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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Writing Christmas


This piece of furniture, dated 1626, is 200 years old than the house!
I'm still in the middle of Christmas preparations here in this small Scottish village where I live and work. The tree is trimmed and so is the house. This old house seems to enjoy Christmas as much as we do. 200 years and the stones themselves seem to appreciate holly, ivy, the softness of candlelight. Whenever we have a powercut - and it happens from time to time in very windy weather -  I always feel that the house really loves a return to candlelight. You can almost feel it settling down with a sigh of contentment. And if you're as imaginative as I am, you can sense some of those previous inhabitants too, although the house has always felt peculiarly calm and happy.

It's a house in which people have stayed for a long time.

Sometimes, in a world where the news seems to be a constant barrage of devastating tragedy, political hatreds masquerading as religion, and misery of all kinds, this community seems like a sanctuary of sorts. Not always - because what place is? But mostly. And sometimes all you can do is gather friends and family about you, love and care for those closest to you, and hope, somehow, that the light spreads a little.

The old Polish setting for my novel: The Amber Heart
I miss my late mum and dad at Christmas. Well, I miss them all year round. But Dad loved Christmas and we always celebrated in the Polish as well as the British way. Christmas Eve was magical and a little of that magic still remains.

So when I was thinking about a Christmas 'special offer' for my readers, the book that came to mind was my novel set in mid nineteenth century Poland: The Amber Heart.

It isn't wholly set in winter, of course. There are plenty of summer scenes, plenty of Easter celebrations. But when I think of it, it seems to be a snowy landscape that comes into my mind. So much of it was based on the stories about my family that dad had told me over the years. I wrote them as fiction of course, changed them, shaped them, wove them into a different story entirely.

The Amber Heart is set in mid 19th century Eastern Europe - an unfamiliar but magical setting. It  follows the fortunes of an array of characters whose lives are disrupted by the turmoil of the times. But first and foremost it's a love story.

Maryanna is a Polish landowner’s pampered daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful 'pancake yellow' house of Lisko, while Piotro is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the fatal moment of their first meeting. 

At one point in the  novel - after a series of devastating events - Piotro is travelling hopelessly, painfully on foot, through a wintry landscape, when he is given traditional hospitality by a Polish family on Christmas Eve: 

'After the meal there followed a convivial few hours with vodka and violin music. One or two of the women lead the company in singing traditional Christmas songs. They were mostly sweet and sad lullabies to the Christ Child: ‘sleep baby Jesus, my little pearl, sleep my heart’s darling.’ Piotro recognised the melodies and even knew the words of some of them, but he was shy of singing aloud and he only mouthed the words along with the singers. They made him sad, brought a lump to his throat, though he couldn’t have said why.'

For the week beginnning 24th December, The Amber Heart will be on special offer in Amazon's Kindle Store - a big book at a bargain price. Or here, if you're reading this in the US. A good, long Christmas read. 

Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers and subscribers a very happy Christmas and may the New Year bring you all you could wish for yourselves. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Amazon

Old and new: teddies and Kindle
As Christmas approaches, I've been encouraged by a few colleagues and even one or two friends to boycott Amazon. They've called it a monster, a parasite, and a few other nasty names besides, some of them (oddly enough) while making enthusiastic use of it as a distributor.

Do they realise, I wonder, that in calling for a boycott of Amazon, they are in effect, calling for a boycott of the small cottage industry that is me and thousands, perhaps millions of people like me? Literally cottage industry in my case because I live and work and file my tax returns from a cottage. But I distribute - among other places - on Amazon.

If they don't like Amazon's tax arrangements, then they need to lobby politicians to change the law, but they are going to have to do it for all those other mega corporations that do exactly the same kind of legal tax avoidance. As the director general of the CBI says, if the government wants a different result from the tax system, it must change the rules. Mind you, we should be very careful what we wish for.  The latest EU changes to VAT on digital downloads are certain to have the presumably unintended consequence of driving more and more small businesses away from distributing their product themselves and into the arms of the big companies. One can only assume that they were drafted by a bunch of elderly and ridiculously well-paid denizens of Brussels who have no idea how the internet works. Unless there is a change of heart, from 1st January, not only will eBooks cost more, (apologies to my readers, but since my prices are quite low anyway it won't be too draconian) but most EU based digital businesses - people selling everything from knitting patterns to training manuals online - will either have to decide to trade exclusively via the likes of Amazon or not trade within other EU countries at all. The alternatives, for a micro-business, will be so costly as to be utterly unrealistic. On the whole, I've been a supporter of the EU, but when they make cross border trading this stupidly problematic, you've got to ask yourself what's the point? This is the first time that I've genuinely started to think that in any referendum, I might well vote to leave!

