Saturday, August 29, 2015

Linens and Lace and Other Inspirations

The occasional old shawl like this gorgeous Cantonese shawl
For some years now, I’ve been running another business on the side, supplementing my writing income by buying and selling antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. Textiles have been pretty much a lifelong passion with me. It all started when I was a child and used to go with my mum to the saleroom – she would always be looking at pottery and porcelain while I would be gazing at linens, lace, embroideries and the occasional old shawl that was always thrown in the corner of the saleroom, because nobody bothered much about old clothes back then. Or, come to think of it, old teddies. How time have changed!

An old fabric doll, fully dressed in Polonaise style
For me, there seemed to be something quite magical about them. When I went to university in Edinburgh, I was fascinated by the emerging vintage clothes shops there, even though ‘vintage’ had not yet become a mainstream interest. My mum was a very good seamstress and she made me a long Dr Zhivago coat (well – Lara coat, really) in black wool with fur around the hem and neck. There was a maxi dress too, from one of those Vogue Paris Original patterns, a beautiful thing with a weighted hem. I still have that, along with a long white lacy skirt, originally a petticoat, very ornate and detailed, bought from a little shop down in Stockbridge with carefully saved cash. Old army greatcoats were in fashion for the boys, long skirts, Indian cotton dresses for the girls. I remember going to one party in a nightdress from Marks and Spencer, a long candy-striped garment with a high waist, straight out of Jane Austen.

'Do you know,’ said the shocked wife of one of our lecturers, ‘that some students wear nightdresses to parties?’ I’m still not 100% certain whether she guessed what I was wearing or not ...

Nowadays, with a lot of writing to do, I spend less time on the textiles, but I still browse boot sales and the local saleroom, still splash out on a box of old linen and lace and sell most of it on to other textile nuts. But all this has certainly helped to enlighten me about costume in my historical fiction. Finding out what somebody would have worn, the how and the why of it is a vital part of the research for me. And also you’ll spot the howlers, like the mediaeval underpants mentioned in a recent post about anachronisms in historical fiction by Mari Biella. 

A lady's bonnet, rather than a baby bonnet - from France.

A few years ago, a curator of textiles gave a small group of Society of Authors in Scotland members a private viewing of a few of the textiles in storage in one of the big Scottish museums and since they were for study purposes, we were even allowed to handle some of them. It was enlightening, not least because certain items were beautiful to look at but very badly stitched ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. Clearly some dresses were like theatrical costumes - the illusion was everything. She also told us that although the really poor would obviously have great trouble keeping clean, for many ordinary eighteenth and nineteenth century people - tradespeople or tenant farmers, for instance - keeping their linens clean would have been important. 

Essentially, they would not be as smelly as we think. 

Looking at inventories of possessions, you can see that people of even limited means would have several shirts, shifts, etc so that the items worn closest to their bodies would be reasonably clean. Which makes sense when you think about how uncomfortable it would be to play host to fleas and lice, the inevitable result of filth. And for country people, a great deal of linen was spun and woven at home. Elsewhere it could be bought by the yard. Pretty printed cottons were also becoming fashionable through the eighteenth century and ease of laundering was an important factor in their popularity.

If you think about how seldom even today we dry clean a winter coat, for instance – perhaps only once a year, unless we’ve been out in the mud – you can see how little we've changed in this respect although I don't think a daily bath was an option or even thought desirable. But then nor was it the norm back in the fifties, and I don't remember that the world felt particularly grubby, even then.  

The embroidery that inspired The Physic Garden
This interest in clothes has been very important to me in several of my novels. In The Curiosity Cabinet, not only is an embroidery central to the plot, but the clothes of a dead woman, gifted to another woman in desperate straits, provide a turning point in the story. In my nineteenth century Polish historical epic, The Amber Heart  what the heroine wears became a sort of indicator of her character, all the way through - and certainly it mattered to me in terms of how I perceived her relationship with the hero (or possibly anti-hero) of the novel. And in The Physic Garden, an authentic embroidered garment looms very large in the story. 

Perhaps most of all, though, it has been important to my work in progress, the Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife Jean Armour. The daughter of a master stonemason, she was not hugely wealthy but still cared very much about her appearance as a young woman of some consequence in the small town of Mauchline. This perception of her ran contrary to many subsequent accounts of her as a plain countrywoman, not quite 'worthy' of her famous husband. I never really believed that. The six ‘Mauchline Belles’ of which Jean was one - I always see them as eighteenth century cheerleaders - are described by Rab as being keen on fashion too. ‘Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, In London or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.’ So even in Mauchline in 18th century Ayrshire, the lassies were happy to imitate London or Paris fashions if they could. 

