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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Living in France, English writer Harriet Springbett isn’t afraid to go out on a limb and produce first novel


Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, Harriet Springbett, an Englishwoman who is now rooted in south-western France and has seen her creative life blossom as a result.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is Harriet Springbett, an English writer who lives in the Poitou-Charentes region of France with her French husband and their dual-nationality teenage daughters.

Harriet grew up in West Dorset. She qualified as a manufacturing engineer before discovering she preferred people to machines and words to numbers. It was the mid-1990s, and she thought about applying for an MA in creative writing, a degree that was rare at the time, but her boyfriend was French and she ended up moving to France to study French for a year at the Université de Pau. As she writes in one of her blog posts: “I finally opted for love in an exotic setting.” She settled down in France, and in addition to having a family has worked as a project manager, a freelance feature writer, a translator and an English teacher—while writing fiction in her spare time.

Now in her forties, Harriet has produced her debut novel, Tree Magic. Released this year in January by Impress Books, it’s a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl named Rainbow, who has secret powers over trees: she can help them grow and heal. Reflecting Harriet’s own experience, Rainbow travels from England to France, but in Rainbow’s case the quest is to discover whether her ability to communicate with trees is a gift or a curse.

Harriet writes every morning and also maintains an author site, Harriet Springbett’s playground: Words and Thoughts about writing in France, where she covers writing, life in France, and French cultural events. Several of her short stories (e.g., “Quark Soup,” “Shingle and Sand,”Ami Entends-tu?” and “Big Bones”) have been placed and shortlisted in competitions or published in magazines such as The French Literary Review.

* * *

Welcome, Harriet, to Location, Locution. My first question to you is: how has being “displaced” affected your writing? Has it affected what you write, how you write, that you write at all, or had some other effect?

Over the years I’ve realised that I write to keep in touch with my English origins. When I go back to England and see bookshops stuffed with books, or blogs featuring new books every day, I feel intimidated. Writing stories suddenly seems rather pointless and I wonder what I can possibly add to the overloaded bookshelves. Then I come home to France and it feels rare and right once more. France is my cocoon. If I lived in England, I’m not sure I’d be a writer. Living in France also means that I’m now uncomfortable writing about English settings because I lack familiarity with today’s England. This means that most of my work is set in France or in pre-1999 England.

Which comes first for you, story or location?

Actually, character comes first for my novels, but the location is usually attached to the character. I was fascinated to hear displaced novelist and academic author Patricia Duncker say that the location is often the part of a story that remains with the reader for longest—well after you’ve forgotten the characters and the plot. This is true for me as a reader, and as a writer I need to be able to visualize and sense the setting very clearly. The location grounds the story. At the moment I am writing a story set in the Pyrenees mountains, a place I love, so it’s a real pleasure for me to spend imagination time there.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I write more easily about countryside locations than cities, maybe because I find that cities feel calculated whereas nature is full of coincidental oddities. When I describe places, I try to use all five senses, though not in a list, of course. Sometimes I will associate a smell or a sound with a place, so that when different characters are in the place they will experience the same sense, but colour it with their own perception according to their character or mood. In this way the reader learns about the character as well as the place. Other times I search for a metaphor or simile that describes the place as a whole and leave it to the reader to imagine the details.

Can you give us some examples of features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food…?

That’s really difficult to pin down. All of these are important, along with language, and, of course, the light: some places have a dark, brooding light, while others have a brightness that bleaches them almost into two dimensions. But the most evocative features are often those you don’t expect. It’s important to spot little details that say a lot, and I love going out and about alone because this is when I play at putting words to what’s around me. On the subject of detail, I remember listening to Beatrice Colin talk about how to make historical fiction authentic: she said you don’t need to describe everything, just a few places—but you must do this in detail.

Can you give us an example from your novel, Tree Magic?

Here is a passage from the beginning of Chapter Two, when Rainbow is out selling tomatoes and arrives at the so-called Drunken House, on the outskirts of the village where she lives.

The Drunken House was the local horror spot, the place you had to go into alone if you lost at Forfeits. She’d only lost once, but the memory of invisible eyes watching her as she’d stood in the hall and counted to ten had been burnt into her mind forever. She’d stopped playing Forfeits with the village kids after that.

The house lurked on the inside of a bend in the dank lane and had been empty for years. Ivy-clad trees grew on the steep bank opposite, and its cold brick walls huddled in their shade. There weren’t any neighbouring houses. It crouched alone, full of ghosts who were just waiting for her to run home alone on a dark night so they could reach out and grab her.

Rainbow hurried past, clutching her bucket. She could feel the house’s dampness creeping out to her. It willed her to push open the rotting door and sacrifice her warm body to its hunger.

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

I don’t need to know it well but I do need to have a strong sense of it. I often have a real place in my mind as a starting point, which I then adapt to suit the needs of the story. This is the case with The Drunken House extract above: I know the place I mean, but it has changed in my mind to become this new place, which is part real, part fiction. The Chinese novelist and Nobel Laureate Mo Yan mentions this mix of real and imagined locations in his collection of essays Dépasser Le Pays Natal (roughly translated as “Surpassing Your Native Land”). He talks about how, when he returned to his childhood home after several decades of absence, he was surprised to find it different to the childhood home he’d remembered and described in his fiction. I can identify with this.

Last but not least, which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I tend to find that most books I enjoy have evocative settings. Two authors come to mind immediately: in Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck’s Report, a kind of adult fairy tale, I am in those mountains alongside Brodeck. His skill in creating convincing locations is such that the French cartoonist Manu Larcenet was able to create a graphic novel based on this book, and its images, although somewhat darker, are very close to the pictures in my head. The other writer is Donna Tartt—particularly, The Little Friend, whose hot, sticky, Mississippi setting actually made me sweat. She’s the queen of sensory detail and I think this is why I inhabit her books so easily. And if she’s the queen, then British novelist Jon McGregor has to be the king (I hope they don’t mind me marrying them off like this!).

Harriet Springbeck’s picks for contemporary writers who have mastered the art of writing about (and in one case, illustrating!) place

Thanks so much, Harriet, for your answers. It’s been such a pleasure.

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Harriet Springbett and her creative output, I suggest you visit her “playground”. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Harriet! Harriet, I can relate to the idea that you initially went to France as a love-pat, and although you thought it might mean relinquishing your writing career as you have expressed in this post, it seems you are now finding your way. Not only that but your displaced life has fed your creative urges. Kudos! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of West Dorset and French countryside via Pixabay. Other tree photos, including the one in the background of Springbett’s book cover, also via Pixabay.

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EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: What score does Chandi Wyant earn on the “international creative” scale? (2/2)


Readers, I’m happy to report that Chandi Wyant came up with a winning algorithm for her new memoir, Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy. She is therefore proceeding to the second round of the Expat Author Game.

During this round, we’ll be trying to see how closely she measures up to the Displaced Nation’s (admittedly somewhat quirky) notion of an “international creative.”

On the face of it, Chandi has a solid claim to being “international.” Not only has she lived in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, and England) but also in South Asia (India) and the Middle East (Qatar).

That said, she recently confessed to one interviewer that after spending so much of her life abroad, she developed a huge appreciation for her native California:

I see it now as one of the most beautiful and healthy places in the world to live. Not only does it have every kind of stunning landscape you could want, it has an abundance of organic food, and an abundance of educated people who know how to think critically. I’m not too impressed with the US right now—but if I look at California just on its own, it’s a darn close second to Italy.

Furthermore, I think it’s fair to call Chandi “creative”. She was encouraged from a young age to paint and draw a lot, with the result that she often “sees photographs” in the world around her. (Notably, she shares one of her actual photos below.) Writing is also important to her. While in Qatar, she taught history at a local college and got to know a lot of young Qataris. She conducted interviews with some of them and some day hopes to turn those interviews into a book. That’s in addition to the memoir she just produced about her pilgrimage along the Via Francegena.

Even the title of her personal Website is creative: Paradise of Exiles, which is what the Romantic English poet Shelley called Italy.

But now it’s time to see how Chandi manages Round Two, where points are scored for intangible indicators of an expansive, global outlook and the ability to take a creative approach to exploring the world.

