question mark for blog what on earth can I write about

Nine Ideas For What to Write When You’re Out of Ideas

Every week now, I take one day off for business development, to work on my business as the marketing experts say, rather than in the business.

Over the past few months, this day has mostly been taken up with writing for my website: blog posts, developing a fortnightly newsletter and book reviews.

Today, when faced with a topic for a blog, I came up blank. ‘What on earth can I write about,’ I pondered from downward dog position in yoga class this morning. ‘What can I write about’ I asked myself when driving home afterwards. ‘What am I going to write today’ I repeated in the shower. And this went on right up to the moment I sat down with my laptop in the café to have breakfast and get stuck into a productive business development day.

Still nothing.

I toyed with the idea of writing about the seven story archetypes, or literary devices or explaining obscure terms like pleonasm and prolix. But they all failed to inspire me today.

For fun, I Googled What on earth can I write about and came up with nothing to do with writing. Instead, my search returned existential results like factors that support life on earth, why is life possible on earth, how does earth support life, and five interesting facts about earth. I did find a writer, Daniel J. Botha, whose post Why on earth do I write?  at least contained the words ‘earth’ and ‘write’ in the same sentence.

So, I decided to write about what to write about when you’re out of ideas.

Here are nine ideas. I’ve written my own take on each one. You’ll have to excuse the unfinished nature of them. I was ‘just writing’, freeing up my creative mind. I hope you find at least one that’ll work for you when you’re clean out of ideas.

ONE: Sit in a Café and People-Watch

Here’s what I wrote in the café after breakfast. I just wrote for five minutes (I timed it).

The rainbow lorikeets in the palm trees are going nuts. I think they must feel the storm coming. They’re smarter than the people meandering along Surfers Paradise’s main drag oblivious to the soaking they’re about to get. It’s turned so dark in this outdoor café that the staff have just turned on the lights. I can smell the rain in the air.

At the table opposite, a man with close-cropped grey hair wearing a grey hoodie slowly stirs his cappuccino, licks the spoon, picks up his cup by the rim between his thumb and middle finger, and sips. He’s with a mate, who’s also wearing a grey hoodie, but they’re not talking. His mate is drinking a green juice from a bottle through a straw and scrolling through his phone.

TWO: Sit in a Café (with Free Wi-Fi) and Google Something You See

Here’s what happened for me when I did this.

I looked across the road and saw a sign for a boutique called Posha. Googling the word, I found many things. One of them is a name originating from India with the meaning ‘flower’ that can apply to both females and males. In Indian astrology, the article says, when the letter ‘P’ is the first letter of a person’s name, this is significant. It means that person has the power of philosophical thought.

THREE: Use a Childhood Memory

Here’s what I did:

I didn’t write anything today, but I’ll refer you to a story I wrote about my memories surrounding the old shed at my childhood home. Scroll to the last story on the page, The Shed, and download it for free. Enjoy the read: https://editors4you.com.au/gail-tagarro-author/

FOUR: Free-Write

Just write anything. It can be any old jumble. You’re just trying to free up your creativity.

Here’s what I wrote. Just five minutes:

It’s almost mid-October and we’re well into spring, which on the Gold Coast is nothing more than a dress rehearsal for summer. But today, I’m cold. A watery kind of sun showed its face for a half-hour or so this morning, but it’s hiding now. We’ve reverted to wintry weather for a few days. Most people have ditched their sleeveless tops and flip-flops for jackets, jumpers and trainers. I like feeling cosy, so I dressed for a day that the Bureau of Meteorology app told me would reach a high of 23°.

See? This is no literary masterpiece, but I’m writing. And that’s the main thing.

FIVE: Use a Writing Prompt

I used the beginning of a sentence as my writing prompt, ‘She sat in the car…’ Here’s what I came up with. This is as far as I got in five minutes:

She sat in the car gazing at the beach through the raindrop-splattered windscreen. She’d parked under a spreading Norfolk pine. It was raining steadily now, the rain from the soaked branches above tapping out a constant rhythm on the car roof. No one was swimming or surfing today. Somehow, when the sun wasn’t out, the beach no longer held appeal for people. The grey-green water looked uninviting. But it was the same water, she thought. Odd. A bit like a meal: you could have exactly the same food in two different bowls, one a hodgepodge and the other beautifully presented, and you’d swear the beautiful looking one tasted a thousand times better than the hodgepodge.

The patter of the rain against the car made her shiver, although it was warm inside the car. She liked coming to the beach on a weekday when there was no one around. Easy to find a park. Quiet. She could drift into a daydream, mesmerised by the breakers and white water…

SIX: Write Dialogue

Write a conversation between two people. I wrote for about seven minutes.

‘So, how did your little holiday in NZ go?’ Meredith asked her friend, who’d just returned after a week-long break.

‘It was just what I needed. I didn’t realise how much until I was away.’ Jo smiled. ‘The weather was shocking, good old Auckland, but it didn’t matter.’

Meredith nodded. ‘You really did need the break, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. Did you visit any of the old stamping grounds?’

‘Sure did. I was staying with my friend Mary and we went to some of those cafes we used to go to, remember? Down on the waterfront?’

‘I remember. We’d go down most days to one or the other.’

‘Mary and I went out for drinks a couple of nights, and we went to the movies on one of the most miserable days. I even visited our old house. They’ve painted it black now!’

Meredith held her breath. Jo mentioning her old house and saying ‘our’ meant she was going to start on it again.

‘Bastard,’ Jo said under her breath, and then began recounting the thousand and one things her ex had done wrong over their forty years of marriage, the last one trumping them all: an affair with his first wife, for whom he’d left Jo. Then she added, ‘You know what my psychic said? That it isn’t going to last. He isn’t happy. That he’ll end up leaving her…’

For the first time since The Great Breakup, Meredith didn’t let her go on. ‘Jo, you’ve got to start letting this go, you know.’

‘It was forty years,’ Jo snapped.

‘I know.’ Meredith touched Jo’s arm. ‘And I’m not saying it won’t take time to get over. But going over and over what he did and said isn’t going to change anything. It’s over, you’ve said so yourself. You wouldn’t have him back even if he asked. And if it doesn’t work out between them, it’s not your concern. Thinking about it doesn’t help you move on.’

SEVEN: Write a Scene from a Movie or TV Show You’ve Watched Recently

My daughter and I have been following a Spanish TV series on Netflix called Cable Girls. Here’s my recollection of a scene in which an accidental murder takes place:

Mario pushed Angeles up the stairs to the rooftop, where she stumbled and fell to the ground.

‘You bitch! You f… bitch! You thought you could just run away from me? With our child? I’m going to kill you, you bitch!’

Mario was at least six foot and although lean, he was strong. Angeles was no more than five five, slim and fragile.

With practised hatred, he began kicking at her slender form on the ground of the rooftop. With each agonised cry he raised from her, his kicks became more furious.

‘Why? Why did you try to leave?’ he shouted.

‘I hate you. I’d rather be dead than take any more of your abuse, your beatings, your insults,’ she whimpered.

That earnt her more kicks, one in the head this time. Blood was tricking out the side of her mouth.

Then the door to the rooftop flew open and Angeles’ three friends from the telephone exchange were tackling Mario. Carlota managed to wrestle from him the baseball bat he’d just picked up to finish off his wife. She threw it into a corner, out of reach.

With Mario thus distracted, one of them helped Angeles up. Blood was streaming from her nose and she was gasping for breath. Now he turned his fury on Lidia, who had jumped on his back and was trying to overbalance him. He managed to get her off and was now holding her by the throat, throttling her near the edge of the rooftop.

Frantic for her friend who was close to choking under her husband’s brutal iron grip, and afraid for the others, Angeles acted on instinct, seizing the baseball bat.

What happened next seemed to play out in slow motion. The backward swing of the bat. The forward swing of the bat, with a strength she didn’t know she possessed. The crack as the bat connected with her husband’s skull. The sigh as he slumped forward, already dead. The slowly spreading puddle of red around his head.

She dropped the bat.

EIGHT: Describe Something That’s Thoroughly Familiar to You

Write about it for someone who’s never experienced this thing before. Use all five physical senses to describe it (what does it look, sound, taste, feel, smell like).

Here’s what I came up with:

The Sea, The Sea

The sea is blue or green or grey or black, depending on the depth and whether it’s day or night, sunny or cloudy, and it’s so vast you can’t see the end of it. The breaking waves sound like the wind and the rain, constantly chafing against sandpaper. It tastes like the salt on your food. It feels wet, just like when you have a bath or a shower or you go out in the rain. It makes your skin go taut when it dries. It smells fresh and clean and sometimes, it smells strongly of iodine.

NINE: Use the Dictionary

Take out your dictionary (or use an online one) to find a word you’ve never heard of before. Use it in a sentence.

