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I'm a novelist and playwright, traditionally and independently published.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Dubious Scent of Books

The new - and the really old!

This was posted earlier this month on the Authors Electric blog site - but I think it's worth reblogging here since it might be of interest to readers as well as writers.

I used to have a favourite independent bookstore. This was many years ago, long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye and it was run by a couple of people who loved books and writers too. You could go in and chat. They knew local writers and helped to promote them. They got to know their customers and could offer suggestions. Then, one of the big chains moved in over the road with their high staff turnover, their front of shop table displays for which publishers paid handsomely and their three for two offers. When they complained, they were told ‘business is business’ and that was that. Within a year they had closed. Those of us who resolutely kept on shopping with them were clearly in a minority.

Cue forward some years. I’m browsing in the big Borders in Glasgow just along the road from Central Station. The cafe – Starbucks as I remember it – is nice. Sometimes I meet people there. The store is pretty good too. Back then I often browse and buy. There are hand-written staff recommendations. One or two of my books are in there as well. I surreptitiously put them face out, as you do.

Time passes. We live in the countryside but I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Glasgow. Borders has changed though. You have to hunt for books on the ground floor. They are tucked away. I remember noticing newspapers and magazines, diaries and notebooks (not that I don’t like notebooks because I do – most writers do, I think) giftwrap and greetings cards and lots of weird barely book related stuff in glossy boxes, as well as cookery and gardening books, sporting auto (sic) biographies, acres of celebrity tat. Sometimes I browse and take a book to the checkout, but the tills upstairs are seldom open, so I go downstairs to be met by a queue of Soviet proportions and two cash points open. Then I dump whatever I’ve picked up, go home, order off Amazon. Mostly this is because I have a train to catch rather than from any more sinister 'showrooming' intention. Latterly though, I think I’ve lost my marbles because I find my eyes glazing over in there. It’s only when I meet a friend on the train - one I know to be an eclectic reader - and he says to me suddenly, ‘Catherine, do you find yourself looking round Borders and not seeing anything at all that you want to buy?’ and I’m forced to agree with him. Nevertheless, I’m sad when Borders closes. Just a bit. Kind of sad to see it go. But not devastated. Certainly not devastated.

strange, musky, dusty ...
Time passes again. Somebody buys me a Kindle. I open the box and am instantly hooked on the device. What’s not to like? I mean people keep going on and on about the smell of books, but the only books I possess that smell nice in – er – my book, are those old, musty, dusty books I love. I’ve a collection of ancient volumes of Burns’s poetry and other books about the poet and I know they might not smell nice to everyone, but they smell good to me. Extreme age. I like that scent. But then I also like the strange, musky, dusty, sneeze-inducing scent of Victorian paisley shawls! So I can see the attraction, but the ‘smell’ of new books? Even my books? Not so much. Do they smell of – well – anything much at all? Not really. Not after the first few moments.

A couple of years later, my husband gets me a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. This time, it’s a coup de foudre: love at first sight. Now, although I still read paper books from time to time, I realise that I hardly buy new books at all. I download novels and stories onto my Kindle and if I find something I truly love and know I want to keep, as an object, as opposed to something I enjoy reading but will never read again, I may buy a paper copy. But in reality, this doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes – like those dusty books of Burns’s poetry – I buy online, from antiquarian sellers. These are often dealers who may or may not have shop premises. It amazes me how ignorant people are of just how many medium, small and micro-businesses are facilitated by the likes of Amazon and eBay. I sometimes buy new paperback books by friends, mostly at events where they are reading, and I think it might be good to have a signed copy. Otherwise, the Kindle is where it’s at for me. I can change the font size and the spacing at will. I can read in bed at night without switching on the light. I can fall asleep and my Kindle falls asleep too, and when I wake it up again, there it is, just where I left off reading. Even when I'm reading several books at the same time. I could sell these devices. 

Now, when I do readings myself, people come up to me and say they’ve got the book on their Kindle. Sometimes they say it quite loudly, within the hearing of the bookstore rep and I feel a faint stirring of guilt. I want to say ‘shshsh’ but I don’t. Because if I'm being truthful I don’t mind too much. And besides, I know that if they have bought the paperback, they will very likely pass it around three or four of their friends, possibly more, whereas if they have got the download, and it’s inexpensive enough, they will very likely tell three or four of their friends about it – and then it will be ‘jam for Georgie’ as one of my favourite authors says. (Can you guess who? No prizes, but lots of stars!)

I also realise that I’m reading more than I have read since I was young. I read voraciously these days, book after book, sometimes waking up in the night, opening my Kindle and just getting in a few chapters when I can’t bear to leave a book alone or when I’m sleepless.