Welcome back, Chandi, and now let’s get started. Many residents of the Displaced Nation have had a moment or two when they’ve felt like a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, myself included. How about you? Or if you’d prefer, you can use a quote from another children’s book.

I’ll choose this quote from Dr. Seuss:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.”

The feet in the shoes and any direction you choose reminds me of the time I got lost on my solo pilgrimage in Italy. My feet in my shoes were not doing well. I had developed plantar fasciitis and had bought arch supports but they were sliding around in my shoes. It was super hot, it felt like there was a gremlin in my shoes stabbing my heals, and I was lost in stark wheat fields somewhere south of Siena. Then I simply chose a direction, and by making a choice, I was able to stop being anxious about how to find my way.

Moving on to the next literature-related challenge: According to George Elliot’s Maggie Tulliver, the best reason to leave her native village of St. Ogg’s would be to see other creatures like the elephant. What’s the most exotic animal you’ve observed in its native setting?

An oryx in Qatar. It’s a large species of antelope that is native to the Arabian Peninsula. It nearly went extinct due to poaching but has been reintroduced.

Last but not least on this series of literary challenges: We’re curious about whether you’ve had any Wizard of Oz moments when venturing across borders. Again, please use a quote or two.

GOOD WITCH GLINDA TO DOROTHY: “You are capable of more than you know.” Definitely the capability thing comes up a lot when I travel alone (or move alone) to far flung places, both of which I seem to do. I didn’t necessarily set out to travel alone and move abroad alone so many times in my adult life. It all started when I was 19 (that was in the 80s), when I did a budget backpacking trip in Europe with a friend. After four months of travel together, we split up in Istanbul. In my first 24 hours of solo travel, all kinds of crazy things happened and I quickly learned that as soon as you cut through the fear and embrace the world, that it embraces you back. (These stories are recounted in more detail in my book.)

Moving on to another dimension of creativity: telling tales of one’s travels through photos. Can you share with us a favorite photo you’ve taken recently that in some way relates to your creative life, and tell us why it has meaning for you?


This one I took recently in Lucca, Italy (where I now live). It has meaning because doorways like these symbolize for me an opening of consciousness, and an invitation to step into mystery.

And now for our interplanetary challenge: Can you envision taking your exploration of other modes of being beyond Planet Earth? How about a trip to Mars?

I don’t want to offend anyone who is super into Mars but I have no interest in going to Mars or any other planet. I am awed by the planet we have and how special it is, and it’s an enormous shame that we’ve not learned to respect it and take care of it. I am much more interested in how we can better appreciate and take care of planet Earth, rather than attempt to get to Mars, which clearly is vastly inferior to Earth, as far as sustaining life.

* * *

Congratulations, Chandi! Just as I suspected, you easily rose to the challenge of Part Two of our Expat Authors Game. Personally, I found your Dr. Suess citation inspired! Readers, are you ready to score Chandi’s performance on Part Two? How did she do with her literary references? And what about that animal of hers: rather unusual! And don’t you like that photo of her up top, looking so joyful in an Italian setting? She says she hasn’t mastered the technical side of photography, but that photo of the doors in Lucca suggests otherwise…

Finally please note: If you want to keep cultivating your inner glow under Chandi’s influence, be sure to check out her author site and its companion Facebook and Instagram pages.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Photo of Paul and the ocean supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: Chandi Wyant’s algorithm for “Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy” (1/2)


Hello, Displaced Nationers—or should I say ciao in honor of our special guest, Chandi Wyant, player number three in our Expat Author Game?

Born in California, Chandi has lived in Qatar, India, Italy, Switzerland, and England, but of these, Italy easily stands out as her favorite. Her passion for the boot-shaped country began when she lived there in her late teens, a commitment that has only deepened over the years. Having learned Italian, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Florentine Renaissance history (giving her an excuse for plenty more visits).

And now she’s living in Italy again! Back in America for a while, Chandi relocated to Lucca a few months ago, a city on the Serchio river in Italy’s Tuscany region.

I ask you, who wouldn’t want to be displaced in Lucca? As Lonely Planet puts it:

“Lovely Lucca endears itself to everyone who visits.”

But life for Chandi hasn’t always been an Italian idyll. When she reached her early forties, her marriage of 10 years imploded, and she was struck by a debilitating illness from which she nearly died (in an Italian hospital!).

Her solution to this mid-life crisis? To take a 40-day-long walk along Via Francigena, the historic pilgrimage route that runs from France to Italy. She reasoned that, although she had been weakened by illness, she could still walk. And, like pilgrims of long ago, she hoped that trekking over the Apennines, through the valleys of Tuscany until reaching Rome, would help to restore her in body and spirit.

To find out what happened on her solo adventure, I urge you to read her newly published memoir, Return to Glow: A Pilgrimage of Transformation in Italy.

Hm, for an author who has withstood so much pain, including having to do most of her epic walk while suffering from plantar fasciitis (that’s what walking on asphalt for several days, with a pack on one’s back, will do to the feet), I wonder if Chandi might find our Expat Author Game a bit of cake walk?

In any event, let’s see how she handles Part One: namely, developing an algorithm for her new book. (Part Two is available here.)

If we like Return to Glow, which movie/musical/play/TV series would we also like?

The first two movies that come to mind are Wild and The Way. In Wild you’ve got a single woman on a long-distance walk, so that’s the same as my book, although mine takes place in Italy and is on an ancient pilgrimage route. So then The Way comes in because it is on a European pilgrimage route—albeit in Spain, not Italy, and the protagonist is a man. Now, to add a movie that honors the sensuality of Italy, I would choose Stealing Beauty. It’s about an American girl’s summer in Tuscany and it’s very visually lush. Bertolucci is masterful at bringing alive a sensual and sybaritic Tuscan summer. My pilgrimage was not at all sensual or sybaritic, but what Bertolucci captures in this film is also what captured my heart when I first fell in love with Italy at age 19, and what kept me returning there for the past 30 years.

What meal or dish would go well with reading your book?

If I may, I like to reference a post I wrote for my blog, Paradise of Exiles, about the three best dishes I ate in Florence last year:
1) Arista di maiale con salvia e rosmarino (roasted pork loin with sage and rosemary)
2) Tagliatelle con porcini e nepitella (pasta with porcini mushrooms and calamint, aka basil thyme)
3) Pizza bianca con asparagi, cipolloti primaverili, fiordilatte, e pecorino Romano (pizza with asparagus, spring onions, fresh mozzarella, and pecorino cheese)

Any of these three dishes would go wonderfully when reading my book!

If your book had a signature cocktail, what would it be?

Vin Santo, Tuscany’s dessert wine.

Are there any special clothes/headgear/costumes/accessories we could wear to put us in the mood for reading your book?

In a museum on the pilgrimage route I saw a replica of what a pilgrim from the middle ages wore, including the long staff that was carried with a gourd tied to it (the medieval Nalgene bottle!). You need a cloak, a seashell hanging around your neck, and a long staff with a gourd.

If we wanted to take a mini-trip to understand your story better, where would you recommend we travel and which one or two sights should we take in?

Pick any location on the Via Francigena in Italy! Or take my suggestions in this post of four small places found along the route, that are perhaps less familiar to tourists, and that contain historic sites worth discovering:
1) Pontremoli, a town at the base of the Apennines, on the Magra River.
2) Bagno Vignoni, a town in southern Tuscany where the main piazza is a pool of steaming thermal water!
3) Bolsena, a town in the region of Lazio, near the shores of Lake Bolsena.
4) Sutri, a town in northern Lazio that was one of the last strongholds of the Etruscans.

* * *

So, readers, tell us: Has Chandi come up with a winning algorithm? Does the thought of slipping into a medieval travel cloak and taking a swig of Vin Santo from your gourd while trekking along the Via Francigena make you want to buy Chandi’s book? How about supping on pizza bianca while recalling the excitement of reading/watching Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and/or imagining yourself immersed in the relaxing thermal baths at Bagno Vignoni?

If by now you’re starting to feel your inner glow, be sure to check out Chandi’s author site and its companion Facebook and Instagram pages.