Here’s a good one: jejune. According to the Macquarie Online Dictionary, it’s a rare adjective that means ‘unsatisfying to the mind; dull; boring’.

He attended the play expecting it to be uplifting or at least engaging, but it was a jejune story about a man and a woman who met on a bus.

TEN: Here’s a Bonus One to Try Yourself

Go somewhere unfamiliar, even if it’s just to a local café you’ve never been to before. What you’ll see with be through fresh eyes. Describe the place, just as it is, avoiding flowery language.

The next time you ask yourself, What on earth can I write about, try some of these ideas. I hope they’ve helped inspire you.


Botha, Daniel J., Why on Earth do I Write? The Story Behind my Stories Part II, 2018. https://medium.com/@danie2life/why-on-earth-do-i-write-3e048cc5e3ad Accessed 11/10/19

Macquarie Dictionary, 2019, Macmillan Publishers Australia.

Moonastro, Baby Name Posha Meaning and Astrology, https://www.moonastro.com/babyname/baby%20name%20posha%20meaning.aspx Accessed 11/10/19

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Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring

The Reach of Rome, By Alberto Angela

A Book Review

If you’ve been following my blogs, you’ll know I’m a history buff. This blog, ‘Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring’, was inspired by Alberto Angela’s book The Reach of Rome.

You’re not fascinated by history? That’s okay. Before you relegate this blog to the annals of unread words, bear with me. You may be pleasantly surprised.

I’ve never formally studied history – unless taking Greek History 101 as an elective at uni as part of my languages degree counts.

Sadly, the classics department at my university has long since been laid to rest. Yet we can learn so much from history.

I might have got my fascination with history from our dear old dad. In his retirement, he joined U3A (University of the Third Age) and every week, trotted off to Roman history classes.

How Does the Author Present Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring?

Alberto Angela is, as described in his book, ‘an Italian palaeontologist and scientific populariser’. He’s, ‘Admired in his native Italy for his ability to bring history to life through narrative.’

Ah. In the same way that Carl Sagan popularised science and the cosmos, Alberto Angela popularises ancient history.

I was attracted by (a) The cover – covers do sell books! (b) The subtitle of his book, especially the final three words (I’ve italicised them): ‘A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire, Following a Coin’ and (c) The fact that this is Roman history … that’s actually not boring.

cover of Alberto Angela's book The Reach of Rome

Historical Fiction

Here’s my shameful secret. Up until a couple of years ago, despite my fascination with history, I’ve only ever enjoyed it by reading historical fiction.

But … getting an insight into the Roman Empire by following the journey of an ancient coin? Peeking into the daily lives of ordinary people who lived during that time? That really got my attention. Angela constantly ‘translates’ the details of life then with life now, bringing it to life.

A Bit of History

The book is set during the time of the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, Emperor Trajan, and begins at the end of the second century CE.

The first chapter includes the ‘birthing’ of the coin we are to follow on its journey, a sestertius. While it’s very difficult to know the value of the sestertius in today’s currency, it’s likely to have been worth around $3US.

The coin we will follow on its journey is forged in the Roman mint. According to Angela, the ‘mint’ looked more like this …

Dante's inferno
Dante’s Inferno

than this …

photo of Royal Australian Mint
Royal Australian Mint

Operated by sweat-soaked slaves working half-naked in oppressive heat, enduring the constant clang of metal and thick smoke billowing from the furnace, the mint looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

The slaves are forging ‘our’ sestertius, a bronze coin that has a defect, a crack, caused by the damaged die that stamped it. Thanks to this defect, we are able to follow its journey throughout the Empire as it changes hands from soldiers to merchants to prostitutes to slaves – until it is revealed in the 21st century on an archaeological dig, 1,896 years after it was forged.

Yes, it is a real coin that actually exists and now resides in a museum in Rome.

While the author has had to use poetic licence in many of the stories that surround the coin’s journey – after all, it’s impossible to know every detail of Ancient Rome – he includes stories that feature real people who lived during those times. These stories are backed up by archaeological evidence.

Are you fascinated yet?

Did You Know…?

Did you know that tourism was popular during the time of the Roman Empire? Egypt was part of the empire, and tourists visited the Nile and the pyramids, just as we do today.

Did you know that Roman roads were built with three layers of stones, from large to small, so that rainwater filtered off the surface of the road? Engineering ingenuity.

Did you know that for the Romans, the colour purple was highly prized? And that it was extracted from a mollusc? Each mollusc contained just a drop of the pigment, and so the Romans took the production of the dye to an industrial level. Then, like now, their globalisation had a devastating impact on the environment. The prized little mollusc was wiped out from whole areas of the Mediterranean.

Did you know that while the Roman Empire was brutally efficient at conquering lands and peoples by force of arms, they also ‘conquered’ peacefully? In the interior of North Africa, the Empire founded a city in the desert (a place that’s now called Timgad). Angela compares it to the modern-day desert city, Las Vegas. The goal of Timgad was to conquer the foreign population through luxury, as it were. Imagine, then, travelling days through the heat of the desert landscape, and then coming upon a vision: a city with twenty-seven baths, aqueducts, public buildings, streets, temples and markets. Culture.

Did you know that very few people who lived during this era knew how to swim? About the only people who did were sailors (hopefully for them) and people who lived near the sea. Most people then were deathly afraid of the sea. Their fear was well founded. Unless you travelled overland, you had no choice but to board a ship. The Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Egypt, so if you were a soldier at the beck and call of the Empire, or a merchant selling your products far and wide, you had to go by ship. Further, Angela tells us that a conservative, hypothetical estimate for the Mediterranean alone is that there were three shipwrecks a day. A veritable underwater museum of ancient buildings and monuments exists in the Mediterranean.

Did you know that if you’d lived during the Roman Empire, you’d have been crazy not to make a will before strolling the streets of Rome at night? Rome was a violent place where street gangs and thieves roamed, alcohol led to brawls and violence and domestic violence was widespread. Nevertheless, unlike in the Middle Ages, when private vendettas were commonplace – remember the Montagues and the Capulets in good ole Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio, a friend of Romeo’s and neither a Montague nor a Capulet, cries ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ as he is dying? – the Romans during the Empire were a civilised lot who relied not on their fists or their weapons but on their justice system. They took their grievances to court.

Monty Python and the Roman Empire

Roman history is humorously presented in Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ In The Life of Brian, they parody the very real debt that modern society owes to the Romans. So apart from roads, aqueducts – the means to carry lifegiving water to cities from faraway points, irrigation, medicine, sanitation, public baths, education, law and order, wine, and yes, they even brought peace, what did the Romans ever do for us?

Honorary Degree

In June this year, Alberto Angela was awarded an honorary degree in archaeology by the University of Naples. This was mainly for his ‘extraordinary capacity of synthesis between competence and communication, or between the values ​​of scientific knowledge and the methods of transmission of knowledge in the age of new media’ (napolike.it) – in plain English, for telling Roman history … that’s actually not boring.

Acknowledgements for Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring

Alberto Angela, The Reach of Rome: A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire, Following a Coin, 2013, Rizzoli Ex Libris, New York (411 pages).

Monty Python https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo

Napolike.it https://www.napolike.com/alberto-angela-degree-honoris-causa-in-archeology-in-naples, 19 June 2019, Accessed 26 September 2019.

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What Can A Book Editor Do For Me?

Throughout the extensive process of writing, some writers may question the need for an editor. They may wonder if they can edit their manuscript themselves and ask, ‘What can a book editor do for me?’

While it’s certainly prudent to redraft a manuscript several times and self-edit before considering the next step, it’s worthwhile pointing out what value a professional editor can add to your manuscript.

Many people may not know the true extent of what an editor can do for them. Editors are far from simply professional spell-checkers and proofreaders, as many may assume. While that is part of the process of editing, it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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What Exactly Does A Book Editor Do?

An editor corrects errors, and improves and polishes a draft manuscript, refining sentences and wording to ensure they are precise, clear and effective. They look for consistency in the storyline, cut what doesn’t work – which often first involves a discussion with the author – and suggest rewording or repositioning to ensure the audience gets the most out of the read and that the point of the narrative is maintained.

Publishing Knowledge

Editors with many years’ experience are likely to have ties throughout the writing world, including with publishers, literary agents, book design services and book promotion services. They’ll be able to advise on the different types of publishing, including what may suit you and your manuscript best, and explain the different aspects of the publication process.

An editor who is invested in the success of your manuscript will provide you with an improved manuscript and a better chance with submissions and possibilities of publication. Next time you ask, ‘Do I need an editor?’ or ‘What can a book editor do for me?’ keep this in mind.

