Spring Writing

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Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live in a coastal city with the sea only steps away. It is something I longed for as a child and although I long for more sun as an adult, the west coast archipelago of Sweden is undoubtedly something to be treasured.

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Its riches for me come in the form of stories. How easy it is to set the imagination adrift whilst sitting on the rocky shore gathering a hot cup of tea into my hands. Those beaches of rock, more like walruses lazing about after a good meal! The blustery winds that catch my breath until it all settles once again. The sunset of surprising colours!

IMG_3804I’ve been working on story ideas for my new novel while my latest work of fiction is out there trying to find its way across the North Sea. My hope is that it will settle into the right hands so that one day readers will be taken away to 1917 maritime Canada and a lost girl from the Borough of Lambeth during WWII, yet still be connected to the present. Three storylines weave in and out of each other like tapestry woven over generations—each silk thread knotted until the next colour is introduced. When you step back, the whole picture is revealed.

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My new novel will also be set in a few places, rugged in their geography (by the sea, of course) and historical. I’ve been debating whether to bring Scandinavia into this one in some form, since I have lived here for nearly twenty years and know it rather well. The possibilities are intriguing to me.

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Yet as I watch two (skator) magpies building a nest in my raggedy old apple tree, those possibilities become clearer. I am fascinated by the birds’ ingenuity, vision and communication skills. They’re not bothered by the dreary weather today. They do what they need to do to get the job done. They targeted my apple tree, my ugly yet beloved tree in which my children’s swing still hangs beneath and decided that it would be the perfect home for a new baby. So, I shall go to the seaside for my cup of tea where my inspiration lies, build my new story and make it a home.

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Wishing you a happy spring with wonderful reading and writing!

Susan

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A Source of Inspiration

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I’m afraid Nicholas Sparks was teasing when he said that he grew an idea tree in his garden. Ideas can be painful to conceive yet plentiful if you know where to look. They all start with inspiration. The question is, what inspires you? More to the point, how do you get inspired to start your next project as a writer when your last is sitting in the hands of fate? Yes, nature is inspiring. The sun certainly has a profound affect on me, my energy, my enthusiasm, my drive. Likewise the sea.

But it’s those dreary days of grey on grey as the Scandinavian autumn darkness swells into the landscape that I find inspiration elsewhere – mainly through people. Over the last couple of years, perhaps none has inspired me more than artist, Danielle van Schooneveld. I’ve known Danielle for years but never knew the talent she possessed, the talent she was harnessing quietly in her own way, in her own time.   Perhaps I’ve been living in a box until now, not realizing that she’s been painting all along, the way I have been writing all these years, but only recently sharing my work and taking risks.
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Danielle has clearly worked hard to achieve the success that is now gracing her life—an art degree, exhibitions and churning out one painting after another. Though I watch this rise in her career from afar (since we are living in different countries), and celebrate her achievement through social media along with all of her friends, I feel directly affected by her work. I have always been partial to paintings of children and have a number of framed Nancy Noel prints from years past.

I am not an art critic. All I can express is how Danielle’s work affects me. Apart from the obvious, her incredible talent, how thoughtful her portraits are, her portrayal of people, there is something calming in her work, something raw. Perhaps it’s her use of colour. Perhaps it’s in knowing the calm, elegant person that Danielle is. What she achieves is not only a breathtaking finished product, but making one see the value of persistence, the importance of honing one’s talents and driving them forward to create a more fulfilling life.

danielle6As a writer, I can see a story begin to unravel as I look at her paintings. They cannot help but intrigue me. In the top painting, at least five stories scramble over each other to get my attention. A slew of questions instantly formulates. What is the little girl looking at? Her reflection? A fish? Something glittery caught between two rocks under the surface? How did it get there? What is it? Did she drop it? Was it her mother’s? Where is her mother? Is she still alive? Are the girls sisters? Twins perhaps? The questions and answers can grow dark, mysterious or be the seed to a loving, family saga. What the painting affords a writer is possibility. Regardless of the artist’s intention or what inspired the painting, everyone is likely to see something different. The feelings generated are likely to vary as well. In any case, Danielle’s painting above provides a starting point. It is incredible how quickly a web of ideas grows based on that starting point or seed. For that, I am grateful. SONY DSC