And STAY TUNED for Part Two next week!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Book cover and other photos (supplied).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: France-based English writer Jacqueline Yallop recommends a life of “being on the move”


Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the lyrical writer Jacqueline Yallop, who says she’s a believer in writers being “on the move.” Hm, let’s see what she means by that…

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest this month is British writer Jacqueline Yallop, who has been living in South-West France for more than ten years while also spending time in the UK.

Before moving countries, Jacqueline studied English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford. She went on to obtain a PhD at the University of Sheffield, with a thesis exploring literature, objects, collecting and museums in the 19th century.

Jacqueline’s first career was as a museum curator. She worked with a variety of collections including the Wordsworth Trust collection and archive, at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, and the Ruskin collection, at Museums Sheffield.

She has since moved on to a career in creative writing and is the author of three novels:

  • Marlford (2015), set in a dilapidated manor house in England in 1969.
  • Obedience (2011), set mostly in a convent in 1940s occupied France; and
  • Kissing Alice (2010), set in 1920s and 1930s England (shortlisted for the 2010 McKitterick Prize).

She has two non-fiction works as well:

  1. Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World (2012), which tells the stories of some of the 19th-century’s most intriguing collectors following their perilous journeys across the globe in the hunt for rare and beautiful objects; and
  2. Dreamstreets: A Journey Through Britain’s Village Utopias (2015), exploring a network of “ideal” villages which sprang up across Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. A Guardian critic praised its “sharp and tangible” descriptions of place, surface and mood.

Jacqueline’s most recent work, out this month, is the memoir Big Pig Little Pig: A Tale of Two Pigs in France, about why she quit city life to move to France to rear pigs.

In addition to her own creative endeavors, Jacqueline teaches creative writing at the University of Aberystwyth and mentors emerging writers.

* * *

Welcome, Jacqueline, to Location, Locution. My first question to you is: how has being “displaced” affected your writing? Has it affected what you write, how you write, that you write at all, or had some other effect?

I don’t really consider myself displaced so much, as “on the move”! Being on the move is helpful as a writer, because I find that it’s often when you first arrive somewhere that you see the place most clearly, with the curiosity and detachment of a newcomer. My second novel, Obedience, for example, was very much inspired by stories I’d heard from neighbours when I first moved to France—stories which struck me at the time as strange and moving and worthy of attention.

But how about nowadays? You’ve been living in France for a while.

True. My memoir, Big Pig Little Pig, is absolutely rooted in my growing attachment to a particular place: it aims to capture the moment when you stop feeling displaced and begin to feel as though you belong. That’s an important—and ambiguous—moment for me.

Which comes first for you, story or location?

The two are so tangled together that I couldn’t say. When I begin to imagine a new story, I always see it in a particular place and begin to people it with characters that act in the ways they do because of the locations that have helped form them. But then when I start to think about locations, I’m immediately inspired by the character stories that help to define place.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I don’t think there’s a secret to this: it’s about finding those little details that say a lot without words; it’s about trying to nail down where the past meets the present, and the crossover between the physical environment—townscapes, landscapes—and its less tangible “spirit”.

Can you give us some examples of what you mean by little details: landscape, culture, food?

All of these, I would say, as well as other things: what do people look like in this place? What do they wear? How do they speak? What work do they do? In the end, of course, most places look very similar to somewhere else, one way or another—but there will be a combination of people, things, events, nature etc. that end up making a place unique.

Can you give a brief example from your latest work that illustrates place?

Here’s a paragraph from Big Pig Little Pig, which, I hope, captures something of the joy and intimacy of being close to the land:

“One of the pigs’ new favourite games is pear chase. I stand at the top of the slope with a bucket of windfall pears from the tree in our garden. The fruit are too small and grainy for us, but the pigs love them, and in particular love foraging for them, so I hurl them one at a time as hard and as far as I can. The pears bounce off in all directions, ricocheting from trunks, rolling down the terraces, splatting hard against stones; the pigs follow after, galloping down the hill, slipping and sliding, stopping to find a pear, hearing another one fall close by and setting off after it, barging and wrangling, snuffling through the dug earth after the scent of fruit. When I’ve emptied the bucket I watch them for a while and then leave them to their search; they’ll be at it a long time.”

I love the way the passage takes us right into the scene. It seems that you feel you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

All my books have been set in places I know very well—I’ve either lived in the place or have family connections there. Some of the students I teach manage to create a completely fictional place from scratch—perhaps a fantasy setting, or a dystopian city—but I struggle to do this. I prefer to have my ideas rooted in sights, sounds and smells I’ve experienced.

Last but not least, which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Jacqueline Yallop’s picks for contemporary novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

This is an impossible question! I admire all sorts. Lots of the “classic” novels use location to great effect: Dickens’s London, Hardy’s Wessex, Joyce’s Dublin, Emily Brontë’s moorland… But of course, contemporary writers are strong on this, too. There’s a lovely short novel by the Catalan writer Maria Barbal, known in English as Stone in a Landslide, which evokes the Pyrenean landscapes and communities very movingly; I also very much enjoy the way Marilynne Robinson captures the American Mid-West.

Thanks so much, Jacqueline, for your answers. It’s been a great pleasure.

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Jacqueline Yallop and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Jacqueline! I have to say, I absolutely love the passage from Jacqueline’s memoir! This is in part because I am an auntie to a miniature pot-bellied pig (who lives in Manhattan) but mostly because, although I’ve never been to that part of France, I now feel as though I’ve visited the exact place where the pigs were playing the pear game. Just delightful! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

NOTE: If you happen to be anywhere near Carew Castle (Pembrokeshire coast, west Wales) on Sunday, Tracey Warr will be speaking about the history behind her fiction. She’ll be answering the question: which castle was Welsh Princess Nest kidnapped from? Sunday, July 30, 2017, 13:00-14:00.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of French countryside, supplied; photo of Sheffield via Pixabay.
Second visual: Photo of author’s house in France (supplied).
Third visual: Omppu-possu vauhdissa! by samerika! via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Last visual: Book cover art.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian author Dianne Ascroft lives, eats, breathes—and writes—Ireland, past and present


Tracey Warr is here with Dianne Ascroft, a Canadian writer who left the hustle-bustle of Toronto for Northern Ireland, a place she found so compelling that she ultimately settled in the countryside and has specialized in writing books set in that part of the world.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. I hope your summer is off to a productive start. To give you that extra inspiration, I hope you’ll enjoy my interview with this month’s writer, Dianne Ascroft.

Dianne grew up an urban Canadian, in Toronto. But those roots would hardly be apparent if you met her now. In the 1990s she moved across the water to Northern Ireland, where she still finds herself a quarter-of-a-century later.

Dianne started out in Belfast, where she moved for work. Then, after living in Troon, a town on the west coast of Scotland, for a spell, she returned to Northern Ireland and settled into rural life in County Fermanagh, with her husband and their assortment of strong-willed animals.

Dianne says that this gradual downsizing of her surroundings reflects her pursuit of a writing career. Since moving to Britain, she worked in various offices and shops; but her head was always in books and she harbored a passion for writing. She is an avid reader and started writing her spare time more than a decade ago. Now that she is living in the countryside, she can concentrate on writing fulltime.

“When I’m not writing,” she says on her author site, “I enjoy walks in the country, evenings in front of our open fireplace and folk and traditional music.” She also plays the Scottish bagpipes though has given this hobby up since moving to the farm, which she says is “just as well as it’s rather disconcerting to turn around when you are practicing in a field and find that you have a herd of cows for an audience.”

Dianne mostly writes fiction, both historical and contemporary, often with an Irish connection. “I love where I live and I am fascinated by it,” she says. Her current project is The Yankee Years, a collection of short reads and novels set in World War II Northern Ireland. “After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life here would never be the same again,” Dianne says. “The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era.”

Her other fictional writings include:

  • An Unbidden Visitor, a ghost tale inspired by the famous Northern Irish legend of the Coonian ghost. (Dianne lives a couple of miles from the house that sparked the legend.)
  • Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves, a collection of six short stories about farm life in Northern Ireland.
  • Hitler and Mars Bars, an historical novel about a German boy growing up alone in postwar Ireland.

