Travel Guides


I have been a huge fan of travel writing since I was a teenager. I think it was the travel adventures we read in primary school which started me off. As a teenager, I liked to borrow the books about cycle tours around the world by Dervla Murphy. With her, I travelled to some exotic places far away from wet and windy England. I too wanted to do those journeys.

I graduated to cycling and photography magazines. Looking at the wonderful photographs, I too wanted to travel and take photographs but I was, alas, too young. The most I did as a teenager was cycle around Lancashire and Cumbria.

When I completed my bachelor’s degree my travelling career took off with a Eurorail pass. In those pre-internet days, I relied on a collection of timetables and guide books. Key were the old Bradshaw’s guides from the library, the Thomas Cook International Railway Timetable, Eurorail maps and Cycle Touring Club booklets. Sometimes, it was possible to find a battered guide book to a chosen destination in the library.

Then, budget travel arrived and so did a whole new world of travel writing. As we Brits ventured further than France and Spain, more detailed guide books were written to whet our appetites for foreign travel. I particularly remember the first Rough Guide to Czechoslovakia, as it was in those days. Armed with this volume and a large map of the country, my friends and I would set out from Ostrava to explore the country. The book gave details of the tiny towns and villages we could, and did, visit. Oftentimes, we set off on a bus or train not knowing where we  were going until we looked up the stopping points in the guide book. It was always a joy to land somewhere and then find out about it’s history and the significance of it’s main buildings.

These days, travel guides (the Rough Guides series apart) seem to be a shadow of their former selves. They are competing with online guides, audio guides, blogs, Apps and improved Tourist Information Office offerings. We also live in a rapidly changing world. By the time a guide book is edited some of the traveller information is already out of date. The cost of colour printing together with lower sales means that the number of illustrations is fewer than say twenty years ago. The result is, in my view, a rather disappointing read.

These thoughts were prompted by research to my next travel destination, Minsk in Belarus. Despite being a European country and easily accessible by budget airline, Belarus is not much written about in English. I have found, so far, only one guide book. And, to my disappointment, it is bereft of exciting photographs to enthuse me or even enough detailed information. It covers, naturally, information on getting there and the main sites to see but not in enough detail for someone wanted to have more than a cursory look at the country. I have been sorely disappointed not to have something to really get my teeth into.

The one feature of modern guide books which I still find interesting, are the sections at the back with potted histories and further reading. Here the armchair reader and would-be traveller can find a wealth of information which is not easily found on the internet. The writer of the 2004 edition of the Rough Guide to the Baltic States, Jonathan Bousfield, provided me with a wonderful array of information which was invaluable when researching novels set in Estonia and Latvia.

These days, I get my travel fix by watching Michael Portillo’s Continental Railway Journeys, which evoke a sense of longing to travel to exotic places. As for the lack of a very comprehensive guide to Minsk, I am writing my own.

Thickening the Plot

I found this on Fiction Factor and it is so good I am reposting it.

Thickening the Plot
by Dr Vicki Hinze
In crafting a novel, some experts say plot comes first. Some say it’s character who leads the way. Some say it’s neither, and some say it’s both.

They’re all right. And wrong.

As writers, we take the basic methods established for accomplishing a craft task, and amend those methods to suit ourselves. We find our natural rhythm, our own way that works. Since accomplishing the task is our goal, not the method we use to achieve that end, it’s imperative that we remain flexible and open-minded–perpetual students, if you will–so that when a new-to-us method comes along, we explore its possibilities.

Before looking specifically at plotting, let’s look at what we hope to achieve: a well-crafted novel. Well, what is a well-crafted novel? It’s one where the plot, the characters, the setting and theme are all tightly interwoven. So tightly interwoven that if one novel element changes, one character changes, one story event changes, then the entire novel changes.

Think of the novel as a molecular structure. If one molecule moves out of place, or its aspects change, then the molecular structure is irrevocably changed. Forever altered. Different. Why? Because each molecule that changes forces additional changes on the other molecules. They must alter and adapt to fit with the altered molecule.

