The Tour of Merseyside

One of the most amazing and unique running events I have taken part in.

In the beginning

I’ve almost always been a runner. Ever since my late 20’s, when I found that it hugely helped my asthma… and taking part in events gives me a bit of a ‘focus’.

In March 2013 advertising appeared for something called the ‘Tour of Merseyside‘. It promised 6 races in one week: different venues, different terrains, adding up to 52 miles. I was intrigued – especially as Liverpool City Council had effectively forced the cancellation of the successful Liverpool Marathon for that Autumn. On finding out it was BTR Liverpool behind this new event (the company that had delivered the Marathon and many other races) I immediately signed up. Partly I just wanted to support BTR, partly because… Well, it did sound like a very different challenge!

Leaflet for the Tour

Only then did cold feet start to creep in. OK, I was a fairly experienced runner, 7:30-minute-miling, with a couple of Marathons and a few long trail races to my name, but… 6 races in a week? 52 miles? How would I slot it in around work and get to all the races? Would I only manage the first few races before getting an injury? Some of my worries eased when I talked to a fellow runner who had also entered, and she also confessed many of the same concerns. But my worries only eased a bit as July approached.

52 miles starts here!

That first year just under 100 participants lined up for the start of the Tour. I was curious – what other nutters runners would want to do this unique event. Would it be hard-as-nails whippets with a steely glint in their eyes as they chased down the clock? Thankfully for my sanity, there was a complete range of running abilities. For sure, the Tour always has its ‘whippets’ – and mightily impressive they all are too, achieving some phenomenal times during the week. But it has every type of runner; and as I quickly learned, in this week ‘we are all in it together’.

The first race was actually the Southport Half Marathon, with us ‘Tourists’, as we quickly became known, being ‘guests’ for that event. It didn’t seem anything special though. (Although it was stonkingly hot – I pity the poor chap who was running in a gorilla suit that year!) Sure, us Tourists exchanged a few quick words with each other, but at the race end it was really just ‘Cheerio, see you tomorrow’.

Overture complete, The Tour ‘proper’ starts

Thurstaston Race 2023

Only at the second race, a multi-terrain at Thurstaston, did the Tour start to make sense. On a personal level, I was quickly aware of the challenge in balancing pace versus niggles, nutrition for recovery versus pre-race food, and sleep levels too. But more importantly, as a group we were becoming familiar faces to each other, cheering each other on. Familiar faces both amongst the runners, the organisers, and the many volunteers who play such a big part in making this event a success.

As the week went on the running grew harder, but so too did the camaraderie, with everyone increasingly looking out for each other. Somehow the increasing tiredness and shakiness in the legs didn’t matter; this was a good week, somehow we would all finish! In the 5 mile race at Hale the Mayor came out to set us off in his full regalia, and at the tussocky cross-country at Stadt Moers anti-mozzi spray was shared around, laughing as we tried not to think that the next race awaited us barely 15 hours later.

Counting down the miles on the last day

By the time of the final 12-mile race, there was a lot of lethargy that had built up in the legs. I made the last turn, and wasn’t counting down the day’s miles “3 to go… 2 to go…” but instead “49 done… 50 done…”, all the while exchanging shout-outs with the other runners. That felt good, beyond all the aches. I can honestly say the feeling when crossing the finish line exceeded that of almost every other event. And there was what I now knew were a fantastic bunch of people to celebrate it all with.

Back for more?

I am proud to say I have competed in every Tour since, as have twelve others. Many other runners come back time and again too, to revisit this unique week, while others move onto new challenges, happy with their memories of the week. After all, everyone has different reasons for running, and not everyone likes to or is able to do the same races every year. But I like to think everyone who has taken part in The Tour has savoured the experience.

ll the first times

So was that first Tour the best? No. Each Tour is different. I would be hard pushed to pick one as the ‘best’. There have been ones where my performance has been better and worse; ones where the weather has been a friend and an enemy to us all; ones where Facebook has exploded with Tour gags, and ones where the party has been at the end of every race. Faces amongst the ‘whippets’ at the front have changed, records falling, but every single one has been amazing in their times. The stories as to why people are doing the Tour vary each year too, from those looking to ‘nail it’ to fundraisers and those doing it as a personal challenge. Of course, as numbers increased to 300-500 you never got to know everyone, but the camaraderie remains.

There have been changes, too. The five-mile race moved from its original Hale on-road venue to Otterspool Promenade, that race also (unofficially) becoming fancy dress… The route of the Southport Half has changed (not always for the better, but that’s not BTR’s event). In some years the route of the 10 miler has shifted. Oh, and often over the past years an ice cream van has proved a very popular addition after some of the races!

Concluding thoughts

Tourists 2023

The Tour is and remains a fantastic challenge. For those looking to push themselves and their times, doing so many races in one week really is an unusual premise, and you have to think hard about training, strategy and nutrition. And those seeking a unique experience will certainly gain that, along with many memories.

Racing 52 miles in one week is possible. But you know what? Every year I still have those same worries I had in the first year. And I still look forward to Tour Week every year. So step forward Alan Rothwell of BTR Liverpool, who adapted the Tour from Ron Hill’s original 1980’s Tour of Tameside. Step forward too the multiple others involved, including volunteers and supporters who turn out every year. What has been created with the Tour of Merseyside is truly something special.

What’s it practically like?