Dianne occasionally writes non-fiction for Canadian and Irish newspapers. In 2013 she released two e-book collections of her articles: Fermanagh Gems and Irish Sanctuaries.

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Welcome, Dianne, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

The two are very closely related in my writing so it’s rather hard to say. I tell stories that are sparked by interesting items that have caught my attention. Since I write historical fiction mainly, sometimes that’s something I read in an old newspaper or a history text, or maybe something I’ve noticed in the landscape around me. But, no matter what the original inspiration was, my stories will always be inherently part of the place where they are set. They can’t be separated from their location. The Yankee Years, my Second World War series, is set in County Fermanagh where I’ve lived for more than a decade now. The war was a pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s history; and the influx of Allied troops had a major impact on the economy and culture of County Fermanagh. Army camps and Air Force flying-boat bases sprang up, and the population of the county grew until approximately a quarter of the entire population consisted of military personnel. Fermanagh must have been so different from the quiet rural area that I know today, and imagining this recent past really intrigued me. The events during the war and their impact on the county grabbed my imagination—and that’s how the series was born.

How is it possible to conjure up the past now that the Yankees have gone home, so to speak?

Despite the impact the war had on Fermanagh, there was an interesting dichotomy in the county. The old way of life was disrupted and challenged by the incomers from unfamiliar cultures; but, at the same time, fundamental aspects of rural life didn’t change so I can easily imagine what farm life was like at that time as small farms are still very much the same today. The continuity of this way of life through the generations is another feature of the province that fascinates me and it is a great bonus for an historical fiction writer. It makes imagining the past much easier to do.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I have to admit that I like lots of detail. I want to paint a picture of the place so that readers feel like they are there. But, I try not to be too wordy, and I follow the guideline that, if readers are likely to be familiar with a place or historical detail, then I don’t need to describe it in great depth. But, if I’m describing a place or item that won’t be familiar to most readers, then I try to show exactly what it was like. By evoking sounds and smells, as well as visual details, I hope to bring it to life in readers’ minds. I think it’s important to draw readers’ attention to details that they may not be familiar with and to use all the senses so they can fully experience it.

But is there any particular feature that creates a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I’d say that all three are important but, for the stories I tell, the landscape and culture are central. The way of life in this rather remote, rural part of Northern Ireland has evolved from the work of the people inhabiting it: making a living from the land or water, farming or fishing. People lived their lives close to the natural world and, therefore, the landscape and culture were intertwined. The people who lived here a couple of generations ago, in the days before mechanised farming, were proud and capable yet they also needed the co-operation and support of their community. My plots are often built around elements of this simple, hardy way of life.

In the case of Northern Ireland, you also have the clash of religions. Do you weave this thread into your stories as well?

When I first arrived, I hesitated to tackle writing about Northern Ireland because of the history of sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics that has divided the country into two communities for centuries. This history makes Ireland very different from the society I grew up in, but I think it has to be woven into any writing about this part of the world as it is a unique characteristic of the country. It can be difficult to capture the nuances of life in this complex society where the tensions between the communities stretch back generations and still influence many aspects of modern day life. But, since I wanted to write stories about the Second World War era in Ulster Province, I decided I would have to tackle the issue. I think that viewing the society as an outsider gives me unique insights into it which I can use to convincingly convey the place and the people to my readers.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Here is the beginning of Scene 2 in Keeping Her Pledge, the third story in The Yankee Years Books 1-3:

“Standing at the upstairs hall window in the early evening, her wet hair resting on the towel she had thrown across her shoulders, Pearl looked across the single field that separated the farmhouse from Lough Erne. She watched as a large lumbering Sunderland seaplane sliced through the water, gathering speed until it launched itself into the air. As it lifted off, a torrent of water sprayed out from it and she heard the roar of its engines.

Chuck had said that he wasn’t supposed to tell her but he was on an anti-submarine patrol today. He would have left the base at RAF Castle Archdale, on the opposite side of the lough, soon after first light this morning. There were patrols around the clock, and planes were taking off and landing day and night. She often heard the roars of their engines as she lay in bed, before she fell asleep and as she awoke. Sometimes she would stand at her bedroom window and gaze out at the row of navigation lights that guided the planes in to land, strung out like lanterns on a rope across the field and into the lough.

“I thought you’d be getting ready.” Davy walked up behind her.

“In a wee minute. Isn’t it a lovely night? I was just watching the planes.”

“Looking for your sweetheart, are you?”

“Don’t be daft. And he’s not my sweetheart.” Pearl smiled to herself. Although she had only recently met Chuck, neither of them was seeing anyone else. They were as good as walking out together. No doubt, she would soon be able to tell the world that he was her sweetheart.

“Well, if you’re standing here daydreaming, I’ll wash and shave. Race you to the mirror.”

Davy walked down the hall to the bedroom he shared with their two younger brothers, Charlie and Ian. Pearl hugged herself and sighed as she turned back to the window. The flying boats looked so graceful gliding through the sky, not at all cumbersome as they were in the water. Chuck had told her about the view up there. He said everything on the ground below looked tiny. It was like looking at a miniature picture with new images constantly spinning past inside the frame. She would love to see her house and Lough Erne from the sky. It was such a perfect evening. Chuck just had to return in time to meet her at the dance. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished.

Half an hour later Pearl stood in front of the large walnut mirror in the downstairs hallway. As she ran the brush through her hair, teasing and shaking the tangles out of it, she heard the drone of an aircraft approaching. With RAF Castle Archdale so close, she had become accustomed to the hum of the steady stream of aircraft flying overhead.

She twisted the brush sharply and tugged at a knot as Davy sidled up beside her. Without pausing, she stepped sideways to share the mirror. From this angle, she saw the landscape outside reflected in the glass: peaceful rolling hills divided by rough stone walls and thick hedges. A dark shadow moving rapidly in the top corner of the glass drew her attention. She turned away from the mirror to look through the small window in the front door. The flying boat she had heard was approaching the lough much closer to the ground than they usually flew at this distance from the water.

Davy followed her gaze. When he spotted the aircraft he ran to the door. “That plane won’t make the lough,” he shouted as he jerked the door open and rushed outside.

Pearl followed him. As she stepped outside the door, she heard a high-pitched whine before the seaplane’s engines cut out. The aircraft plunged steeply towards the ground and crashed in the field beside the water. Flames shot up from the wreckage and crackled like a huge bonfire. Davy, her father and two neighbours who had called in for a chat, Tommy Boyd and Dick Morton, were already running toward the aircraft.

Pearl hurried across their farmyard and crossed the road but stopped at the gate to the field. The smoke billowing from the plane nearly choked her. Her stomach clenched as she gawked at the debris strewn across the charred grass and she had to grip the top rail of the gate to keep her knees from buckling. Something gleamed dully under the hedge beside where the aircraft lay. She squinted through the smoke at the seaplane’s massive engine lying there intact and focused on its unsullied bulk, unwilling to look at the carnage surrounding it.”

Thank you for sharing that passage. How well do you feel you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Because my stories are set in a region that features in few books, fiction or non-fiction, and one which many readers will not be familiar with but I want them to understand, I feel compelled to create for them an almost three-dimensional mental image of it. My first novel, Hitler and Mars Bars, takes place in several locations in the Republic of Ireland as well as the Ruhr region of Germany. During my research for the book, I visited each of the locations in Ireland to see exactly where the story would unfold. I noted minute details about each place so that I could use the relevant ones in the novel. I wasn’t able to travel to Germany but I did study detailed maps and historic photographs of the area where that portion of the story is set so I could imagine it fully as I wrote. The Yankee Years, the series I’m currently working on, is set in various locations in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. As for my first novel, I visited each location I had chosen for these stories in order to get a feel for the place. I wanted to be able to see the place in my mind as I wrote. I then also referred to historical photographs of the area to see what it was like during the Second World War when my stories are set. Before I started writing, I compiled detailed information about the physical and man-made landmarks in the region, the distances between various places, the sights, sounds and smells in the region and I drew on all of this information to create real places for the reader to step into.

