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Shadow reviews

There was a marketing questionnaire that came from Lonely Planet asking authors how many reviews they reckoned they'd written. I really wouldn't have a clue. As a guesstimate, there's hundreds in any guidebook you write then there's a gagillion food reviews, plus about a billion shadow reviews. These are the reviews you start writing then work out that your subject is never going to make it in, so you keep writing it just for yuks. Some of them are pure fiction while in others only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Here's a couple from the notebooks - including my Scotland blog:
Seven-11
The ambience is bright, fluorescently so, with an emphasis on brand names and logos that lends a pop culture chic. Chef “Hi, I’m Dave”, whose career we’ve followed from the Dandenong Rd’s Shell Servo, offers us the five chocolate bars for two dollars, but go for the house special – the caldo cane. Rolling over on a unique warmer/disinfector, the “dogs” (indulgently…

Edinburgh Book Festival: Ghostly pursuits

As part of our Duelling Blogs series, our good friend over at the Saturation Point of Bells sent this update (crossposted).

To be honest, a ghost-writing workshop was not my first choice for Edinburgh Book Festival. However, being an aspirational little soul, I have not completely abandoned the notion that one day someone might actually PAY me to write something that I was going to write anyway. However much you tell yourself that whipping up a research document or conference report is a fine way to hone your writing skills, it hardly qualifies as "fun". There are people in the world who get paid for things they find fun. Its food for thought.

One such individual is sports journalist and ghostwriter Martin Hannan, who seems to make a pretty good living out of this ghostwriting lark. He's made a few quid out of NOT ghostwriting as well, thanks to the services of a good agent and smattering of canny contractual clauses. The moral of the story? Get a good agent.

There was much…

Edinburgh Book Festival update

Wondering what's happening over at the Edinburgh International Book Festival? As part of our Duelling Blogs series, our good friend over at the Saturation Point of Bells sent this update (crossposted).

My first Edinburgh Book Festival gig (the first I was let into anyway) was to see Ian Jack, who was impressively articulate and perceptive, as well as pleasingly rumpled, as a journalist shoud be. I could have happily listened to him chat with the venerable Ruth Wishart for some time, as I think could have the rest of the audience. Alas, it was not to be.The audience was completely white, mostly middle-aged, and entered with a kind of furrow-browed earnestness that said 'I'm not here to enjoy myself, my national identity is at stake.' It was wall-to-wall tweed and natural fibres. Until, that is, the speakers arrived. Enter stage left a very slim woman with perfect make-up, a blonde bob with edges as sharp as a knife, a short, red, body-hugging dress, heels and a broad pat…

Well Readinburgh

Walking around Edinburgh it's easy to see how this atmospheric town would inspire great novels. From spooky castles to backstreet boozers to university lecture rooms, every corner seems to suggest a story or have a history rich enough for a bestseller.

Any tour of the city's should start at the Writer's Museum, which covers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Downstairs there's a cabinet made by Deacon Brodie, a nefarious character whose life informed Stevenson's work. A mild-mannered cabinetmaker by day, Brodie had a double life that saw him in brothels and gambling dens most nights. To pay off his debts he took on a nocturnal life of crime, robbing around town for two years before being caught plundering the General Excise Office. According to local legend, he ended up being hung on a gallows which ironically he'd designed and built. Stevenson was fascinated with the tale writing a play, Deacon Brodie or the Double Life which was a draf…

Loch Ness

Some friends are visiting Inverness and asked if they should check out the monstered waters around that way. Any actual natural beauty bestowed upon the area of Loch Ness has been completely obscured by the legend and mystery of an underwater beast and the few small towns that make a living off it. Since the 1930s there have been numerous reported sightings and scammings of what looked like a swimming brontosaurus, leading the loch to be dubbed a Scottish Jurassic Park. Despite key photographs revealed as fakes and a 1990s Ted Danson schlockbuster, people never stop trying to spot their very own monster of the deep.
And thanks to the plethora of tourist shops Nessie sightings are a certainty. You can spot the monster on mugs, t-shirts and pencil sharpeners, not to mention stuffed fluffy toy versions embroidered with slogans like 'Cheeky-Ness' (lizard with its tongue sticking out) and 'Drunken-Ness' (same reptile with crossed eyes). As I browsed Drumnadrochit's high…

Back to Rosslyn

With Dan Brown's Angels and Demons currently posessing the box office, I was reminded of when I was researching a Scotland book a couple of years ago. In the midst of the 'Da Vinci phenomenon', Roslyn Chapel, just 10 miles south of Edinburgh, was on every tourist map because it played a crucial role in the film's climax.

After much map-muddling, I found the humble 15th century church near the village of Roslin. I should have just followed the tourist buses that formed a determined scrum around the ancient building. The first thing I noticed about Rosslyn Chapel was the scaffolding exoskeleton as the worn old nugget was renovated. The church reputedly pocketed £7000 a day as a location fee and it looked like much of that was being used to make sure there's something for the tourist throngs to see. Apparently it's still going on today with plans to re-open completely in 2010.
'Oh man!' an awed Canadian exclaimed as he walked through my photo of the entrance…

Edinburgh and the things we do

Brian Thacker recently had a hilarious post about the things writers do to earn a buck when they're not scribbling. I guess I should come clean on this as well. Sometimes it's advertising copy, sometimes it's proofing a government site and sometimes it's doing video:


Actually it's really good to re-use some of the material you've researched and present it for another media, just as you might write an article for a magazine based on research you've done for a guidebook. With the above video the good folks at LPTV did all the filming and found a lot of great additional footage.

Sure, when you're re-using content there's the obvious issue of overlap and once something's on the web it's international (rather than national or local is you published in a magazine or newspaper), but hopefully writers can find new places to 'publish', which could mean video, podcasting or even blogging. It beats writing advertising copy.

Perhaps I'm being M…

Son of Booktown

In southern Scotland there's a town that's worth visiting for the name alone. Wigtown was once a royal burgh of the Machars of Galloway, which explains the grandness of this tiny town with its large central green presided over by a library. When the town's Creamery and distillery closed down some locals thought it was all over for the village. Others looked to the library.

When I visited the town had renewed itself from economic woe by becoming a booktown with secondhand sellers of every genre crowding around the green. It was an easy drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow, but also doable for the more intrepid Southerner especially if they wanted to snap up a hard-to-find comic or collectible volume. I left with volumes that would over-burden my baggage allowance and cause a frantic Heathrow re-packing.

In Australia, the small post-gold rush town of Clunes has taken a leaf out of Wigtown's folio with 2008 marking 'Back to Booktown', the second year of a bibliophilic e…

Mirage that meets the eye

At the moment, I'm pretty flatout working on a China book - isn't everyone at a time when everyone's talking about the economic dragon or the rampant panda in the markets?
Mostly it's been fascinating to dig into China's history, but there's one phenomenon the guidebook doesn't explore deeply enough for me. In Shandong, there's a relatively small Chinese town called Penglai which is known for it's large-scale mirages. This one occured in 2001, but another in the 1990s lasted for over 5 hours showing two islands floating over the sea. There's a few scientific explanations, but I'd rather skip them and leave the whole thing some kind of weird mystery. There's too many easy pre-packaged experiences that are rationally explained.
In Scotland I was lucky enough to cover Electric Brae, a wholly odd sensation where my hire car appeared to be inching uphill. I don't recommend it with a hangover. Again there's an explanation that the slope …