Later, you might like to read this blog for more information about publishing: How Can I Publish My Book: What Are My Options? https://editors4you.com.au/how-can-i-publish-my-book-what-are-my-options/

Copyright, Legal, Ethical Issues in Manuscripts

What writers may not know is that an experienced editor can also alert you to any potential red flags within your manuscript, ranging from copyright and legal issues to ethical dilemmas, and refer you to the appropriate experts for further advice.

Did you know, for example, that it is a breach of copyright to use song lyrics in a book without seeking permission to reproduce? No matter how much you love the song, no matter how well it suits your story, it is still another artist’s creative effort and as such, it is subject to copyright.

The above is just a brief overview of what an editor can do for you. Check out these other blogs by editors4you that may help answer more of your questions: Questions to Ask Book Editors https://editors4you.com.au/questions-to-ask-book-editors/ and Four Things Writers Need to Know About Book Editors https://editors4you.com.au/four-things-writers-need-to-know-about-book-editors/

What Doesn’t A Book Editor Do?

What a professional editor does not do is attempt to change your author’s voice. After all, that is one of the features of your manuscript that makes it unique.

An editor should also critique not criticise your work, providing firm but kind, respectful, valuable, objective suggestions and advice.

Do I Need A Book Editor?

If you plan to publish your book, quite simply an editor is vital – whichever type of publishing path you decide to follow: mainstream publishing house (not so easy), subsidy publishing or self-publishing. You’ll find more information on these options here: How To Get Your Book Published https://editors4you.com.au/how-to-get-your-book-published/

An editor is your first reader and your first critic. They ensure your manuscript is up to publishing standard to satisfy discerning readers and publishing houses.  

Time Frame For Editing

In case you’re wondering, the answer to ‘how long will it take to edit my manuscript?’ is not ‘how long is a piece of string!’ Previous clients have occasionally told me that they have submitted their precious manuscript to an editor and then months later, the edit had progressed so little that they cut their losses, asked for it back and went searching for an editor who would give them a definite and realistic time frame and just get the job done.

A professional editor will need to sight your manuscript to give you both a time frame and a quotation.

Variables to consider:

  • Word count
  • Level of editing needed to bring the manuscript to publishing standard
  • Availability of your chosen editor.

A structural or developmental edit will take longer than a copy edit (see here for types of editing: https://editors4you.com.au/book-editors-gold-coast/book-editing-australia-accredited-editor/).

Regardless, of the above variables, an experienced, professional editor will be able to give you a definite time frame for when you can expect your edited manuscript to be returned to you for review.

Does The Editor Check Every Change With Me?

The simple answer to this is ‘No’, as it would be a very inefficient way to work. You need to trust your editor and know that they know best.

While I haven’t reached the celestial heights that author Stephen King implies in his excellent and very readable book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I do love his words: ‘The editor is always right. The corollary is that no writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.’

In the same book, King gives us a writing and cutting back formula: ‘Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.’

While the editor won’t check every change with you, a good editor will communicate with you during the edit if they come across passages that need to be discussed with you. The editing process may unveil additional issues they were originally unaware of.

Don’t be surprised if your editor suggests a second edit and final proofread after you have reviewed the edited manuscript. Most often, rewording and sometimes new writing are needed. The editor will need to check this before your manuscript hits the reading world as a book. Proofreading is the final stage of the editorial process.

Collaboration Between Author and Editor

The better the relationship and collaboration between an author and their editor, the better the manuscript will be. The blog The Writer–Editor Relationship explains the process in more depth.

The relationship between the author and their editor is vital to the editing process. Perhaps the question, ‘What can a book editor do for me?’ should be followed by, ‘What can I do for my editor?’

How Much Should I Expect To Pay?

Is editing expensive? This is one of the most frequently asked questions surrounding the editing process. The answer depends on various factors, including:

  • The editor you choose to work with, their skills, qualifications and experience
  • What level of work your book needs to bring it to publishing standard
  • The variables mentioned earlier
  • Whether you have an urgent deadline.

Some Australian editors charge a per-word fee, some charge by the hour. However they charge, it’s important to obtain an overall figure for the edit. You want and need to know up front how much the edit is going to cost you. Some editors offer payment plans, so it’s always worth asking your editor of choice if they can help you out in this way.

Are My Editing Expenses Tax Deductible?

If you are selling your book, then any of the costs related to producing the book are likely to be considered a business expense – not only editing. Check with your accountant and ask the question.

Editing is An Investment

It’s important to consider editing an investment. A professional edit will increase the chance of your book either being accepted by a mainstream publisher, or being embraced rather than reviled by the reading public in the case of self-publishing. Be realistic: editing is one of the major costs in producing a book, as the authors of the self-publishing ‘bible’ APE: How To Publish A Book state: http://apethebook.com/

Parting Words

A professional editor is a vital part of the publication process and frankly, the difference between being selected for publication or turned away, or spurned by your reading public if self-publishing. A good editor will take your manuscript to a new level, allowing your voice to shine through, possibly brighter than before. ‘What can a book editor do for me?’ is a great question with a multitude of answers.

I hope you have found what you came here for and are able to see the rest of that pesky iceberg.

Acknowledgements for ‘What Can A Book Editor Do For Me?’

Atwood, Blake, The Write Life: Looking for a Book Editor? Here’s How Much You Should Expect to Pay, 24 Feb 2017: thewritelife.com/how-much-to-pay-for-a-book-editor/ Accessed 12 Sept 2019

Hill, Beth, Duties of an Editor & How Editors Help Writers, 3 April 2013: theeditorsblog.net/2011/02/01/duties-of-an-editor-how-editors-help-writers/ Accessed 12 Sept 2019

Irvine, Melinda J, Tax Tips for Australian Writers, 2018: melirvine.com.au/2018/03/06/tax-tips-for-australian-writers/ Accessed 12 Sept 2019

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000, Hodder & Stoughton, Oxon UK.

‘What Can A Book Editor Do For Me?’ is a collaboration between Brienna Cottam and Gail Tagarro. Brienna is a student at the University of the Sunshine Coast where she’s studying the course Bachelor of Creative Writing. She is currently undertaking an internship with Gail Tagarro at editors4you.com

Stuck with your writing? Need some guidance? Finished your manuscript and need a professional edit before making those publisher submissions? Give me a call on 0405 695 534!

Ask about our Writing and Self-publishing Packages.

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The Orphan Sky

A Book Review

book cover of the orphan sky

The Orphan Sky, by Ella Leya

Leila Badalbeili is a fifteen-year-old classical pianist, a child prodigy and the darling of Soviet society in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1979.


Azerbaijan, a country bounded by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, is at this time in the grip of Soviet communism. Its culture is a fusion of Turkish, Persian and Russian influences.

An only child, Leila is the beloved daughter of her papa, Halil, an oil baron enjoying a privileged lifestyle even under communism thanks to the legacy of his father, a great communist hero who sacrificed his life to the cause. Her mother, Sonia, a stunning woman and a renowned paediatric surgeon, is elusive and distant with Leila.      

Wrapped in a cottonwool world of political brainwashing, public adulation, family privilege and paternal adoration, Leila is unaware of the political machinations of the regime, or of the betrayals occurring around her. Then her eyes begin to open, in unexpected ways, when she is required to spy on a young man whom the Communist Party suspect of selling ‘decadent’ Western music in his recently opened shop. Delighted at being given such responsibility within the Party, she zealously sets out to entrap the suspect.


Inexplicably drawn to the young man, an artist, whom she privately nicknames Aladdin – at their first meeting he is sitting cross-legged upon an Afghani rug enveloped in a cloud of hashish smoke – she finds herself tussling with her long-held beliefs. Tahir, his real name, and Leila form an immediate connection, instinctively understanding and communicating with each other as fellow artists.

On the outside, they are worlds apart, she a privileged member of the social order because of her family connections, he an outcast regarded with hatred and suspicion because of his.

Leila develops a double, even triple life. In her political life, Leila is confused and repulsed by the increasingly sexual advances of her superior, Farhad, who takes advantage of his position and her innocence. He aspires to be part of the dreaded Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, and to claim her as his wife when she is of age. In her family life, she sees a different side to her father when she attempts to defy him over Farhad’s successful petition for her hand in marriage. The times she spends with Tahir are the only occasions she really feels herself.

Collision of Worlds in The Orphan Sky

When, inevitably, all three worlds collide, Leila is forced to choose between them and to make an awful decision with far-reaching repercussions.

Against a backdrop of poetry and music, art and ideals, politics, propaganda and corruption, The Orphan Sky spans almost four decades. Leila experiences public and personal falls from grace, tragedies and betrayals, impossible decisions: will she be able to reconcile her very different worlds and finally find meaning in her life – even love?

The author cleverly and subtly foreshadows significant events in The Orphan Sky so that the reader only becomes aware of these later.

A beautiful, lyrical, heart-in-your-mouth read.

The Orphan Sky, Ella Leyla, 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark, Illinois.