Jean's silk shawl? Maybe. But not from Rab!
Later on, it becomes obvious that Rab liked his wife to dress as well as possible on their limited budget. He spent money on the finest ‘lutestring silk’ for her gowns, and the latest fashion in printed shawls. His own stylish mode of dressing was one of the things that her family so disapproved of during their courtship– and also one of the things that made Jean fall for him. She continued to appreciate nice things and pretty clothes throughout her long life.

Finally, the single sexiest garment the textile curator showed us on that museum visit, was a linen shirt. I’ve found these kind of things in boxes of old linen, but never something just as wonderful, as old, as well preserved, as that late eighteenth or early nineteenth century linen shirt, a man’s garment, with flowing sleeves, lots of fabric and a smooth, cool texture under the hand: a bit like the ones you see Ross Poldark or the musketeers wearing on the recent television dramas. 

But the really interesting thing is that such shirts were deemed to be very intimate. They were undergarments. So if a young lady actually saw a man in his shirt, like Mr Darcy on that TV adaptation, it would have been very shocking indeed, even for somebody as forthright and brave as Lizzie Bennet! 



I'm hoping that the new novel will be published in 2016. Meanwhile, if you're another textile nut (or even if you're not) you could check out The Curiosity Cabinet in particular. I only wish I possessed an embroidered cabinet like the box of the title - but unfortunately, I don't.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Do you really need an agent? Six things for writers to think about before writing a hundred query letters.


The Society of Authors will NOT do this to you! 

I’ve blogged about agents before, but it seems worth revisiting, since things seem to have moved on in the intervening period. I’ve had good agents and not so good agents but now I’m not looking for one. To be fair, my ex-agency – the one that actually did a lot of good work for me - still remits my share of royalties and residual payments for past work with great promptness and efficiency. But for some time now, I think that the relationship between writers and agents has been skewed. For a start, there are too many potential clients chasing too few agents and this is partly because of the myth still being perpetuated by most creative writing courses, that you need an agent to find a publisher. The other fiction is that if you get an agent, you will find a publisher. Neither is strictly true.

So here are some things to think about.

1 What, realistically, are you expecting your agent to do for you? Do you want somebody to nurture you, or do you want a productive business partnership? If the former, consider that you will always be a humble supplicant, sending in your latest manuscript and nervously waiting for the response. Bit like Scheherezade, really, and that’s an unenviable, not to say unnecessary position to find yourself in. If the latter – and your putative agent agrees – you might have the basis of a decent working relationship. But really, nurturing is for babies.

2 Your agent is meant to be working for you. Too many agents have lists of requirements for submissions that sound like job specifications. I’ve even seen people advising writers to ‘treat your query letter like any other job application’. But it isn’t, is it? Nobody is going to be paying you a regular salary. This is, of course, a result of the imbalance in the market: too many writers with too little experience, chasing too few agents. But it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re looking at a partnership, and that you have every right to expect a modicum of efficiency, courtesy and commitment. Just as your agent has every right to expect the same from you. Do I have some sympathy with agents? Sure I do. They have to cope with a lot of submissions, including the bottom drawer manuscripts typed in single spacing on both sides of sheets of vibrant pink paper. But this is their job and they're volunteers. Actually, some of them really are volunteers. I just saw an ad for an unpaid graduate internship with a big literary agency and found myself wondering how many of those hopeful aspiring novelists know that they are being summarily rejected by a 21 year old recent graduate with almost no experience of what mature readers might want.

3 Whose side will the agent really be on? They’re meant to be fighting for you, the client. But the reality is that corporate publishers wield a vast amount of power, and an agent will be cultivating good relationships with a certain number of ‘acquisitions’ editors. These editors will, in turn, have to answer to ‘the team’ and a lot of decisions will be dictated by buyers at the big chains. It used to be the case that if one of these major editors loved a book, the company would take a chance with a new writer. Now, an editor may love a book but if it doesn’t have the potential to be mega successful that may be as far as it goes. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, and in their shoes, you would probably feel the same. The agent will almost never want to damage the relationship with the editor. So you’ll be told to try again, write something else. But you may also be warned that an informal ‘three strikes and you’re out’ situation exists. By the time you get to your third novel, the editor may decide that she doesn't even want to look at anything from you again. This doesn’t happen so much with small-to-medium independent publishers, which is why so many popular mid-list novels of recent years – and the occasional bestseller - have emerged from micro publishers. But the sad truth is that many agents don’t much like submitting to small publishers. Advances are not high enough to make it worthwhile even though the resulting deal may be worthwhile for you as an author.