All the pieces seem to be fitting together nicely for Danielle, but while traveling the creative road myself, especially the last couple of years, I am under no disillusionment that it’s been a smooth ride. The painstaking work involved in creating her pieces, accompanied by the skill needed to market oneself in this incredibly competitive world and the uncertainties it bestows, requires agility, thick skin and exceptional talent. Danielle possesses these qualities and is carving out her future one painting at a time. I am excited to see where it heads.

In the meantime, if she doesn’t mind, I will use Danielle as a source of inspiration while delving into my next project. Sometimes all a writer needs is a painting.

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Please visit Danielle:

Website http://www.kunstinzicht.nl/portfolio/werk/daniellevanschooneveld/index.html

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/daniellevanschooneveld

Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/dvanschooneveld/

Isle of Mull, Scotland – Sometimes Words are not Enough

A sure fire way to get the inspiration you need – just go there!

For months, I had been trying to sort out the ending to my new novel.  Forcing it was clearly not working.  It needed to come naturally, in its own time, at its own pace.  What I needed was a change of scenery and though the Isle of Mull is only a memory in my novel, it has proven to be worth all the words in the world to me.

Staying in a remote area on the mainland this past week, with the sea in my garden and the highlands wrapped around me, I was able to soak in this magical place.  Just across the water was the Isle of Mull and it was in my two day trips there by ferry that inspired my writing – the ending that I needed.  Here are some of the photos I took on the west coast of Scotland and Isle of Mull.  Indeed, sometimes words are not enough.

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Honouring Our Creative Selves

I found myself at a dinner party last night talking to two very creative men. One who has followed his artistic passion and developed an outstanding career in exterior car design. The other is a physician, whose personal passion lies in music and has submitted several of his songs to Melodifestivalen over the years. The conversation drew me back to my earliest passion and made me question, Where did that little girl go?

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From as early as I can remember, I was drawing floor plans. Not just a handful of floor plans, but reams and reams of floor plans. They were stuffed in draws and under the bed. I sat in front of the television drawing floor plans. I drew floor plans on rainy days at the cottage. Floor plans were part of my every day life at a ripe old age of eight or younger. I simply cannot remember. Paper was always needed and well used. I was building floor plans with books for my Barbies to live in, filling the basement floor, always changing the design. At eleven years old, I submitted my first project at school on architecture and started designing corporate building floor plans. In high school, I took drafting, a year-long project that culminated in my first completed house design, model and all and ready for building.

So what happened? I know that rowing dominated my time through my teens and early twenties and satisfied all of those worldly dreams that crept into my life the more I competed. I was hooked. I loved crossing the finish line first. Rowing was an addiction and I couldn’t get enough of it. Yet a little further past the finish line, beyond the stands and well into the forgotten banks down river, if I squinted just so, I could still see my little creative self cheering me on.

She’s still there, a little weathered perhaps from popping out of the reeds for visits over the years, but she’s there.

Through my career in teaching, I’ve always done my best to tap into my creative side in the hope of bringing out those unique nuances that make each student special. Despite the intrinsic rewards of helping to develop others’ creativity, a part of me yearned for more, to be true to that side of me that was born creative. I wanted no boundaries, or at least as few as possible. I wanted the vision that I’d dreamed of as a little architect in the making. I was a designer then. Looking back over the years, I realize I’ve always been one. I just wanted to be fully creative again. But did it have to be in designing buildings?

Our creative selves might manifest in unexpected ways throughout our careers and personal lives, but they need to be honoured and given a chance. It is creating something from nothing that can give us some of the greatest joy in life. Where would this world be without music and art after all? Whatever steers us in another direction, I believe a part of us will always want to find that forgotten or neglected path again. It will nag us until we do something about it. For those who wait until it is too late, I am certain regret is painful. I believe we need to listen to that little person we were once, tugging at our sleeve.