For example. Your heroine is a New York socialite. Your setting is Pinehurst, Mississippi: a small, rural community. Your socialite is matter out of place, and that can be good because matter out of place creates conflict.

But let’s say your heroine acts, thinks, and reacts as a rural community Mississippian rather than the New York socialite she purportedly is, and must be for the novel to accomplish its goal . This character has stepped out of her assigned space in the intended molecular structure. There’s a weak link, and she’s it. Now the other novel elements must shift and alter to fill the gap created by this shift to sustain logic, belief, and novel credibility.

That this metamorphosis occurs is a blessing to writers, though some don’t view it is as one, but as a complication creating challenges that require a great deal of thought and sweat to correct. And while that thought and sweat might well be necessary, they are a blessing, an opportunity. And when these shifts settle and the writer searches diligently and can find no weak links, then the writer knows that he has a cohesive whole structure that will bear the weight of its tasks.

One effective way to craft a novel is to build plot, character, and setting and theme simultaneously. Keeping in mind the three things a reader will not forgive an author, consider taking the following steps:

1. What do you want the novel to say?
2. Who is best able to say what you want said?
3. How can this message be best depicted?
4. Where can this message be best depicted?

In answering the above four questions, you go a long way in defining the novel elements. Do you see how each element interacts with all the others? That they’re co-dependent? What you want to say defines to a degree the person who would/could say it. The definition of that person, his character, to a degree defines how and where he’s apt to say it.

Were your message a different one, you’d likely need a different character to convey it, which would alter the best way to convey the message and the place where the message is likely to be conveyed. Different people are confronted with different situations in different places. Typically, ones that are familiar to them.

An extreme example: Who is most apt to suffer hunger? A homeless person who lives on the streets in Los Angeles? Or a wealthy, socialite who lives in a Manhattan penthouse? So to build plot, we must build character and setting in the context of our chosen theme. We must take a specific character, in a specific setting, in a defined situation that specific character is apt to encounter and that applies to conveying our message and then build on it.

How do we build? By asking “what if” and “why”–two of the writer’s best tools for building plot, for building a cohesive novel._ Let’s say our message or theme is: fear falls to courage and faith. Now we need a character. A heroine. One who is openly affectionate, who loves crowds, loves being busy, loves a frenzied pace in all areas of her life. Why? Because she fears being alone.

Now we need another character. A hero. Because she is openly affectionate, he should be reserved, closed. Why? Open affection was held in disdain by his family. Why? Instant conflict. Instant interest. If you have no conflict, you have no story.

She wants him to be more open, he wants her to be more reserved. That equals conflict, which will conclude in compromise, or severance.

Now our heroine fears being alone, and she also fears flying. Why? Perhaps her first husband was killed in a crash. Or perhaps we should dig a little deeper. A well-adjusted adult would recognize this as fear and address it. But what if heroine lost her entire family in a plane crash when she was young? As an adult, she’d likely recognize the fear, but having lived with that fear for so long, it’d be second nature–habit. And bad habits are hardest to break, mmm? Much better, stronger motivation, more capable of carrying more weight.

Now our hero must increase the stakes. He must fly. And maybe he asks heroine to fly with him. She’ll refuse. Okay, heroine’s character building is coming along, as is the plot and to a degree, the setting. Now what if hero takes the flight and crashes? What if heroine is told he’s dead? This reinforces her fear of loving and losing, magnifies her fears, so that courage and faith are even harder for her to feel and act upon. So if he’s dead, he can’t generate more conflict. Without more conflict the story’s over. But it can’t be over because we haven’t conveyed our message and the heroine has not grown. The ending isn’t satisfying.