4 Who is telling you that you need an agent? You can’t believe everything you’re told. Are agents telling you that you need them? Well, they would, wouldn’t they? If you’re studying for a creative writing degree, have a good look at your lecturers’ back stories. They may be very fine writers, and they may be truly excellent teachers, but do they know anything about the business side of writing? Have they been happily and successfully agented for years, in which case, do they know anything about the downside? Are they bringing in agents to ‘cherry pick’ the top students in any one year, leaving you struggling with a multitude of query letters? And if they are lecturing full time in creative writing, consider that they may well be employed rather than mainly self employed, and may be reiterating the conventional wisdom of writing and publishing as it was twenty years ago. If your creative writing course doesn’t include a sizeable module or part module on the changing business of writing, taught by people who are brought in from the world outside, ask yourself and your university why not.

5 What are the benefits? There are some valid reasons to have an agent, among which might be: access to Big Publishing, (but as we’ve already seen, publication doesn’t always follow) better deals, (maybe) vetting of contracts, (but a good IP lawyer or the Society of Authors will do that for you, and sometimes they will do it more efficiently) and foreign sales. This last is important, and might well be a good enough reason for seeking an agent. But in all my years of being agented, nobody did anything for me with foreign sales. Now that could be entirely down to me. Maybe my books don't appeal to foreign buyers. But I'm unconvinced and if I could find an agent to sell books and plays to foreign countries for me, I might consider signing with them – but for that purpose only. Or perhaps an agent to capitalise on a particular book – a flexible project-by-project arrangement. Do such agents exist? Possibly, but I suspect this is an area that is ripe for expansion. And yes, that would be an interesting development and one I’d be happy to consider. I'm all for a 'horses for courses' approach to writing and publishing. It works in other areas of creativity so why not writing? But I also suspect there would be resistance to it in some quarters.

6 What other options do you have? That question used to be simple to answer, if depressing. None, except for spending a small fortune on some vanity publisher. Now, there are lots of options, but all of them demand a certain amount of application on your part.
You can submit to the many and varied small and micro publishers that accept unagented submissions. You have to be careful. You must have contracts vetted by somebody who knows what to look for before you sign them. The Society of Authors will do this for you in the UK if you are prepared to join, but you can also pay an Intellectual Property lawyer. You may think this is expensive, but it’s not half as expensive as signing away all kinds of rights you never thought about. The truth is that there are a great many good small publishers out there, and many of their contracts are much simpler and far less onerous than those imposed by Big Publishing – so making sure you’ve got it right shouldn’t cost a fortune.
You can self publish with Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and elsewhere, onto various other worldwide platforms, via Smashwords or D2D. You can publish Print on Demand paperbacks. You can even go the whole hog and set up your own small publishing business and make a deal with a local printer for short runs of books and pamphlets. You will have to deal with covers and editing and formatting but it isn’t as difficult as you think and there are lots of freelancers out there so you can do what other businesses do and outsource the work you don't want to do yourself. You will have to do some publicity and promotion, but you’ll have to do a lot of that anyway, whoever you publish with. The big campaigns are reserved for the very big names these days.
Or you can do a mixture of both self and traditional publishing. Or you can publish with several small publishers at once.  Even though, in order to do this, you will need what my Canadian friend calls 'inventory'. So you need to get your head down and get writing. But since you might spend two or three years writing query letters to agents, or rewriting your single finely wrought novel to the demands of various agents and editors - you could instead decide to spend those years honing your craft, working on a couple of novels, a small collection of stories, a series of novellas ...and give yourself some options. 

Decisions, decisions.
If you are wildly successful, you will have agents beating a path to your door. If you are moderately successful, you will get a small but steady income and will realise that a book nowadays has a much longer shelf life online than you have been led to believe. A book that might have quietly fallen out of print after a year in the old system can go on selling for many years in the new. You may well realise that you enjoy this whole process and that you don’t want an agent at all. If you are not successful, what have you lost? Nothing is forever. You can take a book off line, rewrite it, republish it. You can work on something else, instead of wasting years of good writing time on rewrites to somebody else’s requirements. You can self publish your first two ‘competent’ novels (as opposed to the novels that should probably never see the light of day) and then you can write something quite new and submit it to an agent if you decide that’s what you want to do.

But the interesting truth is that many people who reach that point are often so comfortable with running their own affairs that they think twice before relinquishing control. Some writers may decide otherwise, and that’s fine too. I'm not here to dictate to anyone. What suits one may not suit another. The point is that the power is in your hands. Think about what you want.

Your choice, your business.

And finally – one other thing you might like to consider, if you’re female: you might want to think about changing your name!