I’m publishing in paper as well as eBook form though (with more to come) and I still go back to the chain bookstores from a sort of lingering sense of guilt, a hankering after that old indie bookstore where I knew the people and they knew me and we could talk about the books we loved. Some bookstores are still like that and greatly to be cherished. I love them, and visit them and buy books in them, even when I know I have too many books in the house altogether. 

But any residual guilt about downloading - legally, of course - has gradually dwindled away. Tonight I found a writer online, who had been recommended to me, one who had written a whole string of novels. I wanted the first in a long series. Would I have found it in my local bookstore? It was some ten years old. So I doubt it. And if, as has happened several times so far this year, I get hooked on a writer and gallop through his or her books, I want the next one now, not next Wednesday when I’m going into town. I want instant gratification. Most voracious readers do. I find it very hard indeed to feel any kind of guilt about this, because guess what? As a writer, that’s what I want too. I desperately want any reader who finishes one of my books and thinks, ‘what else has she written?’ to move smoothly on to whatever else is available while I get on with writing the next one. Don't you?



Visit my website at www.wordarts.co.uk
And if you'd like a taster of the kind of books I write, look out for Bird of Passage on Amazon's Kindle store. It will be on special offer and amazingly inexpensive for a whole week, beginning 1st November.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Historical Fiction Five: Starting a New Project


Burns's walk at Ellisland
For the last of these posts on historical fiction, I want to say a bit about staring a new project. In the last few months I've been starting work on a new historical novel. Until a little while ago, I was in researching, (with some welcome assistance from Creative Scotland) but also very much in thinking and daydreaming mode. Gearing up to write but not quite there yet. Thinking, too, about the voice in which this story will be told. How to get into it. How to get inside the mind of the main character who is a real, historical person: Jean Armour, wife of the poet Robert Burns. 

And how to tell her story.

Once again, it’s about immersion. So it might be useful to some writers – and interesting to some readers – to hear about the kind of things I do when I’m getting started on a new project in parallel, of course, with all the necessary research. First I daydream, but then, I clear the decks, mentally and physically. In this case, it meant sorting out the study, the place where I work, which earlier this year was much too cluttered for comfort. I don’t mind clutter, but it has to be reasonably tidy clutter, so that I know where everything is, otherwise my brain can’t cope. I spent a couple of energetic weeks hauling down folders and files, sorting out drawers, disposing of some of my vast hoard of books and generally relieving some of the congestion. There is something very therapeutic in all kinds of ways, about this kind of process and I also find it very therapeutic where writing is concerned. I think we’re clearing mental (and perhaps even spiritual, if you’re that way inclined) spaces, making room for something new. Every time I take a bag or box of unwanted items to the charity shop or the saleroom, every time I make another trip to the recycling centre or list another few items on eBay, I wonder why I kept them for so long. What on earth were we keeping those very old, but not old enough to be interesting, computers and other pieces of electronic kit for? Why was I hanging onto so much out of date paperwork? Why was I keeping not very good paperbacks that I know for a fact I will never want to read again because I didn’t even finish them the first time round? I’m by no means minimalist by inclination, but sometimes you just have to let things go, and I generally find that when I do, I can breathe more easily, and the ideas just come flooding in.

But once I’ve done this, cleared the decks and the desk to make a new start, I surround myself with more stuff. Except that it has to be the right stuff. I’m looking for all kinds of things to help the process of immersion in a time and place. I find this works for all my fiction and even for plays, whether historical or contemporary. I go hunting for all kinds of things – images, artworks, photographs, some inspirational objects, and as much appropriate music as I can find. The music is important. Roz Morris hosts an excellent series of blog posts on the ‘soundtrack’ of various pieces of fiction and I always find that my fiction has a soundtrack. I may not listen to it when I’m writing. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just want silence. Or as much silence as the jackdaws on the roof will allow me. But sometimes I need a soundtrack of appropriate music. With The Amber Heart it involved Polish folk music, Chopin, other composers. The Curiosity Cabinet and another novel, more contemporary, were both written to Scottish and Irish traditional music. Ice Dancing involved a steady beat of love songs interspersed with hockey songs: Queen, the Sugababes, Cher. The Physic Garden needed more traditional music and so will this new project, which is set in eighteenth century lowland Scotland.

Apart from the music, I’ve put up old pictures and postcards, surrounding my desk with them. And on this occasion, rather a lot of very old books which I seem to have managed to acquire over the past year, mainly on eBay. They aren’t in the greatest condition, which explains why I managed to buy them for a song. But a two hundred year old book – even when it’s a bit ragged around the edges – is a treasure when it comes to trying to immerse yourself in the past. You can imagine it new, pristine, beautiful. You can imagine the people who handled it, what they felt like, what their thoughts might have been. You can above all imagine their words. When I was writing the Physic Garden I had other things to look at, including a Georgian embroidered christening cape like the one in the book.

