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:

The Furious Fiction Competition

…run on the first weekend of every month by the Australian Writers’ Centre, starts on 6 September. Details here:

The Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Writing Competition

…closes on 2 September. You’ll find out all about it here:

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:

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

‘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,coined%20by%2C%20Hal%20Roach%20Sr,two%20birds%20with%20one%20stone.&targetText=In%20the%201600s%2C%20when%20the,partridge%2C%20according%20to%20the%20OED.

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

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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,

Wikipedia, 2019. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019.,_Spain. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. Accessed 8 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. Accessed 8 August 2019.

World Monuments Fund, Parador de León (Hostal de San Marcos), 2017. 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. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019.,_Spain. Accessed 1 August 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019, 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:  

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. and 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. Accessed 29 June 2019.

Wikipedia, 2019. Accessed 29 June 2019.

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Writers Retreat in Spain

Spain Series: I

Up until 2019, I’d been to a spiritual retreat in England long, long ago, a meditation retreat in the hinterland of the Gold Coast in Queensland a few years back and a yoga retreat in Bali in 2015.

Considering writing has been an important part of my life for much of it, it’s surprising that the writers retreat in Spain was my first. It may also seem surprising that I had to cross the world to spend time on my own books. While some writers have the discipline and lifestyle enabling them to write every day, I do find it challenging, especially as I’m working on other writers’ books from Monday to Friday. After spending all week in front of my laptop, my eyes and hands need a break from it and before I know it, the weekend has sped by – with not a word written.

The writers retreat in Spain gave me two weeks of pure indulgence insofar as my own writing was concerned.

writers retreat in Spain Photo of whitewashed Spanish village in the Sierra Nevada
Village of Ferreirola

Why a Writers Retreat in Spain?

Why I chose Spain instead of a local writers’ retreat, or France, or anywhere else in the world was because I wanted to return after many years’ absence. Also, as my family and close friends know, Spain holds a special place in my heart. I planned to travel around a bit and make it a working holiday once the two-week retreat was over. After all, why travel almost to the other side of the world for just two weeks?

Where the Writers Retreat in Spain was Held

The writers retreat was held in a 400-year-old restored guesthouse called Casa Ana in the village of Ferreirola. It’s in the Alpujarras region of Andalucía, southern Spain, amidst the rocky Sierra Nevada mountain range, 1,000 metres above sea level. I arrived for the 8–22 June retreat, and having packed for summer, I was glad of the only light jacket and wrap I’d taken with me as it was cool for the first week, especially nights and mornings. June temperatures vary between 14°C and 28°C but that first week we got nowhere near the high.

Casa Ana is a beautiful guesthouse restored in the Spanish style. It’s a stunning location with impressive views and the house is set amidst beautifully kept gardens.

writers retreat in Spain Spanish patio with wisteria climbing over trellis and view of mountains
Writers retreat in Spain: the patio of Casa Ana bathed in afternoon sunshine

The Other Writers

There were just six of us, all English speakers. Two live in Spain, one in England, one in Germany, one in the States, and me in Australia. When attending a writers’ retreat you wonder what genres the others write, and what sort of writing expertise they have. The most important things were that we were all serious about our writing, everyone had written for years (not necessarily published) and the environment was supportive.

How the Days were Structured

Most days had the same structure. Breakfasts and lunches were included as part of the retreat, so our day began at 9 am for breakfast, a leisurely start for me.

From 9.45 am until 1.30 pm was quiet time, when we worked, in silence, on our writing. The only sounds punctuating the silence were the tinkling of goats’ bells when the farmers were herding them back to the home fields around midday and in the evenings, the water meandering over rocks in the streams in the valley below and the buzz of bees in the lavender and wisteria of the garden. There’s a huge bee in the Alpujarra region called the carpenter bee. I know it exists elsewhere also but I’d never seen one. Its body is black and its wings a gorgeous iridescent blue.