If you've found this remotely helpful, have a look at my Amazon Author Page because the books there reflect my own experience pretty accurately. I'm the same writer that I ever was - perhaps a bit more competent and confident - but I'm both traditionally and self published and very happy to continue trimming my sails to the prevailing wind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Last Days of Robert Burns

I'm reblogging this from Authors Electric today, because it's a significant anniversary - the day Robert Burns died, in the house at Mill Hole Brae, in Dumfries.

I can’t think of anything except Robert Burns at the moment – well, Robert Burns and Jean Armour – since I’m deep into a new novel about Jean and becoming ever more absorbed in the lives of the couple. It helps that I’m living in Ayrshire and it’s summer and the landscape here is very beautiful and – once you get off the beaten track – not a million miles from the way it must have looked in Burns’s day. It strikes me that I could probably write a whole other book about researching this novel. This has involved not just online research, but visits to the various places where they lived and worked. I've also used various old books, collections of his poetry and other volumes of the time, even if the connection is fairly tenuous, like the beautiful little Old Testament below - most of them bought on eBay or in our local saleroom.

Clarinda's husband's cousin's bible!
There’s nothing quite like holding in your hands a book printed before or not long after the poet’s death – and most certainly while his widow was still alive.

But the poet himself died young, at the age of 37,  on 21st July 1796. I’ve been looking at pictures of his signature, once so bold and beautiful, but not long before his death, at the early age of thirty seven, it had deteriorated into a sad, frail scrawl, laboriously inscribed onto the page and with a little blot to one side. It haunts me, that signature from the beginning of the July in which he died, because it’s clear that he can no longer even hold a pen properly.

The bare facts of his death can still make me cry. 

Some years ago when I was working on a play about his last days, down on the Solway Coast, I went to the Brow Well near Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire – a sort of poor man’s spa, a tank into which a ‘chalybeate’ spring drains. People would come to drink these waters, known to contain iron salts, in hopes of a cure.  There used to be a huddle of cottages, in one of which Burns took lodgings. He had been prescribed seabathing for what was called the ‘flying gout’: gout in the sense that he was in intense pain, flying because it was everywhere.

We can’t be sure exactly what killed him, but there is some evidence that he had rheumatic fever when he was young, that hard work on stony ground had placed stress on his heart and that endocarditis was the cause of his death. He seemed to suffer from what would certainly be diagnosed as panic attacks throughout his life, and quite possibly bipolar disorder or clinical depression as well. Certainly in those last months he had the high temperature, the chills, the night sweats, the intense fatigue, the muscle and joint pain that are symptoms of endocarditis. It all seems to have come on relatively slowly, which – I gather – is evidence of subacute pulmonary heart disease – something that he may have had for a long time. He was in intense pain, he was confused and worried, he could hardly eat – and the doctors had prescribed seabathing.

You have to understand that down on the Solway, there are mudflats and the sea is very shallow. People go flounder trampling there, feeling for flatfish with their bare toes. I went there on a June day, a few years ago, and found an atmospheric place of long horizontals. There was a mass of pink thrift, a natural rock garden, fringing the shore near the Brow Well, and then a vast expanse of glistening water, like polished metal, cold even in summer, into which he must have struggled and staggered, because he had been told that the water must reach his waist. God knows how he did it. I remember wondering why he didn’t die on the spot, but he even said it did him a bit of good, although I suspect it just numbed the pain.

He was running out of money and he was running out of time. People are fond of pointing out that he wasn’t exactly destitute, and he certainly wasn’t. But he was an exciseman, a customs officer, and this was an active profession. A few years previously, he had been riding 200 miles a week, even in the middle of winter, through hail, rain and snow. Now he was based in Dumfries, but it was still hard work. His writing wasn’t exactly lucrative and he had refused payment for his song collecting and writing, seeing it as a service to the nation, a nation that seemed rather stubbornly to resist helping him out in more acceptable ways. The fear of penury that comes with sickness, with the inability to work, and with a large family to support, must have haunted his last days, and the more sick he became, the worse his fears grew for that family. Jean was heavily pregnant with his last child, a son. She would give birth on the day of his funeral.

Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie as Jean and Rab at Glasgow's Oran Mor
Production pictures by Lesley Black.

Earlier, he had written:
Waefu want and hunger fley me
Glowrin by the hallan en
Sair I fecht them at the door
But aye I’m eerie they come ben.


Woeful want and hunger frighten me, glowering by the porch (not quite, but there’s no equivalent!)
I always fight them at the door, but I’m terrified they’ll come in.


He was aye eerie they would come ben.


Also, he knew he had not set his papers in order and he fretted about his work. He knew that they were hawking ballads on the streets of Dumfries with his name attached to them, paltry pieces of work that he had not written and would have been ashamed of. He was desperately worried about leaving Jean to cope with all this. A haberdasher had threatened him with prosecution for an unpaid debt. The reality was that somebody would have paid it for him, people owed him money, but in his woeful state of health and mind, the threat must have loomed very large.

