News of last night’s and next month’s Stranger Than Fiction meetings; of STF‘s presence online and at the Edinburgh International Science Festival; of the Salon; and of a competition you may be interested in entering.

Stranger Than Fiction March 2015
A really good turn-out for our March meeting in the Wash Bar last night. Three new faces joined a veritable crowd of regulars as we caught up with each others’ work and in particular Dave’s current project about Scottish castles. The feedback was useful not just for him but for anyone wrestling with many of the problems common to all non-fiction writers. Even in a large group, where you might expect to run out of things to say about a particular submission, everyone has a different angle, a different personal interest in the work, a different experience to bring to bear on it. Thanks to Dave for giving us his work to discuss, and to all those who came along and gave him and the rest of us the benefit of their constructive criticism.

Stranger Than Fiction April 2015
Next month’s meeting in the Wash Bar on the Mound is only four weeks away, at 7.30pm on Thursday 23rd April. If you are working on something at the moment which would benefit from the considered and helpful views of your fellow non-fiction writers, why not put a chapter up for discussion at the meeting. As Dave (and everyone else who has ever submitted) will tell you) it is a relaxed and genuinely useful aid to the writing process. We aim to circulate submissions a week ahead of the meeting to give us all time to read them; so get in touch if you’re thinking of putting something forward for feedback.

Stranger Than Fiction Online
I’ve just posted the second of Keith’s informative articles about keeping your work safe from the perils of the digital age. You can read the first one here, which deals with documents and files. The latest one looks at the security of the software we all use to produce our work. Feel free to leave your comments or questions for the benefit or answers of other non-fiction writers. Thanks once again to Keith for the time and experience he has put into writing these articles for us.
Unsurprisingly, many people at the March meeting were unaware that Stranger Than Fiction has a Twitter account, @edinburghnonfic. I am not a very active tweeter, and if anyone has any suggestions for a better use of the account, do feel free to make them. At the very least, if you follow @edinburghnonfic you will be able to see the Twitter names of other STFers who are also following, and then we can all follow each other and speed the exchange of information on the information super highway. Or something like that. (FWIW my personal account is @bigrainyday.)

Stranger Than Fiction at the Edinburgh International Science Festival
After our successful debut at EISF last year, with a lively panel discussion about good and bad science writing, Stranger Than Fiction has been asked back for this year’s EISF. We are staging an event called Stranger Than Fiction: Illuminating Scientific Lives which will look at the value or otherwise of the biographies of scientists. I know that many STFers are biographers of one sort or another, and since the problems of science biography are often the same ones confronting a biographer in any field, it should be an interesting hour’s discussion for many of us. I do hope you can come along and support your fellow STFers in only our second ever public event. The event is at 5.30pm on Thursday 16th April (a week before next month’s regular Stranger Than Fiction meeting) in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre at Summerhall. Tickets (£8/£6) are available through the EISF website or on the door – but probably better book in advance as it’s not a huge auditorium.

Edinburgh City of Literature Salon and the alternative
The City of Literature organisers are being honoured with a Civic Reception this month to mark the 10th Anniversary of Edinburgh being designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Unfortunately this has resulted in the cancellation of the March Literary Salon, which would have taken place on Tuesday 31st March. I think it is just possible that this news may not filter through to all the Salon’s regulars, so I am probably going to go along to the Wash Bar that evening anyway and see who else turns up. If you need another fix of literary networking/socialising, do please turn up too!
Failing that, may I recommend Weegie Wednesday, Glasgow’s answer to the Salon, which next falls on Wednesday 15th April, at 7.30pm in the CCA Bar on Sauchiehall Street. I will be going by the 6.30pm train from Waverley, and would be very glad of your company at this useful networking event.

Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize
And finally … you may be familiar with Notting Hill Editions, an imprint “devoted to the best in non-fiction essay writing.” They have just announced their 2015 Essay Prize, for an essay of 2000-8000 words on any subject, worth £20,000. Full details and guidelines are on their website here – the submission deadline is midnight on 1st May 2015. Go for it!