Ellisland Farm
I also try to spend time in the places where each novel is set, allowing myself plenty of time for daydreaming, plenty of time for impressions and ideas to come wandering in. Sometimes I take notes, but they’re very short, very cryptic. Sometimes I don’t even do that. As long as I’ve allowed myself the time, I know I can remember whenever I need to. In this instance, it meant spending time not just in Alloway, but - for example - at Ellisland where Jean and the poet lived for a while,  a magical place, as yet unspoiled by over-interpretation. Long may it continue.

The other thing I’ve been doing obsessively is setting up a ‘secret’ Pinterest board to which I’ve pinned all sorts of images that are connected with the topic of my book. I use Pinterest quite a lot, although it can form wonderful displacement activity, so you have to use it with care. It’s all too easy to find an appropriate image and then find yourself tracking back through all kinds of beautiful boards and their associated websites, intrigued and moved by the variety of images on display. Topic boards on Pinterest can also be useful for helping cover artists and even your publisher, if you have one, to understand your thoughts about the book, your sources of inspiration, how you ‘see’ it and consequently how it might be marketed and to whom. 

Jean in old age with her much loved grand-daughter.
If all of this sounds a bit like uber displacement activity, it’s probably because it is. My husband calls it ‘pencil sharpening.’ Starting a new project is scary. It’s a bit like standing on the edge of a swimming pool daring yourself to dive in. You distract yourself with all these ‘necessary’ preparations. But I’ve come to see, over the years, that there is a sense in which they are necessary. And a necessary parallel to the meatiness of the research that you also have to do. They get you in the right frame of mind. And with historical fiction in particular, they arm you to some extent against the curse of presentism I wrote about in an earlier post. They remind you of when and where you are meant to be when you’re writing. They are a little like the Wardrobe – the route to Narnia. 

When they work well, they’re a doorway to the past. 

Mossgiel near Mauchline as it was in the poet's time.










Thursday, October 09, 2014

Historical Fiction Four: The Physic Garden - What If?


So many things I write begin as plays, and the Physic Garden (published this year in paperback and as an eBook by Saraband), is no exception. It began as a two hander, a conversation between the two central characters. I wrote it initially with the Oran Mor ‘A Play, A Pie and a Pint’ season in mind, encouraged by the lovely, late David McLennan. But it soon became apparent that there was much more to the tale and not nearly enough elbow room in a short play to tell it. It needed to be a novel.

The Physic Garden is set in the very early 1800s, in and around the gardens of the old college of Glasgow University. I had the idea for this many years ago, long before I even tackled it as a play. Browsing one day, I found an old book in the Oxfam shop on Byres Road. It was called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University- a factual history of the gardens and the gardeners who had worked there, through the ages. I read it and was intrigued by the (real historical) story of William Lang in particular.

Briefly, his father Robert was the head gardener. William himself was born and brought up at the old college and became a gardener in turn. But the gardens were suffering from industrial pollution, especially the physic garden. The university had allowed a ‘type foundry’ to be built close by and the heavy metals and other pollutants were killing the plants. But the university needed printing, and they needed metal type for that printing, so the gardens lost out. It was clear that the gardeners knew something was up, but Faculty wouldn't listen. (Sounds familiar, eh?)

There was a professor of botany, one Dr Thomas Brown. He had been engaged to deliver the botanical lectures instead of Professor Jeffray who was far more interested in surgery than in physic or medicine. (I sometimes think I ought to have called this novel the Psychic Garden, because that's what so many people call it!) But to do that he needed lots of plant specimens which the gardens couldn’t supply. So he asked William to go out into the surrounding countryside to gather them for him. When William was only 19, his father died quite suddenly. William was left with a widowed mother and a number of younger siblings to support. He applied for and was given the position of head gardener, on the recommendation of Thomas Brown. But he had taken on far too much – including the specimen gathering. And he soon got into trouble with Faculty for neglecting the gardens although it is clear from the records that the state of the gardens had more to do with pollution than with William’s neglect.

So much is true, a matter of historical fact.

I thought at first that Thomas was a much older man who had taken the younger man under his wing, but it was when I realised that he was only a few years older than William that my story fell into place. It seemed clear that these two young men had become friends across a divide of class and background. William, at least, disappeared almost completely from historical record. But when I browsed Glasgow directories of the time, some years later, a printer and publisher called William Lang suddenly appears. There is, of course, no indication at all that it really was the same man. But as a novelist , you can say ‘what if?’ What if this was the same William, and what might have happened in between?

That ‘what if?’ question is the writer’s best friend.