You’re still here? OK, to finish off, this is a very brief description of Tour week in recent years:

  1. Southport Half Marathon, 13.1 miles, Sun a.m.
    Never an easy one to kick off with; Southport’s position on the coast means either sunshine or wind can be a very noticeable factor! Still, there’s well over 24 hours to recover before…
  2. Thurstaston Multi-Terrain, 5.9 miles, Mon p.m.
    Road, Beach, hilly trails, stone paths – a mix which can come as a shock to those not used to off-road running! And some years that beach can be nice and firm, other years it can be a right… yeah.
  3. The Ralla, 10 miles, Tue p.m.
    Up and down a cycleway made from an old rail line, so it’s mostly flat, even if your legs say otherwise. With lots of two way running, shout-outs and high-fives rule the day, but the cumulative effect is starting to make itself felt on the muscles and joints.
  4. Otterspool Prom, 5 miles, Thu p.m.
    After a day’s rest, the shortest race of the week. Mostly flat, but a course alongside the banks of the Mersey means wind can be a factor. Race pace can also depend on what costume [optional] you’ve chosen to run in!
  5. Stadt Moers Cross-Country, 6 miles, Fri p.m.
    Two laps of a twisty little course on both rough grass and smooth tarmac paths. Often seems a quick and easy race; which is just as well, because there’s barely any time to recover before…
  6. Wirral Coastal, 12 miles, Sat a.m.
    A dead flat run out and back from New Brighton to Hoylake, including a short stretch on the beach. Sounds easy but the distance is tough after all the week’s miles – and the wind really can be capricious! Still, grind out those miles because you won’t stop now.
  7. Relax, Sat p.m.
    Whether attending the post-race presentations and celebrations (recommended) or just soaking in a hot bath, taking pride in what you’ve achieved. Just remember to set the alarm for 9 a.m. the following day, when entries open for the next year’s Tour…

Ian Raymond

Why I Watch Anime – Redux

So, this is something many of my friends ask. Why do you talk about anime? It’s only cartoons. Shouldn’t you be saying more about books? And, of course, they have a point. Anime is only a side interest for me, with writing and reading (and running) taking up most of my free time. So, this is an attempt to answer them, in a perhaps slightly more personal take on the genre.

Here we go:

Anime at its best is an art form that makes me think more, feel more, and provides an audio-visual feast for the senses.

Oh. You wanted more than that?

OK. First of all then, it’s about the story. In anime, I have experienced an incredibly rich vein of story-telling, including tales that just wouldn’t work so well in any other medium. Not just great stories, but with some fantastic twists in the plot and a rich array of characters to flesh out the tapestry.

Then it’s the artwork. Many anime have stunning visuals that just suck you in. Sometimes that’s the scenery, beautiful enough that you think “I’d like to visit there”. Or it could be the characters, captured in a particular pose or with an expression that moves the story on without using any words. Then there’s moments of action, so intricately choreographed you can’t but help admire the skill of the artists.

Not to mention the music. The best anime have some fantastic soundtracks, right up to full orchestra set pieces, with great synchronisation between what you hear and what you see on screen. And then there’s the opening and ending songs. Many of these are hits in their own right, from ballads and poppy tunes through to tracks which verge on grunge metal.

Somehow, when all this melds together, there’s a magical spell that draws you in. (If you’ve been paying attention, that is, not doodling on your tablet…) You no longer just feel that you are watching a cartoon, but – as with any story – you are engaged in the world the characters inhabit. And like with any art form. you will hopefully encounter some works that reach your soul.

As I said at the start, Anime makes me think more and feel more.

I watched open mouthed as the intricate plot unfolded in Stein’s Gate; cheered on the characters in SAO; howled with laughter at Miss Kobayashis’ Dragon Maid; then Your Lie in April broke my heart; and Violet Evergarden healed me.

My heart soared at Joe Hisaishi’s swooping orchestral pieces; it pounded faster at the tempo of Sawano Hiroyuki’s upbeat tracks; Radwimps anthems helped me to chill; and I still can’t stop smiling and humming the powerful, beautiful, ballads of Eir Aoi and LiSA.

Laid Back Camp made me want to get back into the outdoors; 86 Eighty Six made me take a closer look at the world around me; in the midst of the pandemic, Toradora gave me the courage to carry on; Iroduku taught me to believe in myself; and Barakamon got me to pick my pen up and get back to writing.

So, no, my time watching anime has not been wasted; it has helped me to live life.

Still not convinced?

Go watch at least the movies of Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, Your Name, and Millennium Actress; then tell me there’s not something special about this art form. (Grittier recommendations are also available!)

This, then, is why I watch anime.

So thank you, Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, Kyoto Animation, Makoto Shinkai, A-1 Pictures, Sunrise Studio, Bones, P A Works, J. C. Staff, and so many, many more, for bringing so much art into my life.

Posted 05/12/2022

86 Eighty Six – a recommendation


Whatever your preference in art and entertainment, every now and then you come across something that really has a ‘wow’ factor. Maybe it’s a book that keeps you turning every page; a movie that glues you to your seat ’til the last of the credits rolls; a painting you can’t tear your eyes away from. I recently finished reading ‘Clara and the Sun‘ by Kazuo Ishiguro… and that book will live with me for a long time.

Now, I also enjoy the art form called anime. (“Really, we hadn’t noticed,” I hear some of you say!) Still, it’s rare that I come across a series in the medium that is truly outstanding. But 2021’s production of 86 Eighty Six is just that. The writing, detail, music and symbolism are so good it deserves a blog of its own.

Walk through the streets
and you’ll see that the first modern republic in the world
is just an empty shell.”

Synopsis (no spoilers)

86 Eighty Six is set sometime and somewhere in the future, although it feels like it could be central Europe. The republic of San Magnolia is at war. Cheery newsreaders assure citizens there have been no casualties, for the battles are fought by unmanned drones. Except that isn’t quite true…

The drones are manned by members of the 86th District, who do not share the same physical characteristics as other citizens (white hair, grey eyes). Indeed, the ’86’ are looked down on by the San Magnolians, who see them as sub-human. Still, their task is simple: fight for their assigned number of days and they will have won their freedom. But of course, things aren’t quite that easy.