Phew, there you go. A lot of news, and all of it good. Hope to see you again next month, and until then, as always,
Best wishes for all your non-fiction writing,
Colin Salter

This is the second of a series of articles by Stranger Than Fiction member Keith Houston, about protecting your work from the pitfalls of computer and online usage. We’re very grateful to Keith for giving his time and expertise so freely for our benefit.


However painful it is to lose a work in progress, being deprived of the ability to create that work in the first place can be equally trying. As such, it is worth taking an inventory of the software you use on a day to day basis, especially those applications that you have paid for or that are no longer available. (See below for further reading on how to identify recently-used programs.)

Having made a note of any pieces of software you couldn’t live without, make sure you can reinstall and activate them if your computer were ever to crash irretrievably. For physically boxed software, installation media (such as CDs or DVDs) and activation codes are usually present in the software’s packaging; for software purchased or downloaded online, your email account is often a good place to check for activation codes, download locations, or login details. Alternatively, contact the software vendor.

Even a simple list of the programs you consider to be indispensable will help you recover from a fatal hard disk crash or theft. If you want to preserve your working environment as it is right now, however, things get a little more involved.

“Traditional” backups

Programs often scatter settings and transitory information (such as lists of recently-used files) around your computer’s hard disk in nooks and crannies that are deliberately hidden from the user. This means that Google Drive, Dropbox and their ilk, which manage a handful of public folders, cannot generally back up installed programs. (What they can do is store the list of software programs you made after following the instructions above – you did make that list, didn’t you? – or even the installers, downloads and licensing information you will need to reinstall them.) No; the only sure-fire way to preserve the programs installed on your computer in their current state is to back up your computer’s entire hard disk.

Simply put, this entails copying the entire contents of your computer onto a separate hard disk or another backup medium, such as a set of writeable DVDs, using either your operating system’s backup feature or a standalone backup utility.

This need not be as much of a chore as it once was. Apple’s “Time Machine” feature will automatically back up your Mac’s hard disk every hour, storing only files that have changed since the last backup in order to save huge amounts of time and storage space. To make things even easier, it is possible to configure Time Machine to back up to an external hard disk or to a computer elsewhere on your home network – you may never have to plug in a USB cable again in order to back up your system.

For Windows, things are less clear cut. Windows’ built-in backup feature can be set up to save incrementally, like Time Machine, but only to a disk that is plugged in to your computer. If you want to back up to a disk or another computer elsewhere on your home network, you will have to do a complete backup each and every time.

Ultimately, you will have to decide: are your programs worth the investment of a little time spent setting up a regular backup? It may only take one crashed hard disk to change your mind.

Further reading

This is the first of a series of articles by Stranger Than Fiction member Keith Houston, about protecting your work from the pitfalls of computer and online usage. We’re very grateful to Keith for giving his time and expertise so freely for our benefit.

Documents and files

Your documents should always be backed up. In the past, this meant saving them at regular intervals to some external storage medium (another computer, a USB stick or an external hard disk, for example), but there are now number of free online services to help back up files and folders with the bare minimum of effort. Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and other products like them all work in the same way: having installed a small program to your computer, all files in one or more special folders are automagically backed up to some remote location with no work on your part. If your computer breaks or is lost or stolen, your files are safe in the cloud.

In addition, all these services allow you to access your files on any number of different computers or tablets. Assuming you have installed the appropriate program or app, you can create a file on one computer or tablet and continue to edit it on another. This means that in the event of your primary computer being lost or stolen, all it takes to retrieve all your files on its replacement is to reinstall Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive as appropriate — your files will be downloaded to your new computer automatically. Beyond this, some services (notably Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive) allow you to edit your documents in a web browser with no need to install anything at all.

