if she would be sure to notice that the colour, exactly, matched Konstantina’s eyes.

She glanced at the chronograph, sighed, and replaced the garment in the alcove at the back of her cave. She just had time to fit in a combat training session with Max. It would clear her head.

Okay, now I care. I want to bomb the deli, for its silly name, I want to know how this tunic is expected to survive (in an alcove, in a cave, on a far-flung moon) and I also want to know what happened to Grannie and if there’s life on Earth. And more about Max. Cos he’s probably dead fit and I’m going to be terribly disappointed if I find out he’s made of silicon and not carbon. Maybe. I’m not that bothered about Ivanya (I mean why does our lovely girl have to work so hard?) but I might be if she’s Max’s fiancée. And he’s secretly planning a sex change but is kidnapped by the besotted Tyrant of Ganymede. I want to know now. I know it’s got silly but, admit it, so do you!

Don’t chuck everything at the reader all at once. You are the creator of this world and of these characters. Take the reader gently by the hand and lead on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you go. Remember, if you write, you’re a writer. Even God put in the best part of an intensive week of practice before creating human characters. Let yourself make mistakes, and above all enjoy it.

I have to sign off, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Sci-Fi…


Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her ‘Re digitized public domain illustration of a black and white human hand writing with a pen’ into the Public Domain.

Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’


‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.


Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.

Describing characters by their books

People often reveal their inner lives through the kind of books they tend to read and when you live with people you have the opportunity to get to know what kind of books they tend to read. Cos people tend to leave the kind of books they tend to read lying around. Clara read long hardback novels with White English waifish young heroines of steady disposable income (usually of undisclosed source) written by substantial White English matrons (married to chartered accountants) who spent page after page in detailed description of understated emotion and luxuriant but restrained garden shrubbery. Often the modest heroine was unexpectedly valued, and a slightly unnerving chain of events (all of which took place in the ‘Home Counties’ with perhaps one trip to the West Country, East Anglia or even as far north as the Yorkshire moors) led to a slightly embarrassing confession of a hitherto undisclosed secret. And everyone still in London, and not already dead, ended up feeling strangely healed.

Imogen left ‘the greats’ lying around but never seemed to read them for more than five minutes before starting a texting marathon or launching into an extended account of whatever drama had lately occurred at school. I suspected she had a stash of chicklit up in her room. I knew what she read on the beach and it wasn’t Tolstoy. Justin wasn’t interested in books, he preferred me telling him about them, especially if I was preparing food for him at the time. That said, he was the only person I knew who got Men’s Health for the fitness advice. Dave, to move on to those who had lived in the flat temporarily, had surprised me. Instead of the sordid doings of sex-crazed young men and their sugar daddies, which his online and DVD viewing favoured, I knew he read spy thrillers and the Scottish novels (but not the science fiction) of Iain Banks.

When I’d visited Boris, I’d seen the usual pile of hippy classics from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the works of Carlos Castaneda. Clara once let slip that he also, secretly, read Jane Austin. I had read Persuasion, because of a mention of its unrequited love in a movie, and Emma, because for some reason people find me interfering, and also Wide Sargasso Sea, because a guy with a Barbados accent of sugar and rum recommended it to me in a bookshop. O fortunate isle to have such accents in it! As well as anything esoteric, I also unashamedly read Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and was occasionally (on the beach) seen with paperbacks featuring American werewolves who would change into singularly stunning mates of resourceful females with a penchant for coffee and blueberry muffins.

When Johnny had stayed with us he’d raided Imogen’s, immaculate, collection of Livres de Poche and read the adventures of Inspector Maigret aloud to Bernadette, explaining the police vocabulary, such as the Sûreté, as he went along. It seemed to calm them both during that hectic period when all our lives were in danger, and it must have helped brush up her French for both Belgium and the Congo. I didn’t know what kind of books Keith read and I hoped one day I’d care. Just not yet. Simone was either too tidy to leave books lying around or too busy to read. That was another thing I didn’t know about her.

(Qismet, Chapter  5)

Describing characters is a challenge for all authors but as this is the fourth book in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries series, I wanted to vary the method of description. Another factor is that whereas Bruno (the narrator), Justin, Clara, Imogen, Boris and Johnny have featured in every book since the first, Tricks of the Mind, Bernadette and Dave are introduced in the second, The Lovers, and Simone doesn’t appear till the third: Shades of the Sun, during which Keith is increasingly mentioned and Johnny and Bernadette are entirely absent.

As well as being a way of presenting all the main characters in Qismet fairly early in the book (there are currently 16 chapters and the word count stands at 65K) on more or less equal terms, it’s also an excuse to have fun. People who like books tend to like reading about them and enjoy being in on the jokes about the various pretensions of bookish people. Some books are like old friends, and mentioning them brings in the memories of the reader and hopefully (a big word in this particular book) invites sympathy with characters who may share their fancies and their foibles.

Qismet will be out for Christmas. Hopefully. [And so it came to pass]


Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo, “Love of Books”, into the Public Domain