Why I am getting fed up with online marketplaces

I recently went on a research trip for 11 days taking with me the essentials I needed to record my experiences. These essentials included 2 cameras (in case one broke or got lost), an iPad 2, an Apple keyboard, a Kindle and several plugs and cables. The electronics weighed far more than the few clothes I managed to fit into my mini suitcase and took up a lot of space. As I was staying in low rent hostels for the most part there was nowhere safe to leave the electronics so I ended up lugging them around with me. After a couple of days I got really tired of it. By the end of the trip, I was extremely fed up and had sore shoulders. As I result I figured that I needed to reduce the amount of stuff I took and looked for a more efficient way of recording my travels.

The problem with the different pieces of equipment I own is that each one does at least one job extremely well. For instance, both cameras can take stills and video. The iPad is good for surfing the web and can double as a photo storage device as well as a word processor. The Kindle stores books.

The iPad, I discovered, is too bulky and heavy to really use as an additional camera or camcorder. Also, in the sun it was difficult to see the screen so a lot of my images are a bit hit and miss. The solution, I decided, was to find a cheap 7 inch android tablet which I could use travelling.

I discussed this with a friend whose mother is after a tablet and started doing some research on the internet to find something suitable. This is where I discovered that doing a search for a specific item on both Amazon and ebay is a pain in the butt. Let me explain why.

You launch the marketplace of your choice and type into the search bar exactly what it is you want to find e.g. Kindle Fire. The marketplace’s search engine then searches for all uses of the term in the database and throws it onto the screen. On both Amazon and ebay the search engine did not discriminate between the actual product and various accessories. I tried using old fashioned search delimiters and they did not work. Even worse, on Amazon I could not fast forward several pages but had to keep searching page after page. Eventually, I gave up. I trawled through loads of “time ending soonest” entries which mainly consisted of tablet covers and cables with the odd tablet hiding amongst the detritus.

I gave up and went back to old fashioned stores like Argos, Waterstones and Tesco. Next week I am going to go and investigate the Hudl in my local Tesco. I am expecting the process to be easier than the online marketplace.


In Praise of Dictionaries

When I was a child, we are talking the 1960s here, we had a huge red dictionary. It was housed in the very sturdy card box it had been delivered in and had a deeply embossed cover. Each letter of the alphabet had its own tag so it was easy to find the starter letter of a word. This dictionary was consulted when we were not sure of a word. To along with it we always had the yearly edition of the Pears Cyclopaedia so we could check facts as well. When we went to school we acquired other, smaller and more up-to-date, dictionaries to help with our spellings. I do not regard it as being shameful to look up words.

For the past decade, I have been teaching English to native and non-native students in adult education institutes and rarely do I see students with a dictionary. Sometimes, students will look up words on Google if they have a smart phone but they do not use an online dictionary. In fact, I have often encountered students who do not have the basic skills to look a word up in a dictionary. They do not know the alphabet, cannot work out that they may have to consider not just the first letter of a word but second or third letters also. There is little grasp of the components of the dictionary entry such as headword, pronunciation guide, grammatical element, definition or sample usage. In exams, students often copy down the entire entry rather than the definition of the word. Without vital skills such as looking up spellings or meanings then people cannot improve their reading or writing skills, in my opinion.

The advent of online dictionaries and spell-checkers has not helped the spelling situation. In order to make use of these aids the user needs to have some grasp of the alphabet and phonics of a language. Predicted text does not help the writer if the writer does not know the meanings of the words or how to spell them in the first place. It is the same with spellcheckers. If you have no idea what the word you are trying to write looks like then how can you choose the correct version from the proffered menu?

The event which has lead to these musing is an advertising board for a Cockney food hall in East London (see below). In addition to the Grocer’s Apostrophe and confused use of capitalisation, we have several affronts to the spelling of English.

Cockney Food Offering

Cockney Food Offering

To be honest, if the staff are unable to spell the names of the dishes is there any guarantee that they can read the recipe to prepare them?

I know that in the UK it is the fashion to blame poor parenting skills and “trendy” teaching methods but surely the individual who cannot spell common words shares some responsibility for their own illiteracy.  One can only hope, that new Minister for Education in the Cameron Government brings back the rigorous teaching of English language skills in the nation’s schools.

Walking in the footsteps of your characters

How important is it to walk in the footsteps of your characters, especially if they are based in real time in a real place?