Last but not least, which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

There are two in particular that immediately spring to my mind, and I have to admit that I admire these writers for many aspects of their writing styles, not only their use of location. What I like best is that they both use lots of detail—to describe characters, settings and the action unfolding in the story. Diana Gabaldon and Manda (M.C.) Scott are the writers I’m referring to. Although I admire both of them, Manda Scott has the edge. There is just something wonderful about her novels. Her ability to breathe life into characters, unveil complex stories and create vivid settings, as well as her skilful use of language, is absolutely wonderful and keeps me enthralled. I love stories like hers, that come alive in my mind.

Dianne’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Dianne, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dianne Ascroft and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site & blog, where you can sign up for her newsletter. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

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Thank you so much, Tracey and Dianne! I for one certainly wouldn’t expect to meet a Canadian playing the bagpipes in the Irish countryside. Dianne, you are fantastically displaced! As far as your creative output goes, I’m particularly impressed by your “Yankee Years” series. Like many other Americans, I had no idea that the first U.S. soldiers to enter the Second World War landed in Northern Ireland. Good on you for writing fictional histories about that period, which might otherwise be lost to posterity or else overshadowed by all the stories of sectarian violence in that part of the world, AKA The Troubles. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Irish countryside, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: What score does Paul Shore earn on the “international creative” scale? (2/2)


Readers, I’m happy to report that Paul Shore passed the algorithm test for his memoir, Uncorked, with flying colors. He will therefore be throwing out the jack (so to speak) for the second round of the Expat Author Game.

I am, of course, using this terminology because of Paul’s affection for the quintessentially French game of pétanque, as reported in his book and as illustrated above.

During this round, we’ll be trying to see how closely he measures up to the Displaced Nation’s (admittedly somewhat quirky) notion of an “international creative.”

On the face of it, Paul’s claim to be “international” rests on having spent a single year in Provence. Can 12 months be long enough to qualify as displaced? On the other hand, it was an important, life-changing year. The book in fact came about at his wife’s suggestion, when he was immobile after a recent surgery (hm, is that the reward for all those sports?). Why not dust off his notes from that period of living in in Saint-Paul de Vence, she said, and write about how much it meant to him, a kind of Bildungsroman.

Furthermore, I think it’s fair to call Paul “creative”. After all, it’s not every day we hear of a computer geek charming their way into an ancient French village. Plus he has received compliments on his writing style as a “wry cross between Bill Bryson and Dave Bidini“. (Dave who? He’s a Canadian musician and author of Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs, among other travel works.)

So let’s see how Paul does with this round, where points are scored for intangible indicators of an expansive, global outlook and the ability to take a creative approach to exploring the world.

Welcome back, Paul, and now let’s get started. Many residents of the Displaced Nation have had a moment or two when they’ve felt like a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, myself included. How about you? Please illustrate, if possible, with a quote.

QUEEN OF HEARTS TO ALICE: ”Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Breaking into a foreign culture may seem impossible, though with persistence and respect it is very possible. Now, my experience was back in ’99, at just the very start of the digital age and before mass Internet interconnection; but even with enhancements to communication, I suspect it is just about as difficult still today to break into French life in a small town, as it was then. I spoke only terrible elementary school French when I arrived, which I’d learned growing up in Ottawa, Canada, so it didn’t endear me much to locals, at least not until I improved after several months of working with a tutor.

Moving on: According to George Elliot’s Maggie Tulliver, the best reason to leave her native village of St. Ogg’s would be to see other creatures like the elephant. What’s the most exotic animal you’ve observed in its native setting?

A polar bear on Baffin Island in the arctic of Canada. Some indigenous guides were taking us on a boat tour. As we travelled near the shoreline, we spotted it. It was awe inspiring to see such a beautiful, rare, and dangerous animal from a safe, yet close, distance.

Last but not least on this series of literary challenges: We’re curious about whether you’ve had any Wizard of Oz moments when venturing across borders. Again, please use a quote or two.

GOOD WITCH GLINDA TO DOROTHY: “You are capable of more than you know.” I tend to live by a “why not try?” attitude and truly believe that we are all capable of so much more than we typically are willing to attempt. Thus, when I was told that I couldn’t learn pétanque because “you aren’t French”, I didn’t take “no” for an answer and persisted. Eventually I convinced a neighbour to teach me—though he only agreed to do by in the darkness of night, so as not to embarrass himself or his culture. I had to earn my stripes over several weeks of play in the dark before I was invited to play in broad daylight. And eventually I became quite good and was accepted playing with locals and even complimented and invited to join the local private club…a very high compliment.

Moving on to another dimension of creativity: telling tales of one’s travels through photos. Can you offer an example?

I like this photo of a green light moving on the calm ocean water at sunset…telling me to move ahead in a calm manner, while recognizing that so many aspects of life are circular in nature. It was taken in Lund, where we have a vacation rental home—we’ve been there quite frequently in recent years. It is an extremely peaceful, ruggedly beautiful, remote part of Canada that is relatively accessible from Vancouver.

And now for our interplanetary challenge: Can you envision taking your exploration of other modes of being beyond Planet Earth? How about a trip to Mars?

Only if I could take my family and friends. If I can’t take them along, I’d prefer to remain on earth, where I have more things to explore and share with the people who are special to me.

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Congratulations, Paul! You have reached 13 points (hahaha) so may declare yourself the victor of our Expat Authors Game. I for one appreciated your jovial style in playing it, which I imagine you picked up from all those pétanque matches. Readers, are you ready to score Paul Shore’s performance on Part Two? How did he do with his literary references? And what about that animal of his: rather magnificent! And don’t you like that black-and-white photo of him up top, on the pétanque grounds of Saint-Paul? What’s more, as that photo of Lund suggests, his creative talents appear to extend to photography!

Finally please note: If you’ve given Paul Shore a high score on international creativity, we urge you to check out his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: Photo of Paul and the ocean supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: Paul Shore’s algorithm for “Uncorked: My year in Provence studying Pétanque, discovering Chagall, drinking Pastis, and mangling French” (1/2)


Hello, Displaced Nationers. When I introduced our Expat Author Game series last October, I had no idea it would take until June to play another round. I have no excuse except to say the Game of Life intervened.

In any event, I am thrilled we are picking up the series again this month and I can introduce you to the next player, Paul Shore. He recently published a memoir, Uncorked, about the year he spent living in southern France, in a quaint place called Saint-Paul de Vence.

Just how did he, a Canadian techie, end up landing in a medieval walled village in Provence, you may wonder? Back in the late 1990s, he was working for a start-up software company in Vancouver, and the founder asked if he would move to Nice to open their European sales and marketing office. He agreed. And being an adventuresome sort, with a “Why not try?” attitude, he eschewed the idea of living in an expat enclave, opting instead to be the rare outsider within a Provençal village.

When Paul readily agreed to play the Displaced Nation’s Expat Author Game, I was pleased and flattered…that is, until it dawned on me he has yet to encounter a game he wasn’t eager to play.

My goodness, he even learned how to play pétanque, an obscure (at least to me) form of boules (you’d think boules would be obscure enough!) while living in Saint-Paul. In fact, that’s one of the principle ways he “uncorked” traditional French culture—the other ways being working on his French, navigating a sporty car through roundabouts with the confidence of a Grand Prix driver, and drinking pastis at 9:00 a.m.

Pourquoi ne pas essayer? Time to roll the boule so to speak and see how he does…first, with the task of creating an algorithm for his book. Please note that while Paul may seem like the archetypal nice Canadian, he’s a fierce competitor. Pétanque is just one of many sports he has played to win. And, although he says he originally wrote his book for his kids, it recently hit #1 on Amazon in travel books about Provence!

If we like Uncorked, which movie/musical/play/TV series would we also like?

The film Under the Tuscan Sun, based on the memoir by Frances Mayes of that name, because it is also an evocative, heart-warming story based in Southern Europe. Although I wasn’t escaping a cheating spouse and I didn’t fix up a house, I did achieve a breakthrough into the traditions and culture associated with living in an ancient village in south Europe by learning how to play the game of pétanque. This adventure proved to be both humorous and life-changing.

What meal or dish would go well with reading your book?

