Tag Archives: books

Along The River Po…with Commissario Soneri

I’m reading River of Shadows at the moment. It’s the first book in Valerio Varesi’s detective series featuring Commissario Soneri. River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger. Apart from the main human protagonists in the story, Varesi’s descriptions of the River Po and the surrounding landscape seem to give the location a life and character all of its own. Since my Italian roots are in the region of Emilia-Romagna and Parma in particular, this is a part of the world that I feel a strong connection with. Let me introduce you…


The Po river flows more than 400 miles through northern Italy, from its source on a rocky hillside in the Cottian Alps all the way to the Adriatic Sea not far from Venice. Il grande fiume (the great river) is prone to heavy flooding and, in an attempt to protect the surrounding fields and towns, over half of the river is flanked by man-made embankments or argini. Poplar trees have also been planted along the banks to strengthen them against the force of the water. This may work to some extent but the down-side of these flood defences has been that when the Po floods, it does so even more ferociously and with devastating effect.


The Po in flood is the backdrop to a mysterious disappearance in River of Shadows. The leading character, Commissario Soneri, is a detective based in Parma who is bought in to investigate when an old boatman goes missing from his barge on the river. Varesi’s writing is full of brooding storminess and conjures up the image of perpetual rain, mist and swirling currents. The power and menace of the river as it threatens the lives and livelihoods along its banks is painted beautifully as is the seeming contradiction of the serene timelessness of the river.


There’s a strange symbiosis that exists between the people and the Po. The river has caused destruction for centuries and yet the people who live within its reach rely on it for the success of their vineyards, rice fields, and fisheries. The benefits, though, are heavily one sided. They say that a third of Italy’s agricultural exports come from the area around the Po. Livestock drink its water and the sugar, rice and tomato crops rely on irrigation for a good harvest. Even the area’s power comes from the Po via the hydroelectric plants. No wonder the people of the Po cling to their homes so tenaciously in the face of floods that so often threaten to snatch it all away. They know that while the river takes with one hand, it gives very generously with the other.

This is the way it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. The seasonal dance with the river and its advancing and retreating water. They say changing climate patterns have made things harder but change is a way of life along the Po and things will just adapt and move on as they have done for centuries. The people have taken on the character of the Po itself – always changing but always the same.


Photo credits: turinphototours.it , Giuliano Chezzi, AsgeirFoto and Francesco Zaia


Finding Your Voice – Tips for Writers

‘Voice is the je ne sais quoi of spirited writing. It separates brochures and brilliance, memo and memoir, a ship’s log and The Old Man and the Sea. The best writers stamp prose with their own distinctive personality; their timbre and tone are as recognizable as their voices on the phone. To cultivate voice, you must listen for the music of language – the vernacular, the syntactic tics, the cadences.’ – Constance Hale

This quote from Constance Hale (author of books on language: Sin and Syntax and Wired Style) is one of my favourites. And she’s so right. Voice is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of your writing. The fact is that voice is the expression of who you really are. Not just as a writer but as a human being – your character, your personality, the you part of you. So there’s very little point in trying to create a voice. You’ll just end up sounding like you’re talking with an affected accent. The point is we all have a voice. It may be well hidden by the barriers we put up to stop others seeing what we’re really like inside but it is there nonetheless. Finding your voice requires a brutal honesty about yourself and a willingness to lay bare your inner character, warts and all.

So it really is that simple… All you have to do is answer one of the most profound and fundamental questions anyone can ever ask – Who am I? Voice has been described as being somewhere between your conscious and your subconscious mind. When who you are (subconscious) comes through in your writing more than who you think you are or who you want to be (conscious), it’s in that moment that you can begin finding your voice. The result should be a more natural and authentic writing style.

The good news is that this is something you can practise. I don’t mean that you should try and change your natural voice but in order to discover the real you and let it have its say, there are things you can do to help the process on its way. Here are my tips:

1. Read as much as possible.

Read everything you can get your hands on. Fiction, non-fiction, books you would naturally choose and books that are out of your comfort zone. Read different genres and styles and most importantly read books by great writers. Read the classics and read the best of the new. Listen for the distinctive voice of the best writers and you’ll be better equipped to listen for your own. Take particular note of the writing that resonates with you personally as your own writing should feel the same way.

2. Write about your life.

I’m not saying you should write your memoirs but personal writing exercises are a good way to explore what makes you tick and improve your writing skills into the bargain. Have brainstorming sessions on different subjects. Memories, favourite places, faces, dreams, things that scare you, things that make you smile. Just write down the first words that come to mind and then pick one of them to write about. Don’t worry about a story or word counts. Just write and see where it takes you.

3. Write something different.

Broaden your horizons. Try your hand at writing something new. Have a go at writing in a unfamiliar genre. Crime, science fiction, fantasy, romance, anything outside your comfort zone. Pick one you’ve never done before and give it a go.

4. Step outside your own little world.

Try writing from someone else’s viewpoint for a change. Write about something you have strong views on but write from the opposite point of view. This is an excellent way to get inside your own head and challenge your own thought processes.

5. Write about the things you care about.

Just forget about target readerships for a moment and write about the things that mean something to you. It may be that nobody other than you ever reads what you’ve written but then again it may be the best work you’ve ever produced. Either way this is the only way you’re going to be able to write anything worth reading. If you’re not gripped by your subject then you shouldn’t expect your readers to be overly excited either.

6. Try not to think about voice.

Don’t force the issue. There’s no quick fix here. Voice is something that needs to develop naturally.

7. Write, write write and then keep on writing.

When a child is learning to talk they will become fluent much more quickly by talking as much as possible. The same is true of finding your voice in writing. You will write some rubbish. OK, a lot of rubbish. But just keep writing. Write as much as possible, practise your craft in whatever way you can and then as you become more fluent in your chosen language, your voice should become progressively clearer. You should be able to look back at what you’ve written and find out who the you part of you really is.

8. Keep it real.

This is the only way your voice will ever be authentic. Be natural, write from the heart and don’t try to be anything or anyone you’re not. Believe me, readers will spot a fake from a mile off. So the most important thing is to just be yourself. And always remember the wise words of Dr Seuss himself – There’s no-one alive who is Youer than You.

Happy writing!


Hello world!

Right, here goes. My very first blog post…

I think the most obvious place to start would be an introduction both to me and my writing. If you’re following me then So first of all – me… I was born in 1986. I’ll help you with the maths – that makes me 25 (coming up for 26). My love affair with writing began at school. Stories and essays came pretty easy and I was good at them. Or thought I was at least. I didn’t really write outside of school though. I was far too busy reading for that. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Famous Five and whatever else I could get my hands on. As a teenager, I went through the obligatory stage of writing angsty poems and even entered a few into competitions. Needless to say I never won.

For the next decade my writing was virtually nonexistent. I kept an ideabook and even started a few projects but they invariably petered out pretty quickly. Work and other responsibilities meant that any spare time I had was quickly swallowed up. The thought of countless hours spent writing and then the impossible task of getting published at the end of it all meant the idea of a book with my name on it was little more than a pipedream. But then with the advent of the Kindle and the success of other indie authors, the finish line felt a whole lot closer than it had before. And so, either much later than it should have or perhaps arriving precisely when it meant to, my serious writing began.