When plotting my novel, Hirve Park, I set many of the scene in places I had already visited and knew reasonably well. I had tramped those streets and taken photos in those place while on holiday. I also made copious use of street plans and the internet to fill in the gaps or to reassure myself that I had got details right. Then, two days ago, I revisited the scene of the opening chapter. I had got many details right but I had forgotten about the wall below Toompea Hill and the car park in the dip to one side of the park. It had also been several years since I had walked up the street to Toompea Hill and had not remembered that it came out right in front of the Parliament and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There is also a viewing platform overlooking the park. Another detail not readily noticeable on maps and which I had forgotten. As a result of the trip, I am now going to have to change some details in the description of the crime scene since that is not a fabrication.

I have also visited three other important locations on this trip in order to see the world through the eyes of my characters. I have a scene in which my two police officers drive all the way from Tallinn to Narva in order to stand at Herman Fortress because they have had a tip off that persons of interest are heading back to Estonia. They POI would be travelling from Ivangorod in Russia, over the Narva Bridge and then into Narva. They would then take the E20 road directly to Tallinn. I watched a few Youtube videos of the area but once I stood there I could see exactly what cops would have seen. Having done the trip I can now envisage some scenes playing out along that road.

At some point, my cop heroes are going to have to take a holiday. Since they are not highly paid they are not going to get far. I imagine, that like most Estonians, they are going to holiday around the Baltics. One of the top domestic holiday spots in Haapsalu, a small seaside resort around 90 km from Tallinn. This area was populated by ethnic Swedes and Baltic Germans until they escaped by boat in 1944, leaving behind the remains of a 19th century tourist centre. It has now been redeveloped and renovated to its former glory and the tourists are back again. I can imagine Jaana and Mart going there for a weekend.

My chief detective hails from Parnu, the Estonian Summer Capital, and would have lived in a wooden house near the centre which is not dissimilar from the one I am sitting in now. I imagine him coming back here for summer holidays and hanging out in the bars in the old town. To get to those bars he would have to walk across the bridge and into Vee. Just like I did yesterday.

So, the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post is that “yes, you do need to walk in the footsteps of your characters in order to properly understand them and where they come from.”

Lydia Koidula 1843-86

It is purely by chance that I have booked into a lodging house on J.V. Jannseni Street in Parnu, Estonia,  on my research trip to Estonai. The street, Jannseni, houses the museum dedicated to the 19th century Estonian poet Lydia Jannsen aka Lydia Koidula.

According to my 2008 edition of the Rough Guide to The Baltic States, Koidula was born in Vandra and the family moved to Parnu in 1850. Her father was a village school teacher who went on to launch the Parnu Courier, which was the first ever Estonian-language weekly newspaper. in 1857.

When Jannsen founded his newspaper in Parnu he was taking part in the national awakening which was intended to bring the Estonian language and culture to the fore. In these times the languages were German and Russian. The country had been ruled by the Baltic German nobles for generations and then the Russian Empire had absorbed it making the traditional language a peasant one. In the 19th century the movement to revive national languages was taking place in both Estonia and Latvia where women poets took the lead in showing how the language could be used in a literary context.

It was Lydia Koidula (the name “Koidula” means “of the dawn” and was an alias) who wrote much of the Perno Postimees when her father went to found the Esti Postimees in Tartu in 1863. She also wrote lyric poems, the first collection of which was published in 1866, and the national song “My Country is My Pride and Joy” which is sung at the end of the annual song festivals in Tallinn. She also wrote the first play ever to be written entirely in the Estonian language, What a Bumpkin!

Downtown there is a monument to Johann Jannsen, showing him reading a copy of his newspaper, outside the offices of the Perno Postimees.  Lydia is remembered by a statue in the shopping parade. Both are remembered in the museum at 37 Jannseni.

What’s your writing routine?

I found this article very interesting. I have no routine whatsoever and write only when I feel like it though I do find that having Scrivener software has made the adhoc approach easier. The main thing for me is that my writing space be free of clutter.


Do you have a routine for writing? A way of doing it which has become habit and which you know will get the best out of you? I was thinking about this having read a recent article on the subject.

Many famous writers seem to have these habits. I think the reason is that, to write a novel you need to get your backside on the chair and your fingers on the keyboard – regularly and for long periods of time, just to get the work done. I know only too well that novels don’t write themselves.

Murakami_Haruki_(2009)Here’s what the brilliant Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami had to say on the subject in an interview:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do…

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In the Beerhouse

After spending a good few hours tramping around locations for my Hirve Park novel, and nearly getting blown over bythe wind up on Toompea, I have parked myself in The Beerhouse.  It is a rather jolly brewery, eatery and historical theme place.