For views, we had the steep mountains and deep valleys of the Sierra Nevada to look out upon as we wrote, and we could choose various writing spots, moving around as our fancy took us: at the writing table in our bedrooms, in the sitting room, outside on the patio, or in various little nooks and crannies on the different levels outdoors.

writers retreat in Spain Mountains in the Sierra Nevada region of southern Spain
Writing retreat with a view

By lunchtime at 1.30 pm we were ready for chats as well as food and always looked forward to the amazing Spanish meals prepared for us by a private chef.

By 2.30 pm, it was silent writing time again until 6.30 pm.

Between 6.30 and 7.30 pm, we’d chat about our writing, or about anything, over a drink and nibbles on the patio, or just rest or keep writing if we felt like it. It was also the time to go for walks through the narrow streets of the village with the traditional whitewashed houses of the south. Ferreirola has only around twenty-eight permanent inhabitants. Some of the writers went on hikes along the many trails the region is renowned for. If I’d had more time in the area I’d have done so, and I did do a few of the shorter walks at the end of the writing days, but my priority was progressing with my writing.

We could choose, for an additional cost, to participate in dinners provided by the retreat three times a week, or walk ten minutes up the road to one of the three country restaurants there. We could also buy our own food to cook in the kitchen.

Quiet time again at 10.30 pm, but this was to sleep rather than to write.

Twice a week, the afternoon writing session/silent time finished an hour earlier, at 5.30 pm, to allow for a group critiquing session, which was included in the retreat price. Casa Ana organises a resident mentor for the duration of the writing retreats, and she led the critiquing sessions. We chose an excerpt of around 1,500 words from the writing we were working on and read it out to the group. Then each person in the group gave their feedback, followed by the mentor’s feedback. This was useful. Constructive feedback may:

  • reinforce a problem you see with your writing but aren’t sure about
  • confirm your feeling that your writing is strong
  • highlight issues with your writing that you haven’t been able to see yourself.

Private Mentoring

Three sessions of private mentoring a week were available with the resident mentor at an additional price. The writers submitted an extract of around 1,500 words for review. They then had a one-on-one session of one hour with the mentor to receive feedback and discuss the issues they had with their writing.

What I Learnt

It was wonderful being able to fully focus on my writing in a way I’ve probably never been able to previously. Having constructive, objective feedback from the others helped reinforce my confidence in my writing. I learnt how I could carry back into the ‘real world’ a support network by teaming up with another writer for regular critiquing sessions. The writer who told me this sends his ongoing novel to a writing buddy he met on a different retreat, and she sends him her ongoing writing. This is possibly one of the most valuable outcomes for me, as it will keep me on task.

A couple of the other writers keep a daily journal as a writing discipline. This is something I’ve done on and off most of my life, but sometimes ‘off’ lasts too long! So I’ve taken up daily journalling again. Even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs it’s preferable to nothing. Finally, I made some long-term connections with other writers.

Was it Worth it?

For me, definitely. I went to Spain with the goal of finishing, to publication readiness, two books I’d written years ago, and I’m happy to say I achieved that goal. Next goal is publishing them before the end of this year.

I couldn’t have wished for a more ideal, peaceful, beautiful location. With most of the meals and housekeeping taken care of, we were free to … just write.

young spanish women wearing traditional dress
Granada is the largest city in the Alpujarras region. The festival of Corpus Christi was being celebrated and so traditional dresses were on display

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Stuck with your writing? Need some guidance? Or maybe you’ve finished your manuscript and need to have it professionally edited before making those publisher submissions. Give me a call on 0405 695 534! Have a read about Writer CoachingEditing, and Manuscript Appraisals.

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How to Punctuate Dialogue

double quotation marks, how to punctuate dialogue

Is it a struggle for you knowing how to punctuate dialogue? How to punctuate dialogue correctly eludes a lot of writers. Yet once you know the rules, it is straightforward.

Quotation marks, speech marks and quotes

Quotation marks are also referred to as ‘speech marks’ or ‘quotes’. I’ll use the term ‘quotation marks’ here so as not to confuse it with the other meanings of ‘quote’.