He offered his landlady his seal – a beautiful piece he had designed himself in happier days - if she would refill his bottle of port wine, because that and a little milk was all he could manage to swallow, but she refused the seal and filled the bottle anyway. She arranged with a local farmer to lend him a gig so that he could get back to Dumfries, some ten miles away. He could not have ridden. He could not have mounted a horse. On 18th July, he came home to Dumfries. He got down from the gig at the foot of the cobbled vennel where the family lived, and had to be helped – oxtered - up to the house by Jessie Lewars, a young neighbour who was helping Jean. He could not walk alone. They sent the children out with friends to keep the house quiet for him. He took to his bed, and lived only three more days, dying on this day in 1796. Jessie made the children gather the wild flowers he had loved to strew over the body.

Then, of course, everyone came scrambling out of the woodwork to attend the great poet’s funeral and to beg, borrow and steal scraps of his life from his widow. They never stopped harassing her throughout her long life, and she treated them all with patience and understanding.

 I suppose we – and I don’t except myself here – have been doing it ever since.



My novel about Jean Armour is due for publication some time next year, but if you want to see what else I've written set at much the same time, you could try The Physic Garden, available as an eBook and in paperback from, as they say 'all good bookstores' as well as online, here in the UK and here in the US.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction - First Drafts, Editing, More Drafts, Crucial Dates.

Jean by John Moir, Rozelle House Galleries
I'm deep into a new novel about the life and times of Jean Armour, Robert Burns's wife, so my blog posts may be few and far between for the next few months although I'll post whenever I can. I'm at that stage where I've done masses of research - a whole year of it - and am now getting the first draft down and it's probably my least favourite part of the whole process. It's when I'm doing it that I always wonder why I chose this profession in the first place. ( Obsession, that's why. Can't not do it.)

I write my first drafts very quickly indeed, but they are awful. I almost never let anyone see them and if I do let somebody see short extracts, I do a certain amount of editing first. Getting to the end is the main aim of the first draft. I type very quickly, often with a complicated timeline beside me on my desk - not quite a plan, more of a skeleton, bones upon which the flesh of the novel must be hung -  and my aim is to tell the story, and let it assume the shape it wants to be. Let it tell me what it wants and needs to be. Let my characters speak.

My first draft is invariably shorter than the final draft because I skip over some bits or shorten them, knowing that if there are questions, the answers will become obvious later on. So a novel that may finish up at about 90,000 words will, in first draft, be more like 70,000 words. In fact it's in writing this first draft that I often find answers to questions, find out why some parts of the novel seem tricky, why something might have happened the way it did.

I'm deeply absorbed. The room can grow cold and dark and I don't notice it. I curse those recorded phone messages about eco friendly boilers or new kitchens, even though I don't answer the phone at all, I just leave the answering machine on. But it's still an interruption that pulls me out of the world of the book. The word count stacks up and I just forge on. Enjoying some of it but disliking quite a lot of the process whenever I become aware of it.

Editing though. Oh I love editing. That first draft is only the beginning. I'll finish it, leave it for a short while, no more than a week, go back to it and work my way through it, adding, extending, deepening all kinds of elements of it. This is a huge pleasure and I can't wait to tackle it. I can't let it alone. I work far into the night and sometimes get up and start early.

The book will now, almost certainly, be much too long. Maybe 10,000 words too long. Maybe more. So I leave it for another little while and then go over it again, pruning and polishing and tightening up and sometimes moving stuff around. Then I print it out. That's when I go through the whole thing with a fine tooth comb in the shape of a pen, and scribble all over it and sometimes even cut the pages up and paste them together elsewhere. That also tends to be when I see where things have gone wrong, and when I pick up lots of typos and infelicities.

Jean Burns's letter to Maria Riddell.

The next job is to type up all those corrections. In prospect I always think it will take forever, but in practice, it doesn't and I can usually do it within a day, two at the most.Then I'll read through it all over again making corrections here and there  - and at that point, it will be sent to my publisher if it's a traditional book and/or editor. If I'm self publishing, I'll set it aside for quite a long time. A couple of months. However it is, there will be a breathing space. And when I go back to it, I'll see everything else I got wrong.

For me, this is an intense process, but once I get going, I tackle each stage quite quickly with gaps in between. Oh, and I read lots of it out loud. Most of it, by the end of the project, but especially the dialogue.

