The humbling side of living overseas

I've received so many nice notes from you guys. You tell me that I'm living the dream you wish you could and you are living vicariously. Thank you for your sweet and inspirational notes, I'll keep the posts coming as this has become my diary of sorts. This experience is truly wonderful. However, today I want to share a more emotional side of this change...
     This move to Edinburgh has been amazing, and overwhelming, and humbling. We take for granted the knowledge we have when we live in a certain place - the contacts, the awareness, the sense of direction. Part of all this walking is to become familiar with these new people, new customs, and to discover where everything is.

The hedge at the Royal Botanic Garden.
     This new home is fabulous and challenging. For instance, I don't know where to go to buy the simplest things. What stores sell back-packs? Where do I buy new lingerie? If I need a rubbish bin (trash can), where do I get one? And even if I did know, where do you find the deals? Do I need to take a bus to get there? I'm not terribly good at those yet. But, I'm learning - slowly.

Randomly spotted sign on Thistle Street.
     And then there's the accent. In the middle of Fringe, my American accent marked me as a tourist. I heard a lot of, "Enjoy your holiday!" But now that Fringe is ending, people are starting to question why I'm still here. It's making for more interesting conversations. "We just moved here." "Really? Oh, wow!"

A pub near our new flat.
     I'm a bit of a mimic, so I imagine I'll pick up the accent soon - much to the annoyance of my friends in the states when I return, I'm guessing.

A miniature of the real ones - The Kelpies.
     I've heard people make fun of folks who pick up or adopt accents after a short time away. But now that I'm here, I get it. It's not that you're trying to be charming or cute, it's that you're simply trying to fit in, to be accepted, to not have your nationality bias the opinions of those with whom you're speaking. And while it can be fun to be different, there are times when you just want to be anonymous, to be a part of the crowd.
     So, how long does it take to feel embedded in a new place? Will being a student help me feel more a part of the heartbeat of this thriving city? How long before I know people by name and they know me? Before I'm saying 'hi' to folks on the streets?
     Ironically, Edinburgh is actually a small town and it's already happening. I'm beginning to know folks - the man who sells us our meat, our wine, our cheese. The waitress from the local pub. Last night we went to hear a band at our nearest and new favorite pub, The Barony.

Our pub.
I already know the names of two of the bartenders and they recognize us and smile warmly when we come in. (Keep in mind - pubs here are not just about drinking - these are the community gathering places.) The band was fantastic and even played Little Feet - blew our minds! It was so fun to feel a part of a local crowd in our new neighborhood. In fact, it's one thing I love most about Edinburgh, it truly is a small town despite its largesse. And while I still pinch myself over how lucky I am to be here, I have a long way to go before I feel at home. Even so, I can feel it happening bit by bit, friend by friend. Love it!

Princes Street Gardens.

The New Screen Savers - featuring Stan!

Recently, Stan was a guest on The New Screen Savers. It's a show about computers and technology which used to be the headline show for cable's Tech TV channel. Since the channel's demise, the show has gone live online. If there's a geek in your life, you can be sure he or she knows about it. Stan has been an avid fan of the show since it's inception.
     Stan had a question about saving my enormous art files to the Cloud - something we've been trying to figure out for some time now. I work digitally and my illustration files are enormous - often about a half meg each. I can't keep them all on my laptop because it has limited space. So we've been employing external hard drives. It works, but it's not ideal from an access or safety standpoint. Cloud storage is available out there for average-sized files, but we've not found an affordable service available for files like mine.
     Stan turned to the experts. He submitted his question earlier in the summer and the show's producers got back to him a few weeks ago. The show is filmed live in California and now that we're in Scotland that meant an 8-hour time difference in screening. So Stan set up Skype to talk to Leo and the guys at our new kitchen counter and was filmed at about midnight.
     The show is now archived online and you can see Stan do his bit. Stan comes on at the 57:00 mark. CLICK HERE to go see it, and Go Stan!