So. . . . Let’s say hero is not dead. Why was heroine told he was? Who told heroine he was? Now, we have a conspiracy to separate these two. Why? Who? We need a villain. A conspirator. Who is this person? Why is he/she perpetrating this conspiracy? What does he/she gain? What does he/she stand to lose? How does Conspirator pull-off the conspiracy without making the hero and heroine look stupid for believing it? Can the conspirator pull this off alone? Or does Conspirator need assistance. Let’s say hero’s mother is the conspirator. She’s a recent widow and doesn’t want to share her son. Let’s say Co-Conspirator is heroine’s ex-fiance’, and hero’s best friend. Is he participating for revenge? Too cliche. What if he really thinks hero is dead? What if Conspirator is conspiring with and against Co-Conspirator simultaneously? What if Co-Conspirator thinks he’s helping heroine and doesn’t realize that there is a conspiracy?

Now you’re building everyone’s character, and moving the plot forward. And you keep using these same what if and who and why and how and where and what questions to continue to build the story elements until you convey the message you want conveyed and the story reaches its natural conclusion.

By building, or developing, plot and characters simultaneously affixed on theme, you know that the novel segments are tightly interwoven. That no one person can change without altering the entire novel significantly.

When plotting:

1. Don’t always take the first “next step” that comes to mind. Explore it, but dig deeper and ponder the other possibilities that come to mind, too. Look for those odd, unexpected twists, where you veer from the norm and are delighted and surprised. Those steps typically delight and surprise the reader, too.

2. Don’t accept coincidence as a substitute for well-integrated motivation. It isn’t. And, while coincidence occurs with monotonous regularity in life, novels require logical, express motivation.

3. Don’t keep any “next step” which doesn’t:

A. advance the plot
B. deepen characterization
C. end with a hook that incites reader to read on
D. come as a natural progression of what’s been foreshadowed earlier
E. contain conflict
F. move characters either closer to or farther from their goals
G. contain logical, believable, and reasonable motivation

If you plot and build characters true to their settings and stations in life, you maintain respect for the integrity of each novel element, then you will craft a plot that is unique to you, but one universal to others. This is instrumental in writing fiction.

Having accomplished the above, you now have a skeleton plot ready to be tested on the plot board for gaps in logic, in sequencing, in characterization, in motivation and conflict. Now you refine and flesh out the skeleton. You foreshadow major, coming events in Chapter 4 in Chapter 3. You lay the foundations upon which you build.

On the plot board, “holes” become glaringly apparent. So do threads introduced that were not pulled through the novel.

Remember the molecular structure? Well, here on the plot board, you look at each molecule separately to make sure it’s strong enough to support it’s weight in the structure . If it’s not, strengthen it until it is strong enough.

When you’ve gone over the plot board, examined each element separately and in relation to the whole, and you’re satisfied you have a cohesive whole, then you’re ready to proceed to a new plot test–provided your goal is selling this novel.

Is this novel commercial?
Does it fit into a genre slot and fit the criteria of that genre?
If mainstream, does the tone, style, and scope fit that of a mainstream novel?
Is the novel “timeless” or will it be dated, thus a poor commercial risk?
Is the novel’s story-line fresh, or cliche?
Is this a story you want to write.

Adjust the novel elements as needed to suit your personal goals for the novel, then write it!

Copyright 1996-2001 by Vicki Hinze.

Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers’ conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her latest non-fiction book isALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL, from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook covers everything you need to know about the craft of writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is available at as a download or disk.

Using questions to …

Using questions to incorporate your research into the storyline

This is a technique beloved of crime writers everywhere. The “rookie” asks the “expert” a question which allows the writer to explain background information, character analysis, the howdunnit and the expert analysis. It is a technique which you can use to incorporate the technical information into your story.

One way to do this, is to create a scene where one person is an “expert” and has to explain something to a newbie. It could be a sailor explaining how to tie knots to a trainee or a coroner explaining how to carry out a procedure on a dead body.

This technique is also a good way of getting your research into your story , as long as it is not overused. In my novel Weaver of Words, I wanted to explain to the reader how the process of creating and distributing underground works happened in 1970s Czechoslovakia. I created the character of a printer whose job it was to distribute the retyped manuscripts. The group leader explained to a new convert how the process happened and her role in it. In this way, I incorporated the material I had gathered from a printing museum. The new recruit asked enough questions to keep that section of the story moving and set up the next part of the story.

