Sunday, 30 May 2010
My dad has loads of friends who are musicians. So when we last visited him, and went out to see some of his friends play in the evening, it seemed like a good time to experiment with our new camera. It is, after all, supposed to perform better in low light levels, compared to the old one. Indeed, trying to take photos without flash, the 'auto' settings were going all the way to ISO 3200!
I'm pretty sure that if I'm going to get anywhere with this, I really do need to master all the manual settings - but at least with digital, it doesn't cost anything to experiment.
I wouldn't say that I got any earth-shatteringly brilliant photos, but it was fun to experiment, and certainly something I'll try again some time.
If anyone reading has more experience of this kind of thing, I really would love to hear your tips and tricks.
Friday, 28 May 2010
This is a follow-up to my earlier post about Writing Sex, in which I wondered where to start with the sex scenes I'm going to need in my novel. Since then, I've been writing. A lot. And I've started to narrow down what I need, and what makes it hard.
"Normal" sex is comparatively easy to write. I can give you soft and gentle love scenes in a romantic setting, where the physical side is really subordinate to the emotional content. This is within the realm of my experience.
Much harder, for me, is when the plot requires sex outside of a loving context. In a couple of places, my next book demands sex for its own sake: a purely physical act.
For example, in one of these awkward scenes, my heroine has to go undercover as a concubine... with all that that entails.
Before anyone wonders, this is not gratuitous. There's nothing included in my book to try and shock my readers. When I have sex scenes, it's because they're critical points in the progression of the plot, as well as being important for character development. They're difficult scenes, but in context, they're also essential.
Lack of personal experience isn't the only thing that makes these scenes hard to write. There's a social taboo that surrounds any discussion of sex, which is magnified by graphic description, and magnified yet further if the circumstances are anything but ideal. And writing something in a novel, for anyone to read, feels very much like opening a public debate - without the chance to say "I don't like it either," because that's part of the discomfort, it must be: the worry that by writing something, you'll be seen as in some way condoning it.
I can only begin to imagine how hard it must have been for a writer friend of mine, who has rape as an unavoidable part of her narrative.
Yet I don't feel I can censor my story for the sake of what some people might think. I'm not willing to change my plot just to avoid one or two pages that some readers might find uncomfortable. Besides, however pretentious it may sound to suddenly define myself as an artist, fiction is an art form. The visual arts have crossed all these lines - and more - already, so perhaps I can borrow just a dash of that bravery.
Fiction holds a mirror up to life, and life includes bad sex, sometimes, even if we prefer not to talk about it. These things can't be artificially excluded from stories.
I try to keep this blog approximately PG-rated, so I'm not going to post excerpts, but if you'd be interested in reading and giving feedback in this area then please drop me a line and I'll look into setting up a password-protected page. I will, of course, be happy to return the favour if you have any excerpts you'd like me to read.
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
The latest cause of excitement in my household is a darn sight smaller than the badgers. For the first year since putting them up, we have a pair of tits nesting in the bird box in our front garden. At the weekend, we went out to have a peek.
Ugly, but also cute. I love this time of year!
Monday, 24 May 2010
It was nearly six weeks between when I signed up for the Reebok EasyTone trial and when my shiny new shoes finally arrived (Disclosure: yup, free shoes). Due to stock levels (possibly related to my awkwardly-tiny feet) they ended up being a different style to the pink-and-black ones I originally chose, but despite the space-age silver, I think you'll agree that these are very cute and very 'me' (by way of being largely purple).
But it's the soles of these shoes that deserve the most attention. The 'pods' are basically big bubbles of air that compress a little when you walk on them... and it's a very strange feeling! They're really comfy to walk on - kind of like walking on deep-pile carpet - but also make me feel pretty unstable on my feet. It took a couple of days before I could walk without feeling like I was about to fall over.
This is a design feature, of course. This is the whole point. It should make my muscles work harder, and that should (hopefully) help to strengthen the area around my still-slightly-injured knee - which should make me more stable, in the long run. So the day-to-day wobbly feeling will be worth it if that pays off.
The Reebok advertising all revolves around the extra work that your muscles will do, with not a small degree of focus on getting a better bum. Does my bum look better for wearing these shoes? I have no idea. I don't spend much time looking at my own backside! But I can certainly feel my muscles working in different places when compared to normal-shoe walking. The level of work feels more like that of walking on sand.