Swarming Mayflies

While we were in Blois, we experienced a natural phenomena - swarming Mayflies. I'd never seen anything like it. The swarms were as thick as snow, but more like a blizzard because they flew every which way, including into your hair. ACK! They only live for a day and fell to the ground in drifts of white, which crunched when you walked over them (or drove over them as you'll hear in the video). The next morning, they all lay dead with their little white wings sticking up to the sky. What a sight! CLICK HERE or the image to go see the video on YouTube.
I also found this lovely poem by George Crabbe...

In shoals the hours their constant numbers bring,
Like insects waking to th' advancing spring;
Which take their rise from grubs obscene that lie
In shallow pools, or thence ascend the sky:
Such are these base ephemeras, so born
To die before the next revolving morn.
—George Crabbe, "The Newspaper", 1785

The New Flat

We're finally in to our home for the foreseeable future! We're exhausted from days and days of walking marathons all over the city, so we're tucking in and enjoying our new pad. Stan made us our first meal (lentil and spinach soup - to die for) and we sat and sat while enjoying it. Neither one of us wanted to get up, we were so happy right there.
And the light was amazing. Watching it climb up the sides of the buildings was a spectacular show. And the windows are so tall, we see so much sky! One of the views we're most excited about is our long view towards Broughton Street.
We slept like coma patients on our first night. Here is the morning view (taken later in the day).
Any my new office. (Don't expect it to look this neat for long.)
And Stan's new office with the 'welcome to your new home' bouquet we purchased at the most picturesque florist in the world - which happens to be at the end of our street, Narcissus.
But back to the views and the light... Because truly, watching the light do it's tricks in Edinburgh is absolutely stunning. Here's some eye-candy from the other evening, walking home from the Book Festival where we had drinks with David Almond and his family. This is Calton Hill, which is near our new flat, but which we have yet to explore.
What I love about this city is nobody takes it for granted, even the locals. This will be one of the main bridges I cross everyday to get to class.
When we got to the other side after taking this picture, a group of people had stopped, tourists and locals alike, all with their cameras raised. Why? This is why.
The sun had turned the city and the sky to gold. My photo doesn't do it justice. And no, we haven't tried the Ferris Wheel yet, but we will!
     Back to the flat... We're going through those little things you do when you're settling into a new home. Buying essentials, finding homes for things, writing lists of what we need, and trying to figure stuff out. Like this, for instance.
I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was for, I just knew it had something to do with the clothes drying rack. After much debate on Facebook, it has been determined to be a stockings dryer - tuck the toes/legs through the holes and let the panty side hang down to dry. (Thanks, Lisa Jacobi!) So there!
     More soon!

Traveling, Adaptability, and Groceries

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me during our months of living out of suitcases is how amazingly adaptable we are. After all, people need the same things - a place to eat, sleep, poop and bathe. That's it. How those needs are accomplished is where things get different. But I've discovered that when you stop worrying about what your silverware looks like, you realize that if you have a fork, a spoon and a decently sharp knife, you're good. Most beds are perfectly comfortable when you're exhausted. (And you don't notice most nighttime noises or lights for the same reason.)
     Here's an example... Stan is the cook in our family. Not only does he enjoy it, he's downright good at it. But the kitchens since we left Atlanta have been challenging. In Roanoke, we had a dorm-room-style kitchen. In France, we had a kitchen the size of a large closet with steep ceilings and a laundry drying rack in the center (laundry will be its own post). Here in our short-term flat, we have a nice, but small, galley kitchen.
     Add to that, grocery shopping in Europe is downright different. There are grocery stores everywhere, but they're small set-ups where you buy the basics (amazingly, many have plenty of gluten free options). They proudly display their produce outside as enticements to draw you in.

