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Tag Archives: Ireland

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Pining for her native Emerald Isle, Sheila Bugler writes crime novels with Irish connections

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

Part of being an Irish emigrant, whether in the UK or farther afield, is a nostalgia for the homeland and its green fields and rich, dark soil—as my guest this month, crime writer Sheila Bugler, will attest.

Sheila grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying psychology at University College Galway, she left her native land for a life abroad, working in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina. Today she lives with her husband and two children in Eastbourne, a seaside resort town on the south coast of England. Despite being settled in the UK, she pines for Ireland and describes herself as a “reluctant emigrant.”

Sheila Bugler Ireland England

What’s more, these intense feelings for the Emerald Isle are what fuels her creative efforts. Sheila is the author of an acclaimed mystery series published by Brandon Books, an imprint of Ireland’s O’Brien Press, consisting so far of three books of a planned six: Hunting Shadows (2013), The Waiting Game (2014), and All Things Nice (forthcoming, April 2016). The series features Detective Inspector Ellen Kelly, a character whose “Irish roots shine through,” as one Amazon reviewer puts it, and is set amongst the displaced Irish community in southeast London.

As Sheila remarked in an interview with Triskele Books:

I adore Ireland and miss it (despite being very happy in the UK). For me, writing really is a way of connecting with my country. I write Irish characters (not exclusively, of course) and it was always very important to me that Ellen’s roots were Irish. At the moment, I can’t imagine writing a novel that doesn’t have some connection to Ireland.

Her characters, too, are inspired by place: by the bleak wilderness of the North Kent coast. Perhaps they find it reminiscent of the bleak and beautiful Aran Islands off the coast of Galway?

But let’s not get too carried away. It’s time to give Sheila the floor and hear what she has to say about location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Sheila, to Location, Locution. You have a strong sense of place in your writing, but tell us, which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine. In answer to your question: Story. But often there is a single image, in a particular place, which is the inspiration for that story.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your crime stories?

I am quite an instinctive writer and try not to overthink the process as it happens. Of course, like all writers I have had to learn the basic techniques, but I don’t think you can force yourself to write in a particular way. Although location plays an important part in my novels, this isn’t a deliberate choice—it’s something that happens naturally as I write.

I like the way location can enhance a particular atmosphere you are trying to create. In my first two novels, Hunting Shadows and The Waiting Game, parts of each book are based in the beautiful, bleak Hoo Peninsula of north Kent.

In Hunting Shadows, this is the perfect location for one of the central characters, Brian. He is an isolated loner and the isolated landscape is a great way of showing how Brian lives his life. In contrast, there is a character in The Waiting Game who uses the Hoo’s wide open spaces and big skies as a backdrop to her work as an artist.

If I am struggling to create a sense of place, I will do some or all of the following:

  • Close my eyes and try to get a picture in my head.
  • Play some music that has a connection with the landscape I’m trying to evoke (for example, bluegrass when I’m writing about the Hoo, traditional Irish music when writing about the west of Ireland).
  • I wait until I can see the place, hear it, smell it, feel it.
  • And then I write it.

Sheila Bugler locations

Which particular features have you used to create a sense of what clearly is to you a special location? Landscape, culture, food?

Obviously it’s all of those things. However, you don’t need to use every one of them to evoke a sense of place.

The author JJ Marsh, for example, puts a lot of importance on food when she is writing about the different locations in her novels (I should add she doesn’t just write about food!).

The Irish noir writer Ken Bruen perfectly evokes the city of Galway[] with almost no reference to the external landscape. Instead, he brings the city to perfect life through his characters’ voices and the internal spaces, particularly the pubs. Likewise, Ian Rankin manages to perfectly evoke his home city of Edinburgh without ever needing to give us “in your face” descriptions.

As in real life, your characters move through a rich world of noises, smells, colours, places and other people. If you don’t forget that when you are writing, then neither will your readers.

I’m pleased you mentioned JJ Marsh. She was the original creator of this column! But returning to your own works: can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

I’m going to share two different examples.

First, a short scene from my novel, Hunting Shadows. In this scene, I tried to give an impression of the location through the reactions of the two characters:

Ellen stepped out of the car and looked around. The place reminded her of the black-and-white photos in her parents’ house of old Irish towns. It gave her that same feeling that she was observing somewhere from a time long past. Apart from a scattering of houses—a mixture of semi-derelict Victorian cottages and cheap, flat-roofed eyesores—there was nothing else.

From where she stood, the landscape sloped down to the Thames marshes, bleak and desolate under the heavy sky.

“Listen,” Dai whispered.

Ellen frowned. “What? I can’t hear anything.”

“Duelling banjos,” he said. “I knew it. “Deliverance” country. We’re not safe in a place like this.”

And here is a very different piece from a stand-alone novel I am working on called Walk Away. I don’t normally write this descriptively but my own love for this part of Ireland obviously influenced me:

The town was on the southern edge of Galway Bay, the hills of the Burren sloping up behind it, the vast sweep of the Atlantic Ocean stretching out in front of it. Next stop America. It was beautiful. He knew that. Probably always had.

Sydney was home these days. A modern, open-plan apartment with muted colours, floor to ceiling windows and views across Sydney Harbour. All very tasteful and perfect for a shit-hot, sharp-dressing, arse-kicking, wheeling-and-dealing corporate lawyer.

But this, he had forgotten. The way the limestone landscape seemed to move as the light reflected off it. Changing colour all the time from purple to pale pink to grey and back to purple again, in harmony and contrast with the sea.


How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

If you are using a real location as a setting, you need to know enough about it so it seems real to your reader. In today’s world, there is no excuse not to do this. We all have access to the internet and Google maps. If you haven’t visited a place, do some basic research and make sure you include this in your novel. Using a real pub, for example, instead of making one up can really add to the sense of authenticity.

I once read a crime novel set in Lewisham (where I was living at the time). In one scene, a character is walking down Lewisham High Street and bemoaning the lack of a Marks and Spencer’s. We have M&S in Lewisham! This—and other aspects of the novel—made it clear to me the writer had never been to Lewisham and didn’t know anything about the place he was writing about.

Of course, we can also write about fictional locations. If you do that, your own sense of the place needs to be well-formed before you write about it. The important thing is this: whatever location you choose, it must feel authentic for the story you are writing.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

JJ Marsh writes beautifully in her European crime series featuring Beatrice Stubbs. Similarly, Gilly Hamer writes wonderful descriptions of the stunning Anglesea coastline where her novels are set.

For many reasons, I hold Ken Bruen up as a master when it comes to using location in his novels. He perfectly evokes Galway city, capturing not only its beauty but also the voices and characters of the people who live in that very special place. He is my absolute writing hero.

Bulger fave authors

Thanks so much, Sheila!

* * *

Readers, any questions for Sheila Bugler? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Sheila, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0). First collage: Sheila Bugler (supplied); County Galway, Eastbourne Pier & shamrock via Pixabay. Second collage: Book cover art; The Tir Na Nog Irish Pub, Wandsworth – London, by Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0); All Hallows Marshes, Hoo, Kent, by Amanda Slater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). First quote: Hang on, is that grass over there?, by Andrew Bowden (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second quote: Burren landscape in the evening sun, by YvonneM via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Favorite books collage: Cover art; Blitz Movie Poster via Wikimedia Commons.

WONDERLANDED: “Shadows & Reflections,” by long-term expat Paul Scraton

Shadows and Reflections Berlin

Photo credits: (left) Rummelsburg Bay in Berlin via Pixabay; Volkspark Hasenheide, Berlin-Neukölln, by Zusammen via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) .

Just the other day we were “wonderlanded” in Berlin with British expat writer Paul Scraton. We found out what it was like to live “slightly on the edge of the scene”: in Paul’s view, “that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”

Today we hear from Paul again on the topic of displacement—only this time he will be speaking through a piece of his own writing. “Shadows & Reflections”* is a post he wrote two-and-a-half years ago for the British online forum Caught by the River, which, like Alice’s own story, was “born on a bankside.”

* * *

We are taking a train back from Munich to Berlin on a Sunday afternoon at the start of December, a six-hour train ride home that will take us through some of Germany’s most beautiful countryside at over a hundred and fifty kilometres an hour. A few hours north of Munich, just over the old border between the former West and East of the country, the fields are covered in a light layer of snow, the forests engulfed in mist. Whenever the first snow flurries of the winter arrive it never fails to remind me of the day I moved to Germany, landing at a snowy Schönefeld Airport, still on high alert a couple of months after September 11th.