The story centres around the elite Spearhead squadron. These young veterans are led on the battlefield by Shinei Nouzen, who goes by the ominous callsign of ‘Undertaker‘. Meanwhile, a handler watches their battles remotely, back in San Magnolia. ‘Handler One‘ is the newly appointed Major Vladilena Mirize. Lena is mocked by her own people for showing concern for the 86, whilst in turn the 86 scorn her for being little more than a naïve do-gooder.

The news you see every morning isn’t true.
People are dying!

Why you should watch this show

If that synopsis made 86 Eighty Six sound like a battle-focussed show with a thin veneer of other stuff, you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, there are battles – but they are part of the canvas, not what the story is about.

This isn’t a show just about racism either, but it does have a lot to say on it, and that feels very relevant. It also has a lot to say about the horrors of war – and that too feels very relevant. But 86 Eighty Six is more than all that, as you will discover if you watch it.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a familiar maxim in writing. This is something that 86 Eighty Six delivers by the bucket-load. For example, attitudes are shown through graffiti on city walls, and in the way the 86 react to their new handler. This show is packed with visual details which help flesh out the story and its characters.

The series opens with a large cast, but quickly hones in on just a few. Each is well thought out, with their own ‘backstory’ and – importantly – they grow and change as events affect them. Oh, and there is a ‘dog’ called Fido. Admittedly he goes “beep” rather than “woof“, and he looks nothing like a dog, but trust me: he is man’s best friend.

Most anime series don’t have the budget of an anime film (think £200k per episode rather than £25m). Despite this, much of the animation in 86 Eighty Six is extremely well done, whether in battle or the quieter moments. In one of my favourite scenes, Lena and Shin are each walking alone at night. ‘Handler One’ is in the open air, beneath a moonlit sky filled with scudding clouds. ‘Undertaker’ is in the corridors of a dusty building, but bathed by the same moonlight. As mentioned above, watch closely for all the details!

And if this has made 86 Eighty Six sound all doom and gloom, again you couldn’t be more wrong. There are times the emotions hit hard, but also times you will laugh!

Finally, 86 Eighty Six is peppered with a solid soundtrack. There’s some great opening / ending songs too, including the hauntingly beautiful Avid‘ by Sawano Hiroyuki.

Dreaming is a privilege afforded by youth,
Lieutenant Milizé.”


86 Eighty Six is a stunning anime, with a distinctive story and a cast of well-drawn characters. (Yep, pun fully intended.) ‘Masterpiece’ is a word over-used in any review, but so much thought has gone into this show at all levels that it truly is appropriate.

All told, 86 Eighty Six joins the ranks of those few anime series or films that I recommend without reserve. Even to those who don’t watch anime! If you can get over the fact that Yes, this is a cartoon you are watching, you will discover a deep and moving show with some of the very best storytelling.

If, one day, you make it to our final destination,
would you please leave flowers?


  • Rated 8.2/10 on IMDB
  • 23 episodes, each 24 minutes
  • Watch the trailer on Youtube.
  • Currently on Crunchyroll (free with repetitive ads, or without ads via subscription / free trial). Hopefully soon to be on other streaming services. No disrespect to Crunchyroll, but this show deserves wider exposure to a much larger audience.
  • Definitely not one for younger children. The violence is more often implied than graphic, but the series touches on some dark topics.
  • I recommend watching with subtitles, rather than dubbed. The Japanese voice actors put so much work into getting to know their characters, and it shows.

Article posted 30/12/22

Another book in a year – Once Upon a Valley

Here we go again

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write a story that begins ‘Once Upon a Time’. (A story that means something, that is, rather than just an obvious re-working of already well-known tale.) But there were always too many other projects, so it remained firmly on the back burner.

As 2020 dawned, work on two of my books were proceeding nicely. A trip to Bergen was planned to help complete key sections of Earl of the Southern Vale. Meanwhile, final edits were underway on The Rescued Year. Following feedback from trial readers, there was just a refining of the backstory to the latter. A backstory which included the near-future world setting having been afflicted by a strange (ahem) virus…

And then COVID-19 happened. All of a sudden it was definitely not the time to launch The Rescued Year, and nor could the research trips for Earl of the Southern Vale really be called ‘essential travel’. Still, far worse things have happened in the last two years to far better people than one aspiring writer seeing their projects grind to a halt. So, with the lockdown restrictions in place in the UK, what else was there to do? Just pick up that pen and start filling some beautiful notebooks with something fresh…

Set of notebooks used for the story

Once Upon a Time…

“Write from what you know” is a common saying. For me, the setting is as important as the story. As many know, Shetland has long been my inspiration (directly or indirectly), but a trip north wasn’t on the cards. Instead, I turned to somewhere I know so well I don’t need a visit to recall it: the beauty of Snowdonia. Or more specifically, the wooded slopes, clear air and idyllic location around Betws-y-coed. (a.k.a., Weissdale – yes, I know, in name if not place I ensured Shetland still had a role!)

That gave me the tapestry; though the story isn’t set in Snowdonia, it helps provide the scenery. I already knew some of what else I wanted in this story/world I was creating. Somewhere in the future (but not too far in the future; A world where things weren’t necessarily going great, but perhaps not as gloomy as in A Rescued Year; A settlement that was so remote from the centres of power that it would feel a world apart to any stranger. If you’ve read my article on getting ideas for a story, you’ll know I build my work around key scenes. And what better way of exploring this world than through the eyes of a stranger arriving in the remote valley?

Thus the opening of the story was born, as we descend from the summits into this world.

A wooded hillside in snowdonia

It begins

“Once upon a time, a horseman came riding over the top of Ronas Hill. His horse raised slow clouds of snow from the dead ground while he shivered inside a jacket that looked two sizes too large and several feathers too thin. He reined in the beast as they reached the crest and he stood up on the stirrups, surveying the landscape around and behind them. Other snow-capped hills littered the way to the horizon, grey beneath the cloudy sky, valleys hidden beneath the rampaging forests which lay in between.”

