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Saturday 12 February 2022

The Great Island Escape by Jennifer Lee Thomson


Jennifer Lee Thomson

"Is it working? Has it sent it?"

My partner and I are swaddled up in our warmest clothes as are our rescue dog Vic who has his doggy Parka on. It's blowing a gale and the Arctic chill is gnawing away at my bones and I can't feel my fingers. They've been
replaced by fish fingers. Imagine how colder they would be if I wasn't wearing gloves. Two seconds ago, I pressed the key to send my email with my article attached to the magazine I had a regular column in. Every week it had to be delivered without fail on the same day within a two-hour window. Today, in what was not an unusual
occurrence, our Internet was completely down.

The only other place on the island we then called our home was Millport which is the only town on the Isle of Cumbrae (located just off the west coast of Scotland), that had the internet, but the cafe was closed. The door had a handwritten note saying, "be back in 15."  We came back in 20 minutes, then in 40 then and 55 and it was still shut. There they enjoyed a gentler pace of life which is just a euphemism for saying their notes lie.

That's how we came to be standing at the highest point of the island, freezing our what nots off. I was using my phone which had a dongle to connect to the internet. This was long before it became possible to buy data at a cost that didn't bankrupt you.  At the highest point of the island, you could usually get an internet signal even if it lasted only a few moments. At least that's what I was banking on. I shook my head surprised to find there were no icicles in my hair. "Sorry, it cut out again.  "John's retort was something that should never appear in print. So, we had to stand there in the sub-zero temperatures with the icy wind chipping at our bones and try again. Finally, I got the article sent and we made our descent on the 25-minute hike back home with the icy wind buffeting us in the back.

That's how difficult it could be to email your work. Yet, I got more writing done in the 10-years that I lived on that beautiful island than I had in the previous 20 years despite these problems. It was to that same island I had come to stay before I later made it a permanent move to write a book I'd been commissioned to write about bullying long before I became a crime author. Before I'd come to the island, I'd been stuck in a quagmire of all the wrong words that kept dragging me under, making me despair that I would ever finish the book. With the island as my muse, I finished it in less than two weeks.

There's just something about living on a small island and the rhythm of the sea and seasons that facilitates the concentration and imagination you need to write fiction. And it's not because you're isolated as the Isle of
Cumbrae is the most accessible island in Scotland. The ferry to the mainland takes less than 10 minutes and there is a ferry every 30 minutes.  When I look back now it all seems like a dream. A dream too good to last. As it proved to be. Family circumstances forced us to leave the island and come to what we would usually have referred to as the mainland. My writing suffered and still suffers. It was as though the island was my muse. Without it, I struggled to write anything. I still do.

When I think back to those days standing on top of the island, looking down the sea, pressing the key to send an email, I can still feel the cold. But most of all I feel the euphoria when I finally managed to get the email sent. And I think of that wonderful moment when I got a phone call down a crackly line telling me I had won the Scottish Association of Writers’ Pitlochry Quaich Award for a first crime novel for Vile City. The late, great Barbara Hammond was as excited as I was.

We recently went back to our Island. This time so that our new rescue dog, Harley, could escape the fireworks that constantly bombarded the place where we now live, leaving him cowering in terror. It was as though we'd never been away. I had returned to my muse. And my writing flowed.

As well as completing the final edits for Vile City, my first detective in a coma mystery from Diamond Books, I also wrote a big chunk of a new novel, this time a standalone about a woman who enlists the help of a retired police inspector with Parkinson's to solve the mystery disappearance of her baby 7 years earlier.

This time our stay would be a brief two weeks. Writing can still be a struggle but even going there for a fortnight has managed to reignite my creative fire. There's something magical about that island. For many writers, their muse can be a person. For me it's definitely a place that I am lucky to be able to revisit even if it's just is for two weeks a year. Who, or what is your muse? I would love to know what helps you kick start the writing process.

Jennifer Lee Thomson is the author of several books including both fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent books are the pulpy crime fiction novella How Kirsty gets her Kicks and Vile City. In Vile City, DI Duncan Waddell thinks he’s losing his mind when his best friend and colleague Detective Stevie Campbell who’s in a coma starts to talking to him. But only Waddell can hear him.   

 Twitter @jenthom72

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