Tarte Tatin (French upside down apple tart), a sweet, delicious, comfort food that I first ate in Saint-Paul in a small cafe that I came to frequent. As my book explains, not only did I indulge in this upside-down pastry while living in Saint-Paul, but as a result of living in this ancient village, I began to see that flipping the priorities of work-life balance more towards the “life” side of the ledger leads to a more fulfilling lifestyle and general level of happiness.

If your book had a signature cocktail, what would it be?

Given the subtitle of the book, that one’s easy: Pastis on ice.  It’s the go-to drink of the region and tastes refreshing on hot, humid summer days.  When the anise-flavored liquor mixes with the ice water, it becomes cloudy…much like I found the process of finding my way within local French culture.

Are there any special clothes/headgear/costumes/accessories we could wear to put us in the mood for reading your book?

You might think about donning a pair of open-toed leather sandals, especially as summer is now approaching. Sandals are popular footwear in Provence on hot summer days.

If we wanted to take a mini-trip to understand your story better, where would you recommend we travel and which one or two sights should we take in?

In Saint-Paul de Vence, you cannot miss Le Café de la Place. At the foot of the village ramparts, it has a terrace overlooking Place du Jeu de Boules. You can watch locals play pétanque and absorb the French culture all around you. The other must-see is Fondation Marguerite and Aimé Maeght. Here you can take in the French modernist works of displaced Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (he settled in St. Paul for the remainder of his life after returning from New York) and those of other famous local artists.

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So, readers, tell us: Has Paul come up with a winning algorithm? Does the thought of slipping into a pair of open-toed leather sandals and sipping pastis on ice while watching a rousing game of pétanque make you want to buy Paul’s book? How about feasting on some freshly made tarte Tatin while recalling the joys of reading/watching Under the Tuscan Sun and/or contemplating Marc Chagall’s Saint-Paul years (most of his paintings from that period were vibrant odes to love)? If so, be sure to check out his author site. You can also follow him on Twitter. And be sure to tell us: do you want to see Paul move on in the Expat Author Game?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts. Hm, but will they include Paul’s next test?

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Book cover (supplied); sandals from Pixabay; other photos from Flickr creative commons.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: The sensuousness of the French Mediterranean infuses the works of actress-turned-author Carol Drinkwater


Tracey Warr is here with the Anglo-Irish actress and writer Carol Drinkwater, who has chosen to live in the country that right now is the focus of world attention due to its impending election: France. Her works powerfully depict the Provençal countryside and other parts of the Mediterranean where olive trees flourish.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers. My guest is the writer, actress, filmmaker and farmer Carol Drinkwater.

But before we meet her and she transports us, with her words, into the part of the world that provides the setting for so many of her books, I should mention that Carol grew up between English and Irish cultures. Born in London to an Irish mother and British father, she spent her childhood between a farm run by her grandparents in the village of Coolrain, County Laois, and her family’s home in southern England.

In her early twenties, she moved to Rome—and still returns to that city three times a year.

And she was an aspiring actress working in Germany when the call came from her agent that would change her life: a chance to play the vet’s wife, Helen Herriot, in the hit BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small, based on British veterinary surgeon James Herriot‘s semi-autobiographical novels.

The series was so popular, Carol Drinkwater became a household name in Britain. At that point, she thought she would end up in Hollywood. As she told the FT recently: “I did not expect my path would lead towards the Mediterranean and olives.”

But then another life-changing event occurred: she met French documentary filmmaker Michel Noll. After leaving All Creatures Great and Small, she headed to Australia to act in Golden Pennies, a TV series about the struggles of a mining family during the 19th-century Australian gold rush, for which Michel was executive producer. (The series would become the basis for Carol’s first book, The Haunted School, about an English governess who runs a school in a remote Australian gold mining town—which in turn became its own TV series.)

The couple moved to the French Riviera and purchased a very rundown olive farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes. As she told the FT:

I had only known him for four months, and there we were, buying a rundown property in France together. I wanted to embark on a new life and I was letting go of the other one, but I did not know where it was going to take me.

It has, of course, taken her into the life of a successful displaced writer. Since moving to France Carol has written 22 books, including

In 2015 Penguin Books UK announced a deal signed with Drinkwater to write two epic novels. The first, The Forgotten Summer, was published in March 2016 and is out now in paperback. Set in a French vineyard, the book is, as one critic declared, “packed with the sunshine, scents and savors of the South of France.”

The three works that Carol Drinkwater discusses in her Location, Locution interview

The second novel, The Lost Girl, is due for publication on June 29 (it’s available for pre-order on Amazon UK; international edition expected in September).

In addition to writing, Carol is organic farmer (her farm produces about 500 litres of high quality organic olive oil a year) and a filmmaker. Most recently, she created a series of five documentary films inspired by her Mediterranean travel books. Watch the trailer here:

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Welcome, Carol, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

In the instance of The Forgotten Summer, location came first. I was travelling in Algeria for The Olive Tree. During my month-long visit I became aware, as I moved about that vast country, that all about me were magnificent overgrown vineyards. These, I learned, were abandoned by the French colonials at the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1962), when one million French were obliged to flee the country. Most of those refugees settled in the south of France because it offered a similar climate and lifestyle. That is where my story began: a woman, her son and sister-in-law escape Algeria. They purchase a vast vineyard in the south of France bringing with them secrets and large amounts of money. I was then on home ground. My main area of research after that was the local wine industry. I spent a great deal of time visiting vineyards all along the French Mediterranean coast, learning the work and tasting the wines. Great fun.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

I need to live it. By that I mean that I will breathe in and note down every detail I can lay my hands on. Perfumes, temperatures, colours, geographical details, history of the region, food. I am meticulous. I will read everything I can. Cookbooks, history books, travel journals, sometimes diaries. I visit markets; I talk to anyone and everyone; try to wheedle my way into the homes of locals. I travel to all points mentioned in the books, of course. I also try to learn a little of the language. I am French-speaking so that helps me with all my books set in France.

But is there any particular feature that creates a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

The balance I give all these points very much depends on the book I am writing. Obviously if it is a travel book such as The Olive Route or The Olive Tree then the geographical location, history, probably culture and dominant religion and politics, matter greatly. For The Forgotten Summer, which is set on a vineyard in the South of France, the food and wines are essential to the storyline. Weather patterns also matter greatly to me.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Here is a short extract from The Forgotten Summer describing land clearance in rural southern France:

The oniony scent of felled vegetation: weeds, wild flowers and grasses levelled. It was an exhilarating perfume. The buzz and thrum of machines firing in every direction. There was an unexpected splendour, a grace, in the sight and motion of the men hard at work. Figures squatting in the shade of the pins parasols for refreshment breaks, labouring in the fields amid the sun-blasted yellow of Van Gogh, the delicate tones of Paul Cézanne, and even, in the pre-dawn light, if she were out of bed to ride with the crew, a hint of Millet’s The Angelus.

Distant pines reaching for the sky, bleached-out vegetation, sea and mountains with only heat and crickets to remind Jane that there was life born of this ancient rock-solid stillness. Rural panoramas were being stripped and reconfigured by the muscular labourers with their chainsaws and cutting machines, their strong hands as rough and hirsute as giant spiders….Ahead of and encircling them lay semi-jungled fields, groves, vineyards climbing towards the purple-blue mountains.

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

Time spent in situ and depth of experience are both extremely important to me. I am not comfortable unless I know how the streets smell, which varieties of trees and plants grow in the vicinity, the local wildlife. The tolling of church bells or the cry of the muezzin? Costumes, clothes of the period. For the novel I am currently writing, one of the two leading female characters dreams of being an actress, so I had great fun reading old French movie and fashion magazines. I love choosing the cars that each character will drive; what date the automobiles were produced. I think about how different the French Riviera is today compared to, for example, the late forties or early fifties of the last century. It is all these tiny details and many more that I have such fun discovering and that make the difference.