Which brings me to an important point. I find these shoes near-impossible to wear on uneven surfaces, including grass. The added instability is just too much for me if I'm on anything more extreme than a road/pavement, and steep hills are also a challenge. This is a considerable limitation, given that I live in the middle of nowhere; I can't wear them out in the garden.
But for flat, gentle walks they seem great - if your normal walking was in a city, I'm sure these would help you get more exercise from your routine. I typically walk for around forty minutes a day, and I can definitely feel different muscles working when I wear the EasyTones. And my knee aches a little bit more when I've been walking around in these shoes, even when that's just the indoorsy walking around of going to make myself cups of tea - aches which suggest it's doing what I expected. That makes me hopeful.
As a quick aside, I also got some other Reebok kit as part of the trial, including a 'bra top' that I need to tell you about - an amazing piece of kit. When I first put it on, I thought it was a bit tight across my chest, but a few minutes on my cross-trainer proved that that's just what I need. Much more so than any sports bra I've purchased in the past, this top really stopped all that uncomfortable bounce. So I thought that was worth a mention for any other girls who have bouncy-chest syndrome when you try to exercise. It looks kind of odd (very long-line) but comfort always wins in my book!
Saturday, 22 May 2010
It's always nice to have snacks on a walk, and when we went up Pen-y-ghent my dad brought along some apple and raisin flapjacks for us to munch.
My husband declared himself a fan of this combination, and since I'm averse to buying these things in shops when they're so easy to make, I set out to create my own version of the recipe. I decided to use fresh apple which makes for a really juicy texture, but it would probably work just as well (and keep longer) if you were to use dried apple pieces.
Apple & Raisin Flapjacks
325g butter (Americans: that's 2½ sticks)
220g (1 cup) soft brown sugar
8tbsp (½ cup) golden syrup
750g (7½ cups) oats
1tsp powdered cinnamon
2 large apples
1 cup raisins
- Preheat the oven to 190°C
- Melt the butter, sugar, and golden syrup in a large bowl (quickest way: 4mins on high power in the microwave)
- While the butter is melting, core the apples and chop them into small pieces (approx 1cm square)
- Stir about half of the oats, and the cinnamon, into the melted butter mixture
- Add the chopped apples and the raisins (unsticking any that have stuck together in the packet) and mix thoroughly
- Add the remaining oats and stir until all the oats are coated in butter (i.e. no remaining white patches)
- Line a 25x35cm, deep-sided tray with greaseproof paper, and press the mixture into the tray, smoothing with a spatula to ensure approximately even depth
- Bake for 20 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown
- Allow to cool in the tray until they are set hard enough to cut, then slice up and move to a wire rack to cool
Thursday, 20 May 2010
From time to time, someone gives me an award. In fact, I've had four this month - thank you Elle and Anne-Marie and Mama Hen and Kel!
It's always nice to be recognised, and I'm always thankful when someone thinks of me, but I'm sure a lot of you will recognise that once you've had any particular award once or twice, it's gets harder to get around to passing them along. This has been troubling me for a while, because I'd hate anyone to think I wasn't grateful, and I do want to highlight my favourite bloggers from time to time.
So, inspired by my time in Girlguiding, I've decided to start giving out badges of my very own: Blog Inspiration badges. These are a little bit different to most blog awards, because they're themed, and I'll be coming up with new ones intermittently.
Recipients are under no obligations, but if you'd like to display the badge, please right-click to save a copy. And if you'd like to pass it along, you're very welcome to do that, too - just as long as you come back and tell me who you're nominating so I can check them out.
You all know how much I love to travel, so it makes sense that my first badge would be for Travel Inspiration: a badge for blogs which have inspired me to want to travel to a particular place. I'm giving out three to start off with; more another day.
- Farsighted Fly Girl, a writer from the Carribean who has singlehandedly added loads of places to my "must visit" list, and always has fascinating cultural notes on the places she writes about.
- Dedene at Bienvenue Chez Moi who's living a travel adventure since she moved to France, and is a constant source of interesting information, anecdotes, and observations.