Most writers find themselves asking it all the time, but especially writers of historical fiction. You begin with the bare facts, but then you interrogate them. What if this happened? What if this character did this, or this? That’s where it becomes interesting. William’s voice was a very clear one for me. I think some of this has to do with the fact that I’ve worked as a playwright for so long. Playwrights definitely hear voices in their heads and I heard William’s voice very strongly indeed. At some point, somebody (not my current publisher, I must hasten to say) suggested that this story would be better told in the third person: he said, she said. I tried to do it and came as close as I’ve ever come to getting writer’s block. I like to think that William wouldn’t let me. By this time, it was almost as though he was shaking me awake in the middle of the night, telling me that he had more to say, and demanding to know when I was going to write it down!

I finally finished it, and it was not so very different from the book you see now. There were a few bits and pieces of editing, things that I worked with the wonderful Ali Moore at Saraband on - but nobody tried to make it into something it wasn’t and structurally it didn’t really change at all.

It is I think, a book about friendship and betrayal. The two central characters are friends against all the odds. But when William begins to tell his story, we are soon aware that things have gone rather horribly wrong – but we don’t know exactly how – although we can guess some of it. There is no big ‘twist in the tale’. It isn’t that sort of novel and it isn’t necessary. I often think Roald Dahl, while a very fine writer, has a lot to answer for. I never mind if a novel doesn’t have a twist in the tale as long as the journey from beginning to end is satisfying and enlightening. You don’t have to surprise me unless I’m reading one of those pieces of crime fiction where you’re not supposed to be able to guess whodunnit till the very end. For the rest, I don’t care as long as I find the ending satisfying. But if you want something swift paced and deeply mysterious, I can tell you right now that this probably isn't the book for you! It's a slow, sweet exploration by an elderly man looking back on a deeply troubled episode in his past - and trying now, in old age, to come to terms with it. 

Jenny's needlework?
The Physic Garden is a book about closeness and trust and affection. It’s also a book about the getting of wisdom. And about – as one colleague said – the price of knowledge. It’s also a love story of sorts, although whether that love is between William and his sweetheart Jenny or William and his good friend Thomas, I leave you to decide. Traditional activities play their part – beekeeping, foraging, fine needlework and embroidery. Tensions between medicine and new developments in surgery are also central to the story, especially the idea that with the burgeoning factories in the city, a ready supply of workers is needed, and there is some idea that you might be able to ‘fix’ workers, just as a machine can be fixed.

But most of all, this is a story about betrayal, a terrible betrayal, and the possibility of coming to terms with it, towards the end of one’s life. It’s a story that asks – what if things changed quite radically for the narrator, the main character? How might he himself have changed in the course of his long and fulfilling life? How did he arrive at this point and how has the wisdom acquired along the way influenced the way he feels now? 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Historical Fiction Three: The Curiosity Cabinet (writing in the past and present at the same time.)


Lovely cover by textile artist Alison Bell
When Alys revisits the beautiful Hebridean island of Garve after an absence of twenty five years, she  is captivated by the embroidered casket on display in her hotel. She discovers that it belongs to Donal, her childhood playmate, and soon they resume their old friendship. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on Garve against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by the cabinet and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself. But Garve has its secrets, past and present. Donal must learn to trust Alys enough to confide in her and, like Henrietta before her, Alys must earn the right to belong.

This is essentially what the Curiosity Cabinet is ‘about’: the basic story, or two stories, past and present, one interwoven with another, through the medium of a small Scottish island and a beautiful embroidered casket.

'The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.’


There are many sources of inspiration for historical fiction. This novel began many years ago, in the 1990s, as a series of radio plays, but even before that, it was inspired by another story – the fascinating factual story of Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange. She had become an embarrassment to her husband. He wanted to get rid of her. And at a time when such things were possible, he had her kidnapped, removed to a remote Scottish island. There she stayed. Later, she was moved elsewhere, but still imprisoned in a remote place. There was no succour for her and she died in captivity.

I think the first time I came across the real Lady Grange was when I was visiting an Edinburgh museum and read about her. She had been violently seized and carried away down one of the closes in the old town of that city. She was a good deal older than the (at that time) half formed heroine of the Curiosity Cabinet and her story was quite different, but the situation in which she found herself fascinated me. I had also been working on dramatisations of Kidnapped and Catriona for BBC R4 at the time and was well aware of the cultural differences between highland and lowland societies, between Gaelic and Scots speakers. And I found myself obsessing – as fiction writers so often do – about what it would be like to be kidnapped from one society to the other, to be removed at a stroke from all that you held dear and set down in a culture where you didn’t understand the language, or the mores or the modes of being. How difficult would that be? Especially if you had left friends and family behind you. The real Lady Grange was believed to have been driven mad by her ordeal. My heroine, Henrietta, proved to be a little more fortunate.