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At university, I wrote a children’s book on the side and showed one of my professors. Her words have never escaped me. “You should do something with this one day,” she said. It was her earnest expression that triggered something inside me. She was the first person to validate my writing apart from my high school German teacher who was apparently taken aback when I translated and illustrated The Night Before Christmas for fun. But alas, this story was my design, my creation and there was something remarkable in that realization—that I could write.

I had always enjoyed talking. Anyone who knows me knows this well. Then something grew in the sweet storytelling after I tucked my children in bed at night. I reveled in the stories. They would choose the characters and setting and I would create a story, every night for years, a different story for each of our two children. Soon that rolled into writing down stories on my own then reading those stories to them. Stories were coming out of the woodwork and the kids couldn’t get enough of them. I adore those memories. Now they’ve grown up, young adults in the making.

The designer in me is adjusting to those life changes as I write novels now, creating something again from nothing. Only that nothing is far from empty. I am one of the lucky ones to have grown creatively, even though I couldn’t see it fully at the time. It is through all of these life experiences that I have built a foundation on which to generate new stories. A close-knit family, friends, travel and education have all played a role in keeping that little creative me cheering from the riverbank.

I may not design houses for a living, but I’m finally giving my creative me a voice. I am a writer. I am a storyteller. It took me many years to believe that was true, many, many stories to believe in myself as a writer. I’m thrilled to be nearing the final leg of a new novel, at least the first draft. Honouring the commitment I made to writing this novel is precisely the reason I haven’t posted recently on my blog.  At first I felt guilty about that, until I not only saw how much more productive I had become, I felt better about myself and my work.

It’s not the end of the world if we acknowledge our creative selves later in life, having built a career in another field altogether. Once we do, though, once we let it out the gates, free to run as it will, be prepared for a never-ending journey, but one that feels right. If we don’t honour our creative selves, our lives become a series of short breaths. And don’t most of us really want to breathe deeply, and take in life to its fullest?

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The Far Reach of Conferences for Writers Abroad

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Year after year, there is a frustration that slips under my skin living abroad with no redeeming qualities—the distance between me and the English writing world. I nearly considered the internet as a redeeming quality, but in the case of English writers’ conferences, they are still far out of reach for most of us who live in a non-English country. Case in point, the awards galas for which I am a finalist in historical fiction are held at conferences not just in the United States, but on the other side of the US, about three times closer to Hawaii than to Sweden (where I live). I can understand anyone who chooses to shrug their shoulders at such a predicament. But for those of us who live abroad, it is no shrugging matter. Yes, it was our choice to live where we live and yes, all that could be changed with just one move. Rarely is it that simple, however, at least not when you have a family to consider. query

At what point do we put our writing first? The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley is my first book published and let me say, it hasn’t been an easy writing road with manuscripts dangling from cobwebs within the crevices of my laptop. They served a grand purpose by improving my writing to the point where agents and finally a publisher took notice. Polished and gleaming, it was released into the book world nearly one year ago, along with the thousands of other books out there. Never for a moment did I think it would get noticed and pulled from the crowd as a contender in any competition. I believe all writers hope for it, but when it actually happened, when I received notification from my publisher on all four competitions, as Gillian would say, “You could have tipped me over with a guinea pig’s whiskers.”

So my predicament lingers—my debut novel is being recognized in such an unexpected way and I likely cannot be there. Even though the outcome of any of these competitions isn’t what would drive me to go, the fact that my writing is being validated and recognized publicly, that someone has seen its value and appreciated my hard work, means more than I can possibly say. hns-oxford-2016-small-white-border

Most writers need to pick and choose which writers’ functions they can attend, so I am no exception in that regard. In fairness, there is a selection of conferences and writers’ retreats throughout Europe, eg. Iceland Writers Retreat coming up in mid April and the Historical Novel Society Conference in early September.