- And last but not least, Travel, Eat, Repeat where Erin describes her travels - and she's managed to sum up in one picture everything that's great about not being office-bound.
Today's second badge is the Recipe Inspiration badge: for blogs which make me want to cook, even more than I always want to cook.
- The first recipient of this badge is Chef E, whose Food ~ Wine ~ Fun blog consistently introduces me to new and exciting combinations of flavours, with inspiration from across the globe.
- The Good Cook, whose gorgeous recipe for lemony baked donuts has permanently cured me of cravings for greasy deep-fried donuts - the baked ones are so much nicer.
- And finally, Sala at Veggie Belly always has gorgeous recipes with stunning photos that make my mouth water.
Watch this space for new badges in future!
Since I was working on these, I thought I'd also address a related issue. A few people have asked me whether I have a "button" for my blog - I didn't, but now I do, so if you're someone who 'does' buttons and you'd like to feature mine, you're very welcome to use this code:
|<a href="http://blog.rachelcotterill.com" title="Rachel Cotterill"><img src="http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4013/4561639462_fe96b3ce6c_o.jpg" width="150" height="150" alt="Rachel Cotterill" /></a>|
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
I wonder how many books are released on any given day? I don't know but I'm guessing lots, and most of them pass me by. However, I do know of one which is hitting the shelves today - Aidan Donnelley Rowley's debut novel Life After Yes.
I got to know Aidan through her fantastic blog over at Ivy League Insecurities, where she writes about her life as a writer and as a mother to two adorable girls. She's a witty writer with a unique blogging style, so I'm excited to see how she tackles fiction. And because she's also thoroughly lovely, Aidan has sent me an advance copy of her book - the first time I've had a book in my hands before it's even officially published!
I know that many of my readers are also writers themselves, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to ask Aidan a few questions about her experiences of the writing and publishing process. I wish we'd been able to sit down over coffee and conduct a proper interview, but as she lives in Manhattan and I live in England, it wasn't to be this time. Nevertheless, the marvels of modern technology allow me to introduce you to Aidan as her first novel is released.
Hi Aidan, welcome to my blog. Not everyone will be familiar with the premise of Life After Yes (though I recommend my readers to go and read about it), so can you give us a feel for the book in 10 words?
A modern tale of life, love, and loss in chaos.
You describe this as your first novel, but is it the first book you started to write, or do you have some uncompleted drafts knocking around?
Life After Yes is indeed the first book I set out to write. I started it immediately after leaving my job at the law firm and took my time with it. During the writing and editing process, I enrolled in many online writing courses that proved immensely helpful. I also welcomed my two young daughters and lost my father during this period, so there were many stretches of time when writing couldn’t be my first priority.
I'm impressed - you're so much more focused than I am! At what point whilst writing Life After Yes did you realise that yes, actually, this book was going to get finished and be publishable?
I always knew that I would finish Life After Yes because I believed in the story and wanted to see it to completion – whether it would end up on my own bookshelves or those of bookstores. The question of publication is a different matter entirely. It was not until I got the call from my agent saying that we had an offer from a great editor that I began to believe. Holding my own book in my own hands made me realize that this is happening. Frankly – and I write these words three days before pub day – this is really just now becoming real to me.
Speaking of publication, how did you get your publishing deal? How many rejection slips did you collect along the way?
Once I had a very polished draft of Life After Yes, I began researching agents. I read listings online and in books. I literally told everyone I encountered that I was looking to publish my novel. Just talking to people unearthed helpful advice. I spent time crafting a good query letter. I followed up on each and every lead, however tenuous, sent blind and non-blind queries and received probably ten or so rejections. Ultimately, I found my agent through a recommendation from my father’s college buddy’s law partner’s wife. (Hard to follow, I know!) After I signed with my agent, we worked for a few months to edit my manuscript. My agent started reaching out to publishers in November and I was thrilled to have a publishing deal before Christmas. I feel very lucky that this all happened relatively fast as far as these things go.
It's an utterly cliched question, but I have to ask it: you and your main character are both young lawyers who change direction. Are there elements of autobiography in the novel?