One thing that has fascinated me about this particular novel has been the importance of dates. There is something really intriguing about sorting out a timeline for various people and events in a piece of historical fiction and then realising why some things happened the way they did - purely because of the order in which certain things happened, and the way in which two events occurring at the same time, or within a few months of each other, suddenly make complete sense of why something else might have happened the way it did. I don't want to give anything away at this point, because everything in the novel is still in a state of first draft flux, but this is exactly what has happened with Jean's story - the sudden realisation of something that might have happened in a particular way, just because of what else may well have been going on at the same time.

Of course I'm writing a novel and not an academic text, so to some extent I'm free to make things up. It's just that when the known facts (in some cases little known facts, but facts all the same) back up your wild speculations as an author, there's something deeply satisfying about it all.

If you want to see one or two I did earlier, have a look at The Physic Garden or The Curiosity Cabinet or The Amber Heart - all historical novels where the research and the meticulous working out of certain timelines was important in - to some extent at least - shaping both plot and characters.

You notice I stress that this is the way I do it. Not all writers are the same. This is only one way of tackling it. I have friends who write meticulous first drafts and hate editing. Beware of anyone who tells you this is how it must be done. The only real way to learn how to write - or to learn what suits you - is to wade in there and do it. Several times over.



Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Island that Inspired a Novel: Gigha and The Curiosity Cabinet

Beautiful cover art by Alison Bell

This is the time of year in Scotland, still more or less spring, but with summer fast approaching, that I invariably find myself thinking about the beautiful Isle of Gigha. We didn't visit last year, and I reckon that was the first time in many years that we didn't manage to go, even if only for a few days. Our son paddled in its turquoise seas when he was a little lad. We visited with friends (sometimes with a lot of friends!) and sometimes it was just the three of us and then just the two of us when Charlie grew up. I think all the young people who spent time there have happy memories of the place.

The island is bathed in golden light.
We are planning to try to get there later in the year, perhaps in September or October when the place is full of luscious brambles (blackberries if you're not reading this in Scotland!) and the whole island seems often to be bathed in golden light. But my favourite time of year there is still May with its oceans of primroses, violets and then bluebells, or June and early July when the place seems to be awash with wild flowers of all kinds, armies of foxgloves, buttery honeysuckle. As Manus, one of my characters in The Curiosity Cabinet says to Henrietta Dalrymple, when she asks him for plants and bulbs to make a garden, 'Henrietta, the whole island is a flower garden.' And of course it is.

The whole island is a flower garden.
Two of my novels have been inspired by Gigha: The Curiosity Cabinet and (rather more loosely, but still recognisable) Bird of Passage. Both stories are fictional, and so are all the characters, but the landscape is a different matter. And of course I've also written a big non-fiction book about Gigha, a gallop through the prehistory and history of the people of the island: God's Islanders. I can't quite leave it alone!


Ardminish Bay
My husband, artist Alan Lees, feels much the same - and he has painted it on more than one occasion: the picture on the left is Ardminish Bay with the boathouse restaurant in the background and yes - the sea really can be that colour. The air is so clean and there are days when the colours seem to be impossibly vivid.

The Curiosity Cabinet has been available worldwide as an eBook on Kindle for some years now and I've just uploaded it all over again - not with any real changes, but with a few tiny edits and with a sample chapter of Bird of Passage at the end.

I'm in two minds about these 'bonus chapters' myself because I know how frustrating it is to think that you have another chapter to go in a book and to suddenly find that it has ended, and what you thought was more of the novel is actually an extract from another book altogether! But I hope readers will forgive me, because it doesn't seem quite so bothersome in an eBook and besides, Bird of Passage is another novel set in a similar island landscape and I have a feeling that if you enjoy The Curiosity Cabinet you might well enjoy Bird of Passage too. It's a bigger, sadder and more disturbing novel altogether than the rather gentle tale that is The Curiosity Cabinet but the island landscape plays a big part.

I've also published both these novels to various other platforms including Apple, so you should be able to find them pretty much anywhere you want. The Curiosity Cabinet was published in paperback some years ago, but sold out and consequently went out of print quite quickly. Second hand copies do crop up for those who prefer paper, but I'm planning a Print on Demand version as soon as I can find the time to do it. I have a draft of a new novel to finish first!

Still, I'm hoping that paperback versions of  The Curiosity Cabinet and Bird of Passage too will be available before the end of the year.

Manus McNeill? 
The Curiosity Cabinet consists of two interwoven love stories, past and present. Nobody goes back in time - although the problems of the past may be continued and perhaps worked out in the present. It's also a story about the way in which small and rather magical islands such as this one can feel as though they hold the whole history of the place, layers of it, one on top of another. 'Thin places' where the boundaries between past and present seem to be somehow blurred.