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

Graham Greene, of course, is a master. Few writers match his ability to create within one or two lines a local character or flavour. Just one example is The Heart of the Matter, which is set in West Africa: marvellous. You want to swot away the flies! (By the way, he lived near me in the South of France and we talked once or twice about books and publishing!) Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Or, if you are attracted to Naples and southern Italy, try the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. She is a novelist who allows you to smell the streets, hear the creaking wheels of old bikes and automobiles, the cries from on high in the tenements. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a very evocative and moving introduction to Kabul, Afghanistan, and really sets up the changes from pre-Taliban days. I read a great deal of travel writing, too.

Carol Drinkwater’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Carol, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Carol Drinkwater and her creative output, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And since ML brought up the French election at the outset, let’s give Carol the last word on the matter; here’s her recent tweet:

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Carol! I am intrigued that, unlike your last interviewee, Stephen Goldenberg, Carol favors meticulous research. Maybe it’s the actress in her, but she doesn’t seem to be a reclusive sort of writer. She says she’ll talk to anyone and everyone and also speaks French well enough to “wheedle her way into” people’s houses. I’m guessing this is why her readers find her books so authentic? —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

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Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; other photos via Pixabay.

All other visuals are from Pixabay.

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: As an expat spouse, I had a ticket to explore life’s infinite possibilities

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
With this post, Indra Chopra wraps up her account of life as a privileged expat spouse, which she found just as enriching in Asia as she did in the Middle East. Hm, can a memoir be far off?ML Awanohara

To continue where I left off in my last installment: Expat life in Hong Kong spoiled me. There was such a range of things and experiences to try, whether it was the cuisine, from street food to sumptuous banquets; apparel, from local brands to top designers; or sightseeing, from standard to offbeat adventures.

My one regret was that I was at least a decade late to the party. Hong Kong feels like a young person’s habitat. It’s a land of opportunity and, when it comes to activities, one is spoilt for choice.

My old stomping—or is it dawdling?—grounds in Hong Kong

While I’m not exactly a doddering dowager, over the years my priorities have changed to something more staid. In the initial months following our arrival, I would dawdle away several hours along Nathan Road, Kowloon’s main thoroughfare. I would start at the iconic Peninsula Hotel, which flaunts its large fleet of customized Rolls-Royce Phantoms (painted “Peninsula green”) and an afternoon tea that is served in the aristocratic ambience of colonial times—features that have earned it the epithet “Grande Dame of the Far East”.

I studiously avoided the blatant commercialism of the shopping arcades and new malls, the ubiquitous sellers of “genuine fake” watches, the touristy gift shops, and the crowded dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls).

Instead I would meander towards the quirky neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei and then would move on to Jordan, an area full of countless small shops, which also has a seedier side. One can sometimes glimpse dimly lit stairways to massage parlors or off-limits clubs with bouncers ready to bounce you back into the neon-lit pavement and the dense pedestrian and vehicular traffic, not to mention the continuous projection of entertainment, things for sale, and cultural attractions constantly trying to lure you in.

Indra’s stomping—or is it dawdling?—grounds in Hong Kong

Getting from A to B has never been easier!

We soon acquired our Permanent IDs and Hong Kong driver’s licenses, which provided a feeling of security. Every six months or so, we would review our plans to purchase a car, only to be dissuaded by well-meaning friends, who would point to the traffic and exorbitant parking fees.

As it turned out, our flat didn’t come with a parking space—or maybe it did but the landlord rented it separately.

Another reason for dithering was that Hong Kong’s public transport system is convenient, reliable and always-on time. I still feel embarrassed thinking back to an occasion when I was meeting with some friends for a day out. New to Hong Kong, I gave myself a margin of one hour only to arrive in 20 minutes flat (and that was after a couple of changes, from the hotel shuttle to the Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, and from one subway line to another). My friends were surprised to hear I’d set out so early. I was calculating by Indian Standard Time, a euphemistic expression that acknowledges we Indians are always late.

Another advantage of public transport was that it helped me hone my pronunciation skills, providing a chance to reify such fuzzy place names as Fung Yuen, Ting Kok, Tai Mei Tuk, Sha Tau Kok, Wo Keng Shan, Yuen Po Street, Yuen Ngai Street, Yim Po Fong Street, Hak Po Street, etc. I would jot down these names in my iPhone but the words would soon fade.

For a long time I thought Pok Fu Lam was a pork dish until someone pointed out it is one of Hong Kong’s high-end areas! Landmarks were easier to remember except on the occasions when the store/café/cha chaan teng (tea houses)/dai pai dong/fish stall in question had disappeared overnight.

Knowing that one could rely on the MTR (or other public transport) for my escape was a welcome thought whenever I would become overwhelmed by Hong Kong’s busy cafes, book stores, convenience stores, posh shops, popular hiking spots, beaches…

The joys of riding the MTR

Exploring to my heart’s content

As an expat, I am more inquisitive than acquisitive. I did not want to waste energy in “keeping up with Joneses” and relished my anonymity, a status that permitted me to explore to my heart’s content. I would amble through neighborhoods, mysterious alleys, busy and deserted city streets, temples and pubs, the promenades (Tsim Sha Tsui, West Kowloon), Central Hong Kong, Aberdeen, the outlying islands, mountain paths… I would hop on to ferries/MTR/buses in search of the unfiltered and unlisted.

I never felt self-conscious venturing out on my own, nor did I look over my shoulder. It felt safe and normal to be a solo female in pursuit of my own little adventures.

At the beginning I would seek advice from friends, but in due course I could plan a day’s outing by using guides and maps. I would select a destination that was manageable for my walking level, from the crowded to the remote. Hong Kong is blessed with hundreds of islands, and I wanted to cover as much as I could.

So much territory to cover, so little time!

In the expat life, wonders never cease

Life was a kind of party for me until 2013, when we decided to move back to our home base: Gurgaon, India. After that we had a life of reverse travel, staying in Hong Kong for stretches in furnished apartments. I missed the continuity of expat life and the opportunity it provides for participating in local events and other activities only insiders would hear about.

Some say that a major limitation of expat life is that feeling of dépaysement, the sense of disorientation that can come from being outside of your home country. To be honest, I never experienced this feeling in my long stays in Hong Kong or Oman, simply because to me home is, as my favorite travel chronicler, displaced Indian writer Pico Iyer has said, “not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.”

In fact I often wonder how my personality would have developed had I stayed at home in the place of my birth/marriage and missed out on interactions with different nationalities and sensibilities, and been denied all the knowledge I obtained from other countries, all the many learning opportunities. There were times when I felt frazzled with the packing and unpacking and would envy friends and family living in their family homes and mansions, going for vacations and shopping abroad for a few months in a year. For them, “worldly possessions” always meant luxury.

But, then I would recall chance encounters I would have missed out on—for instance:

  • My encounters with a fellow walker in the Qurum Natural Park Rose Garden, located in the heart of Muscat (Oman’s capital city). The lady would stop me to gush about my “luck” in speaking English, the idea being that English-speaking Indians were India’s biggest export, and about how she wanted her children to study the English language. After several such encounters, I stopped going to the park as I knew where it was headed…to an invitation to coach her children.
  • The time in Salalah, Oman, when an acquaintance patted my stomach in show of remorse that I have “only two children” when she was expecting her sixth. I felt like telling her: “Lady, I am fortunate”; but desisted as we were her guests. Different countries and different takes…
  • The time in New York when a giant (to me) 6+-feet-tall African American jogger stopped in his tracks and exclaimed: “But you are so small!”
  • Countless times In Hong Kong when the super slim sales girls made me feel fat, even though I am considered “petite” in the western world and my country.

Like many of us expats, Indra sometimes felt as though she’d fallen down the rabbit hole

My husband and I have also encountered hostile reactions to our presence in foreign lands. That has been its own kind of learning process. Those who’ve taught us harsher lessons have included:

  • A churlish waitress in Shanghai who insisted on serving us beef despite our telling her we do not eat beef—my friend even drew a chicken and made flapping sounds.
  • The impassive adults in Mainland China and Hong Kong who refused to sit next to us on public transport.
  • Salespeople in a watch/perfume or brand apparel showrooms in Hong Kong who made sarcastic “no cheepo” comments simply because we happened to be from the subcontinent.
  • Someone in San Francisco who responded to my presence with a racial slur…

We travelers need to have resilience, and I’ve always been able to brush aside these unfriendly receptions. To quote Pico Iyer again:

“…I’ve always felt that the beauty of being surrounded by the foreign is that it slaps you awake.”

