Thursday, 9 October 2014

Writing Inspiration in the Far West: Liz Carr guest-posts about Cornwall, creativity and her cottage, An Dyji

Zelah Studio,
looking out over St Ives Bay
(photo courtesy of
Lynda Davies)
My lovely writing friend Liz Carr guest-posts about what Cornwall means to her and about her cottage, An Dyji, which she bought and renovated as a holiday let and a haven of creativity. Those of us who visit and love Cornwall will understand full well the appeal she describes here!

I discovered Cornwall when I was a child on summer holidays. Learning to body surf on Fistral beach, eating gritty cheese sandwiches, drinking soup which was either scalding hot or barely tepid from a wide-necked Thermos: these are some of my earliest memories.

As an adult, I returned to the county – and specifically St Ives – thanks to my closest friend, who so generously shared her lovely house with me and other worn-out London refugees. Zelah Studio, standing above Porthgwidden beach, will be our venue for Fictionfire by the Sea, thanks again to Lynda’s vision of her house as a place of creativity.

The Merry Maidens
The layers of Cornwall’s history fascinate me: almost hidden from modern view stand mysterious worked pieces of monumental stone – remnants of its origins as an ancient and sacred place, separate from the rest of the country. Its magical quality hooked me early on. It was very easy to imagine piskies and other spirit creatures darting in and out of the great stones of Men an Tol or dancing among the Merry Maidens. It’s still easy for me to narrow my eyes and see mermaids swimming round St Piran’s rock, luring unwary fishermen into their underwater secrets.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cornwall’s copper and tin mining industries overlaid the landscape. Now the ruins of mine chimneys, engine houses and lichen-coloured iron workings are visible on the skyline.

And today the far west has another life: as a sought-after destination for artists, writers and holidaymakers who come to enjoy the wonderful light, clean sweeps of pale sand and a turquoise sea that looks as though it belongs in the Caribbean.

In January 2014 we found ourselves able to invest in a small stone-built cottage just outside St Ives. At first sight, things weren’t too good. The house hadn’t been touched for about thirty years, and it definitely needed some TLC. But we knew it could be so different.

An Dyji
After just two months, An Dyji was reborn as a cosy two-bedroom cottage, ready for visitors. The name means ‘the small house’ in Cornish, which was its nickname throughout the works. We love being there: it’s tucked away in a hundred acres of woodland, but is only six minutes from the sea.

It’s the perfect place if you want to relax, recharge and rediscover your creativity. There’s something about being away from home that helps you to leave stuff behind and free your mind. Sighing: this is what happens to us the day after arriving. The combined effects of clean air, sparkling light and an ever-changing seascape cause muscles to unclench and jaws to unlock. The place gets in your bones and before long, you’re thinking about a new project or looking at your existing work with fresh eyes.

An Dyji
So, why not join us for a weekend exploring spirit of place, the spirit that the far west of Cornwall gives us? The programme is a unique blend of inspirational taught workshops and quiet writing time. We’ll be working with a group of like-minded people, and I’m looking forward to meeting Ann Kelley, an award-winning author who’s based locally. It’s going to be a fruitful two days, but for me the most important aspect is precious space and time.

Who knows what might happen?

You can find out more about An Dyji and book accommodation there, whether you're attending Fictionfire by the Sea or not, at 

Fictionfire by the Sea Writers' Workshop and Retreat, 17-19 October 2014 in St Ives - details here. Bookings close on 15 October.

If you can't make it to Cornwall, Fictionfire Focus Workshops in Oxford, Oct - Dec 2014 are here.

Guest-speaker at Fictionfire by the Sea is Ann Kelley - see my post here.

(All photographs, except where noted, copyright Lorna Fergusson)

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Writing the spirit of character and place: Ann Kelley guests at Fictionfire by the Sea

Ann Kelley
I’m delighted that award winning novelist Ann Kelley is going to join us during my Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in less than two weeks. I first met Ann a few years ago, during one of my visits to St Ives and she kindly invited me to her gorgeous clifftop home overlooking Porthkidney sands and the Hayle estuary. It’s a stunning location, though not without its hazards – up there Ann has survived floods, a landslide, a lightning strike and part of their roof blowing away!

Ann is the sort of person who’s naturally gifted both with empathy and with an incredible sensitivity to location. Her house was full of quirky, unusual and beautifully presented objects and artworks. She’s a photographer and poet as well as a novelist, and this can be seen in her eye for composition and selection, for lyrical celebration, for economy, for precise and lovely images.

‘If you lie down and put your ear to the beach, you can hear the surf booming through the sand.’ (The Burying Beetle)

A view like this is worth a landslide or a lightning strike!
She has written three books of poetry and runs poetry workshops. She gave me a copy of The Poetry Remedy and I found it both moving and helpful in a recent period of stress and grief. She’s also written YA fiction – her latest novel, Last Days in Eden, was published in July and her previous teen books are Runners, Koh Tabu and Lost Girls.

However, for me, it’s all about the Gussie books: the series of stories tracing the experiences of a young girl suffering from incipient heart failure – this was inspired by Ann’s own son Nathan, who sadly died after a heart-lung transplant but who seems to have been a most extraordinary person. Gussie is an equally striking character. Her situation is grievous but her spirit is never bowed. She is a creature, quite simply, of joy. She’s cheeky, rebellious, imaginative, often solitary, eccentric. She celebrates life – and this is where Ann’s talent comes into play for she shows us what I suppose we would call ‘mindfulness’ in action. Gussie, aware that her illness may limit her lifespan, doesn’t intend to waste a second. She notices everything from the tiniest insects through to the undercurrents in the adult relationships around her. She’s endlessly curious, not always tactful, but always lovable. You root for her from start to finish. When she gets the chance of an operation with the potential to save her life, you’re willing it all to go smoothly.

When I read the Gussie books, I found her character compelling of course – but I was also seduced by the mesmerising descriptions of location and the fine detail of the natural history in them. In an interview, Ann described the books as ‘a hymn of praise to this place’ – to St Ives and its environs. And I tell you this, these novels get better every time you go back to them!

I hope you’ll join us at Fictionfire by the Sea, from 17th to 19th October, for our workshops, for quiet time to write and to hear Ann give a reading and answer our questions about her aims and practices as a writer.

Ann’s website is

The Gussie series of novels: The Burying Beetle, shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award; The Bower Bird, winner of the Costa Children’s Book of the Year 2007; Inchworm and A Snail’s Broken Shell.

‘It’s exciting to be here when there’s a strong wind blowing. The rooks look like broken umbrellas or black tattered cloaks, thrown away and tumbled by the gusts. The gale shaves the tops off the waves and sends the spray flying back into the sea.’ (The Burying Beetle)

Come and hear Ann – join us at Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat 17th to 19th October, in a beautiful artists’ studio by the sea in St Ives. Workshops will focus on how to stay true to your writing dreams and how to evoke the spirit of place – but there will be lots of time as well for you to simply write! Full details and how to book are at

Don’t forget my October to December programme of Focus Workshops in Oxford starts this Saturday (11th October)! Details at