Quotation marks are either single – ‘ or double – “

In Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, it seems more common for writers to use single quotation marks for dialogue, while in the United States, double quotation marks are more common. Either is correct – consistency is the key.

Opening and closing quotation marks

When you use quotation marks in dialogue, you use opening quotation marks – ‘ – to begin the dialogue, and closing quotation marks – ’ – to end the dialogue.

Do you always need to use quotation marks in dialogue?

The English language is very flexible and readers are not too fussed about whether you do or don’t use quotation marks in dialogue. However, most writers do, because it clearly separates narrative from dialogue. So if you don’t use quotation marks, then you need to make clear to the reader in some other way when you are switching between dialogue and narrative.

Comma to introduce speech

When you have a dialogue tag – she said/he said or similar – introducing a character’s speech, you need a comma before the opening quotation marks.


Jenna asked, ‘Can I go to the movies with you tonight?’

Comma after speech and before dialogue tag

When the dialogue finishes and you are using a dialogue tag – he said/she said or similar – as long as the dialogue doesn’t end in a question mark or an exclamation mark, you use a comma before the end quotation marks.


‘I’m going to the movies with you tonight,’ Jenna said.


‘Can I go to the movies with you tonight?’ she asked.

‘I’m not going to the movies with you tonight!’ she said.

In the above two sentences, you only use a question mark or an exclamation mark, not a comma as well.

You’ll note that the first word of the dialogue tag – she – needs to be in lower case (small letters), as the sentence is not considered finished until after the dialogue tag.

However, sometimes a separate sentence follows the dialogue, as in the example below, so that sentence needs to begin with a capital letter:

‘I’m going to the movies with you tonight.’ It was clear that Jenna was not going to take no for an answer.

Punctuation falls inside closing quotation marks

Just keep in mind that before using closing quotation marks, you need to finish punctuating the sentence – with a comma, a full stop, an exclamation mark, or a question mark – just as you’d do if the sentence had no speech.


I looked at James and said, ‘Your glasses really suit you.’

Here, you can see that the full stop comes before the closing quotation marks.

‘Can you send me that file today please?’

The question mark comes before the closing quotation marks.

‘How dare you!’

The exclamation mark comes before the closing quotation marks.

More than one person or character speaking

When two or more characters are speaking, make sure you have a paragraph break for each new speaker. This makes it clear to your readers which character is speaking.

Quoted text within quotation marks

When a character is quoting another character or person, put the words they are quoting within double quotation marks nested inside the character’s speech.


Jenna said, ‘Mum always used to say to me, “Be careful who you associate with”, and I’ve always taken notice of that.’

Note that the closing quotation marks of the quoted speech go before the comma.

Dialogue plus dialogue tag plus dialogue

When you have your character begin a sentence, then interrupt their speech with a dialogue tag, then resume their speech after the dialogue tag, this is how to punctuate the sentence correctly.


‘Your glasses really suit you,’ I said to James, ‘so I think you should wear them more often.’

You could also break it down into two sentences separated by a full stop:

‘Your glasses really suit you,’ I said to James. ‘You should wear them more often.’

Dialogue interrupted by an action or a thought


 ‘Your glasses really suit you’ – actually, I couldn’t take my eyes off him so I was just stalling so he’d keep talking with me – ‘and I think you should wear them more often.’

‘Your glasses really suit you’ – Penny walked past and threw him a come-hither look – ‘so I think you should wear them more often.’

Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by the same speaker

Characters sometimes have a lot to say for themselves! While it’s wise not to tax the reader’s patience by frequently having characters talk for several paragraphs, when their speech is longer than, say, five or six lines, it’s a good idea to break it into two paragraphs. The rule is to use an opening quotation mark in the second paragraph to indicate the same character is still speaking, and to end the quotation marks after the paragraph in which the character finishes speaking.


‘I want to see you every day of my life from now until forever and I hope you feel the same way. Do you know when I first fell in love with you? It was that day at the market when that little kid fell down the steps and you rushed to help him up.