About the Author of The Orphan Sky

Ella Leya is a composer and singer. She was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and moved to the United States in 1990.

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Welcome to the very first newsletter for The Lonely Writer.

Writing is a lonely job. Or pastime. The Lonely Writer aims to connect with you, the lonely writer among other lonely writers, in this monthly newsletter. We understand you’re busy. So the newsletter generally has just four or five main items of content. A brief but satisfying read.

  • Write Here, Right Now: What’s Happening in Writing? Includes trends, festivals and competitions
  • Word of the Day. An unusual word to keep your writing fresh
  • Fun Fact
  • Writing Inspiration Quote

Write Here, Write Now: What’s Happening in Writing?

Psychological Thrillers

…are on the rise this year, from films to novels. Two that are making their way up the lists of bestsellers for 2019 are The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware and One Fatal Mistake by Tom Hunt.

Festivals and Competitions

The Brisbane Writers Festival

…is drawing ever closer, running from 5 to 8 September. Connecting writers, readers and anyone in between through debate, exploration and imagination as well as celebrating the greatest achievements in the writing world for the year, this festival will be well worth your effort. Check it out here: https://bwf.org.au/2019

The Furious Fiction Competition

…run on the first weekend of every month by the Australian Writers’ Centre, starts on 6 September. Details here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/

The Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Writing Competition

…closes on 2 September. You’ll find out all about it here: https://fawnsw.org.au/sydney-hammond-memorial-short-story-writing-competition/

With the ServiceScape Short Story Award

…closing on 30 November, you could be in to win $1,000, so get cracking on that writing. Details here: https://www.servicescape.com/short-story-award

Word of the Day


Pronounced yoo·kuh·ta·struh·fee

Defined as ‘a sudden and favourable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending’.

Most of us would automatically attach negative connotations to this word, however its meaning is opposite! Could you find a way to use this in your writing, or even casual conversation? It will raise more than a few eyebrows.

Fun Fact

The very first manuscript for Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was eaten by his dog. Perhaps this is where the old phrase ‘the dog ate my homework’ came from?

Get Inspired

‘You flourish one hushed breath at a time. Imagine all you can build word by single word’―Laurie Seidler, 22 Shelters: Lessons From Letters.

This first issue of THE LONELY WRITER is a collaboration between Brienna Cottam and Gail Tagarro. Brienna is a student at the University of the Sunshine Coast where she’s studying the course Bachelor of Creative Writing. She is currently undertaking an internship with Gail Tagarro at editors4you.com

‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ and Other Idioms

Have you ever wondered about the meaning of ‘A penny for your thoughts’ and other idioms that populate the English language?

Do You Know What You’re Saying?

Idioms Explained

Wait. What’s an idiom?

Idioms are expressions peculiar to a specific language with meanings that are different from their literal interpretations. The word ‘idiom’ was coined in the late 16th century, from the French and Latin words (originating from Greek) meaning ‘peculiar phraseology’ and ‘make one’s own’.

English is filled with idioms that may seem wildly out of place in the language of our era. They flavour our conversations and add further meaning to our sentences. They amplify our communications and have become so deeply ingrained in our language and culture that they are sometimes difficult to recognise as idioms.

Let’s look at some of the more common idioms and how they came to be.

Ah, history. You know my penchant for it. As always, I promise to keep it brief (says Gail).

‘A Penny for your thoughts’ and other idioms

Break a leg

This saying is used to wish someone luck or give them encouragement. The idiom came about in theatres and performance houses in relation to the old belief that uttering ‘good luck’ to a performer would instead bring bad luck – therefore, the opposite must also apply.

Its true rise to popularity came in the early 1920s, the golden age of theatre and ‘talkies’ movies that introduced sound.

Another use of the idiom is to encourage a person to put in the most amount of effort possible to the point of ‘breaking a leg’. This was also common throughout the early 1900s. Some speculate that this version of the idiom also has links to the assassin and actor John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg attempting to leap onto the stage of Ford’s Theatre following the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

Beat about the bush

This common idiom has been around for centuries, tracing back to the 1440s in the poem Generydes – A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas:

‘Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo, Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.’

As the poem suggests, the idiom has evolved from the original literal interpretation of beating around a bush, irritating the birds within and thus, enabling the hunting party to catch the birds as they fled. The earliest recorded version to include ‘about’ within the phrase is found in the 1570s.

Reaching peak popularity at the beginning of the 1900s, ‘beat about the bush’ is used to tell someone to hurry up. It also formed connections with the next idiom we discuss, ‘cut to the chase’. The two are often used in conjunction with each other despite the time difference between their origins.

Cut to the chase

Brienna (see end of post) says that as someone who often rambles on, she has heard the phrase ‘cut to the chase’ – get to the point – more than a handful of times in her life. Yet another idiom that has found its way into everyday conversations, media and writing, this phrase has its early origins in the silent film industry, especially comedies, which often reached their climax in chase scenes. It seems that inexperienced screenwriters or directors would stretch out a film with unnecessary dialogue, boring the audience and drawing out the time before an exciting chase scene. Movie studio executives used ‘cut to the chase’ to mean that the film should get straight to the interesting scenes.

An earlier version of the phrase (1880–1940) was ‘Cut to Hecuba’, used in matinée performances of Hamlet to mean to cut the long speeches before the reference to Hecuba.

‘Cut to the chase’ is relevant in today’s world of instant messaging and live news and media, with many people preferring to get straight to the important and relevant pieces of information: instant gratification.

A penny for your thoughts

Meaning ‘tell me what you’re thinking’ and usually said to someone who’s off with the fairies, this idiom first appeared in the written language c.1522 in The Four Last Things by Sir Thomas More:

‘In such wise yt not wtoute som note & reproach os suche vagaraunte mind, other folk sodainly say to them: a peny for your thought.’

However, ‘a penny for your thoughts’ wasn’t popularised until after 1562 when it appeared in The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood. The idiom originated in an era when a penny was worth a great deal more than its current value.

The use of this idiom has noticeably declined over the last few decades and is more commonly used by older generations. Will this strange idiom weave its way out of our language completely?

To kill two birds with one stone

Despite its somewhat negative connotations, the 17th-century idiom ‘kill two birds with one stone’ appears to have a figurative origin. It means to achieve two objectives with one action. In our age of multitasking and deadlines, its meaning maintains its relevance.

The Oxford English Dictionary records a 1655–56 exchange of views about free will between the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the Anglican Bishop John Bramhall:

‘T. H. thinks to kill two birds with one stone, and satisfy two arguments with one answer.’

An earlier version of the idiom appears in a 1632 book A Complete History of the Present Seat of War in Africa Between the Spaniards and Algerines.

There is also speculation that the phrase has its roots in the Greek mythological tale of Daedalus and Icarus. With both men trapped, and hungry birds flying above waiting for their demise, Daedalus uses stones to strike down the birds in order to create their own wings to escape on. He consequently discovers a throwing motion that allows him to kill two of the birds with one stone. Who knows?

The last straw

The last idiom we explore, fittingly, is ‘the last straw’, sometimes ‘the final straw’, an idiom that expresses anger and frustration. It’s the final tiny irritant or burden on top of a series of other seemingly minor burdens that causes what may appear an extreme reaction.

The idiom refers to the proverb ‘the last straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Variants of the proverb include ‘The last drop makes the cup run over’ (1655), ‘The last feather that breaks the horse’s back’ (1677), and the oriental proverb ‘It is the last straw that overloads the camel’.

The earliest recorded use of the phrase is in The Edinburgh Advertiser (1816):

‘MR. BROUGHAM remarked, that if it [a tax on soap] were only 3d. a head, or 4d. and 5d. upon the lower orders, yet straw upon straw was laid till the last straw broke the camel’s back.’

‘The last straw’ has fluctuated in popularity over the centuries. Nevertheless, it remains a valid and colourful way to express irritation and anger.

photo of penny for ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ and Other Idioms
Photo by Mark Bosky on Unsplash

As we’ve seen, idioms have wormed their way into our our everyday language and vocabulary. They add vibrancy to our communications and often a little humour as well.

Will you notice the next time you use an idiom?

After all, the devil is in the details …

Acknowledgements for ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ and Other Idioms








The post ‘A Penny For Your Thoughtsand Other Idioms is a collaboration between Brienna Cottam and Gail Tagarro. Brienna is a student at the University of the Sunshine Coast where she’s studying the course Bachelor of Creative Writing. She is currently undertaking an internship with Gail Tagarro at editors4you.com

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Time to Say Goodbye to Spain

Almost four weeks after completing the two-week writers’ retreat in southern Spain in June, it was time to say goodbye to Spain, adios España. I rather hoped it would be hasta luego, España – until we meet again – than goodbye.