There are certainly bits and pieces of me scattered throughout Life After Yes, but I am not the protagonist and the story isn’t autobiographical. Ultimately, I chose to write about a lawyer because I had spent some time at a law firm and the world of Manhattan corporate law was one I felt I could describe vividly, but the truth is that the main character could have been a banker or consultant or any other type of professional and it wouldn’t have affected the arc or essence of the story. I also felt strongly about exploring how the tragedy of 9/11 forced so many of us to wake up and confront impossible existential questions about life and love, career and commitment.
Your book should be on the shelves by the time I publish this interview, so what comes next? Any works in progress?
Indeed there are many works in progress… The two I’m most proud of are my sweet little girls. Once the publication mayhem subsides, I hope to spend tons of time with them, soaking up the sun and their silly smiles. There is also my blog Ivy League Insecurities, a place through which I’ve had the privilege of connecting with wonderful writers and people like you Rachel. I hope ILI continues to grow and evolve. Finally, I am working on my next two novels. (Out of indecision rather than any belief in simultaneous drafting!) More recently, I have been bombarded with questions about whether or not there will be a sequel to Life After Yes and it certainly has me thinking… Never say never!
Thanks so much, Rachel, for giving me this opportunity to answer your thoughtful questions and talk a bit about my rookie novel Life After Yes. I am a big fan of your blog and your writing, so I am thrilled to be here today.
Thank you, Aidan. And thanks again for the book - I've only just started to read it, but I'm enjoying it so far. I hope you squeeze every ounce of excitement from this super-special day.
Sunday, 16 May 2010
I went sailing for the first time last summer and loved it, but you know how these things go - life got in the way, and before I knew it, it was the 'off' season and I hadn't gone back to practise what I'd learnt. Well, now it's summer again, and yesterday we took advantage of the beautiful weather to go across to our friends' sailing club again and have another go.
It was a busy day on the river: there were a couple of races taking place at the sailing club, and we were overtaken by a handful of narrowboats and motor boats, too. Apparently a narrowboat is just another obstacle to avoid if you're racing on the river - as is a non-racing boat such as we were in.
I quite fancy learning to sail one of the little one-man racing boats, one day. It would be a bit different to have to do every job simultaneously - challenging, but fun, I think. However, being part of a four-man crew at least gives me chance to document everything with photographs - all from my old (waterproof) camera, for obvious reasons!
As some of you have already noticed, I've set up a new Facebook Page - if you use Facebook, please consider dropping in and hitting the 'Like' button.
Friday, 14 May 2010
At the weekend we went to walk up Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales. I remember going up this particular hill on a school trip, many years ago - but we walked up the easy (boring) way. This time we took a more interesting route to the top.
Pen-y-ghent is one of the Yorkshire "Three Peaks" - we seem to like grouping things in threes around here (there's more than one set of "Three Peaks" in the country) and there's a walk you can do that takes in all three, in twelve hours. My dad did it last year, and I'd quite like to have a go sometime, but for now, one is quite enough.
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Come in, pull up a chair. The kettle's always on and I just made cookies! You'll just have to excuse me for a moment while I squeal with excitement beause it's my SITS day!
As any of my regular readers will tell you, I'm interested in pretty much everything - which makes it hard to sum myself up in just three posts! But for you, I'll try.
|I'm addicted to travel. We often end up holidaying in somewhat obscure places and Snow, Hiking, and Fear tells the story of a recent - somewhat terrifying - hike in the spectacular Faroe Islands.|
|Looking a bit further back in my archives, Me, Art, and 41,000 LEDs is a post which combines my experience of art, my learning of photography, and my appreciation of all things geeky.|
|And finally, this is clearly cheating, but the list of things I want to achieve by the age of 30 should give you a good impression of the variety in my life, from writing and crafts to household tasks. (Come back on July 6th for a progress report.)|
You might also like to check out the 'Themes' links at the top of my sidebar, for an overview of the kinds of things I tend to write about. Take a good look around; I'd be amazed if we don't have something in common.
I promise to come and return your visit as soon as I can - but I know how many visits a SITS day can generate, so please be patient with me!
Monday, 10 May 2010
I can't remember whether I've mentioned that I used to be a baker in a small cafe. In case I didn't (or you missed it), I spent almost a year of my life devising recipes and baking for my living. It was a delicious, if not terribly healthy, job. Despite long shifts and antisocial hours sometimes, I loved it.