Amazon is my main distributor for my self published work. And one of the distributors for my publisher too. Other distributors are, of course, available and I use some of them, but the truth is that at present, nowhere sells as well for me as Amazon, and no other distributor pays me the monthly sum of money that allows me to carry on writing fiction and occasionally publishing elsewhere.

The garden of my 'cottage industry'.
All the same, I don't actually 'love' Amazon although I may joke about it. There are precious few people in the world I love and I can't think of a single company or organisation that merits that kind of affection although I'll admit that T K Maxx gives me a bit of a buzz.

But I do respect Amazon. They sell books for me all the time. And they pay a decent share of the proceeds on the nail, every month, with great efficiency.  Even in the middle of the recent VAT hideousness, they have done what they can to make things easier for the small trader.

There are thousands of people like me in all kinds of businesses, large, medium and very very small. If you want to boycott Amazon for Christmas, that's your prerogative. But don't then kid yourself that you are supporting small businesses, cottage industries like mine.

Because you're not. You are damaging them. Damaging us all: the writer, the chocolate maker,  the coffee roaster, and the fabulous loose leaf tea blender I've just discovered while researching this post, as well as the artist, the crafter, the toymaker and the herbalist. I don't expect they're supporting an Amazon or an Etsy or a Google boycott either.  Many of them have nice little 'high street' or rural shops that are also supported by online selling  Because that's the way it works these days. Even small shops sell online as well. They sell in as many ways as they possibly can. Except to other EU countries, from their own websites after January. That's one boycott I'd be willing to support.

Meanwhile, I'm off to buy some tea. From a small business, a cottage industry really. Probably via Amazon.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Unexpectedly Long Life of an eBook

A beautiful cover image by artist Alison Bell
The Curiosity Cabinet started out as a trilogy of plays for  BBC Radio 4 back in the 1990s. Later, I rewrote it, with significant changes, as a novel but it took a very long time to find a publisher. It was some time in the late 90s, when I was looking for a new agent, that one of them called it ‘a library novel fit only for housewives.’ I wasn’t a newcomer in any sense. I had a long and occasionally award winning career as a playwright, as well as two published novels and plenty of non fiction behind me, so I could laugh it off.

But it still stung a bit.

Eventually, I secured representation at one of the bigger London agencies. My new agent told me that she liked the novel, but she thought it was ‘too quiet’ to sell.  Nevertheless, she sent it out to the big boys. I forget how many there were back then – certainly a few more than the current Big Five, but all the same, amalgamations were rife and the so called mid-list was definitely on the slide. Agents and publishers were already talking about the ‘decline of the mid-list’. One even cheerfully predicted the ‘death of the mid-list’. I knew in my sinking heart that I was a typical mid-lister. It was an invidious position to find yourself in. Back then, anyway. One of the acquisitions editors who responded pointed out that although she liked the book, they had ‘published something similar and it did less well than expected.’ Most of them said that although they liked the novel they 'couldn't carry sales and marketing with them.' Or they 'liked it but didn't love it.'

Nobody wanted it.

Eventually, my agent suggested that while I got on with something a bit less quiet, I should submit the novel to a newish competition: the Dundee Book Prize. It seemed like a good idea. I wasn't doing anything else with it, after all. Some time after the closing date for entries, I got a phone call. My novel had been shortlisted. Would I come to an event aboard The Discovery in Dundee, when an announcement would be made? The reception and dinner aboard Captain Scott's polar exploration ship was very pleasant. We soon realised that the shortlist consisted of only three books, three authors. And at the dinner, we were happy to discover that all three of us would be offered a publishing contract although only one novel would win the big cash prize.

The Curiosity Cabinet didn’t, in fact, win that overall prize but it was published. That was in 2005. I seem to remember that the print run involved only 1000 trade paperback copies, albeit nicely done. There were one or two speaking engagements including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a three for two offer in a big chain bookstore. I remember all the excitement of seeing my book in several shop windows. But because the publisher was marketing these completely different novels and their authors as a threesome, we didn't get much publicity. I sent a review copy to a popular Scottish TV presenter who gave me a ringing endorsement for the cover. 'How did you do that?' my publisher asked. The truth was that I had simply asked nicely, but I got the sense that their approval of the publicity was warring just a wee bit with their disapproval of such populism. A Scottish women's magazine serialised it. They made an excellent job of the abridgement and paid handsomely.

The run sold out within the year and ... that was that. There was no sign of a reprint. My agent told me that (to her surprise as well as mine because the relationship to that point had been friendly) the publisher had declined to look at anything else from me. My work didn’t fit in with the way they saw the company progressing. Eventually, I reclaimed my rights – a process which, to give them credit, they made remarkably easy. But I soon found out that in the world of traditional publishing it is far better to be a new discovery than to be a writer who has been rejected by her publisher.