For more fine-grained recovery of lost data, Dropbox and Google Drive record snapshots of your files as they change over time. If you accidentally erase part of a text document, for example, you can examine older versions and choose an appropriate one to reinstate. (Microsoft OneDrive offers a more limited feature that records changes to Office files only.) If you accidentally delete a file altogether, it can usually be retrieved from the “bin” area of the backup service.

In short, it is hard not to recommend the use of at least one of these online services. Your files are saved regularly, reliably, and for free, far away from whatever catastrophes may strike your personal computer; they are available to read (and often to edit) on all your devices; and, if you so desire, they can even free you from the tyranny of Microsoft Word entirely. If you aren’t already using Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive or a similar service, it is well worth taking a few minutes to look into the possibility of doing so.


Most of the services described above charge for extra space beyond some initial quota; as such, their free incarnations are of most use for the storage of space-efficient files such as text documents and spreadsheets rather than photographs or videos. They all require an internet connection to save and sync files, so any changes you make to a document while offline will not be backed up until you reconnect. And lastly, file histories (where they are supported) are usually retained only for a finite period — old edits are eventually forgotten, and deleted files cannot be retrieved after some fixed period has elapsed.

In addition, these services are most accurately described as “file syncing” services rather than proper backup solutions: their focus is making your files available everywhere you might want to use them, rather than providing a bulletproof solution to recovering from a crashed computer. They provide a means to recover your documents and files rather than the entirety of your computer’s hard disk. If this is important to you, you should periodically take a “traditional” backup of your system and store it securely at an off-site location.

Further reading

Much to celebrate and inform this month – Edinburgh Literary Salon, Weegie Wedneday, our own next meeting, and news of helpful articles coming soon to our website.

Edinburgh Literary Salon February 2015
It was lovely to see so many non-fiction writers old and new at the Edinburgh Literary Salon last night. My apologies for not getting around to chatting with everyone. Non-fiction writers are now being routinely directed to Stranger Than Fiction, a measure of the useful role we have established in Edinburgh literary society since our formation in May 2000.

Weegie Wednesday Invitation
It’s really nice to see non-fiction being acknowledged as a significant sphere of writing; it’s not all poetry and Young Adult! I’ve even been invited to address Weegie Wednesday, Glasgow’s answer to the Salon, on the subject of Stranger Than Fiction. It will be a pleasure and an honour to promote not only non-fiction in general but the role of Stranger Than Fiction in making it an almost respectable avenue for a writer! The talk is going to be in the autumn, and it would be good to see some friendly STF faces there. If you haven’t been to Weegies yet, it’s well worth the train fare. The next one is Wednesday 18th March, 7.30pm in the CCA Terrace Bar off Sauchiehall Street.

Stranger Than Fiction March 2015
The next Stranger Than Fiction meeting is at 7.30pm on Thursday 26th March, in our new regular home upstairs at the Wash Bar on the Mound. One or two STFers have expressed an interest in submitting some work for feedback this month. I hope to circulate these a week earlier, around Friday 20th March, to give us all a chance to read and consider them ahead of discussing them at the meeting. If you want to put something up for discussion, either this month or at a future meeting, get in touch for details of when and how much and how it all works – we generally encourage writers to attend a feedback session for someone else’s work before submitting their own for constructive comment.

Keeping your work safe
STFer Keith Houston has generously written a series of articles about keeping your work safe with reference to storage, security and so on, prompted by my two disastrous laptop crashes in recent months! I will be posting these online over the next few weeks here on the Stranger Than Fiction website. Essential reading for us all. Thanks, Keith.