Used sparingly, this is, I think, a good technique to use.



The Art of Handwriting


A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a classroom waiting to invigilate college entrance exams with two colleagues. The discussion turned to the new academic year and the dangers wrought about then new syllabus and increasing reliance on technology. One colleague observed how few young people we had examined during the earlier sessions had not come equipped to do a written exam. This lead to  a discussion on how we were to teach writing skills in the modern age.

Few students, a colleague noted, did any actual handwriting in their lives. Instead, they tapped on their smart phones or tablet computers. Even their shopping lists, she pointed out, were tapped into machines. How, therefore, could we expect them to either have good handwriting or pens? Should we not, therefore, have the students do all their coursework on computers? How could we, the teachers, expect them to suddenly learn the art of handwriting?

When I enter a classroom to teach a lesson I am equipped with the tools I need to do my job: my brain, a paper copy of the lesson plan, a board marker, a USB stick and the worksheets for the lesson. I expect my students to come prepared with pen and paper. I make it clear at the beginning of the course that I am not a lending library nor a branch of W H Smith’s. Some of the students look at me as if I have arrived from another planet. If they need pen and paper, they should bring it, I point out. Invariably, there are several students who have not come prepared.

By the end of the first month, some of the pen-refuseniks will have acquired some scraps of paper and a pen. Others will continue to refuse to do so and will disrupt the lesson by asking for pen and paper of their peers and taking snapshots of the board. The refuseniks will continue to refuse to fully engage with the process of handwriting. By refusing to write they, in addition, refuse to learn.

I have noted, however, that the refuseniks area are no longer in the majority. There are students who accept, if not embrace, the need to be able to write by hand. They usually come to class armed with a collection of pens and a notepad. Some even go so far as to bring a folder. These are the ones who will shine in a class devoted to the arts and skills of reading and writing. They will write neatly in their notebooks and gather up their papers to take home at the end of the day. For them, writing is not something to be despised and I welcome working with them.

We will struggle, these young students and I, as we go through the year writing and rewriting until the students are able to fully express what they want to say. The students will complain that their fingers ache and that it is hard to do so much writing by hand. They may complain and ask why they cannot type it up on a computer. I do not forbid the use of computers but I do believe that there is a connection between the brain and hands. If students learn to write by hand using a pen, they will learn to write better prose. They will take the time to think about their writing and edit their own work before they type it up. They will, therefore, find the final exams much easier and writing in the future should be less of a burden and more of a joy.

Handwriting has always been an art form and good handwriting something to be admired. For these young students the ability to express themselves in writing is as important, if not more important, than it has ever been. We live in a world of written communication and everyone is expected to be able to express themselves clearly and grammatically. Writing by hand on paper, I believe aids this development.

I have been lucky enough to have grown up having learned how to write in cursive script using a fountain pen and to type. I still prefer to write with a fountain pen on lined yellow paper before typing up a text. I can feel the words flow through my finger when I have a pen in my hand in a way which does not happen on a computer keyboard. I also believe, that there is nothing more beautiful than a page covered in nice handwriting. There is, too, no greater satisfaction than balling up a piece of paper when you have finished with it.


A trip into the unknown

In the middle of June, I was thinking about where to spend the autumn half term and thought of Minsk. As a user of Postcrossing, I had been allocated a member in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, to write to. The person I wrote to, sent a message back with a link to a video. The video was short, a day compressed into a few minutes, but I was hooked. Within minutes, I was booked on a return flight to Vilnius with the prospect of a short land journey to and from Minsk.

People have asked me, incredulously, Why Minsk? Why not? Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think it is a rather dangerous place. They mean the Ukraine. Actually, the mean The Crimea, which is no longer part of Ukraine having been swiped by Putin’s Russia. Someone mentioned a bomb going off in Kiev. This was the week when an Islamic terrorist mowed down innocent people at a street festival in Nice. Wrong capital and wrong country.