'She saw before her a small but strongly built man, in his thirties perhaps, wearing highland dress, bare legs showing beneath the big blue plaid. He reminded her of the highlanders she had seen on the streets of Edinburgh where sometimes, dressed in their outlandish clothes, they were perceived as crude figures of fun and sometimes, bristling with weaponry and with the drink taken, as dangerous incomers. Manus was no figure of fun although she could see that he might be dangerous, a better friend than an enemy, perhaps.’

But there is more than the historical story in this novel. It is, essentially, two stories. It has been described as a time slip novel, which is not really what it is at all. Fans of Outlander might appreciate it for its setting, for the historical sections, but nobody in this novel goes back in time, nobody travels between past and present. I had a very definite intention in writing this novel, but it is one that not all readers pick up on – and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter very much whether they do, not to them and not to me. It's just good if they enjoy it!

It consists of two parallel tales, past and present. There are connections between the characters, between the people, between their situations – but I wanted all of it to be subtle, delicate, a little thread of fine lines rather than any more overt time travel experience. When I think about it now, I can see that my main source of inspiration was a small Hebridean island – one we love very much and visit often – the island of Gigha. The island of Garve in the novel is fictional, of course. It could be Gigha or Coll or any one of a number of other western islands. 

Ardminish Bay, Gigha

One of the things I love about these places is the sense of the past and present being somehow entangled, as though they are all part of some astonishing continuum – as though everything is somehow still there, and nothing is ever lost. I wanted to structure the book in that way. I wanted to write it as I would write a poem, so that there are layers and meanings over and above the obvious. At one level it’s a simple enough love story and I hope it’s an attractive one. One or two critics have said that it was a ‘guilty pleasure’ for them. You’re not really supposed to treat love stories – especially love stories written by women - as serious fiction. Well, I’ve given up apologising for writing love stories. Love is one of the most important things in all our lives. Why shouldn’t we write about it? One or two critics have also understood that this is a book not just about love but about obligation, about parenthood, and about the landscapes in which we live and how they shape us. The most gratifying review was from a US reader who said that the writing was so tight you could ‘bounce a quarter off of it’ – and that was exactly the kind of response I wanted. But I don’t really mind it being a simple pleasure either, although I still fail to see why anyone should feel guilty about it!

One thing I’m often asked is how I managed to write about past and present simultaneously. Didn’t it become confusing? Well, from a purely practical point of view, I wrote two separate books. One was the historical story of Henrietta Dalrymple and Manus McNeill and what brings Henrietta to Manus’s little island. The other was the contemporary tale of Alys and Donal on the same island in the present day. The thing that connects them is the cabinet of the title, not a real ‘curiosity cabinet’ but a Jacobean embroidered chest full of small objects which turn out to be ‘women’s things’. The embroidery depicts the story of Ruth who goes into a strange land and survives there, and this represents another theme of the book: displacement and the search for acceptance.
The inspiration behind Manus.

So, I wrote two separate books, I printed them out and then I did a literal cut and paste job on my study floor, shuffling them together, sometimes cutting a page in half. It was infinitely easier than trying to do it on a computer. I could see and feel the weight of each section, the length of it, the way it might fit in with another section and where the story was taking me. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work just as well as an eBook, because it does. It’s just that I, as a writer, needed to get the balance between the two parts of the novel right.

Having done that, I keyed all the changes into the word document and then worked on it for a while, weaving it all together so that the joins became smooth and with no gaping holes in the plot. It was a very enjoyable exercise and it seems to have worked. The Curiosity Cabinet is probably the most popular of all my novels. The paperback version is long out of print. I’ve published it under my own Wordarts imprint as an eBook. There’s an excellent audio version available via Oakhill publishing (you can get it on Audible) – and I’m planning a print on demand version in paperback later this year or early next. Meanwhile, the eBook is on special offer today and for another six days, from Amazon's Kindle store in the UK and the USA 




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Historical Fiction Two: Family History Research as a Source of Inspiration.

I’ve written a number of plays set in the past and dramatised even more novels for radio, most of them classics such as Kidnapped and Catriona, Ben Hur, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Bride of Lammermoor. But The Amber Heart, the very first draft of which was written back in the 1990s, was my first attempt at a longer piece of historical fiction. I had been spending a lot of my free time researching my Polish family history and was becoming increasingly intrigued by it. 

Although I was born in Leeds and brought up in a working class family, my dad’s family had been the landed nobility, the szlachta. The Czerkawskis came complete with a couple of historic houses (lost in the war) and a coat of arms. From the handful of battered photographs my dad managed to bring out and the tiny silver hand mirror that had once belonged to his mother, obviously part of one of those beautiful dressing sets you sometimes see in country houses, it seemed like a world in a fairytale, something remote, long lost, as indeed it was. 