That was pretty much ‘it’ in terms of the opening scene I had in mind as my pen’s nib touched paper: A stranger from the cities, Kris Saunders, almost swallowed up by the landscape around him. New to such wilderness, almost as new to his horse, and still fairly new to the exalted rank of ‘Messenger’.

Of course, there was more to my initial ideas than just that. For example, I had snapshots of the cast who might be in the tale. And with a story beginning ‘once upon a time’, there certainly needed to be a ‘princess’ at the heart of it. (One who was self-reliant at that; no hapless Disney princesses, thank you.) There were also real people making a life in this remote valley; including someone – even a few – who would be a foil to the lead character. Naturally I had some crisis for the characters to deal with, though we don’t necessarily get to see that right away.

I also had other key scenes in my mind, including both a few ‘waymarker’ scenes and how the final scene looked… Not all of those made it into the final cut, but relating those here would give you some hefty spoilers!

So, I just let my pen flow, I let the characters act things out, I listen to them talk. Some parts of the tale changed from what I imagined, some of the characters differed from my initial thoughts. Some of the changes were quite different! But that’s the way writing often goes, and I will leave it up to prospective readers to judge the end result.

Woodland in the autumn

So what happens next?

Well, as you might imagine, the Messenger carries with him not just a message but many secrets. And for a ‘city boy’, things don’t go the way he expects in such a remote place as Weissdale…


I see, you mean what happens next in terms of getting the book out?

Currently it’s with the second-stage proof-readers. Depending on how much work they give me, and the final copy edit, I’m hoping to publish this year, hopefully by Summer. This will initially be as an e-book, though I am looking at physical copy options to follow.

Once this first book is out, it will hopefully pave the way for the others which are already queuing up ready to follow (whether through the same publishing method or other channels). Though I expected that to happen with The Rescued Year back in 2020…! Needless to say, there’s already more stories I’m drafting up and storyboarding. If there’s one good thing that the past two years have taught us, it’s that our minds can take us anywhere, even when our bodies can’t.

Last edited: 29/01/2022

How to Write: Getting Ideas for a Story

(Part 1 in an occasional series of rambling blogs from an amateur author)

Closed notebook and fountain pen


This article may seem a bit self-indulgent from someone who’s not yet published, but one of the things I’m asked most often is: “I’d love to write, but where do I get ideas from?” This is usually from people who I know have more than enough skill and capability to create a novel. And they do have a smattering of ideas (however thin).

So, this is an attempt to explain how I go about writing my books. And please note, this is the way I go about things; it is far from being the only way, and won’t be the best approach for everyone. There’s plenty of advice out there if you browse around, but there’s one important thing… Pick up that pen / keyboard and start writing.

By way of disclaimer, I now have six books fully written and on the road to publication, with two on the way to completion (and four others ‘storyboarded’). At least in terms of getting together ideas for your story I can hopefully offer some tips.

It’s all about the story

Hmm, where to begin…?
Once upon a time a man had an idea for a book. He wrote it up, got it published, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Except that never happened, not to anyone, ever. There’s a lot more work to it than that! I’m assuming you already have some idea of what type of story you want to create, even if at this stage it’s only the vaguest of ideas.

When I start to create a story, it is firstly about scenes. I come up with a minimum of three scenes, reflecting the typical story arc of a beginning, a middle(s), and an end. And when I say ‘scene’, what that is can very hugely. Maybe the scene is almost a still, with someone traversing a landscape; maybe it’s people having a particularly significant conversation; maybe it’s a piece of action such as a chase, a battle, a car crash. with lots going on. Whatever, it should be something important to the story.

The first scene can be the most important, for it (often) determines the type of story you are telling, sets the tone, and establishes some of the key characters. But then, the end scene is almost as important, because it helps you think about what your are driving towards. You may well come up with a multitude of ‘middle’ scenes, and that’s fine. Some of those scenes may present key events, others may just help to portray the world and its people.

I always craft the opening scene first, meeting the key characters just as a readers would; but this is your story, that might not work for you. Perhaps you’ve a grand finale in mind, and you need to work backwards from there. Maybe your story takes a dramatic swing mid-way, and that crux point is what you want to flesh out first.

Whatever way you take, you end up with a number of scenes, in some sort of rough order. Remember, you are not fixing anything in stone. This is your story. As you write you can create everything out more. Maybe some scenes won’t even appear in the final story; perhaps the ending scene changes completely from your original idea! At this stage all these scenes are just a hook to get you going.

Details in a scene

For all your scenes ask yourself the following

  • What is the setting (time and place)?
  • What has just happened and what is happening?
  • Who is present and who are they (and what is their role)?
  • How did they get to the situation they are in?
  • What are they doing and what do they want and what do they plan next?

Here’s a slightly different way of thinking about it: You’ve got a blank stage and you need to fill it. Things have happened before your characters come onto the stage, and things will happen to them when they leave it.

Once you know all the above and more about each scene you are well on the way to crafting your story. There’s more work in store but we’ll deal with that later.

Now, the whole point of a scene is not about answering a mass of facts, it is about creating a setting you and the reader can imagine stepping into. Open your eyes and look around. What does it feel like? What can see about you? What do the people’s voices sound like? I find the more connected I am to the scene the easier it is to write the story.

But how do I come up with a scene?

That much I can’t tell you – that is down to your own imagination and inspiration. After all, writing is not a mathematical formula! Maybe the following – very different – pointers will help.