Spain Series V: León 

Meantime, I’d spent my last 10 days in León at my friend’s place, working like a little Trojan on my lovely clients’ books. So immersed was I in the work that I’d look up from my laptop and out the window from time to time and think, ‘Oh, I’m in Spain, not at home!’

This visit to the modest and unassuming city of León had great personal significance for me. Way back in the 1980s, I lived, and worked as an English teacher, in León for several years. And the last time I’d visited the city was 24 years previously. You’ll be able to read all about it when I publish my travel narrative later this year, Forty-Four Days in Spain: A Travel Narrative of Duchesses, Dishy Spaniards and Disenchantments in Flamenco-land. Watch this space!

Where is León?

Except for those who’ve walked the famous pilgrims’ way, El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James), and know that León is on the route, the city is little known by most English-speakers on our side of the world. Just an aside: The Way leads to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where it is reputed that the remains of Saint James are buried.

León is located in the northwest of Spain, some 800m above sea level, on the banks of the Bernesga River. It’s an inland city, the capital of the province of León and since 1983, part of the Autonomous Community of Castile and León, with a population of around 126,000. The mountain range of the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) is situated in Castile and León, Asturias and Cantabria.

skifields near Leon
Wintertime: Skifields near León

León has a long history. It was founded around 29 BC by the Roman legion Legio VI Victrix as a Roman military encampment. The name León, rather than referring to the translation ‘lion’, derives from the city’s Latin name, Legio.

To put its location in context, Madrid is two hours south of León on the fast train, the AVE.

What’s to See in León?

For a relatively small city, León boasts numerous historical buildings. These include the Gothic cathedral with its celebrated stained glass windows; the 10th century church Basílica de San Isidoro de León; the neogothic Casa Botines, designed by the famous Catalan architect Anton Gaudí; and the Hostal de San Marcos.

All these buildings have fascinating histories but for some reason, that of San Marcos always captured my imagination the most because of the many functions it’s fulfilled over the centuries.

San Marcos Leon Spain
A building that’s changed functions many times over the centuries, San Marcos is now a luxury hotel

San Marcos has variously been:

  • A hospital-temple providing shelter to pilgrims travelling the Camino de Santiago (12th century)
  • The main residence in the Kingdom of León for the Order of Santiago, a religious and military order founded to protect the pilgrims, ‘defend Christendom and … remove the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula’ (Wikipedia) (12th century). This was because as the capital of the Kingdom of León, León took an active part in the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. (Want to read more about Moorish rule in Spain? See my previous blog, A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca.) 
  • A monastery/convent (comprising church, façade and cloister and sacristy). The medieval building, in poor condition, was largely demolished in the 16th century and rebuilt over the following couple of centuries (16th—18th centuries)
  • Makeshift prison cell for the lampooning and controversial Spanish nobleman, politician and poet of the Baroque era, Francisco de Quevedo (17th century)
  • A dark part of León’s history was when San Marcos was converted into temporary dungeons during the Spanish Civil War. Cells, rooms, stables, cloisters, church, choir, museum – every part of the building – was transformed into dungeons or jailers’ offices (1936—1940)
  • A luxury hotel or parador, the Parador de Leon: Hostal de San Marcos (since 1965), also housing a church and museum.

Insulting the Queen

Our provocative, rather cruel friend mentioned above, Francisco de Quevedo – who himself had a club foot and was notably myopic – was notorious (or famous, depending on points of view), for enacting a dare by his friends in which he publicly insulted, through wordplay, Queen Isabel de Borbón, who was crippled (coja). He bought two bunches of flowers, one of white carnations, and one of red roses. Presenting the two bunches of flowers to the queen, he said in rhyming verse (the bolded words rhyme):

Entre el clavel blanco y la rosa roja, su majestad escoja. Translation: ‘Your Majesty, Choose between the white carnations and the red roses.’ The wordplay is between escoja, which means ‘You choose’, and es coja, which means ‘You are crippled’. In an era when physical defects were considered hugely shameful, this was, as you can imagine, a huge risk to take!

Francisco de Quevedo
Quevedo, the man who insulted the queen. (For attribution, see Acknowledgements)

A Walk Through León After 24 Years

Naturally enough, I found León a significantly larger and more spread out city to the León I’d last seen 24 years ago.

We arrived from Madrid by bus, and walked from the bus station across the river to the Papalaguinda riverside walk. The walkway was looking attractive with many more gardens, mature trees and places to sit and chat, although the river was choked with weeds. My friend told me the river had been considerably narrowed to accommodate its reduced flow over the years.

It only rains on average 75 days a year in León (although I was surprised to compare the statistics on the Gold Coast that show an average of only 25 days a year over the past 25 years). An innovation since my time in León were the many boardwalks along the river, and a significant extension of the riverside walkway extending over several kilometres.

The Barrio Húmedo

At home, we changed and headed out into León’s nightlife, visiting the Barrio Húmedo (literally, the damp quarter!) in the old part of the city within the Roman city walls. In my day, the Barrio Húmedo was the drinking and tapas ground of my Spanish friends and I. Now, it’s become more upmarket and touristy and dare I say pretentious, with more restaurants than tapas bars and a consequent upsurge in prices. However, the drinking zone has extended to encompass various other parts of the old city, and there are still plenty of watering holes with an all-Spanish clientele.

Each tapas bar has its own specialty, and becomes popular (or unpopular) depending on what they offer. What becomes popular can be surprising. One of the typical bars we visited specialises in spuds cut into thin rounds and deep fried, served with garlic and chilli. Actually – delicious!

A Mix of Work, Wine and Tapas

Each day followed a similar pattern. I’d get up reasonably early and immediately get stuck into my work, wonderfully distraction-free compared to being at home where the cat, meal preparation and housework tend to disrupt one! When my friend got up, we’d have breakfast, usually a smoothie or smoothie bowl with blueberries, banana, soymilk, seeds and muesli. Then I’d get back to work. At Spanish lunchtime, 2 or 3 pm, my friend and I would make a h-u-g-e salad (remember, it was summertime) full of mixed greens, chickpeas, avocado, tomatoes, red peppers and whatever else we fancied on the day. We’d have this with a delicious dark multigrain bread smothered in hummus. We’d talk over lunch, catching up on family and old times, then it was back to work until about 7 pm.

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs in the Spanish Series (Writers’ Retreat in Spain, A Day in the Life of a Writer in Spain, Writing Groups in Madrid, and A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca), 7 pm feels super-early in Spain, where in summer, it doesn’t get fully dark until 11 pm.

Mornings and nights in León are cool even in summertime, though the days are hot. Nothing like Madrid hot, but in the high 20s or early 30s. Being amongst mountains, it’s very cold in wintertime (averaging highs of 8°C and lows of below zero).

We’d go for a long evening walk, taking in areas we used to live in and places we used to visit, as well as new areas – probably established 15 or more years ago, but new to me! Then we’d settle in a tapas bar and have their specialty tapa along with a delicious local red (or two) for me, and a beer for my friend.

Sunday, Sunday

Sunday morning was a break in the daily routine, with a Spanish breakfast out in a café: pastry and coffee. I ended up settling for a small black, as many bars don’t yet have soymilk and those that do use the sweetened variety. After breakfast, it was back home to work.

I’d been expecting to see a familiar face since arriving in León, but in the 10 days I saw only one other person I knew from way back when. We were out walking on Sunday afternoon – and it was still very hot at 8 pm – when I recognised her walking towards us with a couple of friends. She couldn’t believe it was me, and there was a lot of fast talking to try and bridge that 24-year gap. We caught up again a couple of days later for morning coffee to talk some more about our families and what we were both up to now.

cathedral of Leon
The Cathedral of León

Time to Say Goodbye to Spain

The time for goodbyes finally arrived on the morning of Saturday 13 July, when I left León on the fast train, the AVE, for Madrid.

My friend kindly walked me from his house to the train station, about 10 minutes. We always used to walk everywhere, so this visit was like old times. Then it was goodbye, waving from the train carriage, watching him disappear as the train left the station, and shedding a few tears.

In Madrid on the Saturday morning, it was still cool, and relatively quiet in the train and metro stations. From the train station, the metro trip to the airport was straightforward. I only needed to change lines once and my terminal, T4, was the last stop. The only confusing thing was that at the airport stop, I had to pay an extra 3E on top of my transport card – like Brisbane, the last part of the metro line to the airport is privately owned – and it wasn’t at all clear how to do this! I wasn’t the only one confused, and the poor staff were backwards and forwards helping people. The authorities need to sort that one out!

I had hours at the airport before it was properly time to say goodbye to Spain, but preferred that to depositing my suitcase somewhere and passing the day in Madrid’s heat. A perfect opportunity to catch up on some more work. I mucked about in the airport shops, bought the Saturday special edition of the Spanish newspaper El País that I intended reading back at home, then ordered lunch – and left the newspaper on the restaurant counter.