So - if I've whetted your appetite a bit, here's a little extract from the present day story. After an absence of twenty five years, Alys has returned to the island where she used to come on holiday. And in her hotel, she has come across the 'curiosity cabinet' of the title - not really a curiosity cabinet at all, but an old, very valuable and very beautiful casket, embroidered with traditional raised work.

'Presently she takes her drink and finds the residents’ lounge again. It is still empty, so she moves about the room examining pictures. They are large oil paintings, grim death rather than still life: birds, their feathers tumbled and bloody, hunks of meat, overflowing platters of fruit and vegetables. There is the inevitable stag, on a heathery hill. There is a grimly handsome highlander, staring pensively into the distance. There are a few portraits of bald-headed, pot-bellied, self-satisfied old men, so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And then she comes upon a display case of mahogany and glass. There are objects, neatly arranged on three shelves. But the casket is central. The casket has raised, heavily embroidered panels on a wooden base and little gilded feet. The scenes are biblical. A woman stands breast high amid the growing corn. She is Ruth. ‘Whither thou goest I will go … thy people shall be my people,’ thinks Alys, surprised by her own knowledge, remembering the words from some long-ago reading, a school service perhaps. She hasn’t been to church in years. There are birds and flowers too: long-necked swans and plump seagulls, honeysuckle, wild roses with their centres formed of tiny seed pearls, drooping foxgloves.

The embroidery has faded over time but only a little. The two front doors are open to reveal five drawers, two wide and three narrow, also embroidered with flowers and birds and beasts. There is a tall house in grey silk, with fragments of mica for windows.

She can still hear the child pattering about, giggling.

Other objects, presumably the contents of the cabinet, are spread out on the shelves above and below it. Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily inlaid with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is a needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem? Alys is enchanted by these things and suddenly possessed by the need to know more about them. 

Slowly but surely, Alys finds out more about them: who made the casket and why, who owned it and its contents, what became of it, and what is the connection with her childhood playmate, island fisherman, Donal. And perhaps most important of all, who was the mysterious chieftain of the island, Manus McNeill, who had some great treasure which he lost, and who took to himself a bride from the sea? 

But the islanders are people who can 'keep a secret for a thousand years' and it's only when you belong that you can understand the truth of that hidden past. 

























Monday, May 25, 2015

A Passion for Pinterest

Pretty much everything's on Pinterest.
I blogged about my passion for Pinterest for Authors Electric this month - and since it elicited quite a big response I thought it worth reblogging here. I just love Pinterest. But I think it’s one of those sites you either love to bits or don’t get at all. Whatever your passion in life, whether it's art or cookery or costume, you'll find something to enjoy.

It's an interesting fact that women use Pinterest more than men. I don't know if things have changed over the last few years - perhaps they have - but in 2012 it was skewed 70% / 30% in favour of women and anecdotally, I still find that my female friends 'get' it more than the men. Moreover, this fascinating little piece of analysis here suggests that 'women use it as a wish list while men use it as a shopping cart.'  If we can't have the thing or person or place - and demonstrably we can't - a little fantasy will do, whereas male users eye things up rather more covetously. It seems a fairly sweeping statement, but there may be a germ of truth in it. 

.Poldark, what else? I've included a heroine in the interests of balance. 

Equally beautiful Luke
No surprise then, that our 'wish lists' often include heroes. Especially if we're writers. But many readers seem to enjoy collecting heroes too and as writers, we forget that at our peril. Beautiful Aidan is repinned constantly. As is equally beautiful Luke Pasqualino from the Musketeers.

I am, however, using that word 'hero' fairly loosely in the sense of main protagonist or main character, but if you write 'grown up love stories' - as I often do - it certainly helps to have a hero that you, as the writer, can fall in love with too, however flawed, however troubled.

Perhaps in some sense Pinterest has evolved into a safe space where women can indulge their fantasies, whether they come in the shape of chocolate cakes to die for (perhaps literally) or fit young men ditto. Is that an uncomfortable thought? Men sometimes find it so. The women of my acquaintance, not so much. But of course it's much, much more than that.

Chocolate cakes to die for.
Visually, it’s a feast. Displacement activity central. Millions of images, ideas, foods and recipes of course, costume, people, places, interiors, exteriors, links to websites – you name it you’ll find it on Pinterest. The idea is that you set up virtual boards, name them and post pictures on them. I can already hear some of you saying 'what's the point?' But does there have to be a point? Pinterest is for casual browsing as much as anything else. It's serendipitous. You find out about things you never knew existed. Like the Dragon's Blood Trees of Socotra.  I’ve got twenty three boards at the moment: pottery, textiles, ice hockey, my own doll’s house ... some are purely for fun. Some are incredibly useful for a writer. And some are a mixture of both. You can search on the site itself and whatever your project, you’re almost certain to find something useful. Or you can upload pictures of your own and help to inspire other people in turn. I should add that you don't have to 'look after' these boards in any way. They are there, like albums, for you to browse if you want to. Or track back through links to read more: recipes, costume history, gardening hints.