  • Do you already know in general what type of story you want to tell? “It’s about a person called a, who meets b, and they want to x, but the end result is y“. Start by thinking about that. For instance: how did they meet, what was special about it, where was it? Bingo! There’s one of your scenes.
  • Are you’re doing a historical story? You should have a feel for the span of time you’re going to cover; so, what happens in the bigger world during this period? How does it affect your characters? There’s lots of research you can do to get a better picture of such settings and likely action.
  • Perhaps your story is heavily focussed on one person and their life. In that case, think: What part of that person’s life will your story show? What are the key things that happens to them in this period? Could your first scene show them in a happy carefree life (cue ominous overtones), or maybe you want to start with some traumatic event?
  • Inspiration is all around:.
    • The person opposite you on the train: What’s their story? Are they on an important errand, not just a 9-5 commute?
    • Take a place you know well: What unexpected events might happen there?
    • That story on the news that interested you: Is that something you could research and develop into fiction?
    • An old lady who stops and stares thoughtfully out to sea: What past events might she be dwelling on?
    • How different might the world look if x happens rather than y?

To be honest, a range of different things have influenced each initial scene. So, for Sunset, books 1 and 2 were inspired by fleshing out a dream (perhaps a nightmare when you read it!) Books 3 and 4 were influenced by trips to Berlin and Belfast, placing history into the setting of other worlds. The Rescued Year very much emerged as my angry response to populism such as Brexit. Marquis of the Southern Vale is inspired by the heroic WW2 Shetland Bus operation; and Once Upon a Valley came about through thinking what a future-day fairy tale might look like.

It’s all about the people

With all those initial thoughts in place, it’s time to first think a bit more about the people. More about the story in the next section.

So, let’s bring in the cast. (There’s that stage comparison again!) You hopefully already have some characters from the scenes you’ve drafted, but maybe there’s others who haven’t featured yet. Just concentrate on the key characters at first, whether protagonists or antagonists, but that’s not to say others won’t become important.

Obviously there’s the basics you need to think about in a character – what’s their name, their age, their physical appearance? Is there anything unique about the way they move or speak, the way they dress? That should be easy. But think a bit more. There’s at least two more things you need to work on, unless you want your characters to end up resembling cardboard cut-outs.

Firstly, what is their history? What has happened to them up to the point where they appear in your story? I don’t mean what skills and abilities they bring with them, but their experiences; perhaps those influence how they behave. And as part of this – which should be critical – what are their desires, what do they want?

Secondly, what is their personality? That’s a whole range of things. Are they the sort of person who reacts to events or do they try to shape them? Do they tend to speak up or keep quiet? Do they trust others or regard them with suspicion? (Not forgetting their quirks, their likes and dislikes, and so on.)

That sounds like a lot of work… but I like to get to the point where I know the characters well enough that I can imagine how they would react in any given situation. So that I can imagine what it would be like to sit down and have a beer / coffee with them. (Granted, not every character may be someone you would want to converse with…!)

All this work may not end up on the page. But it will help you in your writing, and mean that you end up creating something that has more depth to it.

Starting to stitch it all together

OK. So by now you know your key characters. You know how your story starts and how it (maybe) ends, and have some way-points you think it will pass through on the way. Now it’s time to start gluing an outline of everything together. Make sure your scenes are in the right order, then ask yourself: How do the characters get from one scene to the other; what goes on in between? This is an important part of guiding your writing. Sometimes its obvious (to you at least!) how the story will flow from one scene to the next, but you may find you need to start planning extra scenes to fill in gaps! I’ve said it before… you’re not setting anything in stone. As you write you may well want to change things.

There’s a number of ways of how you do all this. You could be very organised and create a set of ‘storyboards‘ – essentially detailing not just the scenes you’ve already created, but each step in between. This way you know exactly what you’ll be writing about. Some storyboards can be quite detailed – listing events, people involved, key items of dialogue to cover, maybe even a visual ‘mock up’ of each board. You can use post-its, index cards, whatever you want. Some people may prefer a rougher guide in the shape of bullet points arranged into draft ‘chapters‘, picking out the key points for each of these chapters. Others want to may use logic maps or diagrams. Have a browse around, see what you think works best for you! That may change over time, and that’s OK.

For me – and this may not work best for you – I create a broad road map provided by the different scenes I’ve created, I keep a file with notes on characters and places, and then just start writing. There’s certain events highlighted that I need to ‘hit’ on that road map, things that are probably going to happen… But I also go with the flow in terms of how the characters are reacting to the world around them. So for example, part way through Once Upon a Valley I make a pretty big change to the story – I didn’t plan that, it’s just the way the characters led things.

It’s all about the setting

I’ve mentioned scenes and characters, but it’s also important that you think about where the story is located. This may be one place or a range of locations. It’s a lot easier to write your story if you know the details of where it is set. I said above you should be able to imagine sitting down for a chat with the key characters; equally, you should be able to imagine what it’s like to walk through your setting. There may be parts of the world you create that you don’t even visit in the story… but knowing they exist can help fix the places in your mind.

Maybe your story is set around a few households, in which case you will want to pay attention to a lot of the exteriors and interiors of buildings. (Really, they went with those curtains?). Perhaps your story revolves around a range of exotic locations, so you might concentrate on the stunning natural wonders, the glamour, maybe the seedy underbelly. And those of you writing Fantasy and Science Fiction may have the hardest task of all. This is not easy, you have to create whole worlds from scratch, which is not a task to be undertaken lightly. (Subject of a future blog!)

In some stories the setting may just the stage your characters walk through. But in some stories the setting itself forms an important component, as important to the story as your protagonist.

Sometimes a setting works best using somewhere you’re familiar with (if you can easily convey that to others), but by all means put in the effort to create somewhere new. Whichever way you go, you should be able to answer a number of things about the setting: What is its history? What smells are on the air? What does the ground beneath your feet feel like? What is any architecture like? Is it down at heel or elegant? And importantly… what is unique about this place? (Or, maybe its very averageness is a factor.)

Again, not all of this may end up making it onto the page. But it’s about you knowing it all so that you can just get on with writing the story.

