When I was a little girl I was thrilled when I found in my books colourful illustrations of foreign lands, even when they where imaginary ones.
I used to spend a long time looking carefully at all the details that those maps contained, divisions between lands, between the earth and the skies, between the skies and the oceans and among all the oceans that covered the known land and the ship routs to reach them.
Those maps took my mind travelling miles away and keep it there for a long time.
As I grew up, I started to enjoy those fantastic Atlas full of old legends and legendary creatures.
And just a few years later, I made a habit of looking up any new place that appeared in the books I was reading back then. So, a Globe and an illustrated dictionary were always at hand. I just couldn’t let it pass, I had to know exactly where those places were!
Nowadays, technology has given us the huge advantage of the Internet, with which looking up places is really fast, the same as getting several maps of any given destination when a trip is coming soon.
The Internet has become a great travelling tool. And, as I always say ‘a map will set you free‘, so to me is quite normal to read as many maps as possible of my new destination and then, with all that information in my head, I just give myself the wonderful chance to wander around without getting lost.
But even with all these wonderful advantages, I always melt when I see an old map.
This is way I got so so happy when I came across the amazing David Rumsey Map Collection. A website that let visitors find thousands of maps, divided in different categories.
These maps are not only beautiful, but also full of information, so much that a whole vacation could be completed without leaving home, only with the unique power of very detailed illustrations and descriptions, and the immense power of the imagination.
The historic city of Bruges is located on the western side of Belgium in the Flemish Region and, in my mind, can only be described as achingly beautiful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient buildings are surrounded by cobbled streets, alongside the tall slim houses which line the canals that snake through the city centre.
With a climate very similar to England, we were treated to beautiful sunshine during our stay last weekend which undoubtedly added to our enjoyment, however I think there is little not to enjoy about Bruges. It’s not only pretty, but also one of the friendliest cities I have visited. The small Hotel Alegria where we stayed was perfectly located in the centre and the owner, Veronique, couldn’t do enough to cater for our every need, without being intrusive.
There’s a number of different options to travel to Bruges from the UK; I guess it rather depends on where you are travelling from. This time we opted for the Eurotunnel which we picked up at Folkstone and found to be not only inexpensive, but also enormously efficient. It seems that if you arrive early, you can board an earlier train within a two hour slot of your booking for no extra charge, and the boarding and disembarking are effortless, as are the drive through France and into Belgium. From our home in Northamptonshire, the whole journey took us a little over five hours door to door.
There are a plethora of different trips to take and places to visit when you arrive in the city. Cars are rarer than in other cities, making it softer and more tranquil, as most people appear to travel around by bike. A canal trip is beautiful and relatively inexpensive, especially when it includes an overview of the city’s rich history. Climbing the 366 steps to the top of the medieval Belfry that dominates Bruges skyline can be tough on the knees and a little scary in places (especially if you have a husband with a heart condition!), but the view at the top is breathtaking and well worth the hike. A trip around the back streets by horse and carriage is another wonderful way to move around, and particularly romantic on a balmy evening. There is also the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is worth visiting for the stained glass windows alone, and if you are religious, amongst its relics, it claims to have a phial of the blood of Christ that you can view.
As one would expect, Bruges is packed with restaurants, cafes and outdoor eateries; lovely boutiques, and delicious chocolatiers. Of course we tried the chocolate (I can recommend Julie’s if anyone is looking for somewhere particularly nice), sampled the fresh waffles, and bought frites from the stall in the square. But those of you that know me well, will know that I’m a bit of a foodie (my daughter’s influence) and I really wanted to try some of their high end restaurants too. We enjoyed an amazing meal at Brasserie Raymond where we tried delicacies such as snails, marrowbone and bouillabaisse. We also ate lobster and moules (mussels) at the wonderful Breydel-De Coninc, somewhere I’m told the locals frequent. Main courses at these two restaurants average 20-30 Euros each, but are definitely worth it if you want to try something different, however the choice of eateries, and cheap ones at that, is vast and there is practically something available for every taste and pocket. My only regret was that due to being on medication I wasn’t able to sample the many beers that Belguim has to offer, although my husband made sure he didn’t let the side down on that count!
Surprisingly small (my husband joked that everything was within fifteen minutes walking distance from the city centre), Bruges is easily accessible on foot and a wander up the back streets, passing street markets, soaking up the ambience and sitting outside cafes is what it’s all about. On one particular evening, we sat near a market stall and, after chatting with the stallholder, she asked me to mind her stall while she popped to the ladies. At the same café, a bunch of musicians stopped by for a beer and pulled out their guitars. When they discovered my husband was also a keen guitarist, they leant him an instrument and they all played some tunes together. That evening summed up Bruges for me: good food and good company amongst beautiful surroundings. I should add that many of the locals speak up to five languages fluently, so communication is rarely a problem!
I’ll definitely go back to Bruges. Next time I’d like to take a boat trip to visit the nearby village of Damme and perhaps visit the Flanders Battlefields of Ypres too. There is just so much to do in and around this wonderful city.
*All images courtesy of Jane Isaac
** This article was originally published on Jane Isaac’s Blog
So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …
Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).
But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.
It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.
Cigarettes and coffee
He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.
Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.
Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”
Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.
Look Ma, I’m a writer
To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.
And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5″ with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.
Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”
Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).
This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.
Art is theft
But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.
“So!” you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.