Book out now!

This bun has been in the oven for three years and two months and now she’s finally here.

My book is written as though I’m walking along with you, dropping in history, folklore and other nuggets along the way. There are castles, stone circles, museums, distilleries and also plenty of opportunities to eat cake.

Slow travel is about taking the time to find lesser known spots and really connect with the places you visit. I’m proud of how much I’m crammed into these 328 pages, and I hope that whether your interest is wildlife, whisky or waterfalls, you’ll discover something special. Incidentally, it’s the perfect size to slot in your rucksack and take out and about.

Today I’m thinking back to a little girl who loved writing so much that she thought maybe she could be an author when she grew up. Well, she did it.

Yes those are dolphins jumping in the background – I’m just that good!

One Week To Go

It’s now a week to go until my book is published and I’ve never felt more impatient in my life! I’m so excited for you all to finally see what I’ve been going on about all this time. 

Here’s a little taste of the sort of thing you can expect. Click full screen if you’re watching on a desktop.

A Review of ‘Sky Dance’ by John D. Burns

I discovered ‘Sky Dance’ while looking for non-fiction titles in the Scottish Interest section of my local Waterstones. In the past I have struggled to engage with a lot of rewilding books and often been intimidated by the political conflict. But after reading the blurb I realised that ‘Sky Dance’ was actually a novel. The story follows two hill walkers who get caught up in a row between conservationists and landowners about the reintroduction of lynx into Scotland. There is a fictional island called Morven and a landowner who ticks all the stereotype boxes of a tweed outfit, upper middle-class pomposity and a disregard for any animals besides grouse.

It is a strange book in many ways – especially the surprising ending – but I enjoyed the unorthodox approach. Acknowledging a potentially heavy topic such as rewilding through the medium of fiction was intriguing. ‘Sky Dance’ conveys important messages while remaining full of action. There are a few too many side stories which muddled the plot for me, but the main narrative about the lynx was an engaging one.

It would be fantastic if the reintroduction of a long-lost predator into Scotland could one day be a reality and not a piece of fiction. Burns explains that lynx would pose no danger to humans and only have a very low impact on livestock. If famers were compensated for these small losses then lynx would undoubtedly make a valuable contribution to the restoration of an unbalanced ecosystem that is currently overflowing with deer and damaged trees. Wolves and bears raise more difficult issues, but I believe lynx should definitely be brought back to the UK. John D. Burns paints quite a haunting picture of what the Scottish Highlands could look like if we started to reverse the damage we’ve caused by hunting apex predators to extinction.

Published in 2019, ‘Sky Dance’ is John D. Burns’s third book. He has spent over forty years climbing mountains and fifteen years writing. To hear more from John, visit his website for blogs and podcasts.

 

 

New Leaves

This year I am dedicating a lot of my time to something I have wanted to do for many years: write a novel. I often write fictional scenes and enjoy creating characters and I wanted to set myself the enormous challenge of extending those elements into a book. I’ve read that while many authors swear by detailed outlines and believe that spontaneity is recipe for disaster, others encourage new writers to see where their imagination takes them. I’m trying the latter technique. I have a protagonist and several themes I would like to focus on, but so far my plot is far from finalised. The following is a passage I’ve written as a scene-setter that introduces both the location and my leading lady. 

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The snow fell heavier than it had in a hundred years. There was no wind – the land lay still, muffled under six inches of brilliant white. Evergreens buckled beneath the weight of their silvery coats. Even the river had succumbed to winter; it lay motionless beneath a slab of ice, arranged in a winding, serpentine fashion between hills and mountains. It was late February – there was just over a month left of the winter that spanned half the year, but the coldest season still had a firm grip over the land. In March, the climbing temperatures would start to melt the snow into large freshwater pools and reawaken sleeping giants eager for the salmon run in July.

Halfway up a sprawling larch tree perched a teenage girl. She was small for her age, but agile and nimble. With her back pressed against the trunk, she had the perfect vantage point over the land. Before her the forest sprawled as far as the eye could see. Thousands of trees stood beneath snow and ice, their skeletal branches brittle in the cold.

Vanya’s breath rose from her lungs in icy shards, tumbling from her mouth in clouds of grey mist that swirled upwards into the sky. An eagle cried far away, her voice transported many miles over the sleeping land. Vanya had lived in the taiga forest her entire life, but gazed upon its sweeping scenery with the same wonder as the first time she saw it. It was a paradise of silver beauty. The silence was so thick she could feel it, heavy and palpable in the air. It was an anticipative silence that made the hairs on her neck stand on end. There was change in that silence – something new just beyond the horizon.

