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Sharon Cracknell’s - Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivar

'Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivar' - a true story of a woman who loves to travel and faces some stickty situations along the way. Author Sharon Cracknell tell us all about her travelling experiences and how she nealy found herself in a forgeign police cell. We sat dowm with the tell all author to talk about her latest book and why she just had to write it.

Sharon, tell us about your latest book: Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivar:

This is a collection of humorous tales from my travel adventures in Venezuela, Colombia, North Korea, Africa and Cuba. I don’t think many people would have North Korea or Venezuela on their holiday bucket list, but people are still intrigued as to what these places are like. My book gives readers a little taste of what it is like to travel in these countries and the dilemmas that you could face (and I did face!) such as having to carry thousands of illegal banknotes in your backpack or learning how to bow at the feet of dead leaders housed in glass coffins. Then there’s walking in one of the most hostile places on earth in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. Quirky destinations, unusual escapades and the eclectic mix of people I meet along the way make for interesting memories, all of which are all relayed in my book. I do like to add a sprinkle of Yorkshire humour to my recollections too which I hope makes my book more enjoyable than your formal travel guide.

What was your inspiration behind writing this book?

Travel. Pure and simple. I love travelling and I find that the more I travel, the more outlandish my destinations have become. Having written my first book, Pringles, Visas and a Glow in the Dark Jesus’ six years ago I knew I had another book in me. The fact that we had to buy black market money in Venezuela, then bribe an airport official who had witnessed our bags go through the x-ray machine filled to the brim with thousands of banknotes made for at least one chapter of a sequel book. Then North Korea, the most secretive country in the world was such an eyeopener. We visited during the 70 th Anniversary of the foundation of North Korea where they held a huge military parade and brought back the spectacular Mass Games to help celebrate. My note taking reached

dizzying heights with such a bizarre and off-the-wall travel experience. This led to several chapters on this country. It doesn’t take much to inspire writing when I’m visiting such offbeat places and meeting such interesting people.

Every writer has their own creative processes. Do you find yours remains the same each time or do you sense slight differences?

I do believe my creative writing process has pretty much remained the same. Firstly, I cannot write a book whilst working full-time (that’s the day job that pays the bills – I don’t believe I’ll ever get rich from writing books!). With both books I took myself to the other side of the world and spent six months in Australia writing all day and every day until the books were finished. I basically lived to write. A routine is good and mine consisted of an early morning run, shower, breakfast and then onto a full day of writing. What has changed is my travel note taking. With my first book I had to rely mainly on memory, or if that failed (which it has a tendency to do nowadays!), contact with fellow travellers to jog my memory together with a pitiful amount of travel notes. I handwrote my book every day in the beautiful garden where I was house and cat sitting in the Blue Mountains, then typed it onto my computer. It was a good way of editing and making changes to what I had written earlier that day.

With my sequel book I was prepared with a plethora of travel notes. I don’t write War and Peace when I’m on the road, but just bullet point style notes of my observations and things that amuse me. Things that people say are noted if I think it is interesting or entertaining. I even jot down smells and noises of a place. With these to refer to it was so much easier. I did start handwriting my book again, but it didn’t feel right, so I ended up typing it every day directly onto my laptop.

Another must for me is a small notebook and pencil at the side of my bed as I am forever waking up and thinking of things I must include in the book. If I left it until the morning, there would be no chance of me remembering! I don’t like to use my phone for bedtime notes as the screen is too bright. A few scribbled focus words in the dark are enough to jog my memory and I do this very often.

I do also like to create a chapter list at the beginning to give myself structure. I then keep adding notes to the chapter headings as to what I want to include. It’s amazing how things just keep popping into my head during the writing process.

We were told by a lecturer at a two-day writing course I attended at the Australian Writers’ Centrein Sydney that you should get your words written fast and get a book completed then leave it for six months before revisiting it. This is not my creative process. I need to take my time, read, reread and edit each chapter or section before I will even consider continuing onto the next chapter.

Lastly, I just love using a thesaurus – it helps me no end!

In your own words, how would you describe your style of writing?

I would describe my style of writing as narrative and descriptive. I am not just relaying interesting facts about a country or culture; I am also telling my travel stories complete with interesting (and sometimes amusing) characters and settings. The reader sees and feels what I do. People that know me say it’s like I’m with them in the room telling them my stories. Even people that don’t know me have said that too. An Amazon reviewer wrote, “As a fellow traveller I related to many of the “adventures” experienced by the author. I loved the way Sharon writes – I felt like I was sitting down with an old friend over a bottle of wine and catching up. I really enjoyed the humour – reminiscent of Bill Bryson and I especially enjoyed the stories themselves. For those who travel you will find yourself nodding wisely at one visa mishap after another. For non-travellers it will make you want to pack and bag and go. I can’t wait for the next one.” It is most definitely my voice that is portrayed in my books. As well as my thoughts and observations I also like to include interesting facts about each country and descriptions of the people I meet along the way. With humour of course! I want to make readers laugh as well as offering them intriguing insights into other countries around the world.

Why did you decide to become an author?