Train Ride to Berlin quote

Photo credits: (top) The scenery from the train window, by Paul’s partner, Katrin Schönig; “Keep the track focused!” by Axel Schwenke via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

I did not imagine then that I would still be living in Berlin over a decade later, and that Germany would have become my home. Or is it? The Germans have a wonderful word that to my mind has no proper translation into English. Usually the word Heimat is turned into “homeland”—but it means something more than that, a feeling about a place that involves an almost spiritual sense of belonging even in the non-religious. It might be Berlin, or even a district of the city. It might be a stretch of the Baltic coastline, or a village in the north of Bavaria. It could be a certain landscape, a place of particular traditions and culture. Germany is a fractured country, only put together for the first time in 1871, and local, regional pride still runs strong.

Yes, Berlin and Germany has become my home over the past twelve years, but it is certainly not my Heimat… And at the same time, a handful of trips back to England over this year has made me realise that if it is not here, it might not be there either.

During the three trips, to London, my old stomping ground of West Yorkshire, and new discoveries in Northumbria, I realised once again that although there are certain elements of returning that are as comfortable as a favourite old jumper, being away means you miss certain developments and that marks you down as an outsider, whether it is a particular band an old friend is raving about, or a certain slang term that you start to notice being used on social media or in streamed BBC shows that you think you understand but you cannot be sure.

So in this year of journeys—to England, but also through Germany to the Baltic coast, the Oder River and the forests and lakes around Berlin—I reflected a lot on belonging and what it means to be home. When I first learned the word Heimat it made me think of certain places that meant something strong to me, but I realised—as I conjured images of the Welsh coast and mountains, the Yorkshire moors and dales, the Dock Road in Liverpool and the potato fields of West Lancashire—that this was more an exercise in memory and nostalgia than anything else. And the thing with memory and nostalgia is that even when you go back, return for a visit or even to stay, you realise that not only is the place subtly different than you remember it, but you are also not the same person as the one that was there before.

Heimat Two Seas

Photo credits: (top) “Choppy seas,” by psyberartist via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Baltic sea by Paul’s partner, Katrin Schönig.

Living in Germany for a dozen years has, of course, shaped and changed me. If I am looking for a shadow in these reflections, perhaps this is it. The paths you take always leave you the chance to wonder about those that you did not. If you are of a mind to spend much time with your memories and nostalgia, then you cannot help but reflect on how things could have been different. You cannot possibly know how you yourself would then have changed with a different job, a different house, perhaps even different people around you, except to know that you most certainly would have.

As the train rushes through the rolling landscape of Thüringen, just before the flatlands of the north, I think of how my appreciation of such scenes has changed over the past 12 years. From my list above you could work out that the landscape I grew up with, and which continues to touch me—of moors and mountains, wild cliffs and the white horses of the Irish Sea.

But over my time in Germany I have come to appreciate the very different landscape that surrounds me…the flat, melancholic beauty of the Baltic coast, the lakes north of Berlin and the pine forests that encroach on the city. And I realise I am happy to have learned to love something so different, that I need not continue any surely futile search for a Heimat that deep down I know does not exist. That is, perhaps, both the cost and the benefit of having grown up in one place and chosen to live and love somewhere else.

As the train reaches the outskirts of Berlin I look out of the window into the darkness, searching for the first glimpse of the Television Tower in the distance. Then I will know that I am nearly there. Home.

*”Shadows and Reflections” is republished here with Caught by the River’s permission.

* * *

Thank you, Paul, for this enlightening series of “wonderlanded” posts. Readers, I hope that by now you are, like me, full of wonder at Paul’s insights into a life of displacement similar to the ones many of us have led. 

As it happens, the very first issue of the new journal of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, of which Paul is founding editor, is out today. Please join me in wishing Paul a hearty congratulations! And, say, if you like what Paul has to say about place, why not think about subscribing? I would also urge you to follow his blog, under a grey sky… ~ML

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For this wanderlusting Californian for whom photography and travel are a perfect fit, a picture says…

Writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his latest interview subject.

Jenny in Ireland

Jenny Schulte in front of an old church window ruin near Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland.

Hello again, readers! My May guest is 38-year-old Jenny Schulte. who never had any thoughts of leaving her Northern California home until she travelled to Ireland in 1999 to explore her Irish roots. Now she is an ardent traveler who combines her love of photography with her travel experiences in her captivating blog Bulldog Travels, subtitled “Everything and Nothing Plus Some Pretty Photos.” Jenny is wrong to call it “nothing”: her blog is her her outlet for sharing her travel adventures along with the kinds of “photographs my friends have always enjoyed,” as she puts it.

On her About page, she says:

[Those] two wonderful hobbies of travel and photography fit perfectly together.

A woman after my own heart!

* * *

Hi, Jenny, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Thank you for getting in touch and offering to share your photo-travels with us. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and consider myself fortunate to live in such a beautiful part of the world. San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, the gorgeous California Coast, Redwoods, Yosemite, Napa Wine Country—all are on my doorstep. But while I have always loved to travel within the United States, when I was twenty I decided I really wanted to delve into my Irish heritage and see Ireland first hand. I had a very romantic vision of the country and figured I would be disappointed if I never went. Well…the moment my tennies hit the ground, a restlessness took over and I have been globetrotting ever since. I made a good friend in Ireland who is from Germany. and together we have seen much of western Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Andorra, England and Scotland). In more recent years I have been fulfilling an archaeological interest of mine exploring Mexico and Central American sites and ruins.

If you’re lucky enough to be Irish…you’re lucky enough!

So once you finally got the travel bug, you were up and running in those tennies of yours. I have only managed the UK and France from your entire list. I’m envious. Can you share with us some of the highlights of your travel adventures?
I really enjoy history and from Ireland I went to my first European countries: Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, where I could not only delve into history but also enjoy great food, culture, and scenery. From there I went on to other destinations such as France, Scandinavia and the UK. My search for ancient ruins took me to the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala. The animals and the raw nature of Costa Rica stole my heart. At home, where I have travelled California and the entire west on shorter trips, I really love Joshua Tree National Park, Portland, Southern Utah, San Francisco and Mendocino.

Now that you have gained so much real travel experience, I would love to hear more about what inspired you to travel originally and sustains you on your many trips.
No one in my family has ever travelled very far, with the exception of a few who travelled for Uncle Sam’s benefit. They tend to stick close to home preferring to take a drive rather than fly somewhere exotic. My family built a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and we still enjoy it whenever we can. But my grandmother had told me stories of Ireland since I was a child, and I always dreamed of seeing it one day. After that initial Irish adventure, every trip has left me wanting more. I have averaged one or two main trips per year and as many small trips as I can fit in. As a photographer I tend to focus on areas I know will be wonderful to capture. But I am always surprised and pleased when I get great photos I never expected.

So tell us about where you have travelled most recently.
I recently returned from a trip to Belize and Guatemala. I tend to spend my home time in Sacramento, San Francisco, California Coast, the Lake Tahoe area, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will probably stay in California until I retire and then I plan to be more nomadic, visiting places that are difficult to visit on a two-week trip. Then I hope to live in areas longer, to fully appreciate the culture and the environment.

Don’t leave it too late like I did. You need a lot of energy for the expat life.

“Laughter is the brightest where food is best.”

Now let’s move on to a few of your shots that capture favourite memories. Thank you for sharing and for describing the story behind each one and what makes them so special.  
Of course! For my first photo, I present you with a little boy cleaning a fish out front of his grandmother’s restaurant, Maggie’s Sunset Diner, in Caye Caulker, Belize. His family’s BBQ was fired up just out of the frame. The boy so badly wanted to be like his grandmother. He was begging to BBQ his own fish like an adult. My husband and I observed this charming scene while having dinner. I believe that good, inexpensive food in a place full of local ambiance is better than a five-star restaurant anywhere in the world. The photo was taken only with my iPhone but I think it captures the mood and the vibe of this small island off the coast of Belize.