My Emirates flight left on time at 10 pm. My seat had plenty of leg room, though I had absolutely no sleep whatsoever on the eight-hour trip. But I watched two good movies, The Joy Luck Club and Five Feet Apart. Emirates is proud of its multiculturalism, always announcing at the beginning of flights which countries the staff are from and the number of languages the crew speak – 20 different countries and 14 different languages on this flight.


Arriving at my hotel around 8.30 am, I had a whole day in Dubai, plenty of time to catch up on sleep, leisurely arrange my clothes for the homeward flight next day – I’d need something warmer than what I’d been wearing the past six weeks – then shower and change into my glad rags for a visit to Dubai Mall. I’d had no time for tourism on my way to Europe and honestly, Dubai in summertime is too hot for wandering outdoors or visiting deserts – at least for me. So contrary to my normal self, I was happy with mall walking in air-conditioned comfort.

Dubai Mall was in sight of my downtown hotel, but I took the hotel transfer there to avoid arriving sweaty and agitated. One of the streets we drove along was Happiness Street. My plan was to wander, eat, and watch the fountains/light show in the evening, before getting the second-to-last transfer back to the hotel at 7.45 pm. Check: Although I had no desire for shopping, I took in the entire centre and found the prices surprisingly reasonable, possibly because it was summer, an unpopular time for tourism.

The mall includes a giant aquarium, ice-skating rink, and waterfall with diving sculptures. Check: Happily found a restaurant with an extensive vegan menu. Sorbet in a cone for dessert while wandering around the mall. Check: Braved the still-crazy heat outdoors to watch the fountain and light show. Check: After running all the way through the mall and outdoors in the heat, made the 7.45 pm transfer to the hotel – sweaty, but not agitated. Breakfast next day was at 6.30 am, when the restaurant opened, and I was being collected by the shuttle at 7 am for the 14-hour flight to Brisbane, so I packed unhurriedly, had a nice early night and slept wonderfully.

Uneventful Flight

The flight home was uneventful – the type I like. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but I did watch a trio of classic movies: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (James Stewart, 1939, director Frank Capra), Humoresque starring Joan Crawford (1946, director Jean Negulesco), To Catch a Thief starring Cary Grant & Grace Kelly (1955, director Alfred Hitchcock).

Brisbane greeted us with an 8°C but stunningly sunny, still morning. It was a strange feeling arriving home on the Gold Coast after six weeks away. But my boss gave me the day off – she’s so generous.

It was a day of firsts. First time back home in six weeks. First decent soy cappuccino in six weeks. Writing up my first Spanish Series blog in my local waterfront café, rugged up but enjoying the sunshine sparkling off the blue waters of the Broadwater.

It had been time to say goodbye to Spain. Now it was time to say hello to home on the Gold Coast.

Acknowledgements for Time to Say Goodbye to Spain

Francisco de Quevedo photo: Attributed to Juan van der Hamen – [2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27702609

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convento_de_San_Marcos. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Quevedo. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le%C3%B3n,_Spain. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Santiago. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picos_de_Europa. Accessed 8 August 2019.

World Monuments Fund, Parador de León (Hostal de San Marcos), 2017.  https://www.wmf.org/project/parador-de-le%C3%B3n-hostal-de-san-marcos. Accessed 8 August 2019.

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A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

After spending the week in Madrid working, which came after the writers’ retreat in southern Spain in the first two weeks of June this year, I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years. We’d decided to meet up in Madrid and then travel by bus to make a visit to the hanging houses of Cuenca.

Spain Series IV: Cuenca

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Colourful houses in the historic part of Cuenca

Where is Cuenca?

Cuenca is an easy two-to-three-hour bus ride east of Madrid located in the comunidad autónoma (autonomous community) of Castilla–La Mancha in the mountains of east-central Spain.

We left from the Estación Sur de Autobuses in Madrid (also called Méndez Alvaro) in the early afternoon, as my friend was arriving there on a bus from further north. An aside: This wasn’t the first time I travelled in Spanish buses this trip, and I found them very comfortable, with comfy seats and plenty of leg room. They often have a downstairs toilet, especially for trips that are over three hours.

About Cuenca

Cuenca is a small city with a population of around 56,000.

A Little Bit of History

You can skip this section if you don’t like history! I promise, it’s not too long! The city has a long and colourful history. It was founded by the Moors in 714, who built a fortress between the two gorges of the Júcar and Huécar rivers and surrounded it with a one-kilometre-long wall.

When speaking with people, I’ve found that many don’t know that a large part of Spain, especially southern Spain, was under Moorish rule for seven centuries, with a correspondingly huge influence on Spanish language and culture. Hence the significant Moorish architectural influence in many parts of Spain, including the palace of the Alhambra in Granada, the Giralda in Seville, the Mezquita and Alcázar of Córdoba, and many other cities besides.

Cuenca was besieged and conquered numerous times by various Moorish and Christian kingdoms until it was finally conquered by the 22-year-old Christian King Alfonso VIII of Castile. This ended Arab domination in Cuenca.

A prosperous city for several centuries, Cuenca was a centre for textile manufacturing and agriculture. Good old King Carlos IV forbade textile activity in the 18th century to prevent competition with the Royal Tapestry Factory, naturally leading to a decline in Cuenca’s textile industry. Five thousand inhabitants left the town as a result of the failing economy. The independence war against Napoleon caused destruction and worsened the city’s economic crisis, leading to a further loss of population so that only around 6,000 inhabitants remained. With the arrival of the railroads in the 19th century, and the timber industry, Cuenca received a boost to the economy and the population increased to 10,000. In the late 19th century, during the Third Carlist War, Cuenca was taken over by Carlist troops, supporters of King Carlos V instead of the ruling Isabel II, and the city suffered yet again.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Cuenca was part of the republican zone, the zona roja or ‘red zone’. Again, the city suffered major economic decline during the post-war period, and migration to more prosperous regions in northern Spain and other countries followed. Between 1960 and 1970, the city slowly recovered.

In recent decades, the city’s economy has been boosted by tourism and in 1996, Cuenca was declared a World Heritage site.

Okay, enough history I hear you say! I love history, but I understand not everyone does, so back to the trip…

Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Hanging Houses of Cuenca

On our first morning in Cuenca, at the civilised hour of 10 am, we strolled from our Airbnb up to the bridge that crosses the gorge, and so to a close-up view of the hanging houses. I do not like heights, and my friend said he’d hold my hand while we crossed the bridge! He sure did, and I gripped his arm so tightly with my other hand that I’m sure he had bruises and fingernail marks!

There are in fact only a few of the hanging houses remaining. The most well-known is a group of three with wooden balconies.

We enjoyed Cuenca immensely. Mostly, after the huge metropolis that is Madrid and having experienced the Saharan heatwave – and in summer, Madrid is already notoriously hot – Cuenca was an accessible, easy place to be. We could walk everywhere. To the old town where the hanging houses are, to the supermarket for supplies, to the numerous bars and cafés that we mainly visited in the evenings for a drink and tapas. While temperatures reached around 36°C on a couple of the afternoons, it was more bearable than in Madrid where because of the high-rises, there’s nowhere for the heat to escape. In Cuenca, we could breathe!

Cuenca was also remarkably free of tourists. What a bonus! The day we walked over to the old town and to see the hanging houses, there were only two or three other small family groups meandering around. The old part of the city especially has a small-town atmosphere, and apart from the occasional bus and delivery van, the cobbled streets were quiet and we could walk along the street a lot of the time rather than on the footpaths.

While Cuenca retains its historic walled town, steep cobbled streets and medieval ruins, it’s mostly known for what we went to visit, its casas colgadas, hanging houses, perched over the Huécar gorge and seeming to cling to the cliff edge.

It’s unknown when the hanging houses were originally built, although the sign on them says 14th century. They have been refurbished several times throughout their history, and in fact they were undergoing further restoration during our visit. It’s common for works on Spanish historic buildings to be undertaken in wintertime, when they won’t disrupt tourism too much!

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Close-up of the Casas Colgadas

In the past, the hanging houses have served as individual homes, council houses and a restaurant. One of them now houses the Spanish Abstract Art Museum.

Our wanderings through the old part of Cuenca lasted for the better part of six hours, although it didn’t feel that long at all. We just took it slowly, taking in all the sights, the historic buildings, the spectacular views from high up over the gorges, the atmosphere, the peace and tranquillity. We took a multitude of photos. The streets gradually led to the highest part of the town. Way up there we saw a sign that said La Ciudad Encantada, the enchanted city, and we took a left fork and wandered up to the top where an old man was sitting under the trees beside a spring. We greeted him and he told us that the enchanted city wasn’t in fact a city, but a geological site where weather and the river waters have formed rocks into distinctive shapes. In 1929, it was declared a Natural Site of National Interest. It was too hot by this time to think of visiting the site, and the man told us that really, you needed a car to see it properly, so we contented ourselves with viewing what we could see from that vantage point. Then we strolled back to the modern part of town – taking an alternative route instead of the bridge! – and mingled with the locals at a restaurant in the shade of some large trees for cool drinks and lunch.