An attractive 'islandman' hero.
I was now damaged goods. My agent became cautious. 'If I submit a novel to one of the big publishers, and they reject it, they might not look at anything else from you again,' she said. We needed a sure fire winner. But who ever knows what that will be? Somebody told me that my fiction was 'too well written to be really popular but not experimental enough to be really literary.' Quite apart from the disrespect for readers implied by that statement, it placed me firmly in the despised mid-list again.

Some time in the new millennium, I found myself minus agent, minus any kind of publishing deal except for a couple of my plays and minus the commissions for radio or the stage that had previously kept the wolf from the door. 'But, Catherine,' said an inspirational Canadian friend to whom I was having a quiet whinge on a transatlantic phone line. 'You have inventory. A lot of inventory.'

She was right. I had been doing plenty of writing. I had several edited, unpublished and far-from-quiet novels in which none of the gatekeepers was remotely interested.  I sent my new novels out to various Scottish and other small publishers where they disappeared without trace, never to be heard of again. Sometimes I amused myself by jettisoning the humble supplicant role in favour of the polite but brisk business enquiry. That didn't go down at all well.  One charming individual told me that if I could come to his office, he ‘might be able to spare me five minutes.’ I declined his kind offer. Most didn't even give me the courtesy of a reply.

I think what really kept me going through that dark time was the response of readers. I was still being invited to give talks and readings, and people were always asking me how they could get hold of my books, where they might find more of my work. The problem was that they couldn’t. It was in computer files and printouts and a handful of out-of-print copies. There was a lot of it. I still remember the mingled pleasure and pain of hearing a friend – an enthusiastic reader – say to me, ‘You know, we don’t understand how this could happen. We love your writing, we want to read more of it and we think you’ve been treated very shabbily.’ Pity is never easy to accept but the emails I got from other readers, complete strangers, said much the same thing. 'Haven't you written any more fiction and why can't we read it?'

I’d looked at self publishing in the past, but all I could find were unscrupulous vanity publishers who still wanted to wrest control from my hands and charge me lots of money for the privilege.

And then, along came Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing.

It wasn’t at all hard to decide to take my career into my own hands. In fact it seemed ridiculously easy. I had nothing at all to lose. My only regret was that it hadn’t happened sooner. I had been searching for something like this for years and had never been able to find it: a business partner who would facilitate distribution and let me get on with it, leaving the control of it in my own hands. I started small, with a couple of mini collections of previously published short stories, but eventually decided to take the plunge with The Curiosity Cabinet. An artist friend, Alison Bell, who loved the book, made me a new and very beautiful cover image. This was only the first of a number of novels that I’ve published independently in eBook form, some historical, some contemporary. If I was asked to define exactly what I write, I'd say 'grown up love stories'. But I've tackled issues as serious as child abuse in Bird of Passage and Ice Dancing, I've written a massive historical saga in The Amber Heart, and I often find myself writing about obsession and betrayal within adult relationships. Not that quiet, then, and they don't all end happily ever after either - although some do. I often work on a couple of projects at the same time, letting one lie fallow while I do something completely different. It's a way of working that suits me, but it also suits indie publishing.

So what happened after I began my self publishing venture? Well, since 2011 when I published it as an eBook, The Curiosity Cabinet has sold more copies than I would have believed possible. And it just keeps rolling along. I'm not making any fortunes from this and my other books - yet. But they add a small but healthy sum to my income every month. As I write this, the Curiosity Cabinet has undergone another spike in sales and in its category on Amazon here in the UK is sitting at #9. Sales go up and down. Sometimes I run a promotion and the sales spike again. I reckon the Outlander books have helped. People who like Outlander seem to like The Curiosity Cabinet as well. I'm told my novel is nothing like Outlander and I haven’t even read the series, although I have heard very good things about it. I suspect the only thing we have in common is an attractive highland hero or two. Or ‘islandman’ hero in my case. Two books inspired The Curiosity Cabinet: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped - I dramatised it for radio years ago and it remains one of my favourite novels of all time - and a wonderful old novel by Elizabeth Goudge called the Middle Window. I read it in my teens and never, ever forgot it.

The landscape of the novel. 
Most of all, for me, the Curiosity Cabinet illustrates the potential long life of an eBook. For my publisher at the time, it was over and done within the year (as was the writer!) It seems they must always be moving on to the next project and their next project didn’t involve my kind of novel at all. I'm forced to the conclusion that it was, for them, a sound business decision. But it wasn't my decision and as it turns out, it wasn’t right for me or for this book either.

The fact remains that there are readers out there who still seem to want to read it. Lots of them. I’m planning to release it as a POD paperback, early in 2015. And all while working on a couple of new projects at the same time, with another one simmering away in the background.

The cheering news is that eBooks can have an unexpectedly long life. You never know what's around the corner, what might influence sales. As writers and readers too,  I think that’s something to celebrate.

Visit my website at www.wordarts.co.uk
And if you're reading this in the US, you can find my novels by clicking on the links to the right of this post. 

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