Despite her thick furs, Vanya soon began to feel the cold as the sun weakened. While she still had the light to see, she descended from her tree, scrabbling down the trunk with impressive confidence before dropping the last six feet to the soft ground. She padded down the hill, sinking into the snow with each step. Behind her lay a long trail of boot prints, already softened at the edges by fresh flakes. Frost clung to her eyelashes, brushing her cheeks with cold strokes and fringing her vision with a white vignette. Snow rustled in the folds of her coat and crunched beneath her feet. If undisturbed, the snow would fall and rest in utter silence. Only when it was touched did it begin to whisper and crackle. In the heavy air, the sounds were deafening.

When she reached a dense thicket of pine trees, Vanya slowed her pace and gazed skywards, scouring the canopy for birds. Snow clogged the gaps in the branches, concealing all manner of wild creatures. A sudden commotion cut through the silence like a knife. Vanya’s eyes flicked to the sound, freezing on the spot as a flurry of fine powder drifted down. The branch trembled, sending more snow to tumble from within its stiff needles. In moments the raid was over and the culprit emerged at the trunk. It was a young male sable, perhaps from last year’s litter, with dark brown fur and a splash of dusky orange on his neck. A small, carnivorous mammal, the sable belonged to the marten family. The animal cascaded deftly down the tree with agile limbs and keen claws.

Landing with a soft thud on the forest floor, he immediately looked up at Vanya, who had sunk down onto her knees to watch. The sable was clutching a stolen egg in his mouth, razor sharp teeth sunk into the shell for a better grip. Confidently, he trotted over to Vanya, dropped the egg and began sniffing her coat. Vanya extended a hand to the animal, noting the way his sleek fur rippled with each movement. The sable studied the girl’s face briefly before clambering onto the open hand, his nose twitching furiously. Vanya ran the backs of her fingers along his fur, delighting in its buttery softness. After a few more moments in her hands, she set the animal back down onto the snow, where he snatched up his egg. With a brief backward glance, the sable lolloped away to cache his prize.

To anyone else, this behaviour was unheard of. Sables, like many mustelids, could be notoriously aggressive towards humans, especially when food or kits were involved. Vanya was an exception to the rule. Since birth, she had truly understood animals. They were not stupid or cruel, like humans, but sensitive and respectful. Vanya saw no reason not to behave equally, and in response any animal she interacted with was fascinated by her. They sensed goodness in her; a quality that they had learned was absent in most humans. Instead of fearing her, they immediately trusted her.

Vanya studied the sable’s prints in the snow. In less than a minute, the snow obscured the impressions the tiny pads had made. In five minutes, they had disappeared completely. Her interaction with a wild sable might never have happened. Vanya was alone, and yet surrounded with life.

Looking Forward

I am very enthusiastic about 2019, mostly because I’m not quite sure what it will bring. All I know for sure is that it will feature lots of writing. For quite a few years now, writing has been predominantly a side-project for me. I’ve always loved it, but unfortunately it hasn’t been my sole focus because of school, work and other commitments.

I began writing stories at a very young age. My mum would give me a title and leave the rest to me. She was always keen for me to be creative – providing inspiration and encouragement in the form of spelling rhymes, handwriting exercises and story prompts. Writing stories always featured heavily in my childhood and adolescence, but when I became an adult it didn’t occur to me to pursue it professionally. I have no idea why I thought this – perhaps I was distracted by other things or was always keen to keep learning new skills, but the idea of writing stories stayed at the back of my mind until the end of last year when it finally clicked. After weeks of refreshing job site pages and filling out application forms, I realised what I’d probably known subconsciously for years: that I want to be an author.

Probably the thing holding me back from pursuing a career as an author was my lack of technical knowledge. I had the drive to write – a constantly growing stack of full notebooks was proof of that – but I hadn’t learnt the techniques of story structure or character development yet. At the time of picking my A Levels, I wanted to study Biology because of its connection to wildlife and the natural world, and Photography and Spanish were my definitive other choices. As a result, I didn’t have space for English, so a lot of my writing is self-taught, from books I read and prompts I found for myself.

To learn more about the mechanics of writing – in particular writing novels – I recently enrolled in Masterclass: a series of online courses taught by experts in their fields. Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking, Serena Williams teaches tennis, and groundbreaking authors such as Margaret Attwood and James Patterson teach creative writing. It seemed like the perfect solution for me – learning and making notes at my own pace. I already had the passion to be an author, and now I’m using Masterclass to learn the tools that will help me develop my abilities further.