Cookies were always one of my specialities - nothing sells faster than fresh cookies, especially when you bring a baking tray straight up from the oven and into the cafe. Plus they're great fun to make, and you can generate an almost infinite variety of flavours from one basic recipe.
I made this batch for a 'bring and share' picnic lunch with friends - one of my favourite ways to socialise, especially with foodie friends, since you never know quite what you're going to end up with.
Peanut Butter & Chocolate Cookies
Makes 20-30 cookies
3 cups (500g) white flour
2/3 cup (180g) white sugar
1 cup (170g) soft brown sugar
1tsp baking powder
1tsp vanilla essence
250g butter, melted
1 cup (200g) chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter
- Preheat the oven to 160°C.
- Mix the flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl.
- Add the melted butter, vanilla essence, and eggs. Stir and knead until all combined into a thick dough.
- Add the chocolate and peanut butter, and knead into the dough.
- Form into small balls, arrange on a greased baking sheet, and press gently to flatten. Make sure to leave enough space around each cookie, as they will spread to approximately double the size as they cook.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes (until golden brown), then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Saturday, 8 May 2010
This is quite long, so if politics bores you, please feel free to skip this post - come back on Monday for a yummy cookie recipe instead!
You're still here? Okay. Let's start with a recap of the past couple of days.
On Thursday, the UK went to the polls in a General Election. I went to vote at 7am (as soon as polling opened), spent most of the day writing Java code (just like any other day), and then went to a friend's house to spend the evening/night/morning watching the results.
The surprise news story of Election Day was the people who were left queueing outside at 10pm when the polls closed, and were turned away without getting chance to vote. I've never known anything like this before, and it provided a suitably dramatic backdrop as the results trickled in.
The first announcement came just before 11pm, and I managed to stay awake until 4.30am to hear that there was a new Conservative MP in my home constituency. My husband didn't go to bed at all.
By the time the final constituency finally announced their result on Friday afternoon, it was clear that no single party has managed to take a majority of the seats. (We knew this might happen.) For the first time since 1974, we had the much-anticipated 'hung parliament'.
So, what happens now? That Evita song is stuck in my head, because "another suitcase in another hall" is quite appropriate - the big question on everyone's minds is whether Gordon Brown stays in Number 10. By virtue of being the current Prime Minsiter, Gordon Brown gets the first chance: he stays as Prime Minister for the time being, and unless he resigns, the Queen will invite him to form a Government.
(Note for my American readers: anything the Queen does in this circumstance is dictated by convention, she doesn't just get a free choice of who's in charge.)
Mr Brown could try to form a Government either by attempting a minority government (a risky strategy), or by forming a coalition that can command a majority in Parliament. If he doesn't think he can do either of these, he will step down as Prime Minister, and the Queen will invite someone else to try to form a Government. In this case, that invitation would be extended to David Cameron (leader of the Conservative party); the general rule is that it should be whoever has the greatest chance of forming a successful Government. Cameron would then have the same options: a minority government, or a coalition.
In reality, discussions have already started, and there are a few possibilities in the coalition space. Our host for the election night party had created a number of coalition-themed cocktails, made with mixtures of appropriately coloured ingredients - and that's sort of how it all feels right now.
There are 650 seats in the House of Commons, requiring a majority of 326. The current numbers of MPs, and their respective shares of the vote, are as follows:
Of course if the Conservative and Labour parties got together, they could command a crushing majority - but that's incredibly unlikely to happen.
Once the current situation became apparent, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that the Conservatives (as the party with most seats and most votes) should have the first opportunity to form a Government - so the Conservatives and Lib Dems are currently in talks. Their combined 363 seats (306 + 57) would be more than enough for a stable majority.
Those two possibilities (the unlikely Conservative+Labour, and the currently-under-discussion Conservative+LibDem) are the only two-party options that have enough votes to form a majority without involving smaller parties.
If it was down to me (which it's clearly not) I'd be looking to form a short-term alliance to deal with the current financial situation and settle the markets, while leaving all the less-pressing issues on the table for later discussion. But this is politics, and reaching any kind of consensus is never simple.