Repatriated, for now

For the past five months we have been living in our home city, Gurgaon. The reason: my husband is helping a friend from Mainland China set up a business in India. I am in my own house and can hire full-time help 365 days a year or have an army of part-timers doing specific tasks. I have opted for the latter: they return when they see the doors ajar.

We are back to where we ended/started. I see the shift as an opportunity to conclude my the travelogue I’ve been writing for the past four years. Whenever I tell myself “this is the last entry,” fresh new flashbacks wait to be uploaded.

In spring, the gardens here are in full bloom: mango blossoms and frangipani flowers. It’s also the time when we have the Holi festival of colors. Whenever I hear the warbling of a koel, it transports me to my hometown of Allahabad: I am surrounded by mango trees, taking an early morning dip in the River Ganges.

In short this is the best season to be in India. It is also the season for flu and since I was late in getting my flu shot, I’ve had a scratchy throat, hacking cough and fever these past couple of weeks(!).

Spring has sprung in India

Some parting thoughts

I’ve reconnected with my book club, and somewhat to my surprise, this month’s book is A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, which as you probably know, has been turned into the movie Lion. The story tells of five-year-old Saroo’s harrowing train journey from somewhere in Central India across the plains to end in Kolkata on the Eastern shores. He saves himself from hunger, rape, murder and the adoption home in this story of grit and ingenuity.

I fully empathized with Saroo as I find Kolkata (Calcutta) the filthiest city in India. (I first visited Kolkata in 1979, and that was my last because I refused to set foot in the city despite its historical and literary past.)

Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania. But eventually he is consumed by the desire to find his real family and, using Google Earth, tracks the place of his birth and early childhood. Twenty-five years after his departure from India, he returns to his hometown and is reunited with his biological mother and sister. The story has a fairy-tale ending: the two families are united and everyone lives happily ever after.

Reading this novel has rekindled another memory—of an afternoon spent with a friend in Guangzhou, China, in 2011. My friend had taken me to a city park and I was surprised to see nearly a dozen Caucasian parents with identical prams containing Chinese infants. I had read about the adoption process being a large-scale industry in China; but I found I had mixed emotions at the sight of these innocent babies, oblivious about their soon-to-be-taken journeys to far-away lands. On the one hand, it’s a blessing for these children to find homes where they’ll be loved and cared for. On the other, I wondered whether these children would someday seek closure like Saroo did.

The picture of these prams comes to mind whenever I read about adopted children returning to their “homes” to find their real parents. It must be a good thing that China has now ended its famous one-child policy that made so many parents opt to keep the boys or “Little Buddhas” and give away the girls for adoption or to relatives.

And speaking of adoption, I now look back on the life that I led in my adoptive city, Hong Kong, through the privileged eyes of a global citizen. True, the island country has problems with increasing population, pollution, traffic and rampant materialism. But for me it will always be a rainbow land, where I was able to lead a charmed existence.

Reading about an adopted Indian child in A Long Way Home, Indra’s first association takes her back to her adopted homeland…

* * *

Thank you, Indra! I appreciate your ability to see the bigger picture in all of this. Despite setbacks, despite coming to the party a little late, as you put it, you made the most of your expat opportunities and always understood how privileged you were to have places like Muscat and Hong Kong as your personal playgrounds. I also really appreciate your story about reading A Long Way Home with your book club back in India. It often strikes me that one of the biggest legacies of expat life is having a different set of associations to most people in your homeland! I take these instances as little reminders of the enriched life I have led, and I suspect you do as well… —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

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Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.

WORLD OF WORDS: On a Mary Morris-inspired kick down in Mexico, writer Marianne Bohr feels entirely at home

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr in her World of Words

Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, a holiday that is virtually ignored in Mexico but, for some reason, has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States. Here, Marianne Bohr tells a rather different story of heading to Mexico to celebrate her Mexican heritage in situ—an adventure that of course involves immersing herself in a world of (Mexican Spanish) words. —ML Awanohara

Me llamo Mariana Cañedo. My name is Mariana Cañedo.

“Did you know that Mayan Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asks as she rubs my oddly shaped adolescent pinky. “It’s true,” she says as I wince and look at her quizzically.

“Your grandfather was born in Mexico, so you never know. You could be an Indian princess.” She gives a quick laugh that ends in her characteristic snort.

My Midwestern grandmother has a penchant for coming up with all sorts of interesting, random tidbits of information.

“Don’t cha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”

* * *

Going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for 25 years. Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone put it there. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, 6,400 feet high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, captured my heart and gave me even more courage than I already had to travel alone.

And now I’m finally here, lucky girl that I am, on my own for a week-long writer’s conference.

Mary Morris’s soul-bearing tale of living in San Miguel captured Marianne’s heart at an early age.

The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: greens and golds; mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable—burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled white, purple, and blue blossoms set off the pueblo colors.

Brimming with boisterous gardens and with a temperate, year-round climate of brisk mornings, warm afternoons, and cool evenings, San Miguel is eternally spring. With more than 140,000 residents, it can certainly be labeled a city, but deeper down, at its heart, it’s a delightful, lively village.

There are many places in the world others consider lovely but leave me feeling cold. San Miguel, on the other hand, embraced me the moment I arrived. I feel I belong here, with these people of my tribes.

“The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color…” (Photos supplied.)

At home with her two tribes

One tribe is the writers I commune with during the day—novelists, poets, essayists, playwrights, memoirists, and screenwriters. And when I escape into the long shadows and crystalline light of the late afternoon to wander narrow lanes between high, painted stucco walls and monumental wooden doorways, I find my other tribe, the people who look like my father and my grandfather before him.

The men are short and the women shorter. Just like my Dad and just like me. I recognize my siblings’ body types in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. The features set in their silky brown complexions—heavy-lidded eyes and full lips—are the very same features that look back at me and my easily tanned white skin in the mirror.

These people are my ancestors, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background.

Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.

The faces of people in San Miguel remind Marianne of the photos of her ancestors. Photo credit: San Miguel de Allende, by Christopher Michael via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

What if my Mexican grandfather…?

I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central square. I choose a table in the shade, the breeze already warm. My mouth waters as a beautifully arranged platter of fresh fruit is set in front of me—mango, melon, banana, pineapple, and papaya, with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of granola.

The waiter could be my brother with his sturdy Cañedo silhouette. My years of Spanish classes serve me well as he and I chat, even though I admit: “Comprendo mucho, pero hablo solamente un poquito.” I understand a lot but I speak only a little.

Fruit juice drips from my chin and my thoughts drift to a “what-if” of my family tree. What if my Mexican grandfather and my American father after him, hadn’t both married Irish women, Mae Duffy and Mary Darby? I would likely look just like her, this woman who passes by in a hot pink dress and turquoise apron—traditional dress worn to help sell the handmade dolls and woven flowers spilling from baskets looped over her arms. My long, dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana. My Mexican sister.

My new friend clears my empty plate and asks if I’d like more coffee. “No, gracias,” I answer and smile. It’s time to get back to my other tribe—my writing tribe—but I’m reluctant to leave this comfortable spot where it’s so easy to watch the world of San Miguel pass by. I pay la cuenta and leave a tip worthy of family.

“Hasta mañana?” he asks as I swing my bag over my shoulder. Will I see you tomorrow?

“¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” Of course you’ll see me tomorrow!

I step from behind my table, my crooked pinkie waving goodbye in the sunshine.

* * *

Marianne, I understand that San Miguel has thousands of Canadian and American expatriate residents as well as an untold number of snowbirds in the winter months, many of whom simply use English, which is widely spoken in the city. I love it that you went to that part of the world for creative purposes and to explore your roots. And of course you spoke in Spanish! (I’d expect nothing less…) —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had the experience of recognizing the faces of your ancestors in a foreign country? Do tell in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with She Writes Press. She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. The couple has taken early retirement in Park City, Utah, where Marianne is now working on Book #2. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. All other images via Pixabay except the one of red tape: Tied up in red tape, by James Petts via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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