Meeting my great uncle Karol Kossak, an artist from a distinguished family of Polish artists, only served to reinforce the feeling. He was like a character from a Viennese operetta and just as charming. I started my research project back in the eighties, well before the internet could facilitate such enquiries. I think I always had it at the back of my mind that I wanted to write a novel, perhaps more than one, based on my Polish family history. 

One of Karol Kossak's watercolours.
I was suprised by how much I managed to discover. First of all, I got my dad to write down all that he could remember and I still have notebooks stuffed with memories and little sketches to illustrate them. Since dad died back in 1995, I’m very glad I have it now. The place where dad was born, in 1926, is now in the Ukraine although back then it was part of the Polish ‘wild east’. I sent a polite enquiry to the historical museum in the city of Lviv. This had been Lwow, or Lemberg under the Austro Hungarian Empire. This was the beautiful city where my grandmother was born and to which she and my father retreated when war threatened everything they knew and loved. A very kind researcher from the museum took it upon himself to head out to the village of Didyliv (the place my dad knew as Dziedzilow) and take some photographs, saying that people still remembered my grandfather and the family that had once lived in the ‘big house’. Actually the house itself wasn’t very big by that time. The old mansion had been burnt down in some uprising and the family lived in what had been the old steward’s house. The estate had once belonged to my grandfather’s great uncle Julian who had been a late nineteenth century politician, a Polish representative in the Austro Hungarian parliament. I have copies of newspaper articles about him. He was unmarried and my grandfather Wladyslaw – very much a favourite - inherited the estate from him. 

It turned out that Wladyslaw’s own father had died while still quite young and his widow, Anna, had married the Ukrainian estate manager. This had been something of a scandal at the time. It was only when I investigated dates that I realised that Wladyslaw had been only eight years old when he fell heir to Dziedzilow. This meant that his youngish widowed mother Anna, living on another family estate at Pszemyslany, had to secure the services of a manager and would probably have travelled between the two places to keep an eye on her son’s inheritance. It was hardly surprising that a relationship began, although my father, who could remember his father Wladyslaw talking about it, was aware that it wasn’t a particularly happy marriage. There was a child, a much younger half sister for Wladyslaw, and she was brought up alongside my dad, although she died in the war. Relative dates and ages are very important when researching historical topics. We often forget how much the youthfulness of the protagonists impinges on the story– especially in historical writing when people often died young and tended to leap right in and do things early. 

Dad as a (long haired) little boy, with Wladyslaw and my grandmother Lucja.
The whole Austro Hungarian milieu fascinated me. I found a Czerkawski forebear who had many wives and many children, lived a long life and died in a riding accident when he was in his eighties. There were the artists who had travelled to Lwow and Vienna and sometimes to Paris. These borderlands were extraordinarily dangerous and skirmishes were commonplace. Of my grandfather’s family, two older brothers were killed in small uprisings, my grandad died and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road, having fallen victim to Stalin and a forced march east, rather than the Nazis, and his younger sister Ludmilla died in a concentration camp. Her ‘crime’ seems to have been that her husband was an army officer. An aunt was shot. A half sister was hanged by the Nazis. Only my grandmother, my great aunt Wanda, and my dad survived. 
Grandad has one of the few cars in the district. Here's my dad at the wheel!
All of this factual background fed into the fairly hefty piece of work that eventually became The Amber Heart although that whole story is set in mid nineteenth century Poland. One of these days I may tackle a sequel. At the time, it was my third novel and my agent couldn’t sell it. The late lamented Pat Kavanagh was a good, even a great agent but the consolidation and corporatisation of the old publishing houses was well under way. We were being sold the idea that it would be good for writers. It wasn’t. For mid-listers like myself, it was disastrous. Pat told me repeatedly that she loved the book, and she did her very best for it. Somebody even called it a 'Polish Gone With The Wind'. But ultimately, nobody would touch it with the proverbial bargepole. The reason they all gave was that no matter how big, how ‘epic’, how sexy the story (and believe me, this is a very sexy story) Big Publishing simply would not touch anything that was set in Poland. Kiss of death, they all said. Nobody wants to read anything set in Eastern Europe.

I tried it again over the years, but became disillusioned, shelved it, but couldn’t leave it alone. I tinkered with it from time to time. Polished it, made it better. Then Amazon came along – thank Bezos - with Kindle Direct Publishing and gave me the wherewithall to get it out there myself. Sales go up and down, but on the whole, it sells very well. In some ways, I’m grateful for the delay. I knew a lot more, had done more research. It is, I think, a much better book than it might have been. It’s long, very long so I’ve published it as an eBook in two parts, The Sorrel Mare and Noon Ghosts. But the ‘box set’, The Amber Heart, is, I think, a better deal and that's the one I'd recommend. You can find it here in the UK, and here in the USA. This one, I'm also planning to publish to various other platforms before the end of the year. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Historical Fiction One: The Curse of Presentism

Past mysteries: the minister who went away with the fairies. Or did he?