It’s simply that the frustration under my skin seems to have bubbled up this time, for the sole reason a novel I gave so much of myself to, a story I grew to love as each page was written, is being recognized and I may not be there to support it. On the bright side, the best side actually, is that it was shortlisted and made a finalist at all. So whether I attend or not, I will forever be grateful and honoured.

If you feel like you are the only English writer living in a non-English country, I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

 

Novel Setting vs. Writer Personality

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Everyone knows the right setting can anchor a novel and its characters, don’t they? If you have intimate knowledge of a place, the story will be richer, right?

I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps a better question to ask is, how does the setting make an author feel as he/she writes? In other words, how does the author connect with the setting emotionally regardless of whether or not he/she has intimate knowledge of the place?

Recently, I read a very good post in Women’s Fiction Writers written by Yona Zeldis McDonough titled, A Sense of Place.  In her view, the setting of a book can function very much like a character. I couldn’t agree more. She writes;

“To make that “character” come alive, you have to know it well—the sights, sounds and smells of a place, the nuances of the neighborhoods, the landmarks and the hidden spots that are off-the-beaten track.”

When I read this, I immediately knew exactly what she was saying. I understood those nuances, the smells and how they made me feel. Yet I can’t help but wonder how a character in a book comes into being. We might have an idea of their personality before that character is written. Perhaps we model the character after someone we know in our lives. Even if that’s the case, characters tend to evolve as we write the story. Their layers begin to unfold, often surprising writers. At least they do me. When I think I know them well, they turn a corner on me and something changes. Sometimes that change is minor and sometimes it can shift the storyline completely.

We don’t always know our characters thoroughly and intimately. We don’t always know their nooks and crannies until we discover them through our writing. Can that not be said of our setting as well?

For me, personality, my personality comes into play here. Over the last half year, I have struggled with the issue of setting for my current novel. I knew that I wanted the story to encompass Canada and England. I have been drawn to the east coast of Canada since I was a child but have never actually been there. Of course, growing up in Canada, I was familiar with all the provinces. Prince Edward Island has always been on my to-do list and I was convinced that I should write a story that took place there. I’ve read countless books about PEI. Of course, Anne of Green Gables has special meaning, being set in a time period I love, in a place that I’ve imagined many times over, and a story revolving around the life of children. Being a teacher, I can relate intimately to all the bits and pieces of children that make such a story magical.

There are parts of the history of Prince Edward Island that I knew I wanted to encompass in my story, but the more I researched the more I started to see how the Maritime Provinces connected. In ways, a shared struggle and hardship they have endured through history and specifically in the time period of my novel. As I researched, I became more drawn to Newfoundland than I had expected. The pull was something I couldn’t ignore, leaving PEI ever so slightly in its wake. The idea of shifting my story to another province seemed altogether crazy, but somehow the idea grew on me. Fortunately, I was early enough into the writing to begin to play with the idea.

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As I began, there was a nagging question that hadn’t been answered. Why? Why did I feel pulled toward Newfoundland? Why didn’t I want to set my story in PEI like I had planned? When I read Zeldis McDonough’s post, I had agree with everything she wrote. Of course, you should know your setting intimately. But hold on! There is something I know intimately, and that’s myself. I know what inspires me. I know what makes me tick as a person and as a writer. I know what makes me feel passionate. I know what makes me feel alive and driven.

When I wrote The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, and learned that there were internment camps on the Isle of Man during WW2, I knew I needed to investigate this, since my gut feeling told me this would be the perfect setting for my character. What I found was something altogether unexpected. I was pulled there, to this small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. I was spellbound. All of this from pictures and books and copious research. I wrote that novel having never stepped foot on the Isle of Man, yet I felt a passion for it that was inexplicable. I knew, however, that I couldn’t release the book into the world without having been there. I wanted… No, I needed to prove to myself that those nuances and smells and feelings were real to me. Did I connect with the real island or was it all in my imagination?