‘There was so much tenderness in your eyes, it was all I could do to stop myself from proposing to you then and there. You have the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known.’

Anything else you’d like to know about punctuating dialogue?

Contact me to have a chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may like a manuscript appraisal, or to ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!

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Is your Book Character-Driven or Plot-Driven?

First of all, what does character-driven and plot-driven mean?!

Illustration of a confused person looking at different options to represent the choice between character-driven and plot-driven stories
What do character-driven and plot-driven mean?


In a plot-driven story, the action is the focus of the writing, not the character. The character tends to be static; there is little character development. Plot-driven stories are often genres like horror, action, science fiction. An example of a plot-driven story is Dan Brown’s mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code. The story focuses not on the development of protagonist Robert Langdon or focus character Sophie Neveu but on their search for clues in an attempt to solve a mystery.


Character-driven stories focus on the character, the character’s emotional depth and the transformation the character experiences. A famous example of a character-driven story is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The central characters, children Scout and Jem Finch, develop an awareness of racism and its implications when their lawyer father Atticus defends Tom Robinson. They also ‘grow up’ (develop) in their understanding of their neighbour Boo Radley when he ultimately saves them from the story’s villain.

NY Book Editors  explain it like this: ‘Whereas plot-driven stories focus on a set of choices that a character must make, a character-driven story focuses on how the character arrives at a particular choice. The plot in a character-driven story is usually simple and often hyper-focused on the internal or interpersonal struggle of the character(s).’

Do you write character-driven or plot-driven stories?

As writers, our style naturally tends towards either character-driven or plot-driven stories. What’s important is to get the balance right – because both plot and character are necessary!

This means becoming aware of how we approach storytelling – that is, whether we write character-driven or plot-driven stories – and then consciously making a choice to keep the balance right between character and plot.

Problems of imbalance

Why is it necessary to have a balance between character and plot? Most of us write because we love writing. Beyond that, we write so that readers will want to read our books. We’re writing for an audience, ultimately, and good storytelling engages our audience through to the end of the story. This means we need to find the happy balance between character and plot.

Losing the plot

Stories that focus so much on character that they ‘lose the plot’ risk making their characters yawningly boring. A character may be appealing, intelligent and good-looking but if they are given no task to fulfil in the story – no conflict they have to face, so no growth and no development – then there’s unlikely to be great reader engagement with the story. 

Too much focus on plot

A fast-paced page-turner with heaps of action and heart-stopping scenes that leave the reader breathless, but that star one-dimensional characters, will be unsatisfying to the reader. One-dimensional means the characters lack depth, they do not learn or grow – they are boring.

How to nail it

If you’re struggling with getting the balance between character and plot right, these ideas may help:

Analyse movies

When you’re watching a movie, follow it more closely than you might usually and work out whether it’s character-driven or plot-driven.


Read excellent books written by excellent writers. You can’t go wrong with the classics of worldwide literature, and if you’re unsure, a quick Google search will reveal them. Your local librarians are a good source of knowledge on first-rate writers and books.

A couple of examples of books where the author got the balance between character and plot just right are:

Do a writing exercise

Challenge yourself to come up with an interesting situation asking a ‘what-if’ question, like Stephen King suggests (see below). Think up your main character, and then write a scene or a couple of pages. You never know; from these humble beginnings an award-winning story may be born!

Take courses

Many writers’ centres all over the English-speaking world now offer online courses in many aspects of creative writing. Search online to see what’s on offer for 2019.

What Stephen King says

Let’s finish this discussion with what storytelling master Stephen King says in his book On Writing: A memoir of the craft. He says that he distrusts plot, putting forward two valid reasons: ‘… our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning’. He also believes that ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. What is needed is a strong situation. He proposes that the ‘most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question’, and gives examples of his own books: ‘What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot). What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)’ (© 2000 Stephen King).