Hints and tips

The above may all sound like a chore – but it’s not (or shouldn’t be)! This is often the ‘fun’ part of creating a story, where you’re free to flex your imagination. Sure, there is a lot of work involved, but it’s all good enjoyable stuff.

The following are a few random thoughts on creating a story which may help.

  1. When you’re at the very start, don’t be tempted to plunge into writing the whole thing just because you’ve thought up of one or two good sentences. Maybe some can do that, but you will almost certainly will hit a block a few paragraphs later when you’ve run out of that one idea! Scribble down what you’ve thought of for later reference. Then go back to finishing creating your key scenes / characters / settings for the story.
  2. Create cards which portray your key characters (electronic or hard copy, whichever you prefer). Describe the things highlighted above for characters, because at some point you will forget what makes each character unique.
  3. That particular bit of narrative or dialogue you thought of before – don’t forget about it, write it down! (Maybe use a scrapbook, maybe more organised as an electronic file, whatever works.) It could be something you can copy and paste in later, or something you end up using in a different story entirely.
  4. Keep anything that helps you plan out your settings – maybe photos of the actual place, or ones that just look like the town / building / mountain range you imagine. Perhaps you’ve done a rough sketch or drawn a map to help you understand the layout (highly recommended). Whatever it is, store it where you can find it!
  5. Look for software tools to help you, whether that’s just making sure you know all the tricks of your word processor or getting specialist writing software. I’ve used both y-Writer and Scrivener. Both can seem cumbersome at first, but once used to them I found them excellent tools to both plan and write stories.
  6. Above all, remember: this is your story, nothing is fixed. Add to your background notes as you go; make sure if you start writing a character or setting differently than what you initially planned that you update this. Too easy to make a mistake if you don’t!

And then, get writing! Once you’ve done the planning you feel you need, it’s time to start the hard graft. Imagination alone won’t get that book written. But the writing itself is perhaps a subject for a different blog…


So, to give you the short version…

  • Know what type of story you are planning to write.
  • Imagine the scene that will form the opening; fix it so that you can picture it clearly in your mind.
  • Now do the same for your planned ending; and then for some mid-points.
  • Make sure you know the order of the events in your story.
  • Get to know your characters, listen to them as you write, see in which direction they take things.
  • Go for a walk along the streets and hills of your setting; sit in the houses, try the local food.
  • Don’t let yourself get tied down to what you planned; if your story needs it, change anything as you go along, be it characters, settings or events.

So, good luck! Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the whole process; you are creating something, you are a storyteller. Will you finish the task you have set yourself and become a writer?

3 notebooks used in The Rescued Year
Updated 11/02/22

Anime to watch in lockdown: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

For five weeks I’ve been recommending anime series that are great to binge watch, and which provide something of an uplift while we’re in lockdown.

You can see my previous recommendations: the anime romcom of Toradora, the ‘Sci-Fi noir’ of Cowboy Bebop, the stunning beautiful drama of Violet Evergarden, and the ‘slice of life’ that’s Barakamon. And read my blog about why anime is worth watching.

Assorted anime images

I’ve faced a lot of indecision as to what I should present in this final week; there’s certainly a whole host of brilliant feel-good anime shows not covered, including Iroduku The World In Colours (Amazon Prime), Hinamatsuri (Funimation, Crunchroll), Spice and Wolf (Funimation), Bunny Drop (Crunchyroll) and many more… But instead, now for something completely different. My recommendation this week is a very strange comedy called Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

“...overall this is a quirky show that is warm-hearted, funny and with some unexpected emotional punches.”

Miss Kobayshi's Dragon Maid posster

Miss Kobyashi’s Dragon Maid: Kyoto Animation 2017, 14 episodes, 7.7/10 on IMDB

One morning Miss Kobayashi, who works for an IT company in Koshigaya, wakes up with a hangover. Things aren’t helped when she heads off to work to find a very large dragon outside her front door which is adamant that it wants to work as her maid.

Thankfully, the dragon (Tohru) can mostly transform into a human (although the tail may be a bit of a giveaway). It soon becomes clear that although she professes she wants to be a maid a) this is more because Miss Kobayashi helped save her a long time ago and b) she is not actually very good at being a maid. Miss Kobayashi’s neat ordered life, which seems to consist of work-drink-sleep-hangover, is well and truly disrupted. Things get even more complicated when yet more dragons follow Tohru and move into her life!

Assorted images from the show

And that’s about it as far as storyline goes – if you’re looking for something deep and meaningful see my previous reviews. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is just a bit of frothy fun, with both visual gags and ongoing jokes which repeat throughout the show. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its finer moments – there’s some good character development, the overall message of the show is about family, and although the dragons make mistakes when they interact with humans, you’ll soon be wondering who’s more out of touch – them or Miss Kobayashi?

This show is from Kyoto Animation, so naturally it’s extremely well done, and the animation style they’ve deliberately gone for is vivid pastel colours, which suits Miss Kobyashi’s Dragon Maid’s off-beat not-trying-to-be-reality atmosphere just fine.

In terms of downsides, this show really isn’t too serious about itself so probably won’t suit everyone. And (fair waning) there’s sometimes gags about breasts in a few episodes (absolutely nothing explicit or insulting, and nothing like the Blazing Saddles-esque humour of Konosuba), so if you can’t ignore that you may find it off-putting. But overall this is a show that is genuinely warm-hearted, funny and with some unexpected emotional punches.

Images from the show

At the time of writing, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is streaming on Funimation and CrunchyRoll, which you can either watch for free if you don’t mind all the adverts, or sign up for a free month’s trial. It’s also sometimes on Netflix. Note: whilst the English dub isn’t bad, I’d recommend the Japanese with subtitles on this one.