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What I found was something quite remarkable. When I arrived on the Isle of Man for the first time, during the editing process of my book, immediately, it felt as though I was coming home in ways. I felt instantly as though I knew the island intimately. I realized that through my research and writing, the character that the island had become in my novel had developed and grown. I had nurtured it and when it was time to meet the Isle of Man for the first time, it was as though I had met my twin, separated from birth but joined later in life. As I turned corners on the island, I knew what was there. Somehow I knew what to expect. I actually saw Gillian Pugsley walking down the pier to meet Christian as she does in my story—a ghost-like Gillian. Hard to explain perhaps except to say that it just felt right. IMG_3515

So the question still lingered, why? Why was I drawn to the Isle of Man? And why am I equally as drawn to Newfoundland? Landscape.

There is a similarity between Newfoundland and the British Isles—a rugged, brutish landscape, sensual, almost carnal, particularly the coastline. It is a landscape that makes me feel alive. This kind of beauty evokes feelings that at least this writer needs in order to write with passion and conviction. Prince Edward Island is known as a province with outstanding natural beauty, but the pastoral landscape was not captivating me quite like I thought it would. Strangely or not, the coastline of Newfoundland seems to mimic my personality. I haven’t been there yet I know it, just as I did with the Isle of Man.

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So, isn’t it possible that if our personality resembles a setting, and after a great deal of research, we can as writers become familiar and even intimate with that setting? And if so, isn’t it possible that that setting can grow and function as a character even if we haven’t set foot there except in our imagination? After all, had Lewis Carroll intimate knowledge of his fantasy world of Wonderland prior to writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Probably not. What is likely, however, is that Wonderland mimicked a part of his personality. That can be argued no doubt. But I do tend to believe that personality comes into play when writers choose a setting. I believe some people would describe my personality as vibrant. I know I’m not shy and truth is, I rather like being noticed. I love to smile. I can even say I’m fiery at times. For me to choose a dull, lifeless setting would be a painful writing experience I’m sure.

I’ve always said, “Put me by the sea with crashing waves and I could write a book.” It’s true. My personality comes alive by the sea so why wouldn’t I want a setting there? It reminds me of my on-going love/hate relationship with Sweden. I’ve lived here for nearly two decades. I live ten minutes from the sea. In sunny, warm weather, I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be than floating in a boat in the west coast archipelago. But it’s more or less flat water kept in check by a series of rock islands. It’s truly beautiful when the sun shines but most of the time, the skies are grey and as drizzle fills the air, the water and islands sit lifeless to me. IMG_3425I know my husband, having grown up here, feels quite the opposite. It is paradise to him. I do understand and appreciate that. But I need movement. We had taken a walk on a small island called Amundön a couple of weeks ago. It was an unusually windy day and the sea was on my side this time. I was in heaven as we sat with a hot cup of tea on the rocks watching the waves crash against the rocks. Just the way I like it.

I don’t think many people would argue that setting is important to a novel, but I am curious if other writers also feel as I do; that a writer’s personality can be a factor in choosing a setting. The wavering I’ve experienced regarding setting with my current novel has finally settled into something that makes sense to me, that makes sense for me. If I feel passionate about my setting then surely it will show in my writing and ultimately draw my readers into the story and captivate them.

How does your setting match your personality?

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Embracing a New Year as a Writer & On Again-off Again Expat

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Typically, a new year brings new resolutions to mind, good intentions but often with little follow-through. The way I approached the New Year, was to reflect on how 2015 unfolded. It was an exciting year of change with a recent move back to Sweden and my debut novel being released in the spring. There is always a honeymoon stage with any change I suspect, and certainly in my case this has proven true. No matter how many moves I make over the years, and there have been a few having lived in six countries, one might think I’d be used to it—the curiosity, the thrill of meeting new people, seeing places you never knew existed or maybe reacquainting yourself with old ties, friends, family. Perhaps the ironic joy in any change is not being used to it whatsoever and maybe that’s why we crave it. Why ironic? Because of the uphill battle to get there.