     Inside, you're most likely to find what you need, but there won't be many choices. You know that overwhelming aisle of various toilet paper brands you're used to? I used to have melt-downs trying to decide if I need soft or two-ply or recycled or, or... Well, not here. They offer one kind, that's it. In France, it happened to be pink. And it was fine.
     I've actually been thinking about that a lot. Pardon the toilet paper analogy, but it works. In America, we have the wonderful option of choices. So many choices! But maybe that's not always such a great thing. I have wasted so much brain time on what type of toilet paper to buy. I just don't care! And yet, the American commercial engine used commercials, ads, billboards, packaging, etc. to force me to care about the silliest minutia - which brand, style, 2-ply, 3-ply. After all, when several yards of grocery store floor space and shelves upon shelves are dedicated to the various papers you use for the most base purpose, it must be important - right? Hm.
     Anyhow, you get the picture. Not having all those choices over mundane products has freed my brain to think about the choices I do care about. Like, which wine or cheese to buy.

Gruyere from an Italian vendor in Grassmarket - displayed proudly in our little short-term let kitchen, which also has a steep ceiling.
     If you want specialty items, you have to remember which stores carry what. And while there are some amazing produce stands and specialty stores like the boulangerie, fish monger, butcher, etc., the most fun shopping options are the weekend farmers markets. Here was the market in Blois:

With bubbles from the adjacent toy store!
    It's where people gather, catch up with friends, and enjoy a festival atmosphere for a day. Edinburgh has them too (more pictures soon). Between Saturday and Sunday you can find farmer's markets at Castle Terrace (the foot of the castle where J.K. Rowling's husband reportedly shops), the Grassmarket, and Broughton. On Sunday, you can find them in Stockbridge and other areas. Stockbridge and Broughton will be our closest ones.
    So rather than climb into a hot car, fight traffic, and load up with everything you might need for the apocalypse, here, you walk to a nearby specialty shop, farmers market, or small grocery store (with your own bags - they charge for them here), and you see what looks good for the next day or two.
     Last weekend, we headed to a few of the Saturday farmers markets and purchased amazingly fresh produce. Most had been grown, butchered, fermented, or aged nearby. Stan made an amazing soup with all of it in this tiny kitchen. More proof that he can create miracles in any kitchen. But truly, it's all he needed.

Friday Linky List - August 28, 2015

From The Guardian (via PW): From Harry Potter Latin to Hunger Games Rome: the classical jokes hiding in your favorite children's books

From Brightly (via PW): 26 Picture Books You Won't Want to Miss This Fall

At Picture Book Builders - Lisbeth's Colors (Lisbeth Zwerger - LOVE her work!)

At School Library Journal, Travis Jonker's 100 Scope Notes: It Ain't Easy (Books on waiting)

From The Picture Book Den (via SCBWI British Isles): What's in it for the Adults? (on Picture Books)

At Michelle4Laughs - It's In The Details (via SCBWI Belgium) Editing Tip: Compound Adjectives

At H20 (via Bookshelf: Roundup) An interesting architectural remodel for book lovers in Paris

From Justine Musk's Tribal Writer: You are the power you don't give away

From PW: Hobbies & Crafts 2015: Adult Coloring Books

Mary Ann Fraser's NO YETI YET - guest post

It's the thick of summer so I thought I'd cool you off with a new book by Mary Ann Fraser!