Thanks for reading and for all the comments on this mini-series of articles. Remember the aim has been to highlight some of the most uplifting anime series around (which may or not be the best or my favourites). So, if one person has found a new show to watch that has made them smile in these often gloomy times, it’s been worth it!

Anime landscapes

Page Updated 28/02/2021

Anime to watch in lockdown: Barakamon

For five weeks I’m recommending anime series that are great to binge watch, and which provide something of an uplift while we’re in Lockdown.

Read my previous recommendations: the anime romcom of Toradora, the ‘Sci-Fi noir’ of Cowboy Bebop, and the stunning drama of Violet Evergarden. Or read my blog about why anime is worth watching (and how it’s definitely not just for kids).

Assorted anime images

My recommendation this week is a wonderful ‘slice of life’ series called Barakamon.


“…this series has more than a little whiff of ‘Local Hero’ about it”

Barakamon poster

Barakamon: Kinema Citrus 2014, 12 episodes, 8.2/10 on IMDB

Seishu Handa is a young calligrapher in modern-day Tokyo. However when a famous curator is less than complimentary about his work, Seishu punches him. His father banishes him in disgrace to live on a remote island.

As a born-and-bred city boy, Seishu is very much a fish out of water in the small community. (The setting is the Gota Islands, off Kyushu.) He’s unused to not being surrounded by technology, struggles with the local accents and the inquisitive nature of the islanders. None of this is helped by the fact that the house he’s given to live in was previously empty and was used by the local children as a den. There’s a good host of characters in Barakamon that we meet, ranging from the island kids to the village chief.

Selection of images from Barakamon

Naturally, the background arc is very much about Seishu’s own development (including ‘finding’ his own style in calligraphy), but really Barakamon is a show of gentle humour and interaction between people, and a frankly beautiful depiction of life on the islands. And if this sounds a bit familiar, it may be because this series has more than a little whiff of ‘Local Hero’ about it. No, I don’t mean it was influenced by it – but the arrival of an outsider in a vibrant community, and for the first time properly experiencing nature, holds similar echoes.

The one downside of Barakamon is that it’s only twelve episodes long, and it feels like it could have gone on for a fair while longer – the last two episodes in particular make for a satisfying ending, but do feel a bit rushed. And like with last week’s review, the ‘slice of life’ nature of this series means kids may find it boring. But again, these are minor critisims, this is a relaxing, cheerful show to watch.

Selection of images from Barakamon

At the time of writing, Barakamon is streaming on Funimation, which you can watch for free if you don’t mind all the adverts, or take a month’s free trial. (Or you can borrow my Blu-Ray…) Watch out for it coming out on other streaming channels too. Note: The English dub version is pretty good on this series.

Last one next week, and again I’ve a completely different show lined up compared to those I’ve already recommended. (No, for those commenting, it’s not SAO…!)

Anime landscapes

Page updated 21/02/21

Anime to watch in lockdown: Violet Evergarden

For five weeks I’m recommending anime series that are great to binge watch, and which hopefully provide a bit of an uplift while we’re in Lockdown. My previous recommendations were the anime romcom that is Toradora and the ‘Sci-Fi noir’ of Cowboy Bebop. You can also click here to read my blog about why anime is worth watching (and how it’s definitely not just for kids).

Assorted anime images

My recommendation this week is another completely different show, the fantastic drama series from Kyoto Animation that is Violet Evergarden. In a series of articles like this the normal trend is to save the best ’till last, but what the heck; it’s Valentine’s day, so why not feature a show that is as much about emotions as anything else?

Violet Evergarden

…honestly, Violet Evergarden is the most stunningly beautiful anime series ever produced”

Violet Evergarden: Kyoto Animation 2018, 14 episodes, 8.4/10 on IMDB

Violet Evergarden centres around the title character; raised as a child soldier, Violet is invalided out of the army with prosthetic arms. She finds a job as a ‘memory doll’ – if you like, a scribe – and travels around the country taking on numerous commissions.

As you might expect, the show isn’t just about these tasks, but about Violet herself; given her background, she has no ability to emphathise with others, let alone to deal with her own emotions. Given the importance of her job in writing meaningful communications between people, this at first causes any number of confusions, but is a key point as the story develops.

The world Violet Evergarden is set in has a ‘light touch steampunk’ air to it (much as in Howl’s Moving Castle); there is much that looks like Europe between the wars, but there are other features – such as Violet’s almost robotic arms and hands – that are far more advanced. But in this world not many have the ability to write, and this is where people like Violet come in. (Those averse to sci-fi / fantasy, don’t worry – the world is merely a background setting for the story.)

I know I’m forever talking up the positives of books and shows, but honestly, Violet Evergarden is the most stunningly beautiful anime series ever produced. My own reaction when I saw it last year was, basically, ‘wow‘. The animation itself is of the calibre you would normally expect from a movie; the storyline and development of Violet is superb (fair warning, it does manipulate your emotions); the supporting characters aren’t just pale imitations; and even the music is spot on.

And this is all typical of the studio that produced it – Kyoto Animation, which suffered such a horrible attack a few years ago. ‘Kyoani’ is a studio that is possibly the most ethical in terms of the way it treats its staff, but also seems to produce shows and films which are both inoffensive and of the highest production quality.

Violet Evergarden images

I’m sorry, but I can’t offer any downsides to this show. (Kids will probably find it boring…?) Hopefully there will be a second series to fully close off Violet’s story, but even without that what we are left with is superb.

At the time of writing, Violet Evergarden is streaming on Netflix. (Or you can borrow my pre-ordered Blu-Ray, once they are released in April…) Note that the English dub version is great, but there’s just a slight difference in emphasis from the Japanese voice acting. Not better; not worse; just different.

Another one next week, and a very different show again… But in the meantime I cannot encourage you enough to watch the piece of art that is Violet Evergarden.