It was more circumstance than anything. Before the days of Instagram and Facebook my travel up-dates were always sent via email. I loved sitting in an internet café writing tales about my overseas adventures. I wanted all my friends and family to laugh at my stories and not be faced with a dull diary of everything I did. Consequently, I subjected them to many humorous emails about my overseas antics and they couldn’t wait for the next instalment. Everyone commented on how engaging my writing was and some even said I should write a book which I immediately dismissed. How would I find the time to write a book when working full time? And when travelling, I was focussed on meeting people and exploring not writing a book.

This all changed when a couple I met travelling through West Africa invited me to cat and house sit for them at their Blue Mountains home in Australia. This was an offer I could not refuse. My mum had just died after a long battle with cancer, and it seemed the perfect place to recover from my grief. It was also the perfect retreat to write a book. This resulted in my first book, ‘Pringles, Visas and a Glow in the Dark Jesus’. Six years later for my sequel book ‘Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivar’ I swapped the Blue Mountains for Emerald Beach on the east coast of Australia. As I hopped onto the plane in December 2019 little did anyone know I was dodging a major pandemic!

As I lived happily in my writer’s retreat at Emerald Beach writing my book, I watched on TV the horrific spread of coronavirus in the UK resulting in all the lockdowns and restrictions. I couldn’t have picked a better time or location to write my book.

You’ve faced some ‘Sticky’ situations on your travels from natural disasters to facing prison, what for you was the most unforgettable experience?

The Everest Basecamp earthquake, Venezuelan airport official bribe and a night-time close encounter with a lion in the Serengeti do not compare with facing a prison sentence in Indonesia. This was most definitely the scariest and most unforgettable experience I have ever had.

I had this idea that if I became an English teacher overseas, I could earn money whilst enjoying exploring a new country and not have to do the boring finance day job back home. I spent one month completing an intense TEFL course at Leeds Metropolitan University and subsequently found myself a teaching position at an English First school in Pekanbaru on the Sumatra Island of Indonesia. I spent months prior to starting the job communicating via phone and email with the director of the school, an American guy called Gary. He repeatedly told me all about the happy and lovely school that I would be working at. The arrangement was that I come to Indonesia on a tourist visa via a boat from Singapore and I observe the other teachers for the first three weeks. During this period their agent in Singapore would arrange for my working visa to be issued.

The night I arrived Gary pushed a teaching timetable into my hand and told me I had to start teaching the next day. I was in panic mode! I had never taught a real class before; just students at the university that paid £1 to have an English lesson from an unqualified teacher. I immersed myself into my lessons and thought nothing of my tourist visa. One day, four policemen entered my classroom and arrested me. I was thrown on the back of a motorbike and taken to the police station to be interrogated for over seven hours. Then released only to be arrested again the following day.

To cut a very long story short (the long version is in my first book), the owner of the school was a crook and had stolen all the school funds. The wife of director Gary was allegedly from an Indonesian mafia family and was not happy about the missing money, resulting in her ringing the police and telling them there was a teacher working on a tourist visa. After days of interrogations and threats of a five-year prison sentence I fled the country on a boat to Singapore on Christmas Day. The next day an earthquake and tsunami struck Indonesia killing over 230,000 people. Had I travelled to Northern Sumatra to visit an orangutan sanctuary as planned for the Christmas holiday break I’m not sure I would be here today writing my books, or I could have been sat in an Indonesian prison cell for five years!

Sharon, what advice would you give to any budding authors out there?

If I can do it, then anyone can! Seriously, if you want to write then give it a go. I love writing and it gives me such a thrill when other people like my work. I know not everyone can do what I do and take time out from the day job to write, but perhaps start with weekend writing or block out periods of time to write. I always set myself a word count target – but nothing too harsh as it will only stress you out if you can’t reach it. I tend to give myself monthly targets rather than days or weeks. In a month I can have a few amazing days when I write over 2,000 words then others can be only around 600 words which makes me achieve my monthly goal.

Find your voice. Your voice reflects your personality. Mine is humour but yours could be reflective or lyrical.

To improve my writing technique, I have completed two writing courses, the first being a travel memoir two-day course presented by Claire Scobie (award winning author of travel memoir Last Seen in Lhasa and The Pagoda Tree) at the Australian Writers’ Centre, Sydney in 2014 and their creative writing course in 2020 run by Pamela Freeman. Both helped give me the confidence to write and more importantly, the skill (hopefully!) to write well and engage readers with my travel tales. There are creative writing courses everywhere in the world and I couldn’t recommend it enough. It gave me so much confidence and the writing techniques I learnt were invaluable.

Are there any new books you are working on or planning to start that you can tell us about?

I did start writing a daily journal last year during my time in Australia with my recollections of life in lockdown, Australian style. It focusses on my observations on how the UK lockdown was being portrayed in the Australian news compared to what my friends and family were reporting together with my reflections on life in a little coastal village. I have called this ‘The Qantas Notebook’ as my good friend Matt, who was my travel partner in Venezuela, Colombia and North Korea and worked at Qantas, had gifted me this notebook for my writings.

Alternatively, when normalcy reappears in the world and venturing overseas is deemed safe, I will be continuing my quest for adventure and foreign lands. A new journal has already been purchased to accompany me and I will be writing many notes for that all important material for book number three or four!

You can get yourself a copy of Sharon Cracknell’s book 'Secret Lands, Petrol Clams and a Bagful of Bolivar' at Waterstones