Last month, which seems like a very long time ago now, I blogged for the Edinburgh eBook Festival, writing a series of posts about Historical Fiction. Since they've now disappeared into the ether, as festival posts will, I think it's well worthwhile giving them another airing here because I know there are a great many readers who love historical fiction - and lots of writers thinking of embarking on it as well. For myself, I write a mixture of historical and contemporary. Right now, I'm researching a new historical novel and simultaneously finishing off a novel set in the here and now, so my mind is literally all over the place. 

There are five posts, and this is the first. 

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this series of posts. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are, I’m sure, novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used with a purpose to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to illuminate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

I’ve been asking myself why this happens and have come up with two possible answers. One could indeed be described as the curse of Presentism, where 21st century ideas, character traits and perspectives are deliberately made to take precedence over historical realities for what are seen as reasons of marketing to a modern audience. The other challenge seems to involve a general failure on the part of the author to seek to address and inhabit the time and place in which the novel is set. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at this in more detail and in terms of my own historical fiction, and offering a few possible solutions from a personal perspective. Feel free to chip in with your own thoughts and ideas below.

We all indulge in manipulating ideas and perspectives to some extent especially as readers but as writers too. Who doesn’t love the ‘feisty’ heroine and the ‘bad boy with the kind heart’ hero – especially if we’re writing and/or reading within a genre such as romance? But this needn’t necessarily involve presentism. Lizzie Bennett could be described as ‘feisty’ in modern patronising parlance. She’s certainly clever and opinionated. Darcy is the epitome of the unlikeable, disdainful hero who turns out to be honourable and loveable and since Jane was writing for her own contemporaries and with a pen that could occasionally drip acid, we’d better believe in the truth of these characters. But we can’t then criticise Pride and Prejudice for the way in which Charlotte marries Mr Collins because an ‘establishment’ of your own is better than none at all, in a world where unmarried daughters tended to lead very miserable lives indeed. And if we’re writing about this time and place, we’d better be well aware that although we might be allowed our feisty heroines and bad boy heroes, very few young women at that time were brave enough to challenge the status quo. An establishment, a home, a marriage, however unfortunate or ill starred, might well be better than the alternative and we should at least let that perception inform our fiction, if we want it to seem real.

There’s also a sort of reverse presentism that infects critiques of novels and that influences the way we sometimes tackle historical fiction. I’ve seen swathes of people criticising Wuthering Heights (one of my favourite novels, for which I make no apologies!) because ‘Heathcliff is nasty and Cathy is irritating.’ This attitude seems to me to involve a sort of retrospective imposition of modern romance conventions upon a great but unique novel. Ironically, many of these conventions seem to have been inspired by a misreading of WH. I’ve a feeling nobody would publish it now, or not without serious revision. The characters would be deemed unlikeable, the story incredible. This is exactly the novel Emily intended but it was very shocking back then. It certainly shocked Charlotte. We find it shocking even now and blame the writer for our own revulsion.

The Olivier movie didn’t help. It’s probably the best of a very bad bunch of evocations of the novel. They took a story that was rough hewn, thorny, prickly and uncomfortable and softened all its hard edges, turning Heathcliff into a romantic hero and Cathy into a wishy washy heroine. Few people in subsequent years seem to have been able to come to terms with the undoubted fact that Heathcliff is a damaged sadist, Cathy is mad as a box of frogs, and this is still a brilliant, troubling and upsetting book about the nature of obsessive attachment, written by a young woman who lived at a time and in a rural place where instances of casual cruelty would have been fairly commonplace. They are not unknown now, but we women are not supposed to write about them with the grim and disturbing impartiality Emily managed to achieve. We are supposed to show our disapproval where she did not. 

My own 'homage' to Wuthering Heights.
Years ago, when I was studying Mediaeval Literature, one of our lecturers pointed out to us that we were never, ever going to be able to understand the texts as somebody living at the time would have understood them. You can’t unlearn. You can’t forget what you know. But he taught us that we could at least be aware of what we knew, and how we understood things, and try hard not to impose that and its related sense of superiority or cynicism on what we were reading and how we understood what we were reading. It’s something that has stayed with me all these years and whenever I tackle a piece of historical fiction, I find myself trying hard for a kind of total immersion in a time and place. It’s what an actor does: assuming a persona, thinking like the character thinks, speaking as they speak. As a writer, you don’t ‘make’ anyone do anything, but you have to find ways of interrogating your characters, inhabiting them, finding out what makes them tick and then writing as that person, back then, even when it goes against the grain of all your contemporary insights.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatal Flaws - How Do You Like Your Characters?