Q9.1 Boy cleaning fish

Boy in Belize cleaning a fish. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The second photo is of some donuts my husband I consumed in Maui, Hawaii. I was driving around the rural part of the island looking for something to eat for breakfast when I stumbled upon a locally owned and run donut shop. The donuts were glorious and became a highlight of our visit. We have actually contemplated going back to Maui just for the donuts! Then again, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard to go back to Maui. The older I get the more food tends to be an important part of my travels.

Maui donuts

Donut feast in Maui. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

The last photo is of a two-headed jaguar you can see in the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, which is located in Yucatán, Mexico. Something about Uxmal really spoke to me. I think what makes it so special is that the architects for these structures were so clearly artists. They went beyond function and focused on form in a way not seen elsewhere in the Yucatán. Their work is magnificent and the detail is phenomenal. I never grow tired of looking at photos from this visit, and I offer this one in hopes of transporting readers to these spectacular ruins.


A Mayan jaguar. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

I am really impressed by the picture of the boy cleaning fish. And I agree that the experience of eating wholesome home cooking in basic local surroundings is better than any clinically manufactured setting. I am sure you take a lot of photos but where, so far, are your favourite places to shoot and can you explain why these places inspire you.
Photography is an integral part of travel for me. It doesn’t matter if I’m travelling to a faraway exotic location or hitting a local California beach—taking photographs helps me recall the trip in a way my memory alone doesn’t, and inspires me to be creative in a way I find difficult at home. I have many favourite places to take photographs, including zoos, gardens, and historical sites. In recent years, I have photographed the San Diego Zoo and the Belize Zoo. I am looking forward to a weekend-long photography expedition at Safari West in Santa Rosa in the fall. I enjoy shooting botanical gardens like Mendocino, DuPlooys in Belize, San Diego, Lake Constance (Germany) and the Maui Garden of Eden. One of my favourite architectural structures is the Eiffel Tower at night. I’ve had fun attempting to shoot it from angles not often seen.

Well, Jenny, since you left it up to me to choose three photos that represent your favourite spots, here my selection. My first choice is your photo of a rickety old building in Paris, which houses a gallery of some kind. I think your capture is wonderful because it looks as though the building won’t be standing much longer, and the shop is a relic of a bygone era.

Business in Paris

A rickety Parisian gallery. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Next I’ve chosen one of your Eiffel Tower shots. This one is not immediately recognizable as most shots of this iconic landmark are. So it asks a question—who am I? And the photo of the lighting on the structure in the night sky is beautiful.

Eiffel Tower

A new angle on a famous angular building. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

Finally, I love this nature shot of yours, taken in Du Plooys Botanical Garden in Belize, with its contrast of the crimson flower, green leaves and shadows. I think it would make fine wall-art.

DuPlooys Botanical Garden Belize

Botanical blossom in Belize. Photo credit: Jenny Schulte

“Better good manners than good looks.”

So do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I definitely do. I try to live my life in a considerate way. I would never feel comfortable embarrassing or offending anyone. I would never be able to look at the photo afterwards with a clear conscience. Sometimes I shoot images of people from an angle where they might not be aware. This is because I prefer candid photos versus asking for permission and taking what I would consider more of a portrait. I admire photographers who do portrait photography, but I suppose it makes me uncomfortable. It can also take the fun out of it.

On occasions where you do ask for permission, how do you get around any problem of language?
Sometimes what I do is show the person the photos I have taken of them. Recently, for example, I photographed a little girl in Belize whose mother owned the dive shop we were visiting. The girl was coloring a picture and smiling at me. I held up my camera and made an O.K. sign with my fingers. She immediately started hamming it up for the camera and then begged to see the image of herself on the camera. The girl and her mother spoke some English, but in this case it was more fun to ask without words. Miming can work pretty well. Holding up a camera or pretending to take a selfie generally gets a smile from a stranger.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
For me, photographing events or moments has the power to capture something that is both crisper and more emotional than if I wrote about the place or just relied on my memory. My photos represent what is in my heart and mind better than any other means of communication. Sometimes I will look back on an old photo and remember a moment or a place that I had completely forgotten about. The memories that come flooding back are what keep me planning for the next trip.

Clearly, a picture says a thousand words for you. When did you realize that, and how has it changed your perspective?
I don’t think there was a particular moment. I have always been that way since I had enough money to buy and develop film—I always took too many photos. But for me, and ultimately for my subjects, it is worthwhile to capture a special moment. That said, I sometimes have to force myself to put the camera down so that I can be in the moment.

“May the blessing of light be on you—/light without and light within.”

Now for the technical stuff. Can you tell me what kind of camera and lenses you use?
I use an iPhone 5s, Nikon D800 and Nikon D700 cameras. Nikon Nikkor DX 18-135mm and Nikon Nikkor AF 70-300mm lenses.

That’s quite a collection. And which software do you use for post-processing?
I just use Lightroom for post processing.

“Your feet will bring you where your heart is.”

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Be responsible, show respect, be a good advocate for your home country and for the human race and, if you can, travel while you are young. If you aren’t young anymore travel anyway and it will make you young! Follow your instincts, have fun, stay inspired, take breaks from your art when necessary to keep the spark, try new things, talk to people, eat the food, take the back roads and get lost…the world will all of a sudden become very very wonderful.

That is very good advice, Jenny, and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story in this interview.

Editor’s note: All subheds are from Irish sayings or blessings.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jenny’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jenny and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her travel site. You can also follow her on Instagram or contact her at

Born in England, James King is now semi-retired in Thailand. He runs his own photography-based blog, Jamoroki. If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Anthony St. Clair, author of urban fantasies whose plots are globally sourced

JJ Marsh Anthony St Clair

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to “rucksack” urban fantasy writer Anthony St Clair about how he translates his travels into works of fiction.

In this month’s Location, Locution, JJ Marsh talks to Anthony St. Clair, author of the Rucksack Universe books, a series of urban fantasy travel novels set in Hong Kong, India and Ireland. When he’s not concocting the kind of fiction that thrills, delights and bewilders in the spirit of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Tom Robbins, St. Clair is making a living as a copywriter, blogger and editor. He loves writing about business and anything related to craft beer, homebrew, travel (he’s a self-described globe-trotter), food, and the Pacific Northwest.

Which comes first, story or location?
Location. My original idea for Forever the Road, the most recently published book in my Rucksack Universe series, came to me in 2003, when I spent two months traveling through India. As the story took shape, I created a fictional city and river, both called Agamuskara, which is Hindi for “smiling fire.” Both the river and the city are pivotal to the action of the story and what happens with the book’s various characters. But I don’t think I could have come up with either the story or the location without having also traveled through India, especially the city of Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the Ganges, which Agamuskara is based on.

Photo credit: "Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India," by Babasteve via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credit: “Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India,” by Babasteve via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Forever the Road cover art.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
Have you ever noticed that when you go somewhere new, it’s like you notice everything and experience it more intensely? It’s like our guard comes down. We see, hear, smell, taste, and touch with an intensity and openness that we don’t usually bring to our day-to-day encounters with the world outside ourselves. I try to relate the atmosphere of a place by evoking all the senses. Is the place hot or cold? Crowded or sparse? What does it smell like? What does the food taste like? What are the colors? Sense helps us get to know a place, and evoking the senses works just as well in a book as it does in actual travel.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of the above. Landscape, culture, and food affect each other. What the land is like affects the food that can be available. Place shapes culture, because place drives so much of our experiences. Likewise, food has an influence on how culture connects and evolves. After all, how many of our most pivotal experiences have to do with a meal, or a particular moment in a new place, or by experiencing and trying to understand an aspect of a different culture?

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Forever the Road, which was released September 8th in e-book, all formats, and trade paperback (more information here).

The rattling truck moved so fast that the world passed in a blur, but Jay marveled at all he saw. Countless people wore brilliant colors and smiled from weathered, driven faces. They defied the washed-out landscape and the humid mat of the air. Every village had been here before time was time, it seemed. Each village also brought a glimpse of temples and shrines, elephant-headed gods, bulls, monkeys, multi-limbed deities rendered in brick, stone, concrete, and reverence.

Approaching Agamuskara, Jay now understood that India was four things: heat, humans, history, and gods. They shaped India not so much into a country or a culture but a world. India was all of the world, all of time in every passing moment, and every emotion, every depravity and transcendence, every hope realized and every futility suffered, of all the human race.