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Alongside Masterclass, I’m making sure to continue my photography. For Christmas, I was given a “lensball”. For anyone who hasn’t seen these before, they are clear glass balls that can be used in photography to add a little refraction to the scene. I’m no expert yet, but if you align your camera so it’s level with the lensball, you can photograph the background within the ball, which brings some nifty new perspectives.

I tried out some shots in the garden earlier this week and discovered that it’s not as easy as it looks. You need to get the angle just right and – as always with macro photography – the focal point is key. These initial shots need a lot of improvement, but I already love what effects I can achieve with the lensball. Gardens don’t usually have the most groundbreaking scenery, so I’m looking forward to getting out in the wild to see what I can capture.

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So, the aftermath of university didn’t quite go as I may have planned, but I feel so optimistic about where this year will take me. I want to give myself the time I need to throw myself into writing and stretch my skills further. I can’t wait to see where I will be this time next year.

Inspired by a Blowfish

Last weekend I stayed with my grandmother at her lovely house in Frome, Somerset. I love my mini holidays there; my bedroom window overlooks a meandering river, and on the other side is a bustling market and a glimpse of the library through the overhanging trees. I was particularly excited on Saturday morning to discover there was a Christmas fair in full swing. There’s nothing like a fair in late November to get you in the mood for Christmas. Although I still refuse to play festive music before December, a sprinkling of Christmas spirit is more than welcome, especially in such bitterly cold weather.

Once inside, we joined the throng. Shoppers shuffled along tables laden with all sorts of gifts and bric-a-brac. The Cats’ Protection were selling cat-themed stationary, while a young man at the Somerset Wildlife Trust stand was doing his best to sell membership to a middle-aged woman whose attention was slowly waning. I am a firm supporter of the Wildlife Trusts, but membership recruiters have a way of pulling you in for a short (thirty minute) chat and not letting go. Past experience taught me to avoid his gaze, and I spotted the table I’m always searching for: the one covered in books.

As always, there was a decent selection of dog-eared Maeve Binchy and Danielle Steel paperbacks, but amongst covers showing watercolour landscapes and female silhouettes staring wistfully into the distance was the tail of a fish. I tugged at the fish and my eyes fell on beautiful line drawings of an octopus, jellyfish, seahorses and more. It was such a satisfying cover, and the book was called “Blowfish’s Oceanopedia”. It was one of those dip-in books with titbit information: “extraordinary things you didn’t know about the sea”, it said. As a person who is fascinated by the sea but doesn’t really know anything worthwhile about it, it seemed the perfect read for me.

The price was even better. A brand new book, published last year at £17.99, and I was charged a pound for it. Books were amazing, but books for a pound were magical.

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After finishing my loop of the fair – and winning a raffle Christmas present in the process – I returned to my grandmother’s house and instantly curled up in my favourite chair to begin reading. Within minutes I’d learned a decent thing or two about elephant seals. I am quite terrified of elephant seals, but as with my similar unease towards snakes and sharks, I’m also fascinated by them. The Blowfish revealed just how important the southern elephant seal’s “trunk” was to its survival. During the breeding season, males weighing up to 4 tonnes battle it out to win ownership of the harem of females. Understandably, this is a full time job, and prevents males from returning to the water to feed and drink. So, to avoid dangerous dehydration, males use the complex nasal passages and specialised blood vessels in their fleshy trunks to recover around 70% of the water vapour in their exhaled air. It’s a genius example of life-saving recycling.

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This is the sort of book I dream of someday replicating; an instrument to share my knowledge and passion with like-minded people. At the moment I’m not an expert in any one field, but the idea of spending decades of your life learning about something and then teaching others in the form of writing is, to me, the perfect way to preserve your work.

The Blowfish, also known as Tom Hird, is a marine biologist who has a deep love for the ocean and life within it. He’s the perfect voice for a potentially complex subject matter, using humour and everyday situations to diffuse a tricky concept. Speaking in the same language as the layman is something some scientists find extremely challenging. I’m certainly not a marine biologist, but nor am I completely naïve to the science of the natural world, so I often feel my combination of knowledge gives me an advantage. I can understand a lot (not all) of what scientists do, but I also appreciate how that needs to be adapted to inform the public without dumbing down and insulting them. I’m sure there are hundreds of published papers on the adaptations of southern elephant seals which required many hours of hard work, but to the average Joe wanting to find out something interesting about wildlife, a book like the Blowfish’s will be a much bigger success. I believe the key to nature writing, or any writing for that matter, is finding the balance between informing and entertaining. The Blowfish’s Oceanopedia has been a source of great inspiration to me – a writer hoping to one day publish books of my own. The passion and enthusiasm in the author’s prose is infectious, and makes me want to jump in the sea right now and see for myself everything he has had the opportunity to witness.