By Mary Ann Fraser

      For me, creating picture books is a lot like skiing. There’s the initial rush when you launch yourself into the project, followed by the silent screams when you realize that you may have taken the black diamond trail by mistake. You dig in your edges to carve around the twists and turns, dodge a few near collisions, and sigh in relief when at last you arrive at the end in one piece. But some books are more like the slow, steady slog down a bunny slope, so flat in areas you stall out and find yourself walking to the lift to go up and try again. Such was the case with NO YETI YET.
      The project had its roots in an earlier picture book that I sold years ago about a boy adopted by a bigfoot. Soon after completing all of the art, the publisher-who-shall-not-be-named abandoned the book. I tried to resell it, but with no success. Several years later, I pulled my sad, orphaned picture book from my “slush file” and showed it to my new agent Abigail Samoun with Red Fox Literary. We both agreed that the story was no longer viable for the market as written. She suggested I create a new story based on the bigfoot character. Fond of the abominable snowman in the Christmas classic, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” I quickly morphed the bigfoot into a yeti—sans sharp, pointy teeth but with a penchant for hot cocoa.
      As an author/illustrator, I have learned after many books that it’s best if I focus strictly on the text in the beginning. Leading with the pictures has often led to stories short on plot and shy on substance. Instead, I pay special attention as I draft to developing the characters, the rhythm of the words, and in creating a satisfying ending. In NO YETI YET, I wanted to capture the thrill of the hunt while playing with the notion that perceptions can be misleading. I was also interested in role reversals. When the two boys finally meet the yeti, it is the know-it-all older brother who panics and the younger, more anxious brother who is quick to recognize a friend.
      Once I had the basic story nailed down, I did a blizzard of character studies. The yeti went through several mutations before I was finally satisfied. The boys, with their skinny little legs poking out beneath their over-sized winter coats, were easier. They reminded me of Ralphie’s little brother in “A Christmas Story”—all bundled-up, arms scarecrow straight, hat pulled down to his eyes.
      During the sketching phase of the process, I expanded upon the story by adding small forest animals to follow the boys as they battled the elements in search of a yeti to photograph. Throughout, the brothers are completely unaware that a yeti is following right behind. With the help of the art, the reader is in on the joke from end page to end page.
      After more drafts and dummies than I dare to count, I was ready to paint some sample spreads—well, almost. In my mind, a picture book illustrator is never more than an indentured servant to a story. It is the tone and intent of the words that ultimately dictate the technique, medium, line, and palette. To that end, I experimented with several media but realized that acrylic on paper best captured the mood I was after and together with matt medium allowed me to build texture and translucency in a way that added interest. The next challenge was figuring out how to paint a white yeti against a snowy background under bright lights while avoiding the perils of “snow blindness!” (Snow goggles, anyone?)
Mary Ann's studio:
      There were the usual redo’s, the discarded “darlings,” (you know those bits that are too clever for their own good), and the near misses when the project makes it to acquisitions only to be shot down, but with the guidance of my patient agent, the project sold to Peter Pauper Press. My yeti had found a home. Mara Conlon, my wonderful, insightful editor, nurtured him, gave him a good dose of tough love, and in the end the book made it to the printer ahead of schedule. How often does that happen?
      Start to finish it was a great run. So, yeah, NO YETI YET, did not have the rush of bombing straight downhill, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without its heart-pumping spills, chills, and thrills. So, back in line for the next chairlift to the top. I wonder which trail I’ll take next?
      To learn more about Mary Ann Fraser or NO YETI YET, visit

Why Change isn't as hard as you think

Who doesn't dream of living in a small flat in Paris, where the light glows, everyday objects glitter, you are twenty pounds lighter and handsome brogues notice you on the street as you tuck a baguette (which you purchased in fluent French) under your arm and tuck a flower into your cascading hair? Yeah.
     The thing I've learned from this move overseas, traveling first to romantic France and then moving to breathtaking Scotland, is that wherever you travel, you take yourself with you. You will be the same person you were back home (wherever home was) when you get to your new life adventure. You will look the same, have the same habits and needs, even the same quirks, strengths and weaknesses. And while that may sound somewhat depressing, it's exactly why making a major life change isn't as hard as you might think.
     When everything in your life is changing, its comforting to know there is still one thing you can rely on - yourself. It's why I don't feel all that different as I sit here surrounded by amazing and ancient buildings.
     I thought that turning my life upside down and changing everything would make me feel different somehow. But this all feels pretty darned normal. I know that sounds unbelievable considering my circumstances. I'm staying in a flat above the Royal Mile in the thick of the Fringe Festival with the sound of a bagpipe wafting through the open window. But consider this... I took a shower. I ate my breakfast - fruit, yogurt and muesli, I'm actually getting some work done and blogging. These are things I do every day. My needs are being met. I haven't changed on these most basic levels.
     It makes this new life so much less scary, and more fun. Because it's the things outside myself that have changed. The selection of restaurants is exciting. The scenery is over the top and beyond believable. I'm surrounded by new languages, smells, sounds and experiences. And yet, the people and tourists are all themselves too. It just doesn't feel as radically different as you might think.
     And yet, in some ways it does. I have slowly and quietly changed in some important ways that I'm quite proud of. This is not a vacation, so I haven't acquired a tan, but I have figured out what is truly important to me. I have rid myself of objects, obligations and various things that were holding me back. I have embraced new experiences. I have adapted. And I have found that while I am still just myself, I am my very best self through this experience. And that makes it all so much easier.