Australian Writers’ Centre, Character-driven versus plot-driven stories, 2014. Accessed 14 Jan 2019

Jennifer Kenning, How to be your own Script Doctor, 2006, the Continuum International Publishing Group, New York. Page 83: Accessed 14 Jan 2019

Stephen King, On Writing: A memoir of the craft, 2000, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

NY Book Editors, Character-Driven Vs. Plot Driven: Which Is Best, nd. Accessed 14 Jan 2019

The Guardian, How to Write, 2000. Accessed 15 Jan 2019.

Gail Tagarro, Accredited Editor (AE)

Contact me to have a chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may think you need a manuscript appraisal for further development. Ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!

I invite you to download my self-published eBook – see cover below. Click here to download. Enhance your writing technique and skills! Learn how easy it is to self-publish your book!

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The Incorrigible Optimists Club

the incorrigible optimists club

A Book Review

I had never heard of The Incorrigible Optimists Club or the Algerian-born writer Jean-Michel Guenassia. I came across it in the library when I was selecting books for my Christmas holiday reading. The original is written in French and I read the English translation by Euan Cameron.

It is quite untrue that covers don’t sell books. I was drawn to the cover and then I was hooked after reading the blurb and the first page. (It wasn’t until later that I noticed the border design of the book bizarrely matched that of my laptop case.)

I love long works of quality fiction, especially for Christmas holiday reading, and at 624 pages, this one fulfilled my craving.

A Highly Recommended Read!

The Incorrigible Optimists Club is one of those special books that’s hard to set aside when you have to do necessary things, like cook meals, or sleep.

It’s hard to believe that The Incorrigible Optimists Club is this author’s debut novel. Written against the backdrop of the Algerian War (the war for independence between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front 1954—1962), and the era of the Iron Curtain, the book offers no facile solutions to the issues raised. Neither does it excuse the terrible tragedies caused by politics and war. What’s more, the author manages to maintain an optimistic tone, and insert humour, despite the seriousness of some of the issues.

Paris 1959

The year is 1959, the place Paris. The story follows Michel Marin, a twelve-year-old compulsive reader and amateur photographer who’s a champion table football player at the local neighbourhood bistro.

But for his age, Michel has an extraordinary interest in the wider affairs of the world and a special empathy. He is drawn to a curtained-off area at the back of the bistro where a group of exiled Eastern European men gather to chat, play chess and smoke: the Incorrigible Optimists Club. As he is gradually accepted into their circle, he listens to their stories about their homelands before they fled to France, and becomes involved in their lives.

He forms a friendship with a Russian former doctor and expert chess player, Igor, who teaches Michel to play chess. He also becomes friends with another exile, Sacha, who is rigorously and aggressively denied access to the club, especially by Igor and another Russian, Leonid, whenever he dares show up. We do not learn until the end of the book why these two men hate him so much.

Michel becomes an important connection to the outside world for Sacha. In his turn, Sacha becomes a trusted sounding board for Michel’s teen angst in the absence of his father who has moved away from Paris when he and Michel’s mother, an aloof figure in Michel’s life, separate.

The club is also the occasional haunt of Jean Paul Sartre, French philosopher, writer and political activist, and Joseph Kessel, Argentinian-born French journalist and novelist. Many of the men in the club survive thanks to the generosity of Sartre and Kessel. The author drops these famous characters into his book as if he were telling the time of day, although the characters treat them with due reverence: “We gazed at him [Sartre] from a distance, slightly intimidated, feeling we were privileged witnesses of creativity in action, and even those who disliked him watched in silence…”

In the tense resolution of the story, Sacha’s strange rituals and the mysteries surrounding him are finally revealed in a way Michel could never have foreseen.

Jean-Michel Guenassia, The Incorrigible Optimists Club, 2014, Atlantic Books Ltd, London. Available through the Book Depository with free shipping.

Gail Tagarro, Editor (AE)

Contact me to have a chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may like a manuscript appraisal, or to ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!

I invite you to download my self-published eBook – see cover below. Click here to download. Enhance your writing technique and skills! Learn how easy it is to self-publish your book!

book cover gail tagarro author