For the first time, I discovered how moving back to Sweden was very much like the process of releasing my first novel. All the legwork had to be done; applying to schools for my children, selling the house in the U.S., returning to our house in Sweden and finalizing everything with our tenants, banks, taxes, moving company, purchasing new cars, selling the old ones, reconnecting with my school, colleagues, friends and family. All of this while I was in the middle of the publication process with my publisher in the U.S.

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It wasn’t chaotic in any way, mind you, busy, but not chaotic. Each task was handled with care. In the case of my book, several months of editing back and forth with my editor then the production of the book and releasing the ARC (advanced reading/review copy) was thrilling, a tremendous amount of work, but thrilling.

So 2016 arrived. My book was released and we have settled into Swedish life once again. But have we? Or rather have I? Asking myself what worked and what did not, what has been challenging and rewarding and what has not, is important if I am to make 2016 a success, both personally and professionally.

It reminds me of the film, Finding Nemo, when the fish finally escape the dental office in a plastic bag filled with water. After the bag plunges into the sea then bobs on its surface, one fish says, “Now what?”

That’s me in a nutshell. The kids are settled into their schools, the house has been arranged, my husband is busy with work life and back in his familiar, the familiar ring of his own culture and language. Despite the familiarity I have with Sweden, having lived here for many years before our three-year stay in the U.S., it is not really my culture or my language. There is an empty crevice somewhere in all the pandemonium that I sometimes think only people who have lived abroad can understand. No matter how full your life is, it is always there.

My book having been released into the world garners a similar feeling. The hard work, the excitement, the recognition, but now I’m Finding Nemo, “Now what?” It’s been a fantastic learning experience without any doubt, but what worked and what didn’t? That is what I’ve needed to address.

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First and foremost, living in a foreign country that is not English has proven to be tremendously challenging as a debut author. Unless you are well known in the English market, it is very difficult to get exposure in Scandinavia. I had to learn this the hard way by spending countless hours writing emails, making phone calls, meeting bookshop owners and distributors, all in the hope of introducing my English book to a Scandinavian audience. In the process, my writing suffered because I dedicated too much energy and too much time to running up a very slippery slope, one with no end in sight. When I could have spent precious time writing, I spent it marketing. Of course, the latter is important but a book on the horizon is essential. Had I been in an English speaking country, I am as certain as I can be, that I would have garnered different results.

In any case, it was an important lesson learned. I had to ask myself what I wanted most. It was an easy answer. I wanted to write. As a result, I have chosen to arrange my day differently this year. Writing must be my top priority. Emails and social media come only after I’ve written my word quota for the day. As a writer, I need to wake up with my story filling all those wonderful crevices of my imagination. The moment I open an email or check to see how my book might be fairing on Amazon or Goodreads, my story loses a part of me. That’s something I am no longer willing to jeopardize. My story deserves my full attention. So if I have posted fewer blog posts lately, that is precisely the reason.

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Instead, I am spending time wisely, getting to know my new characters and developing a plot that keeps surprising me. I am new to social media and I am still learning how to write—how to write well, how to write creatively, how to write intelligently and with heart. I hope I never stop learning. I am reading more. I’m reading novels by authors who inspire me, like Kate Morton and Susan Meissner. I want to sink into a story and fall in love with the writing, and one day, I hope someone will feel that same way about something I’ve written.

If my reviews are any indication, I know my novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley has touched some readers in a way that I will always treasure. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for these changes in my life. Travel with my family remains a priority to me and I will likely jump at the opportunity to move house and home once again, somewhere sunny where my writing can flourish. 2016 is about setting goals, one of which is to complete my current writing project. Having made a plan for that to happen is key. It’s well under way and it feels great.

A new year brings new challenges to everyone. Embrace change in your life, make a plan and follow it through—writers are no exception, expats are no exception. As tough as it might be, it’s all a grand adventure. Is it not?

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