ABOWS nominated for the Volunteer State Book Award!

I'm thrilled to share that A Bird on Water Street has been nominated for Tennessee's Volunteer State Book Award for the Middle School Division (Grades 6-8). The award is co-sponsored by the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) and the Tennessee Library Association (TLA). In 2016 and 2017, teens across Tennessee will be reading my book. In May of 2017, they will vote on their favorite title. The book with the most votes will win the award. You can learn more about the Volunteer State Book Award by visiting TASL's web site at Woohoo!!!

Coloring Page - Friendly Dragon

     In honor of the golden dragons at the Houdin Museum in Blois, France (which you can read about HERE), this week I give you a slightly less ferocious dragon.
     This image was originally created as a congratulations card for one of my graduating students at Hollins University, Kassy Keppol, who loves dragons!
     CLICK HERE for more coloring pages!
     Sign up to receive alerts when a new coloring page is posted each week and... Please check out my books! Especially...
my debut novel, A BIRD ON WATER STREET - winner of six literary awards. Click the cover to learn more!
     When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing? A miner's strike allows green and growing things to return to the Red Hills, but that same strike may force residents to seek new homes and livelihoods elsewhere. Follow the story of Jack Hicks as he struggles to hold onto everything he loves most.
     I create my coloring pages for teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents to enjoy for free with their children, but you can also purchase rights to an image for commercial use, please contact me. If you have questions about usage, please visit my Angel Policy page.

BIG NEWS: I now have TWO agents!!!

You read that right! Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency is my agent for children's books. But one of my recent projects turned out to be an adult one, outside her scope. So she very generously connected me with her friend and colleague, Gordon Warnock of Fuse Literary. Gordon and I hit it off and he has wonderful ideas on how to take my project to the next level. So I now have TWO agents looking out for me and trying to share my creations with the world!! I am so excited and grateful to have these two allies on my side!!

Apartment Hunting in Edinburgh

Real estate policies in Edinburgh kept us from securing an apartment before we arrived (they insist you see a property first - understandable, but not convenient in our case). So we've ended up having to apartment hunt after our arrival in the middle of Fringe Festival - not ideal.
     1.5 million visitors land on Edinburgh during the month of August for the plethora of festivals and events that occur every summer and nearly every inch of rental space is taken by either tourists or performers as a result. And while it's been wonderful to hear live music on every corner and see incredible street performers everywhere we walk, it's made apartment hunting especially challenging.
     That said, my amazing hubby was able to find us a hotel room in the development we thought we wanted to live in - Simpson Loan. And while I still adore the park it faces...