On my previous visit, I sat on the terrace watching the tourists but this time have ventured inside. The inside is a rather dark place where the brewing is going on. There are seats all around so the punters can eat and drink while the brewing process is happening.

Out back is an enclosed courtyard which has been themed “Old Estonian.”  Along with several different beers which are brewed on the premises they also do “Ye Olde Worlde” food. The serving staff are dressed up as peasants. For some reason, none of the restaurants or pubs have their staff dressed as German Burghers or Russian Noblemen. I find this very strange. These peasants need liberating! Actually, we  punters need liberating from these themed pubs.

I recommend the beer but the food is rather expensive and more modern minimalist than peasant food. In my humble opinion, I think the brewery and eatery over by the Port is far superior.


Selfie in theBeerhouse, Tallinn

In the Beerhouse, Tallinn

Narva and Ivangorod

The trip to Narva from Tallinn was an interesting experience, in many ways. Firstly, the journey by coach seemed never-ending as it took around three and a half hours via the E20 and several small towns; secondly, the town itself, especially around the bus and rail stations, consisted of three storey high apartment blocks built to the Soviet minimalist and functionalist template; thirdly, the two castles are erie; and finally, the railway station is a passport control station as well as dilapidated station.

To begin with the coach journey. The whole journey started off well with lunch in a cafe and a ticket from a modern ticket office. The bus itself had a personal computer on the back of each head rest. I was able to watch the progress of the coach on an interactive map. I mean, how cool is that? I filmed a bit of the journey to help me with writing scenes for my novel. I have no idea what the Russian woman next to me thought! After three hours, the excitement had worn thin andI just wanted to stand up.

When we arrived at the car park, which appears to be a bus station as well, I found one of those multi-directional signs which could be pointing to anywhere. It didn’t really help and I was wishing I had learnt a little more Estonian. I am not a Brit for nothing, so I set off in what seemed to be a reasonable direction. I found a very interesting hydro electricity station and took a few photos of it. I have no idea if it was Estonian or Russian. All I know is,that 25 years ago I would have been arrested for even looking at it. Times have changed.

I followed a path to the left and saw an amazing sight. It was the fort at Ivangorod in Russia andHermann Fort in Estonia. Connecting the two is the bridge over the River Narva. I was transfixed. I have never been to the USSR but it looked scary enough from Estonia. I am writing this, by the way, as Kiev is trying to protect the Ukraine from the Russians. The enemy of freedom was there before me. It was a sobering moment.

I made a short video to show the folks back home and tried to have a conversation with a Russian war veteran. I met this old guy standing looking at the Russian fortress. He had a couple of medals on his chest so I tried to ask him about them. I understood he got one from the Siege of Lenningrad.
From what I remember, that was a particularly brutal battle. Whatever I think about the Russians in gereral, I have to admit he was a brave man.

The day I was in Narva it was particularly hot and there were very few citizens around. When I looked down over the edge of the cliff, there they were. Hundreds of people were sunbathing on the stretch of sand in the middle of the Estonia side of the river or swimming in the river. On the Russian side there was nobody.

There was a queue of traffic standing on Narva Bridge, waiting to cross over to Estonia. In 1940 and again in 1944 Russian tanks rolled over that bridge and crossed into Estonia. It took until 1994 for them to roll back over to the other side again. The Great Guild Hall in Tallinn is currently showing video footage of the occupation, as is the Estonia History Museum.

Having explored the area around the river and taken photos of the two fortresses it was time to think of getting back. I had an idea that there was a train to Tallinn at 16:23 which was confirmed by a wall-mounted timetable in the ruin of a railway station. There was no sign of any ticket selling activity or customer service and the doors to the platforms were firmly locked. The only activity was in a room to the side of the great entrance hall where a Russian passport control and border patrol had been set up. I managed a few photos of the border control because no-one was looking.

There were several other confused people at the station rattling doors and trying to make sense of notices written in Russian. I met a young German girl called Elisabeth who has been volunteering in Tartu since January and we had a nice chat about life in Estonia and so on. While we were talking a young Estonian businessman assured us that there was indeed a train and that it was faster and more comfortable than the bus.

He was right. The train was air conditioned, had wi-fi, was spacious and at least an hour faster. It was also cheaper. Why do Estonians run around on buses, then?

There is a crucial section in my Hirve Park novel which happens in Narva and I am glad I made the journey out there. It is a trip I would recommend to anyone who wants to know a little more about Estonian history, the Cold War and our relations with Russia.