Anime landscapes

Page updated 14/02/21

Anime to watch in lockdown: Cowboy Bebop

For five weeks I’m recommending anime series that are great to binge watch, and which hopefully provide a bit of a lift while many of us are in lockdown.

Assorted anime images

Click here for my recommendation from last week, the romcom that is Toradora, or click here to read my blog about why anime is worth watching. (And how it’s definitely not just for kids!)

My recommendation this week is completely different from last, a laid-back Sci-Fi show called Cowboy Bebop.

Cowboy Bebop

…Cowboy Bebop above all else is cool, an anime series watched by people who claim they don’t like anime”

Cowboy Bebop: Sunrise Studio 1998, 26 episodes, 8.9/10 on IMDB.

Cowboy Bebop is a series of stories about Spike and his gang; a crew of bounty hunters travelling around the solar system in their creaking old spaceship, the ‘Bebop’. And a confession upfront – I can’t claim everyone will find this show ‘uplifting’, but it is certainly high in entertainment value.

The show centres around the small key members of the cast. There’s Spike, who was once an underworld hitman; Jet, a former police officer; Faye, a con-artist; Edward, a talented female hacker; and Ein, a corgi with human intelligence. It’s quite a diverse bunch! In this murky future, the police give out contracts to chase down criminals, and it is these the crew follow, in a pretty much hand-to-mouth existence.

Unlike many anime, there’s not such an emphasis on an over-riding story arc (though there is one there), rather, it’s more a series of individidual adventures with each episode providing for a different setting, a different tale, a different contract. If you’ve watched Josh Whedon’s superb Firefly series, you’ll feel a lot of echoes. Cowboy Bebop predates Firefly, and although the wide rumours that Cowboy Bebop influnced Josh Whedon are just rumours, when watching it you can understand why people might think that.

There’s some downsides to the show, like with everything: compered to more recent series, the animation certainlu doesn’t look quite as slick; the final episode generated a very mixed reception; and given the nature of the crew’s ‘job’, this show may not be suitable for children.

But these really are fairly minor criticisms. Cowboy Bebop above all else is cool. It’s an anime series watched by people who claim they don’t like anime. This is popcorn anime that you can relax and watch, a jazz soundtrack pervading the series, and a hint of film noir.

At the time of writing, Cowboy Bebop is streaming for free on Channel 4. Note, the English dub version for this show is not bad, for those who don’t like having to watch with subtitles.

The third one next week, and it’ll be a very different show again…

Anime landscapes

Page Updated 07/02/21

Anime to watch in lockdown: Toradora

I’ve written before that Anime can be great for escapism – something we all need during lockdown! Animation takes us away from reality, pampers the imagination, and in many cases takes us to superb vistas whilst we are limited in where we can travel. And I make no apology for watching anime – it doesn’t replace a good book or some of the great TV drama, but it is a breath of fresh air with some really great story-telling at its heart.

Assorted anime images

So, for each of the next five weeks, I’ll be recommending an anime series that’s great to binge watch – including some I’ve not previously mentioned. I’m focussing on shows that give you a feel-good vibe once credits roll on the final episode (though fair warning, some may put you through the wringer getting there). All are really good productions and I’ve chosen a wide range of genres.

Anime spectacular images

Don’t expect these shows to be a shot-for-shot transfer of TV drama into cartoon form – this is animation for heaven’s sake, and there’s certain tricks they always use, even if anime is better than most Western animation! And if you think some shows will be childish in parts – again, well of course they will be now and then! But I can guarantee great stories, a diverse range of characters, and some really well-rendered artwork.

My first recommendation is a show called Toradora.


…if the Christmas episode doesn’t have you both smiling and welling up just a tad, you’re not human…”

Toradora TV show poster

Toradora: J.C. Staff Studio 2008, 25 episodes, 8/10 on IMDB.

As you can probably tell by the image, Toradora is a school set romcom – but seriously, don’t let that put you off. Its quirky characters, humour and bittersweet moments made it feel to me like watching Friends, and there’s some absolutely beautiful segments of animation.

Toradora centres around Ryuji and Taiga, both in their last year at school in Tokyo and recent neighbours. Ryuji’s thuggish appearance scares most people, even though his temperament is the exact opposite, whilst Taiga is nicknamed the ‘Palm-top Tiger’, on account of her short size and even shorter temper. Neither particularly likes the other on their first meeting, but they are romantically interested in each other’s best friend (Yuusaka and Minori), so agree to work together to solve their problems.

Various images from Toradora

There’s not necessarily any huge surprises in the way the story goes, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment. As the show moves on you slowly learn more about each of the main characters, and even if you didn’t like them at the start (you probably won’t), that will change as the plot develops. Above all else, Toradora understands relationships: not every character gets the happy ending they want; there’s no sudden magic wand to make things the way they want them to be; and it takes time and effort for true relationships to be formed.

This isn’t to say the show isn’t without its down sides. The character of Ryuji’s mother could have been much better developed earlier on; there’s a whole sub-plot involving Ryuji’s friend Yuusaka that came almost out of nowhere; and typically of anime, the first few episodes are slow as they build both characters and setting, although there’s huge payback in the second half of the series. And what is it with that parrot?

Various images from Toradora

But these criticisms are churlish. Toradora is a charming likeable show, suitable for adults and older children. The overall story arc is really well written, now and then venturing into some dark pits before pulling back. And honestly, if the Christmas episode doesn’t have you both smiling and welling up just a tad, you’re not human! This is easily the best romcom I’ve encountered so far in Anime, and its tale comes to a very satisfying and definitive ending.

At the time of writing, Toradora is available on both Amazon Prime and Netflix. (Or you can borrow my DVD…!) The English dub version is pretty good, though I think watching it in Japanese with subtitles works better.

A very different show next week…!

Anime landscapes

Page updated 30/01/2021