This only works, because you can borrow images from people and they can borrow from you, and pin your pictures to their boards. Again, if you don’t like this idea, you'd be wise to steer clear. But you’ll often find fascinating boards in this way because other people’s obsessions may well coincide with your own.

Something from one of my 'secret' boards.
You can also have ‘secret’ boards that nobody else can see. This facility is very useful for a writer who might want to amass all kinds of images, but not necessarily for public consumption. Not immediately, anyway. Later, of course, a secret Pinterest board can be made public and can become a promotional tool. It may be helpful for communicating with a cover artist, but – once the project is up and running – readers may also find a Pinterest board more engaging, more inspirational than a dry and occasionally daunting list of ‘questions for reading groups.’ 

 You can find one for The Amber Heart here,  for Orange Blossom Love here and a small but interesting board for Bird of Passage. I’ve also made a huge board for Jean Armour, my current project, This is the first where I've consciously and consistently used Pinterest as a research tool and a place for storing lots of miscellaneous images whose relevance may not be immediately obvious to anyone except me. It's positively stuffed with images: costume, old pictures, jewellery, furniture, people and places - but for the moment, it's 'secret' and nobody else will get to see it until I’m ready.
A little bit of inspiration for The Amber Heart

Why is it all so compulsive? 

I’m not sure. But whenever I start on a new writing project, I like to surround myself with all kinds of visual images and prompts, sources of inspiration, books, maps, pictures and I think this is the online equivalent of a series of ‘mood boards.’ 

You either like that – or you don’t. And if you don’t then Pinterest probably isn’t for you. Many artists and craftspeople find it invaluable. Gardeners too. And interior designers. If you’re into baking, there are pages and pages of mouthwatering images and recipes. And obviously it’s a great research resource for costume in particular where you can find collections of vivid images from a multitude of times and places, often with helpful notes and links back to extraordinarily useful blogs and websites. Where else could I have found out exactly what a 'lutestring silk' gown might look like?

Happily, once you start to look for and gather images, the site will respond by showing you lots more. When I logged on just now, it was to find a mouthwatering collection of beautifully preserved antique dresses, because that’s what I’d been looking at earlier. I could have used Google but it would have taken a whole lot longer and thrown up less interesting and targeted results. 

It's research,  Jim, but not as we know it. 













Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Physic Garden on a Kindle Daily Deal - Another Grown Up Love Story.


Today, that's 20th May, the Physic Garden is on Amazon on a Kindle Daily Deal, for one day only, so if you haven't read it and you're fond of historical fiction, you can give it a go for 99p. It was the Sunday Times's pick of historical fiction last spring and their reviewer liked it very much.

The physic garden of the title is the old medicinal herb garden of the mediaeval college of Glasgow University, back when it was in the centre of town, quite close to the cathedral. I never realised, when I named the book, how many people would read that word as psychic. But there's nothing spooky about it, although I'm not averse to writing about the paranormal! Just not in this novel.

When students studied botany back in the very early 1800s, they needed plant specimens and the physic garden was supposed to supply them. But at that time, the garden was suffering from industrial pollution from the nearby type foundry, and was dying. The lecturer in Botany, Dr Thomas Brown, asks William Lang to go out into the surrounding countryside to gather herbs for him and the two men strike up an unlikely friendship. It is on one of these expeditions that William meets weaver's daughter and bee keeper Jenny Caddas, and falls in love with her.

But there's a lot more to it than that. The story is told by William, in old age, looking back on the events of his youth. And we quickly become aware that something bad has happened. What that something is, you'll need to read the novel to find out. This is a book about a terrible betrayal, but also about a city on the cusp of the industrial revolution - a book about medical developments, about the early days of surgery, and how we treat women and their bodies. It's also a story about the painful getting of wisdom.

It's not as racy as some of my novels - Ice Dancing, for instance or Orange Blossom Love - nor as gentle as The Curiosity Cabinet. Nor does it have the big. bold, tragic central story of Bird of Passage (my current favourite!) or The Amber Heart although it's just as heartbreaking. I never seem to be able to write twice in a similar vein although I think the style is all me. But these days, when I'm asked what kind of things I write, I find myself saying 'Grown up love stories' - and that's what this is: literary fiction for sure, the voice a little dry and ironic, because of who is telling it - but essentially a love story. Who loves whom, though - well, that's the interesting part.

There's a Pinterest board too, where you can find out some more about the visual inspiration behind the novel.