I have elected to fly to Vilnius for two reasons: it is cheaper than flying to Minsk and I would like to see Vilnius again. There is also the added bonus of a transfer from Vilnius to Minsk and back.

I have written a short article for the Minsk Gazette on the thorny issue of travel visas. I have never been to Russia because I really cannot be bothered filling in an application form which is even worse than a job application. People have told me that they would be put off by having to apply for a visa. I have warned them that this could be the new travelling reality now the UK has voted for Brexit. The good news is, that the Belarus visa is two sides of A4 and does not demand to know what colour underwear you have. I managed to print it off and fill it in within 10 minutes.

To go with the visa you need travel and health insurance, a receipt from your accommodation to show that all is above board and the renters have the permit to do business, a nice photograph, tickets and the money. I was missing the accommodation coupon the first time but got my visa the second time.

The visa office had a nice stash of tourist information in England which I have added to my collection. What I have learned from this material is: not a lot of English is spoken, there is a lot of the Cyrillic alphabet around in Belarus and there is a lot to see. My trip is for three days so I am already thinking about how much I can fit it if I keep at it from 08:00 to 17:00. I have booked an apartment in the hope of meeting some residents in the corridors and maybe having a chat. This worked in Warsaw.

I have been corresponding with other travellers on Trip Advisor to find out useful information for the trip. We have had a lively discussion on the possibility of travelling from Vilnius by train. Despite over 30 years of independent travelling and as long teaching the English language, I failed to understand the requirements of the Belarus Railway website ( booked myself a ticket on a Eurolines bus from Vilnius to Minsk. I hope I can make myself understood the other end as I would really like to travel back by train.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of weather, food, drink and the feel of the city. All I know is, it will be a great adventure. I expect to come back having met some wonderful people and with some wonderful photographs.

Profiled on Middlesex University

A few weeks ago, I was invited to answer some emailed questions about my experience on doing the online MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University. I agree to take part as it was a good opportunity to explain how the course had helped me with writing The Weaver of Words, my fourth novel, and in fiction writing generally. The result has been a rather nice profile on the university’s website along with a photo of me during a storm on the Hornsea promenade.

The course had some initial issues with postings and the availability of materials, but that was sorted out. While I may never be really good at lit crit, I now have a greater awareness of writing techniques and a bit of jargon under my belt.

Having got through to the end in one year only, I am mightily relieved. It was a struggle at times to manage a full teaching load and a full course load but will power won out. I have broadened my knowledge base, my reading base and have a new range of techniques in my armory. However, I still need to use more commas and write shorter sentences.

Was it worth the money? I think so, which is why I am so happy to have been profiled on the site.

Autumn is a time for ….

Autumn is a time for sitting on the sofa reading Right now I am very much into the novels of Louise Penny and have just discovered Elly Griffiths.

I have been working my way through Louise Penny’s Gamache series for a few weeks now and have been enjoying them immensely. I have not read many novels set in Canada, so the location is a welcome diversion. Penny seems to pick on certain words which appear numerous times throughout a novel. One such was tuque, which Google informs me is a close fitting knitting hat. The word is French. I had never heard of the word but have added it to my vocabulary.

Elly Griffiths is a new discovery for me and I am very impressed with the first book of her series about the archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Dr Galloway is a specialist on bones, so she is brought into a police investigation when some bones are found on the salt marshes of Norfolk. The novel is written almost entirely in the present tense which is interesting and does not distract from the story at all.

I have a copy of Living by Fiction  by Annie Dillard which arrived from America a few days ago. I cannot remember who recommended it or why, but a skim through suggests it might be rather interesting. The book is described in The Atlantic as “a portrait of the artist as a soul, its moral qualities and moral situation, offered in the second person” ( It is a collage work, apparently. I just need to finish the first Elly Griffiths book and then dive into it and seek out what is to be learned.