And, gods, was India heat. Humid, blazing, sopping heat. India felt as if wet blankets had been baked for an hour in a pot of water, then, steaming and boiling, wrapped around the country. Even Jay’s sweat glands felt sluggish. The humidity jellied the will. It softened the wood of the few meager trees. Even the concrete blocks of houses and shacks seemed to sag, drip, and simmer in the midday, clear-sky blaze of sunlight.

The truck turned onto a highway, renown throughout northeastern India for being maintained. The road reminded Jay of the interstate highways of his left-long-ago home, except that as far as the traffic was concerned, the four lanes were simultaneously one lane, three lanes, twenty lanes, and no lanes. Still, the truck’s consistent speed and motion brought a soothing breeze to Jay’s skin, and the smooth road took him from a blazing sear to a nearly gentle simmer.

For once, Jay’s tenderized rump stayed in one merciful, bounceless spot. After a few kilometers, he relaxed like a roast chicken resting after coming out of the oven.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I want to visit a place before I write about it, and so far all my stories draw on places I’ve visited. Whether or not I’ve traveled there, I also use substantial research to try to understand a place as best I can, but there is no substitute for having been there. Nothing compares with eating the food, walking the quiet streets at dawn, observing the tiny everyday details that make a place its own.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I’ve spent many a time immersed in the works of Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer, and I try to bring their mix of place and experience into my own style. However, when it comes to using location in story, I admire Terry Pratchett the most. His long-running Discworld, a comic fantasy book series, is not only full of funny, richly told fantasy stories, but he clearly works hard to weave the setting into the story. Whether a book is set in a city or the mountains, it is always clear that a sense of place is key to the characters and events unfolding in the book. I try to evoke a similar connection in my own work. There’s an old saying that character is destiny, but I would add that place shapes character.

Thank you, Anthony! That was fascinating. Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Anthony and his writings, I encourage you to visit his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

* * *

Next up on Location, LocutionSusan Jane Gilman, Geneva resident and author of the New York Times bestseller The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Until then, I wish you happy holidays. See you next year!

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is made in the shade for expats and Third Culture Kids

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

Today we welcome brand new columnist Beth Green to the Displaced Nation. An American who lives in Prague, Beth is an intrepid traveler and voracious reader, who mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures. In other words, she has the perfect background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives. Hmmm…but will we enjoy her reviews more than the actual works?

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML! Displaced Nationers, for my first column we’ll be plunging into the world of crime fiction in which a city plays a major role. As I’m sure you know, many popular crime novels are set in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Chicago, where that setting is as important as the crimes committed there.

So, let me introduce another city with an underbelly you might enjoy: Dublin.

In contrast to the shamrock-and-Guinness tourist propaganda, Dublin can have a grittier, noir aspect, at least in the hands of skilled writer Tana French.

If you’re looking for a nice read where setting bolsters plot, and where some of the themes related to the experiences of those who lead the international creative life, French’s series about the Dublin Murder Squad is a fine place to start. The series, currently consisting of four books, features the members of Ireland’s fictional homicide unit, each of whom is given narration duties for one of the books—a device by which we constantly get new perspectives on the other detectives in the team as well as a chance to see the Irish Republic’s capital city through a new pair of eyes.

Various Dublins

For example, when the narrator is an experienced cop who was born to a poor family, the city doesn’t get a glossy treatment. He describes, with equal honesty, the run-down parts of town where members of his family live and the middle-class suburb where his ex-wife now resides.

Another detective, who has lived abroad, describes Dublin with more of a tourist’s eye when it’s her turn to narrate a novel.

Yet another is obsessed with appearances; and the fourth alternately seems to love and hate the city.

Cultural challenges

Though born in the USA, Tana French grew up as a Third Culture Kid. Her father was a development economist, and she spent her childhood in Ireland, Italy, the USA, and Malawi. She went to university, and ultimately chose to settle, in Ireland. Perhaps reflecting this early experience, French has each of her main characters navigate some kind of cultural shift in addition to playing his or her role in the solving (or making) of a murder.

IntheWoods_cover_pmIn the Woods is French’s debut, Edgar-winning novel. The action centers on homicide detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, both of whom feel culturally conflicted. Ryan, who grew up in the same village he must now investigate, was sent away to school after a horrifying childhood experience. He returns to Ireland as an adult but retains a carefully learned prep-school accent and manner of dress that marks him as an outsider even while standing in front of his childhood home.

Maddox, on the other hand, spent part of her childhood with relatives in France. She speaks French fluently and readily adapts to new surroundings and diverse situations. While this chameleon-like quality often comes in handy, it also gives her a sense of alienation in her home country. As Maddox says in The Likeness, the next book in the series:

I take after the French side. Nobody thinks I’m Irish, till I open my mouth.

Love of disguises

TheLikeness_cover_pmIn The Likeness, Maddox narrates the story of how she must go undercover impersonating someone—a foreigner, it turns out, who in turn is impersonating an undercover role (that of a college student) Maddox had previously assumed.

Controlling these layers of identity becomes intoxicating to Maddox (and to the reader, I might add) while also putting her career, and that of her superior officer, Frank Mackey, at risk.

Reading The Likeness, I was impressed by how much detail French provides to show that Maddox undergoes a believable transformation.

The domestic expat

In French’s third book, Faithful Place, Maddox’s boss, Mackey, gets his chance to prove himself in navigating the shifting subtleties of Irish culture and society.

Set in an area of Dublin known as The Liberties— not far from the tourist highlights in terms of distance but miles away in terms of economic progress and commitment to law and order—Faithful Place requires Mackey to return to the home he grew up in and attempt to solve the disappearance of his high school sweetheart, who he had always thought simply dumped him.

FaithfulPlace_cover_pmThough Mackey is thought of as down-to-earth and street-smart by his colleagues (one of the joys of the Dublin Murder Squad books is seeing different characters from inside and out over the course of several books), his time as a cop has not endeared him to his family or neighbors. He also married “up”, and there’s a great minor plot line concerning his decision to introduce his young daughter, Holly, to his “lower-class” relations.

At the beginning of the novel, Mackey says:

Both Jackie and Olivia have tried hinting, occasionally, that Holly should get to know her dad’s family. Sinister suitcases aside, over my dead body does Holly dip a toe in the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest.

No safe harbors

Broken Harbor_cover_pmIn the latest book in the series, Broken Harbor, a minor character from Faithful Place, Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, takes the lead in investigating a gruesome crime committed in a rundown (yet half-finished) housing development on the same site his family used to vacation when he was a child.

Kennedy introduces the housing site to us as follows:

I used to know Broken Harbor like the back of my hand, when I was a skinny little guy with home-cut hair and mended jeans. Kids nowadays grew up on sun holidays during the boom, two weeks in the Costa del Sol is their bare minimum. But I’m forty-two and our generation had low expectations.

Why French speaks to international creatives

Though common plot and character threads hold a detective series together, there’s always a danger the author will fall back on the same formula to help her main characters solve the crimes in question. French succeeds in weaving common themes throughout the four books while also treating these themes afresh in each work. Most excitingly for us expats, she visits and revisits the feeling of being out-of-place in a culture (or subculture) not your own as well as the clashes that can occur when working with someone from a different background. Another favorite theme of hers, which also aligns with some expat experiences, is the stress of being evaluated on one’s exterior appearance.

But one of the most important common themes in Broken, Faithful and Woods is the power that a special place from one’s childhood can have—to which French’s fellow ATCK readers can surely relate. In Woods, Ryan must solve a crime in the very forest a crime was committed against him as a child—a crime he cannot remember but desperately wishes he could. In Faithful, Mackey discovers the ties to the past can last fast and strong, even years after he thought he’d broken them. And, in Broken, Kennedy’s memories from his childhood make the seaside scenery both delightful and sad, while the importance of the spot to the victims is equally powerful and alluring albeit for different reasons.

Moreover in Likeness, perhaps my favorite of the series so far, the main character doesn’t return to a place that’s important to her, but it’s just as important for her to realize that she—like the victim—doesn’t have a particular place on Earth to call her own in memory or deed.

French’s next novel, The Secret Place, will continue the Murder Squad series but with a new set of protagonist detectives drawn from the supporting characters of the first four novels. It comes out in August.