The following day, having confirmed we’d seen most of interest of old Cuenca, we did some gift shopping and had afternoon tea and cake in a pastelería, cake shop, in central Cuenca.

A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca
Another view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Postscript: Travelling by Train in Spain

Another aside: I also travelled by the fast AVE train on two trips this journey to Spain, and it was amazing, reaching a top speed of just over 200 km/hr, and very comfortable. My first trip was from Córdoba to Madrid, and we travelled clase preferente, first class, only because there were no tickets left in tourist class. The second trip was from León in northern Spain to Madrid, in tourist class. The only difference between tourist and first was that there is an extra seat, so slightly less room, but not enough to be noticeable. Another thing I discovered and which I’m sure RENFE, the government-run railway, wouldn’t want highly publicised – ha! sorry RENFE – is that if the train you’re catching is delayed in reaching its destination by 30 minutes or more, they will refund you 50 per cent of the ticket value. If it’s delayed by up to 60 minutes or more, you get a full refund. The train from Córdoba to Madrid was in the first category. Because I’d paid by credit card, it was super-easy to claim the refund online; it went through instantly. Clearly, their refund policy is intended to make the railway more efficient. Good on you, RENFE.

Acknowledgements: A Visit to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfonso_VIII_of_Castile. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuenca,_Spain. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciudad_Encantada. Accessed 1 August 2019.

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Writing Groups in Madrid

Spain Series: III

Come join me while I fill you in on the three different writing groups in Madrid I participated in during my week-long stay there after the fortnight’s writers’ retreat in southern Spain.

I spent the week doing clients’ work, and attending three different writers’ groups.

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 1: Write What you See

Seven of us met on a Monday evening in a café in the trendy suburb of Tribunal. The convenor is a multi-published author, and the others included an ex-journo from the States, a Spanish writer, an English writer, a Cuban scriptwriter, and my friend and I.

Tribunal Metro station for writing groups in Madrid

The convenor’s brief was to write a descriptive piece with no embellishment. ‘Just write what you see without commentary.’

You never know what you’re going to write in these impromptu sessions, which is part of the appeal. You’re put on the spot and it forces you to come up with something. I quite enjoy writing in longhand for a change from doing it on the laptop, which I tend to associate with ‘work’.

I began writing about what I observed around me: the décor of the café, a couple sitting at a table opposite ours, the wait staff. I was amused that the ex-journo wrote nothing the whole time, but sat with his chin in his hand, not-so-subtly observing us, his fellow writers. So I ended up returning the favour as his behaviour intrigued me. We wrote for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, we sat around talking for hours, but did not read out what we’d written.

This is what I wrote, warts and all. It won’t win any literary prizes, but neither was this the point of the exercise. I can imagine incorporating parts of this into other writing. Remember: we had to write only what we observed, with no commentary. I almost nailed it.

Reflections from wall-mounted lights on glossy ochre walls. Globes suspended from metal rods reflect distortedly on glossy ceiling.

Long-stemmed red carnations in bottles on marble-topped tables with shapely iron frames. Dark timber shutters and window frames.

Solitary tealight candle flickering in a glass. Red lights on expresso machine. White-shirted waitress pulling beers. Silver tray on metal tabletop.

Occasional laughter from front of café. Muted lighting. Parquet floor. Red upholstered lounges. Timber chairs. Twang of background jazz.

She sips on a white wine. He bends his head towards her, dark on dark, profile to profile, the red sofa between them the shape of a heart.

Man walks in carrying pamphlets. Blue cap. Blue and white striped shirt. Tan pants. Navy sports shoes. Walks to end of café. Looks disconcerted. Why are four men and two women sitting together at the back without speaking or looking at one another?

The journo, wearing a smart navy jacket and black-banded white trilby, observes, right leg crossed over left, right hand resting on right leg. Checks watch. Looks bored.

Writer in blue t-shirt taps sandalled foot in time to jazz. Removes glasses, checks mobile phone, taps out the beat with his foot.

Incongruous: a stick of celery in a vase of pink carnations.

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 2: Random Words

Just three of us turned up for this group held during the daytime. Not so surprising given that people work! And given Madrid’s unbearable summertime heat. We sat at an outdoor table in the shade as it was too busy and noisy indoors. Happily, a slight breeze made it pleasant enough.

The random words exercise is one I’ve carried out several times in writers’ groups I’ve run in the past. Some people love the exercise. Others hate it. Over the years, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised at what I’ve come up with, finding the writing has stood the test of time. I’ve published a couple of these stories on my website. Check here: https://editors4you.com.au/gail-tagarro-author/  

We wrote for only about 20 minutes and afterwards, read out what we’d written to the others. The random words we each picked were: Watch, Baffle, Broad, Dance, Challenge, Screeching, Cheese, Smother. I didn’t manage to fit in ‘cheese’ and didn’t want to force it into the writing.

This is what I wrote:

Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeching from the tops of the eucalypts in the paddock beside the house dragged her from her reverie. She watched them dancing from branch to branch, then they settled down. In the dusk, against the ashen clouds, they looked like splotches of snow.

In the still air and smothering heat, even breathing was a challenge.

Evan entered the room opposite, his broad shoulders seeming to take up the whole of the doorframe. He was still not speaking to her and she did not know how to break the silence between them. He had not even looked at her as he’d passed the room.

She sighed.

This was his house, his domain, his … everything. It was very clear that it was on her to put things right, to tidy up this mess they had found themselves in.

But how to do it?

She had tried to say she was sorry, tried to put things right, but her requests for forgiveness had only made him retreat further into himself.

The rain that had been building up all afternoon finally came in torrents, pounding on the tin roof and lashing the windows and the verandah. Hailstones the size of golf balls followed, crushing the tomatoes, shredding the lettuces and basil and lemongrass, silencing the cockatoos.

She should have protected the garden somehow. She’d known the storm was coming.

Gazing through the window at the destruction, she wasn’t aware of Evan entering the room until he came up to her and stood beside her. She jumped at his sudden nearness and a new apology sprang to her lips.

‘Evan …’ she began.

He shushed her, put his arm around her, pulled her close.

The rain eased and the cockatoos squawked and flew off, white blotches against the steely sky.

© Gail Tagarro 2010
cockatoos story writing groups in Madrid
Sulphur-crested cockatoos

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 3: An Existing Short Story

My final writers’ group in Madrid was the best one from my perspective. Five of us met in yet another café, also located in the suburb of Tribunal.

The convenor writes for pleasure, and I found his critiquing abilities excellent. There was also a young scriptwriter from South America who despite his youth, was also excellent at critiquing.

Before the meeting, we were invited to submit to the convenor via Google Docs the piece of writing we intended to read to the group so the other members had the opportunity to read it beforehand. I chose an existing short story.

Here’s my story:


Auckland. Summer of 2001. A night punctuated by thunderstorms, downpours.

She’d left the office late, was crossing the road during a heavy downpour to reach the bus stop. The gutters were flooded waterways, and in her skirt and high heels she was desperately but vainly trying to avoid getting drenched. ‘Damn weather-forecasters, never get it right,’ she grumbled. Car headlights illuminated the slick puddles as she waited at a pedestrian crossing. The windswept rain battered her umbrella and lashed against her legs. Finally, the green man beeped and flashed, and she ran across the street to the shelter of the shop verandahs and down the chewing-gum-splattered footpath to the bus stop. Newton was so seedy, so dirty, so goddamn ugly.

Only one other person was waiting at the bus stop, engrossed in his evening newspaper, immaculately dressed – and bone dry. The effrontery, blast him. Furiously self-conscious, she glanced at her reflection in a murky shop window and took a quick inventory: hair – windblown; clothes – half drenched; shoes – patchy with watermarks. She cast another furtive look at the newspaper reader. Where’s he come from, anyway, she wondered, scowling. Couldn’t have just appeared out of nowhere. She looked up and down the street. Wherever it was, he would have had to cross the street somewhere and been exposed to the weather. No one with those looks could work in one of these seedy buildings. A mystery.

She amused herself by inventing news headlines. Man defies the elements. Mystery man at bus stop. She smiled to herself, the bad mood lifting in synch with the steam rising from the road. Another look his way. What’s so interesting about that blasted newspaper anyway? He doesn’t even acknowledge that I exist. Even his newspaper’s dry. She scowled again.

‘Do you always scowl at strangers?’