This was originally posted on the Authors Electric blog, earlier this month - but it seems worthwhile reblogging here on my own blog. Worth thinking about and discussing, anyway! 

A little while ago, I was asked to speak to a group of readers. One of them had spent many years as a professional editor with one of the big, prestigious publishing corporations. All of them had read the Physic Garden and were interested in talking about it and asking questions. I’ve done plenty of these sessions and you don’t expect everyone to like the book. Some of the questions can be challenging, so you have to be able to think on your feet. All of which is a good thing. But on this occasion something happened that brought me up short.

‘How on earth,’ said this ex-editor personage, ‘Did you manage to write in the first person voice of somebody so unlikeable?’

There was one of those dismayed silences in the group, with everyone trying not to catch my eye. An uneasy stirring. A little murmur of protest. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that she was questioning my writing abilities. Not really. She was asking me how I could possibly have written 90,000 words in the voice of a totally unlikeable person. Except that of all the characters I have ever created, and if you include my plays and stories that’s a lot of people, I think William Lang is right up there with my favourites.

I simply love him.

Which was all I could say, really. The story was no hardship because I loved William to bits. Still do. And moreover, as somebody else in the group was quick to point out, even though William lived 200 years ago, you can still find his like today. Many of us know them and some of us think ourselves lucky if we do: elderly Scotsmen, very clever and sometimes self-taught, a little prickly on the outside, but with a loving soft centre, dry, humorous and with all the wisdom of their years. They’ll be doting grandfathers too, given half a chance.

Did it matter that she didn’t like him? Not a bit. But it did get me thinking. Because this was a person who had been an editor, a person of some influence within traditional publishing. And if she had still been working in that role, it would have mattered a lot. Because that would have been her judgement and yet it was one that the rest of the group – voracious readers - disagreed with.

And then it struck me that I've had other responses like that. Not, I hasten to add, from the excellent editor who worked on The Physic Garden, a pearl among editors, who confessed that she too loved William. But in the past, I've had agents and editors telling me that a particular character wasn't likeable enough. And although I’m prepared to admit that sometimes they might have been right, I suspect mostly they were wrong. It was a matter of personal preference. Something to do with their own prejudices. We all have them. But when publishing acquisitions stand or fall by them that’s when the trouble starts. Perhaps, like the advice to decorate a house as blandly as possible if you’re putting it up for sale, this goes some way to explaining so much that is anodyne in contemporary fiction emanating from the big corporations.

Do you have to like your main protagonist to write about him or her? Do you have to like this person in order to enjoy the book? I don’t think so. I rather dislike Jane Eyre, the character, I can’t help it, but I do like the book very much. I don’t like Heathcliff and Cathy at all. Who would? But I love Wuthering Heights almost more than any other novel and reread it practically every year. I don’t much like Fanny Price, but I enjoy Mansfield Park.

As for my poor William, she thought him too dour, too Presbyterian, even though he makes determined efforts not to go to the kirk as often as his family would like. And I think she believed that William had been prone to over-reaction, which is an opinion she shares with a few other readers, and makes a good point for discussion. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, and without giving away any spoilers, our narrator remembers a time when he is reading in the library of his much wealthier friend, Thomas. There, he comes across a book called The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, complete with illustrations, and is shocked to his youthful core by the pictures he sees there. This is a real book. I was able to see a very old and precious facsimile in Glasgow University Library. But you can also find some of the images online. I remember seeing them for the first time. And I, with all my 21st century assumption of sophistication, was also shocked to the core. The images are very beautiful. But the horror lies in realising their beauty and almost immediately becoming aware of the fact that they are depicting the deaths of women and children, mostly through privation and poverty. You can see some of them here. But be warned before you click on the link, they are not at all comfortable to see!

Anyway, we agreed to disagree about William’s likeability or otherwise, although most of the rest of the group seemed to be on William’s side. But it also got me thinking about all those letters of rejection that said, ‘I liked the book but I didn’t love it.’ Or ‘I loved this book but I couldn’t carry marketing with me.’ (i.e. they didn’t love it.) I used to sigh and resolve to do better next time. Now that I only have to submit a novel if I want to, I realise that liking and loving a character are personal judgements and may have nothing to do with the quality of the book – but more importantly, they may have very little to do with whether or not I enjoy reading a book. If that were the case, neither Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner would be the astonishing reads they undoubtedly are. And as for Scarlett O’Hara? Oh dear me no. Consigned to the outer darkness as terminally unlikeable.

I like my characters flawed, sometimes fatally so. How do you like yours?