* * *

Thanks, Beth, for such a fascinating column! I felt completely transported to the noir underbelly of Dublin. BTW, I noticed that in an interview with French that is posted on Amazon, she says she can’t imagine herself setting her books anywhere other than Dublin as she knows the city like the back of her hand. Hard to imagine she started life as an American! And I must say, her crime series sounds like perfect summer reading. What do others think? Have you read French, and if so, do you concur that her books would suit expats and TCKs?

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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For this intrepid Irish “ruin hunter,” a picture says…

Ed Mooney 1,000 words Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles; Ed Mooney in front of the ruins of Ducketts Grove, County Carlow (photo credit: Ed Mooney).

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 38-year-old Irishman Edward (Ed) Mooney. His story is quite different from previous guests for several reasons, the main one being that he is not an expat. On the contrary, he travels within the confines of his native Ireland.

That said, Ed does cross boundaries, at least in a temporal sense. He loves nothing more than to immerse himself in an obscure historical site, exploring Irish history, lore and mythology while also photographing the surrounding ruins, to keep a record of what remains from generations past.

I really like the name Ed has given to his hobby: “ruin-hunting”. Ed tells me that ruin-hunting merges Past, Present & Future. By researching the history behind a place, he pays tribute to the Past. By writing about the experience, he brings it into the Present. And by posting his article, along with his photos, on his blog, he preserves his findings for the Future.

I have been following Ed for some months and love the way he weaves historic research into (mostly) black-and-white images.

* * *

Hi, Ed. Thanks for joining me at the Displaced Nation. I know you live with your young family in Kildare, but where were you born and what gave you the urge to travel around Ireland photographing ancient ruins?
I was born in Dublin, where I lived until flying the coop at 17. I moved to Kildare for work. I only got into photography seriously three or four years ago. With a young family, I don’t get to go abroad very often. But I am fortunate enough to travel within Ireland itself, which with its rich heritage offers an abundance of fascinating sights. And the crazy thing is, the majority of them are relatively unknown and rarely visited. It is these off-the-beaten-track places that I tend to concentrate on while traveling the country, attempting to capture them with my DSLR camera.

“I love everything that’s old…” —Oliver Goldsmith

You seem to have found an interesting niche. Can you tell us a little more about this “ruin hunting” hobby of yours?
It all started in 2011. I had just gotten my first DSLR and joined the local camera club, but had very little opportunity to get out and about shooting. I wasn’t into wildlife or landscape photography like some of the other club members. I guess I was searching for my niche, as you put it. One day a flyer came through the letterbox, which had an image of a nearby historical site called the Rock of Dunamase, in County Laois. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of what would become an obsession. A few days later, I located Dunamase and went exploring. Now, looking back at the photos, I cringe—but at the time I thought they were the best shots I’d ever taken. Around this time I had starting blogging and decided to post a brief essay on the history of Dunamase, along with the images. Next thing I knew, I was spending all of my spare time searching out new sites. Now that the kids are a little older, I have been able to take them on some of my trips. To date I have explored sites in nine counties with plans for many more over the coming months.

When you said “a flyer came through the letterbox…,” I immediately thought of a WWII fighter pilot. I would love to know more about what inspires you to spend so much of your spare time visiting historical places.
My inspiration comes from my deep love of history. In my early twenties, I joined what was then known as the Heritage Awareness Group, or HAG. We visited sites such as Newgrange, Tara and Baltinglass Abbey. Nowadays my favourite ruins are castles and Neolithic sites such as stone circles and cairns, although I am forever coming across many ecclesiastical sites which are interesting in their own right and make for some stunning shots. It’s quite hard to find the locations so I’ve created maps for each county, and make a point of recording every site I visit on my blog along with an interactive map showing the exact location to assist other travellers.

It’s great that you record your findings in so much detail and include exact locations in case others are inspired to follow in your footsteps. Ireland is a small country, unless you get lost. Tell us, where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in that part of the world?
We have been in Monasterevin, Kildare, for almost seven years now and absolutely love it. It’s a different way of life to Dublin. If I didn’t have to commute daily to the City to work, I would probably return there rarely. The great thing about Monasterevin, besides the relaxed atmosphere and close community, is that I am situated almost in the centre of Ireland. I can travel to any part of the country in two to three hours, which is great considering the amount of travelling involved in “ruin hunting”.

Rock of Dunamase. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

Rock of Dunamase. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

I’ve never been outside Dublin but I hear the countryside is beautiful. Other benefits are that you never run out of Guinness and you just won the Six Nations rugby! Thank you for sharing some of your photo shots which capture a few of your favourite memories. Can you describe the story behind them and what makes them so special?
These three are from recent shoots. The first, of the Rock of Dunamase, is a special place not just for the stunning views and fascinating history but also because it’s where my journey started.

Church ruins in Laois; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Church ruins in Laois; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

The second photo is of another site I discovered in neighbouring Laois, which, with its stunning views, constitutes a ruin hunter’s paradise. This one is special on a personal level as well, being the first ruin I visited with all three children. In the chancel to the rear of the church is an old iron gate blocking the entrance to a vaulted mortuary chamber. Ryan, my eldest, had an interesting observation on the chamber: “Daddy, that’s where the Vampires live.” Now how the heck did he come up with that? Have you ever tried convincing an eight-year-old that something doesn’t exist?

Skryne Hill Church; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Skryne Hill Church; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

The third is of the church that sits on Skryne Hill, the site of an early Christian settlement. To this day my memory of Skryne remains vivid. The tower is inaccessible due to a very heavy iron gate that on examination appeared to be rusted shut. I shone my torch through the bars on one of the windows. Inside were a number of interesting stone artifacts that I wanted to capture. So I set up my flashgun and shot through the bars. On the second or third flash something physically grabbed my camera strap and pulled it into the tower. It all happened so fast, but somehow I managed to pull that camera away from the window while shouting a few expletives. At first I wondered if it might have been a draft of some kind that had caught my strap, but it could not have been as I was pressed right up against the opening and there was no wind to cause a draft. Then I thought that maybe someone was inside, but there was no way for a person to get in or out of the tower. To this day I still can’t explain what happened. But it certainly left a lasting memory.

“Memory, in widow’s weeds, … stands on a tombstone.” —Aubrey de Vere

Great memoriesand that last story is quite eerie. But I suppose you would expect the odd ghost or two in buildings so old? Now, out of these many destinations, do you have any that stand out as your favorites?
If you haven’t already guessed, old ruins are what attract my attention, be it a crumbling castle, a neolithic stone circle or standing stone, or an ancient church overgrown with ivy. Here are three of my favorite places:

Brownshill Dolmen, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Brownshill Dolmen, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Ballymoon Castle, County Carlow. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

Ballymoon Castle, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Cillbharrog Church & cemetery; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Cillbharrog Church & Cemetery; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Can you explain why these particular places inspire you?
It’s kind of hard to explain but once I set foot on the site of an ancient monument, something about the atmosphere affects me, and a flip switches in my head. I feel as though I’m stepping back in time. The modern world disappears for a while and I get to experience something really special. With my photography I try to capture that experience and hopefully portray it to the viewer. Mood, atmosphere and a sense of the past are the most important elements for me to enjoy shooting at a location.

I can assure you, Ed, that, for me, you usually achieve it. Your photos make me feel as though I’m there, not you. I know people aren’t a part of your ruin hunting but I want to ask you all the same if you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people on your travels, particularly when they are conscious you are doing so?
I still enjoy getting out and doing some street photography from time to time and I have never really had an issue with shooting people, but then again I have had plenty of experience ranging from large events in Dublin down to small country festivals. I guess at the start I was a bit shy and unsure of how to approach shooting strangers, but once you learn how to engage with a subject it becomes fun. Some of the best shots I have taken were the result of strangers coming up to me wanting to have their pictures taken. Parades and street festivals are probably the best for doing this as everyone is relaxed and having a good time.

Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
Most times I don’t have to. I find it amazing how people start posing once they see a camera in your hand. Obviously, with children you have to be really careful these days and should always get parental permission.

“Ireland’s ruins are historic emotions surrendered to time.”—Horace Sutton

Interesting—that last point would never be considered in Thailand, where I live. So would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Absolutely, I would say that most photographers constantly strive to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. In my case the deeper motivation is to capture historic sites for posterity. As in many other countries, Ireland’s local and national heritage sites continue to disappear for good. Most people don’t care and the government is only interested in money. Take my home town of Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. There were several castles in the area up until about 40 years ago. Now only a part of one remains. This scenario recurs with alarming regularity. So if I can capture the essence of a place before it is wiped away for good, I have done my job.