‘What?’ Her startled eyes raced to his face. ‘Pardon? Are you talking to me?’

He looked around. ‘No one else here,’ he drawled.

She opened her mouth, about to retort in kind, but something about the way he was looking at her froze the impulse.

‘I do believe you’re speechless.’ She could only gape. ‘I get the impression you’re seldom at a loss for words.’

‘Bad day at the office,’ she mumbled, struggling to recover. ‘So where’s your office – up there? Doesn’t it rain in heaven?’

He laughed coolly. ‘Never lost for words, huh?’

‘Don’t know about me, but you sure look the type who likes to be right,’ she countered, recovered from her momentary loss of speech. ‘Um, have a nice life. Here comes our bus.’

‘A woman who must have the last word’. He threw the comment at her as the bus drew up.

Silence is often the best answer, she chanted silently, recalling some pseudo-philosophical words of wisdom she’d read recently in an email. But she couldn’t resist throwing him a withering look.

Casting about the bus for a suitable seat as she pushed her ticket in the electronic feeder, she was relieved to see a spare seat beside another woman. Edging through the dripping raincoats and umbrellas, she repressed the urge to grimace at the odour of dampness and humanity. Mr Smartmouth took the seat behind her. She felt his eyes drilling into her neck, tried to practise meditation to take her mind off him. But when she began thinking about the first chakra, associated with the colour red, her ears and neck and face became suffused with red. This made her so agitated and angry and frustrated and heated that she had to take off her hot, damp jacket. A contrived throat clearing behind her indicated it had not gone unnoticed. She sat fuming silently.

A crack of lightning followed immediately by a tremendous boom of thunder directly overhead made everyone jump and heightened her discomfort and irritation.

Finally, the bus reached her stop. Thank heavens I don’t have far to walk, she thought. Without a backward glance at Smartmouth, she alighted and dashed to the shelter of a nearby tree to put up her umbrella. The bus accelerated off with a roar and a haze of fumes. It was still raining torrentially, and she was anxious to reach home before the next bout of thunder and lightning.

‘I say, mind if I share your umbrella?’

She spun around. ‘My God, you’ve got a cheek! How dare you follow me home!’

‘Follow you home?’ he echoed incredulously. ‘I live here.’

‘Well, w… well, you can … you can just get wet, like the rest of us mere mortals.’ She began walking away. I owe him nothing, she thought.

‘I am wet actually, thanks to your not sharing your umbrella with me.’

‘What’s your problem? I don’t even know you. Give me one good reason why I should share my umbrella with you.’

‘Because it’s be-kind-to-stray-animals day, it’s Friday, there’s no work tomorrow, and when you walk me home, I’ll invite you in for a nice hot chocolate or brandy or whisky, whatever happens to take your fancy.’

‘My God, I’ve met Mr Confident. You’re so damned sure of yourself, aren’t you?’ Despite her protests, he was succeeding at drawing her in. ‘Where do you live, anyway?’

He took her arm and drew in close to her under the relative shelter of her umbrella.

‘Just up the road. What’s your name?’ he asked.


‘Is that spelt G-a-l-e?’

© Gail Tagarro 2010
couple with umbrella for writing groups in madrid

Critiquing is an art, that’s for sure. While I do it every day professionally as an editor and writing coach, I found myself somewhat reticent about providing the same level of critique in these groups. I guess it’s natural. I was the newbie and was attending the groups as a one-off.

photo of Unamuno for writing groups in Madrid
Miguel de Unamuno: an intellectual and literary giant, member of the Generation of ’98

I loved the ‘tertulia’ atmosphere of the writing groups. ‘Tertulia’ is a Spanish word meaning a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones. Meeting with other writers in the Madrid cafés was evocative of the tertulias I used to read about when I lived in Spain and studied Spanish language and literature. These included the famous tertulias of the ‘Generation of ’98’ and the ‘Generation of ’27’.

A full list of the writers comprising the Generation of ’98 and the Generation of ’27 is in the links below.


Wikipedia, 2019. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generaci%C3%B3n_del_27 and https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generaci%C3%B3n_del_98. Accessed 25 July 2019.

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A Day in the Life of a Writer in Spain

Spain Series: II

I figure after a two-week writers’ retreat in southern Spain, I can talk about a day in the life of a writer in Spain!

After the fortnight in the Alpujarra region, I spent a week in Madrid to catch up on work and attend some writers’ groups (watch out for this in the upcoming third post of this series). I stayed at a friend’s in the suburb of Nueva España, apparently an upmarket area of the capital.

Quiet in Madrid

29 June 2019. It’s quiet in Madrid when I leave the apartment building just before 9 this morning.

a day in the life of a writer in Spain cafe in madrid spain with coffee cup and glasses
A day in the life of a writer in Spain: Coffee and journalling in a Madrid cafe

And cool.

It’s unusual for Madrid to be quiet. Guess because it’s Saturday morning. Too early for one of the cafes that I’ve adopted as a favourite in the week I’ve been here. They open at 10, I discover. Instead, I go to my second-favourite for a morning coffee and croissant.

There’s a unique aspect to the Spanish lifestyle that I’d always put down to the culture: as a nation, and generally speaking, Spanish people go to bed later and get up later than their European counterparts.

Today, after digging to find the real reason, I’m disabused of the notion that it’s cultural.

Solar Time and Clock Time in Mainland Spain

When I lived in Spain way back in the 1970s and again in the early 1980s, I was intrigued when told that in mainland Spain, the time is permanently one hour ahead of mean solar time, and in summer with daylight saving time it is a further hour ahead.

The mismatch between solar time and Spain’s clock time means that it doesn’t get dark here in summertime until 10.30 or 10.45 pm. Even sunset isn’t until nearly 10! A disincentive for going to bed early because when you do, you feel you’re missing out on life.

How the Mismatch Came About

On this visit, I looked into how the time mismatch came about. Whereas I’d always enjoyed what I saw as a unique aspect of Spanish life, what I discovered was disturbing, as it has its origins in Francoist Spain – i.e. during the 41-year-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco died in 1975. I was living in Spain in the early 1970s and got a pretty good feel for what it was like living under a dictatorship. That, of course, was nothing compared to the early years when dissidents were murdered by extremists (a notable victim was the poet Federico Garcia Lorca of Granada), and hundreds of Spanish intellectuals, artists and dissenters sought exile abroad in order to live.

Back to the reason for that mismatch in time. In 1940, during WWII, Franco changed the time zone to Central European Time to be in line with German time, as did several other western European countries. Although it was considered to be a temporary wartime decision, it became permanent.

There have been discussions around returning Spain’s clock time to its original time zone, with arguments that it would boost productivity, avoid downtime during the working day and boost the declining birth rate. But it hasn’t happened, yet.

Having lived the Spanish lifestyle, it’s difficult for me to imagine Spanish people going to bed earlier.

It’s not all Fiestas and Siestas

a day in the life of a writer in Spain. spanish women traditional dress
A day in the life of a writer in Spain: Dressed for fiestas … but Spain isn’t only about fiestas, or siestas

Many believe it would be a positive change for Spain to turn back the clock, in a manner of speaking. A 2013 Spanish national commission reveals that with the anomalous schedule caused by the mismatch between solar time and clock time, Spanish people are deprived of almost one hour’s sleep compared to the European average, that is, they sleep one hour less than their neighbours. They also work longer hours than their European counterparts, on average 11-hour days, from 9 am to 8 pm.

These facts give pause to anyone who’s ever thought that Spanish people are all about partying and taking siestas. They work longer hours and sleep less than most of their European neighbours.

The Weather

Isn’t the weather always a grand topic of conversation?

I mentioned it was cool this morning, and it was a blessed relief. For the past two days, we’ve experienced 38°C heat in the afternoons, caused by hot winds driven from northern Africa. While June can be hot here, this, too, is anomalous, as the hottest months are normally July and August.

Two days ago, on Thursday, the Saharan heatwave caught me by surprise. I’d been in air-conditioning all day, and left the café where I’d been working to buy supplies for dinner. Cool and collected, I opened the café door and stepped into the street, to be assaulted by a smothering, airless heat that seemed to wrap itself around me. I didn’t run, but neither did I linger, seeking refuge in the Supercor supermarket and then returning straight home with my dinner ingredients.

I swear, that supermarket has a magic revolving door, or a parallel universe. I can’t figure it out. Whenever I go there, I enter one door, take the escalator downstairs to the fruit and veg department, take the escalator back up to pay, and mysteriously, exit by a different door in the street parallel to the one I entered.

If you’re ever visiting Madrid, let me know. I’ll give you the address and you can tell me if the same happens to you. Is it another anomaly?


The Guardian, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/22/spaniards-sleep-time-zone-spain. Accessed 29 June 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_in_Spain. Accessed 29 June 2019.

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