Future dates
If you would like to submit a piece of your current project for feedback, but feel this month is a deadline too soon, our meetings for the rest of Spring 2015 are as follow: Thursday 23rd April, Thursday 21st May, and Thursday 25th June (technically Summer, I think!). All at 7.30pm in the Wash, with circulation deadline for submissions a week earlier in each case. As a rough guide, a submission might consist of one or two reasonably well drafted chapters depending on word count, or a fully prepared proposal. It is probably work in progress for which you want the views of fellow non-fiction authors: not finished work, but work well underway rather than very early jottings. I always say this but it’s true – everyone who has ever submitted a piece for feedback from Stranger Than Fiction has found the process entirely constructive and helpful.

Hope to see you in March. As always, best wishes with all your non-fiction writing.

January 2015 meeting
What a great start to the year! Stranger Than Fiction’s January meeting was a four-table job, with a large turn-out of regulars, rarely-seens and new faces. We kicked off with a round-up of current projects and aspirations. A recurring theme was the problem of finding time for writing when daily routine or unexpected crises squeeze writing out. It was comforting to know I’m not the only one for whom Life gets in the way. Whether it’s computer failure or the school run, it can be hard to make time for non-fic; and maybe that’s something we could compare solutions to at a future meeting.
Jim gave us a timely warning of the potentially expensive risks of giving your work to rogue vanity publishers. He directed us to Writer Beware, a website naming and shaming the worst offenders. It covers both British rogues and American ones (who often pass themselves off as British). This morning Guthrie has followed up on Jim’s advice:”The other place I would suggest is the forum, Absolute Write: Absolute Write Water Cooler – Powered by vBulletin, especially this part of it: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check – Absolute Write Water Cooler. It has,” he adds, “a long history and works well enough that the dodgy pay-us-to-publish-your-work folk keep campaigning against it. You don’t even need to post or anything, just browse it for names, ideas, etc.”
The formal part of the evening concluded with a thought-provoking discussion led by Vin about the value of speaking engagements in boosting sales of your book, and generally promoting your non-fiction ideas. As a former TV producer, Vin always brings useful alternative ideas – books are not the only means of communication open to non-fiction writers.
Thanks to everyone who came and joined in the conversation.
February 2015 meeting
Our next meeting is at 7.30pm on Thursday 19th February. We had a restless year last year, meeting in three different venues; but the consensus is that our current home, upstairs at the Wash Bar on the Mound, is working very well in enabling conversation in a relaxed environment. In other words, we can see and hear each other speak without competing with piped music. I hope you can come along. After last month’s meeting, it feels as if Stranger Than Fiction is in robust good health, with bright discussion and a growing membership which continues to include non-fiction authors at every stage of a writing career.
If you are working on something at the moment on which you would like some constructive feedback from your fellow non-fiction writers, get in touch. Distribution deadline for this meeting, to give everyone time to read submissions ahead of the session, is Friday 13th February. (Lucky for some!)
Other literary gatherings
If you can’t wait for the next STF session, the monthly Edinburgh Literary Salon is on the last Tuesday of the month, from 6pm to late in the Wash Bar. The next Weegie Wednesday (the Glasgow equivalent) is on Wednesday 18th February from 7.30pm in the CCA on Sauchiehall Street. Both are useful literary drop-in networking evenings, with keynote speeches early in proceedings. Both are well worth going to: you never know who you’ll meet who might be useful to your non-fiction writing. There are usually some fellow STFers at the Edinburgh event, and often one or two who stray over to Glasgow too.

STF success
It’s worth noting that STF authors are riding high at the moment, with three Edinburgh book launches in the past couple of weeks: James McCarthy’s The Diplomat of Kashgar; Sue Lieberman’s After Genocide: How Ordinary Jews Face the Holocaust; and Susan Tomes’ Sleeping In Temples. Furthermore Keith Houston’s latest, The Book, is on its way to the presses and his last, Shady Characters, is now out in paperback. My own most recent book Science Is Beautiful, is just out in its US edition. I think we should be very proud of the work we’re doing as a group.
I hope you can join us somewhere in the next month, particularly at Stranger Than Fiction‘s February meeting. Very best wishes for all your non-fiction writing.
Convenor, Stranger Than Fiction

Happy New Year!
May you stick to all your resolutions, especially if they involve writing. I’ve been transcribing a 30-year correspondence over Christmas, and besides thinking there’s a novel in the story behind the letters it makes me want to write better letters myself – these are so beautifully written, 1957-1989, they are inspiring. (I start every year wanting to write more letters, and usually fizzle out around the middle of January!).