I see you use the word “job”. But I see it more as a calling and you, as a preservationist and historian. Either way you are doing an excellent “job”–one that incidentally reminds me of my last interview subject, Gaetan Green. He is trying to record China’s traditional landscapes before they fall to the forces of modernization. So when did you realize this deeper purpose?
Right from the start. The need to preserve the past was a major factor in motivating me to choose this path for my photography.

Now for the technical stuff at which I am far from proficient. What kind of camera and lenses do you use? And which software do you use for post-processing?
I still use my trusty Nikon D40 with kit lens. Yes it is outdated by today’s standards, but it has served me well over the last few years and taken a lot more punishment than it should have. I am planning to upgrade later this year and hopefully the D40 will be converted to shoot Infra Red, which is something I really want to experiment with. For my raw images ACR is a must, but my one stop shop for post processing has to be Photoshop. I currently use CS6 and it does everything I need. I still have various other programs sitting on my desktop but these rarely get a look-in.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
If I was starting photography now I would say take the time to enjoy what you do and most importantly, research, research, research. Find out as much as possible about the place you are travelling to. Look at as many images of the place as you can, take inspiration from them and don’t go and shoot the same scene as everybody else. Look for a new angle or view. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

Thank you, Ed. It has been a real pleasure to interview you. Your story so far is fascinating. I say so far because I know one day you will run out of ruins in Ireland and you’ll be dreaming up your next historical project in places further afield.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Ed’s experiences and his photography advice? And do you have any questions for him on his photos and/or experiences? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Ed Mooney, don’t forget to visit his excellent photography site. You can also like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or shoot him an email.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the start of a brand new column on travel and fantasy writing, by Andrew Couch.

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For this displaced Irish writer and cultural chameleon, a picture says…

Aisha Ashraf Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Aisha Ashraf at Air Canada Centre, Toronto, for her very first live ice hockey game, 2013.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who likes to think of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

A happy new year to one and all at the Displaced Nation. My guest today is 38-year-old Irish expat, blogger, traveller and photographer Aisha Ashraf. She is currently based in Canada with her husband and three children. A freelance features writer, Aisha has published articles in newspapers, magazines and a range of expat and mental health websites. She says she has been a cultural chameleon since she first emigrated from Ireland to England at the age of eight. She is also a friend to the Displaced Nation and a recent recipient of one of its “Alice Awards” for a post on her Expatlog blog, provocatively entitled “My mother was a nun.”

Today I’ve asked Aisha to shares with us her experiences and view of the world via a selection of photos from her peripatetic life. I have followed Aisha on Expatlog for a short while and am so impressed by her pictures and the stories behind them.

* * *

From the glamor of Europe (Paris, France)…

Hi, Aisha. It’s good to meet you here at the Displaced Nation. I understand you now live in Canada. But where were you born, and when did you spread your wings and start traveling?
I was born in the same Dublin hospital as Bono from U2 and spent my early childhood roaming the family farm on the broad plains and bogs of Co Kildare, Ireland. Following my father’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder (“manic depression” in those days), we emigrated to England so that my mother could be nearer her family, swapping the farm for suburban living. I was eight when we left and it was many years before the night-time tears of homesickness subsided.

I have seen U2 twice. A great experience and I wonder if Bono knows he was born in the same hospital as you!! I trust those difficult times are now a distant memory, and I know travel has featured quite a lot in your adult life.
Aside from travelling all over the British Isles (we moved house almost annually after leaving Ireland), I didn’t travel abroad again until I met my husband. Together we explored Europe—we drove all over Malta in a yellow convertible. We also loved Paris so much we kept returning. He proposed to me in the bar of the Metropole Hotel in Brussels—a gorgeous historical landmark in the centre of Belgium’s capital, the setting for numerous films and host to royalty, foreign dignitaries, presidents and film stars.

That gives us quite a lot in common. In 1995 I had a great holiday in Malta, and Paris is a favourite of mine, too. And now I would love to know how you and your husband finally ended up in Canada.
Just before our second child turned one, my husband took a post in Libya while I held the fort at home in the UK. He travelled around the country seeing the sights and even sleeping under the stars in the Sahara, but the long absences were tough on all of us. After six months we were certain we didn’t want to continue living apart and considered moving our family to Tripoli. Luckily for us a post in Canada was offered because in the following months expats were evacuated when the revolutionary spirit that had taken Tunisia by storm spread to Libya, and the Gaddafi regime crumbled. We began the Canadian chapter of our life in 2010 and have been here since.

…to the rugged beauty of North America (Paris, Ontario)


Paris, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Canada is a big country. Where exactly do you live, and what is life like in those parts?
We live in Ontario, just outside Toronto. Initially my husband was slotted for a Toronto office but when Canadian HR learned he had a family they felt we’d be happier in Whitby, a once-bustling port on the banks of Lake Ontario, now a haven for families. It’s a great base from which to explore natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Algonquin Provincial Park, along with historic settlements like Kingston, Stratford, Bracebridge and Paris—Ontario!—which you can see in this first photo. I took it from the bridge spanning the Grand River.

A moment

A moment in the Distillery District, Toronto. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf


The local ribfest. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

Thank you for sharing some of the photos that capture a few of your favourite memories of Canada thus far. I’ve never been there, but I can see it is an amazing place. Can you tell us a bit more about these next two photos, which I believe are of your children?
This first one, of my son standing awestruck before a monstrous sculpture with an exploded head, brings to mind a bitterly cold winter’s day spent exploring Toronto’s Distillery District, where the kids got to meet Santa and the Victorian architecture and cobbled streets made us nostalgic for home. Back then we still felt like tourists. The second one is of my youngest child taking a deep draught from a tin mug at the local ribfest. I’m recalling a day of competitive rib-eating and blazing sunshine that melted into a night of flashing lights and fairground rides. Children are always such rewarding subjects—their innocence and unselfconsciousness makes them great fun to photograph—and the photos I take of my own children of course have special meaning.


Soaring turkey vulture. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

And this next must be a New World bird of prey?
Yes, it’s called a turkey vulture. I got lucky after several attempts of zooming in and losing it to the vastness of a magnified sky. The photo always reminds me of an afternoon spent at the slipway, watching people get their boats in and out of the lake whilst navigating some particularly plentiful algae—it was more entertaining than TV.

The irresistible pull of the Great Outdoors

I think that is so interesting because, recently, I have been looking back over photos I took 35 years ago in many different countries and there isn’t a single one that doesn’t bring on a flood of memories. Photos are like that for me, a trigger, and they always have a story attached. Your two shots of the children are quite compelling—I love the girl picking her nose in the fairground photo—and the vulture is a great shot. Do you have any favorite places in Canada to take photographs?
Without a doubt, it has to be Lake Ontario—it’s where we head to chill, explore, reconnect and refocus. I actually get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t go regularly. The ever-changing light and character mean I snap lots of pictures that, once home, I usually find I have failed to capture whatever elusive quality it was I was trying for. We go for walks on trails and in conservation areas so I have countless photos of woods and water. Here are just a few that I really like:


Cliff walk near Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf


Pumpkin field near Zephyr, Uxbridge, Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf


Lake Ontario. Photo credit: Aisha Ashraf

The one of your daughter in the field full of pumpkins is so vital, and the naturalness of the colours brings your lovely composition to life. By complete contrast, your daughter on the rocks is positively Neolithic and, although it’s Canada, so Cornish! Nourishing stuff. And I understand that the black-and-white photo of the sea lapping the shore of the lake is a real favourite of yours. Can you explain why these places inspire you?
I love nature—perhaps it was growing up on a farm and spending most of my time outdoors. I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and getting outside is a big factor in alleviating its debilitating hold. I see incredible, uncomplicated beauty in the natural world that I find soothing and strengthening. I try to capture it with my camera in a way that may allow others to be moved/nourished by it, too.

Thank you for your honesty about your condition, Aisha. I feel exactly the same about photographing the natural world: it allows us to capture not just the picture but the way we feel at that particular moment. Unfortunately, unlike you I am only at a level where I am trying to move and nourish myself. If others are moved also, that’s a bonus. Now I know you enjoy photographing your kids, but do you ever go to the other extreme: ie, taking photos of people you don’t know in the places where you visit, and do you find that awkward?
Absolutely! I know my shyness has cost me many a great photo-op. I’m not sure if it’s my BPD or my peripatetic life, but I always feel like an observer, standing in the periphery looking in. This translates into a preference for my subjects to be oblivious to me and my camera. I like to capture the raw moment.