If Labour wants to form a coalition, even with the Liberal Democrats on board (and it's not guaranteed they could get this), they would need an extra 11 seats from some of the smaller parties to have a majority.
On the other hand, if the Conservatives could find 19 seats from the smaller parties and independent candidates, they could form a coalition even without Lib Dem support.
If no group of parties can form a comfortable coalition, and minority governments look sure to crumble, then they could go back to the Queen and ask for another dissolution (i.e. another election). But would anyone in the UK vote differently in light of their local results...? I wouldn't, but maybe some supporters of minor parties, in marginal constituencies, would be persuaded to change their vote.
The only thing that's really clear is that we live in interesting times right now...
Heartfelt thanks if you read this far. If you have any questions about the process, I'd be more than happy to try and clarify.
Thursday, 6 May 2010
If you're one of my British readers, you've probably already voted. (If you haven't yet - please don't forget before the polls close at 10pm!) On the other hand, for my many overseas readers, it's possible that the details of the UK General Election have completely passed you by.
I don't generally talk about politics on this blog, and I'm not really about to start - I'm certainly not going to tell you who I'm voting for - but I've noticed something interesting this year that I wanted to explore.
You see, it's the first election in recent times (certainly the first one in my adult life) where the pundits and journalists are talking seriously about the possibility of a hung parliament.
One consequence of this is that a lot more coverage and air-time is being devoted to the parties who might be instrumental in forming a coalition. In the last couple of elections where I've voted, the newspapers and radio have really only talked about Labour (the present government) and Conservatives (the Opposition). Now they're giving equal time to the Liberal Democrats, and some level of coverage to a number of smaller parties.
I can't help wondering if a hung parliament might become a self-fulfilling prophecy at this rate. The more it's talked about, the more coverage is given to minor parties - and (one might reasonably assume) greater exposure might make it more likely that people vote for them. Also, there's a common perception in some circles that a vote for a minor party is a vote "wasted" - but if the media are taking the idea of a hung parliament seriously, this perception may be diluted enough to influence voter behaviour.
From a linguistic perspective, another interesting fact is that the televised debates (the first time we've had these in the UK!) are being referred to as the "Prime Ministerial Debates" - with a striking implication that here are the three men who could be Prime Minister. And the debates have featured not just the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties, but also the Liberal Democrat leader.
One way or another, this is going to be a very interesting night. Some of my friends are having a party, so I'll be doing my best to stay up for a result; follow me on Twitter to see whether I make it through to morning!
This is a non-partisan blog. Please refrain from party-political comments.
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
Our neighbourhood badger has been coming back every night. We've been trying to get him used to us and, more importantly, used to the flash of the camera. He comes so close to the house, and will look straight at us through the window. The first couple of times we took photos, he jumped up in the air and ran away, but he's getting the hang of it now.
In fact, we later discovered that there are two badgers visiting our garden. The second one follows a few steps behind, is considerably more shy, and a little smaller. I hope they're a couple; baby badgers would be an incredible sight. I haven't yet managed to get a photo of them both together, because Badger 2 is so shy. But at least we've got a couple of reasonably clear pictures.
Sunday, 2 May 2010
Far be it from me to claim to be an expert blogger. I know I'm not. But I've noticed a couple of things which seem to be widely missed, so I thought that I'd publish a (very) occasional series of quick tips in the hope that this might help one or two of my readers.
First up: displaying blogs on your Blogger profile.
You can choose which blogs are displayed on your profile. Many users (and ex-users) of Blogspot/Blogger seem to miss this tiny piece of customisation. If you move to a new blog address, if you leave Blogspot for (say) Wordpress, or if you're part of a private blog, you can tell your profile not to display links to these old, disused, or private blogs.
- Go to your Blogspot dashboard.
- Click on the 'Edit Profile' link beneath your photo.
- Around the fourth line, there's an option called 'Show my blogs', with a linkSelect blogs to display. Click it.
- Remove ticks next to any blogs which shouldn't be displayed publicly (e.g. blogs you don't use any more, or which are invitation-only).
In other news, I'm due to be featured on tomorrow's Meet'n'Greet Monday over at Midday Escapades. If you're not already familiar with Lynn's blog, you should definitely go and visit her, she's lovely.