we've learned some important lessons by staying here.
10 Things we've learned to look for:
1. It's good to have a grocery store nearby. It's bad to be right next to or on top of a grocery store. Between the shopping carts, delivery trucks, and automatic announcements, they are LOUD and they open early and close late.
2. Beautiful seagulls from the sea (nearby Leith is a port town) are like pigeons here. They flock and enjoy large grassy areas. And while they are fun to watch and hear while awake, it's better to live somewhere where they don't tend to gather, because it turns out, they don't sleep. No respect I tell you:
I believe this is the Royal Scots Greys Monument overlooking the Princes Street Gardens - with a seagull on his head.
3. Being in the city center is fabulous, everything is within walking distance - truly. Living on a busy street, however, is not fabulous. Gorgeous cobbled streets make for noisy tires. Restaurants and pubs are open late, which tourists take advantage of. There is no A/C here (they truly don't need it), but with open windows to allow fresh air in, things can get LOUD.
4. Finding a neighborhood pub is a must - preferably one with old wood, a great bar, a sense of community, and a fireplace for winter. Living too near said pub is not desirable. LOUD drunken revelers in the wee hours are best avoided. (Noticing a trend here?)
5. The bus system here is fantastic, so if you can't be in walking distance to where you need to be every day (the College of Art), be sure to be near a bus station which can get you there in speedy fashion. This is not hard, but definitely a consideration.
6. Light is a big deal here. Edinburgh is so far north, days are short in the winter. The last thing you want is an apartment that is so low to the ground, it falls into shadow early.
7. Fishbowls are not my thing. Living in a city is tight and it's easy to end up with a view of windows looking back at you. I like my privacy, so that's a tricky one.
This was our hotel room view:
8. Traditional architecture in the UK has the kitchen separate from the living room. Communal living space is a more modern idea and is found in newer buildings rather than the charming old ones.
9. Old building can be beautiful but they can also have drafty old windows, no elevators, and large quirky spaces that are expensive to fill up and make look cozy. Since we're still about not buying a whole lot of stuff and being more mobile we're looking for a furnished apartment, so a too large space was a big consideration. On the flip side, newer construction can sometimes have too-worn furniture, or be shoddy and low quality. Who wants to hear a toilet flush two floors away in the middle of the night?
10. And here's an interesting one... Edinburgh is a vibrant and young city, especially near the University. It's inspiring to be around it, but it can also make you feel old. Okay, it can make me feel old. There are plenty of places around town where Stan and I fit in and there are some where we don't so much. I'm going to be the oldest students in my program (I am the same age as the professors), it will be nice to go home to a neighborhood where I feel like I fit in. In fact, one of the Uni professors lives in our new building!
     So! With all that said, we walked nearly the entire city in two days:
And we ended up choosing an apartment that I don't think we would have considered before we arrived. It's in the Broughton area (a known artsy/writers district), between two busy streets with lots of fun and convenient stuff going on, but it's in a quiet back way (you'd never know it was there if somebody didn't tell you) with wide views of old buildings surrounding it and chimneys (gotta love old chimneys), so it gets plenty of light, has privacy, and is quiet for the big city. It is a two bedroom, one bath - that's the big compromise, we're really going to have to love our guests. But it is cozy and comfortable and felt like a hug the moment we walked into it. There's also a convenient bus stop nearby. Here are some pics of the living room, kitchen, and guest room:

     If all goes well, we'll move in on Thursday - woohoo!

More on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

Truly, we are right in the heart of it. We had breakfast this morning on the corner - a true Scottish breakfast. I had haggis for the first time and actually loved it! No apartment viewings today so we are just leisurely meandering and enjoying all the sights and sounds. And oh, are there some! Prepare for image overload...

These guys were amazing - maybe the same ones I was listening to last night:
I keep getting pictures of Stan (and he's getting pics of me, which I don't have yet). Y'all are just going to have to get used to his handsome mug!

Yes, that is a traditional bagpipe player in a kilt...and a stormtrooper in a kilt.

Fringe Festival on the Royal Mile is all about performances - most of which happen in small theatres or pubs just off the street. So, on the street, members of the cast are constantly trying to hand you flyers about their performances. They get creative with their delivery methods and many wear the costumes from their performances.

Just off the Royal Mile, we finally found The Writers Museum. Can't wait to go back and explore!
On the way back up to the main road, I was greeted by dragons:
And perhaps one of these days we'll take one of these:

Reality check: I'm in our flat putting together this post, but I had to take a break to hang laundry (dealing with laundry in Europe needs to be its own blog post) by the open window, where I'm being serenaded by the cast of Oliver from the street below. This is my life now.