Yes, I know that feeling. You want to melt into the undergrowth and take the most natural shot possible. Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any language barriers?
I have, on occasion, screwed up my courage and asked someone if they’d mind if I took their picture—come to think of it, no one’s ever said no. I think if language were a barrier, it might make things easier. Tourists get away with a lot!

I understand. Taking people photos can be a bit personal. It’s so much easier shooting a mountain as it’s too far away to argue! Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Capturing memories and the perfect picture are my twin obsessions. I’m in love with light and the effect it has on everything: the study, the photographer, the viewer. Is there anything else so intangible, potent and unspoken, and whose experience is unique to each individual?

When did you come to realise the importance of light?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been transported by the tone of light or the way it falls—it triggers memories for me like nothing else can. Not so much of occasions, but of feeling and being. For a few brief seconds I’m caught in a flashback. Time slows so that even the dialogue in my head is distorted, becoming deep and stretched like treacle, a voice on a tape recorder played too slow.

Such powerful analogies. Now for the technical stuff which I am not very good at. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Fuji FinePix f750EXR—it’s just a regular compact camera, no fancy lenses or anything. If I couldn’t fit it in my pocket, I wouldn’t be able to take it everywhere with me. Photography is as much about identifying a good picture as it is about capturing it, and many great photographers have started with a basic machine. A good eye is evident whatever tool you have at your disposal.

I can’t tell you how much better that makes me feel! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers (like me) who are traveling or living abroad?
Never leave home without your camera. Mine even comes grocery shopping with me—you just never know where that next great shot will be. Sometimes you find the sublime in the ordinary, and for me that’s the sign of a great photographer—that ability to show the beauty in the everyday.

Thank you so much, Aisha, for joining me in this interview. It really has been a pleasure talking to you.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Aisha’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Aisha, don’t forget to visit her excellent blog, Expatlog. You are also welcome to contact her at +/or follow her on social media:
Twitter: @AishaAshraf1
Facebook: Expatlog FB Page
Linkedin: Linkedin profile
Google+: Linkedin Profile

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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And the November 2013 Alices go to … these 5 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up. Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present an “Alice Award” to a writer or other kind of creative person who we think has a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager. Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement to their advantage, as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors November’s five Alice recipients.

Starting with the most recent, and this time with annotations, they are (drumroll…):

1) MATT HERSHBERGER, intrepid traveler, former expat in UK, and blogger at A Man Without a Country

For his post: Why I don’t take pictures when I travel, on Matador Network
Published: 18 November 2013

If you’re a good photographer, by all means, keep taking pictures. I need something to fuel my nostalgia addiction when I’m trapped in my cubicle at work. But if you’re not a great photographer, put down the camera. Enjoy the giraffe.

Citation: Matt, as you may know, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, fancied himself as something of a photographer, even toying with the idea of making a living from his photos. But it’s a good thing for posterity that he decided to turn to words instead (while still leaving us with a photo or two of his youthful muse, Alice Liddell). And probably also a good thing that he left off illustrating the book; otherwise, we’d be deprived of the extraordinary drawings of Sir John Tenniel. (That said, Carroll’s own drawings of Alice aren’t half bad.) We suspect that Charles/Lewis would chime in with you and say: “Like me, you moderns should find your niche and stick to it; practice your craft and stop faffing about.” Unfortunately, though, we suspect that even (especially?) Mr. Carroll would be fatally attracted to some of our modern-day gadgetry and communications techniques, the ubiquitous cell phone having turned us all into Victorian tinkerers of a sort, who attempt to do everything from blogging to design to photography to videos without much (if any) training—a case of doing many things badly instead of a few things well. And the presence of social media encourages us to share the rather meager fruits of our labors with everyone else, as though they were works of staggering genius. Still, we unreservedly endorse your “enjoy the giraffe” campaign—so much more creative.

2) Architectural historian JANIE RICE BROTHER, American expat in UK and blogger at FH & FAG

For her post: “The Geffrye Museum and the History of the Almshouse” for the Smitten by Britain blog
Posted on: 22 November 2013
Snippet (after noting that the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch occupies the building and grounds of a former almshouse, or poorhouse):

The Geffrye is the only museum in the United Kingdom dedicated to the history of the domestic interiors of the urban middle class. . . . [I]t took an excellent collection of buildings—home for many people over the generations—and preserved not only the structures themselves but the fleeting and changing sense of home and its traditions over the years.

Citation:  Janie-Rice, we love the sense of wonder with which you approach this almshouse-turned-museum. It reminds us of Alice’s excitement when showing her black kitten, Kitty, the “little PEEP of the passage in Looking-glass House”:

Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty.

A Looking-glass House, an almshouse, a museum of houses…whatever floats your (house)boat and spurs your creativity, we heartily approve.

3) JOSH, blogger at Real Life English

For his post: How Your Personality Changes When You Speak in a Foreign Language
Posted on: 16 April 2012

…what happens when you speak a foreign language using the rhythm from your native language? The effect is that even if everything else is perfect, the listener might not understand everything you say because it still seems like you’re speaking a foreign language. The following video demonstrates this concept quite well. In it there are a group of Italians singing in what seems to be English, but if you listen carefully you will realize that they are speaking gibberish. . . .

Citation: Josh, we love the idea of developing another personality when living in another culture. Far too many of us internationals cling to the naive belief that we can go around the world just being ourselves. As you point out, the only way to be yourself is to adopt the rhythms of the other language/culture, which paradoxically entails acting like someone else. And here is where Alice comes in: she tries to use reasoning suited to the above-ground world, only to find that no one understands her, and some even feel quite offended by what she says. (Mind you, it was a tad culturally insensitive of her to mention her cat, Dinah, in front of Mouse, and to go on about Dinah’s hunting skills to the creatures in the Caucus Race.) Gradually it dawns on her that she must adopt Wonderland’s logic of nonsense, even if that means risking becoming someone she doesn’t recognize:

But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

International creatives, if you take nothing else from this citation please remember that having an identity crisis is a positive sign. At some point, you will find it an asset to have multiple personalities to draw on.

4) DAWN RUTHERFORD MARCHANT, American expat in London and Quora community member

For her post: US Expat Describes The Best And Worst Things About England (a re-publication of her answer to a Quora question: What is it like to move to England from the United States?)
Posted on: 2 November 2013

Houses are very expensive and you will live in a house half the size you’d expect in the US, often attached to your neighbour and with a one car garage (if you are lucky). There are no basements, so you feel cramped and everything is cluttered—I’ve never seen a walk-in closet to date. You will cram everything into a ‘wardrobe’ the size of your coat closet.

Citation: Dawn, at this point in your narrative, we began to picture you as Alice when, after drinking an unmarked bottle of liquid, grows into a giant with her arms and legs shooting out the windows and doors of the White Rabbit’s house. Perhaps the only consolation is that with one of your arms out the window, you should find it easier to hang the laundry out to dry (another of the bugbears you mention about life in the UK). Further to which, we wouldn’t advise “giving up your arm” for an American washer and dryer. That said, you do have a point about the ironing. It can’t be easy bending an elbow under such conditions! In any event, thank you for painting such a vivid portrait of life in the UK, cramps and all.

4) AISHA ASHRAF, Irish expat in Canada, freelance writer and blogger at Expatlog

For her post: My mother was a nun
Posted on: 7 March 2013
Snippet (pertaining to the times she and her sisters would accompany their mother on visits to her former convent):

Looking back, I see that we were also entering a different culture, an insulated bubble within the larger alien culture of middle England. Like Inception—a dream within a dream. It was all very different from the Irish farm, but it felt like being part of a family, something I came to idealise later on when mine turned out to be so dysfunctional.

Citation: Aisha, leave it to you to bring us to even greater depths by suggesting that expats can find alien worlds within alien worlds, wonderlands within wonderlands, ad infinitum, rather like the mirror reflecting the mirror in Velázquez’s baroque masterpiece, Las Meninas. What’s more, you’ve suggested that a person can come to appreciate the relationships formed within these wonderlands even more than their original relationships with family. If that isn’t going through the looking glass, we’re not sure what is! Thanks for such a cosmic post, from which we’re still reeling (in a good way, of course!).