STF January 2015
Anyway, I digress – the first Stranger Than Fiction meeting of 2015 will be on Thursday 22nd January, at 7.30pm upstairs in the Wash Bar on the Mound. One or two people have suggested they might have something of their current project to put up for discussion – please get in touch again if you are more certain that you will! I’ll aim to get any submissions circulated on or before the 16th January, to give us all time to read them before we meet.

Links of Interest
I’ve had my attention drawn to a few articles about writing which might be of particular interest to non-fiction writers:

Science Festival
If you’d like to be involved in any way in planning or delivering our contribution to the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April this year, let me know and I’ll pass you on to Dr Mhairi Stewart who is coordinating it all. Our theme this year is scientific biography – does the life story of a scientist matter or is it just their science that counts? You don’t have to be a science writer or a scientist to make a useful contribution to this event, as I hope I proved last year!

Taking care of your work
After my near-disastrous laptop crash last month, which cost me a lot of money to repair and a lot of time in lost momentum for my current project, and which nearly lost me ALL my recent copy, help is at hand! STFer Keith Houston is very kindly drawing up a series of articles and tips on how to keep your work safe, which we’ll be putting up in a series of posts on the STF website, www.edinburghnonfic.wordpress.com. If you don’t already subscribe to the website it will be worth doing so just to get notice of these articles as they appear. (But you don’t need to be a subscriber to see the website.)

If you haven’t been along to a Stranger Than Fiction session before, why not make that one of your resolutions? It’s friendly and informal, helpful and supportive. Hope to see you later this month, first timer or old timer. And as always, good luck with all your non-fiction writing.

Best wishes for 2015,
Colin Salter

Many many thanks to everyone who replied with preferences of time and place after problems arose with our slot at the Doric. You can’t please all the people all the time, but the following will, I hope and as I think J Arthur Rank used to say, please most of the people most of the time.
Same Day, New Time
We’ll continue to meet on the Thursday before the Edinburgh Literary Salon every month, in other words the Thursday before the last Tuesday of the month. So no change there. But I’ve taken the liberty of moving our start to 7.30pm, which will give more of us a chance to grab a bite before the meeting, without pushing things too late at the other end of the evening.
New Venue
From now on for the foreseeable future, our new home will be upstairs at the Wash Bar on the Mound. The Wash will be familiar to regulars at the Salon. As things stand they won’t open the upstairs BAR for us – we’ll have to carry our drinks up from the main bar. But we will have the upstairs AREA to ourselves, except that the pub’s toilets are there! It’s a good, large, comfortable, quiet area, which I think will suit our discussions well. And the Wash Bar is well placed for bus and train, and even tram, as well.
Next Meeting
So the upshot of all that is that Stranger Than Fiction‘s October meeting is now at 7.30pm on Thursday 23rd October 2014 in the Wash Bar on the Mound. It would be lovely to see you there to launch our new residency with some lively conversation. We have no submissions this month. Instead, I thought it would be an oportunity to catch up with what everyone is working on. If you’ve had something published recently, bring it along and share the trials and tribulations of getting it there. If you are writing, how’s it going? Where do you do your best work? Home office? Library? Park bench? Camper van? If you aren’t writing come along anyway – maybe something you see or hear, or someone you talk to, will kickstart you!
Hope to see you at the Wash next week. I read this anonymous quotation the other week, which sums up how things are going for me at the moment: “Writing a book is like washing an elephant: no good place to begin or end, and it’s hard to keep track of what you’ve already covered.” How’s your elephant?
Best wishes,


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