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award?  We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on these weekly sources of inspiration. Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment on blogging from JACK THE HACK.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance whether you’re one of our Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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19 more films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced

Readers, we have to confess, ever since horror novelist, former expat and Third Culture Kid Sezin Koehler suggested 15 horror films on travel and the expat life, we’ve become rather addicted — and have invited her back here today for another hit. Go ahead and indulge yourselves — it’s Halloween, after all!

Being the horror-obsessed film nut that I am — and loving how my expat/traveller life has collided with my scary movie self — I offer here are a few more honorable mentions within the three sub-genres I presented in last week’s post:

  1. The expat.
  2. The world traveler.
  3. The otherwise displaced.

1. Expat Horror: Caveat expat, or expat beware (or in some cases, beware of the expat!).

1) Blood and Chocolate, about an American orphan who goes to live with her aunt in Bucharest. Oh, and the orphan is a werewolf.




2) Drag Me To Hell, in which a Romany shaman in the US is evicted from her home and takes her rage out on the lowly loan officer who refused to give her a mortgage.




3) In The Hole we find an American student in a British boarding school who gets trapped in a World War II bomb shelter with a few classmates. So we’re led to think…




4) In The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar gets far more than she ever bargained for living and working in Japan as a nurse, when a malevolent creature in her house begins an awful campaign of harassment, mayhem and torture.




5) Orphan finds us with a family interested in adopting a young Russian girl, only the longer she’s with them the more the mother suspects she’s not the child she claims to be.




6) + 7) The Joss Whedon marvels Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of
which feature a number of prominent expats — a few are slayer trainers sent over to California from the Old World (Britain), a few are expat vampires who’ve decided the anonymity of the United States better suits their feeding habits.



2. Traveler Horror: “Let your suitcases gather dust!”, cry these films.

8) In Shrooms, a group of young Americans go to meet their Irish friend on his home turf in order to experience the hallucinogenic mushrooms indigenous to the fairylands of Ireland’s bonnie green forests. He forgot to tell them that their chosen “tripping” site is also the home of a haunted and abandoned insane asylum. And that not all the mushrooms are the magic type.



9) In Open Water, two Carribbean cruise snorkelers are left behind, to be tormented by a shark. Based on a true story — and one of many reasons why I keep my feet on dry land despite now living in Florida.




10) In the same vein we have Piranha 3D, in which half-naked spring-breakers are set upon by prehistoric piranha that have been released through an underground fault.




11) The Hills Have Eyes features a family on a road trip through the post-nuclear testing New Mexico desert are set upon by a group of psychopaths who live in the hills.




12) Worlds collide in From Dusk Till Dawn when a reverend on a road trip to Mexico with his children is hijacked by two ruthless killers on the lam from the law after a series of brutal murders and robberies. They find themselves like fish out of water when their rest-stop bar turns out to be a haven for vampires.




13) When a group of friends go white water rafting in Appalachia, the idylic back country scene turns nightmare when a group of inbred locals terrorizes the group, and one of its members in particular. Deliverance is not for the faint of heart.




I could keep going with this sub-genre, but surely you get the point by now. Stay home!

3. Displaced Horror: “Think twice about moving or taking a sojourn outside the ‘hood” is the moral here.

14) Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow discovers that her new Manhattan residence is also the home to a group of mad Satanists who’ve got their sights on her unborn baby.




15) The slasher musical Don’t Go In the Woods features a band on the verge of a breakthrough go camping to write some new tunes. Only, there’s something else in there with them that’s picking them off one by one.




16) Every incarnation of the Alien series brings us a group of Earth’s citizens in outer space, battling a wretched and basically unkillable xenomorph. Keep your feet on land. Save yourself the trouble.




17) In Friday the 13th, a group of summer-camp goers are stalked by a relentless killer. Man, this one makes me glad I never went to summer camp, even though growing up I always wanted to.




18) A writer on a summertime retreat to a supposedly peaceful cabin is brutalized by a gang of locals. One of my personal favorites, I Spit On Your Grave is a grotesque revenge fantasy come to life and suggests one might be better off simply working from home.




19) And we can’t forget one of the most iconic examples of Displaced Horror: The Shining, in which Jack Torrance, temporary caretaker of the historically creepy and ever haunted evil Overlook Hotel, goes mad and tries to murder his family. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, eh?

Happy Hallowe’en!

* * *

So, are you ready to burn your passport and throw away all your travel gear yet? 😉

And while we’re still at it, do you have any other films you’d add to Sezin’s best-of abroad horror list?

Sezin Koehler, author of American Monsters, is a woman either on the verge of a breakdown or breakthrough writing from Lighthouse Point, Florida. Culture shock aside, she’s working on four follow-up novels to her first, progress of which you can follow on her Pinterest boards. Her other online haunts are Zuzu’s Petals, Twitter, and Facebook — all of which feature eclectic bon mots, rants and raves.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, in which our fictional expat heroine, Libby Oliver, checks in and lets us know how she’s doing back at “home” in Merry Olde.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Grim Reapers around the globe: 7 creatures that say “Time’s up!”

Before we had civil lawsuits, and lawyers wanting to find someone to take the fall for all Life’s misfortunes, we had mythological creatures to take the blame and who couldn’t be subpoenaed.

This Halloween, in the interests of banishing our modern litigious society, perhaps we should consider reintroducing some of these ancient ghouls to replace the ambulance-chasing variety.

1) Banshee (Ireland)

A fairy woman — omens of death are nearly always women — who weeps and wails when someone is about to die. Usually appears as an old hag, but can be a beautiful woman of any age. Or a hooded crow or hare. Or a stoat. Or a weasel.

Evidently a creature that hedges its bets.

The ever-practical Scots have a version called the bean sìth, who makes herself useful by washing the blood-stained clothes or armour of the nearly dead.

2) Aswang (Philippines)

A generic term for witch/vampire/shapeshifter, etc, responsible for various human misfortunes, including but not limited to:

  • Grave robberies
  • Miscarriages
  • Kidnappings
  • Any mildly strange incidents reported in the local tabloids that would benefit from supernatural sensationalism.

Certain areas of the Philippines have a high prevalence of the neurological disorder dystonia; one theory is that this disease, with its characteristic involuntary muscle contractions, gave rise to the belief in the aswang.

3) Rusalka (Slavic mythology)

Another mythological, wily, conniving female; the unquiet spirit of, say, a jilted woman or unmarried mother who has committed suicide, or a drowned, unbaptized baby.

The rusalka lives at the bottom of a river, emerging in the middle of the night to dance and sing and thus lure unsuspecting males back to the river for a watery death.

Nothing to do with the unsuspecting males having one pint too many at the local hostelry and falling in the river on the way home, then.

4) Sihuanaba (Central America)

Seen from the back, she’s an attractive woman with long hair; from the front, it’s a horse. (No jokes about Sex and the City, please.) Another female creature that lures innocent men astray, this time to lose them in deep canyons.

All very Freudian.

5) Bäckahästen, or Brook Horse (Scandinavia)

A white horse, appearing near rivers. Not a good idea to catch a ride on this creature, because once you’re aboard, you can’t get off. The horse will jump in the river and you’ll drown.

But hey. At least this one isn’t a woman.

6) Hellhound (Europe)

Fierce black dog of super strength and speed, who often has the job of guarding entrances to the underworld, such as graveyards. Why this is mystical, I don’t know. There’s nothing mystical about a dog hanging around a place full of buried bones.

Its howl is an omen, or even cause, of death. Stare into its glowing red/yellow eyes three times or more and you will die, for sure. The mythology books don’t specify what you will die of, though.

Rabies, is my guess.

7) La Sayona (Venezuela)

A beautiful woman from the jungle, appearing to guys who are indulging in extra-curricular love activities, or even just idly contemplating having a bit on the side.

Depending on which story you believe, she either takes the errant man into the jungle to eat or mangle him, or she covers his nether regions with an eruption of boils that he has to explain away later to his wife.

“Look, I’d run out of toilet paper, OK? The only thing handy was poison ivy.”

At this point, the errant husband is probably wishing he’d met the kind of sayona that eats and mangles.


STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s Random Nomad, another crime writer!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Image: The Banshee (Wiki Commons)

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