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I write novels - some historical, some contemporary - plays and non fiction. I also spend a little while each week dealing in the antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bad Advice

A room with a view.
I'm at an age where - although not even considering retiring  - I've been looking back and taking stock of my career so far, wondering how and why I got here, what I'm planning to do next (that's easy - write a lot more novels) and what advice I might give to younger writers.

I do a lot of reflecting as I sit up here in my room-with-a-view, indulging in a certain amount of displacement activity before I get on with the next project. But regrets come when you wake up at four in the morning and can't get back to sleep, and fret over roads not travelled, decisions made or not made. Well, we do the best we can, and we forge on. I'm an optimist at heart.

But just sometimes, I think that I ought to try to pass on a little of my own experience because the internet is awash with advice for writers and so much of it seems to come from people with not as much wisdom, to quote my beloved Robert Burns, as 'a midge could rest its elbow on.'

Bad advice. My biggest regret is that over the years, I've heeded too much of what turned out to be bad or inadequate advice, even when my heart was telling me to ignore it. Often, it came from professionals. Often, they were wrong and my instincts were right. I should have taken the leap of faith and done what my impulses told me to do.

So what do I mean by 'bad advice'?
I mean situations where I trusted a fellow professional, but didn't pause to examine their motives and didn't give enough weight to my own instincts, the small voice inside me that told me to think again.
Examples?
Plenty, and not just about writing. But that's what this post is about. So:
Being advised not to go along with a request to adapt a piece of work for the stage because of the sensitive subject matter. I agreed with the advice, but it was the wrong decision.
Being saddled with the director from hell for a major stage production and being advised not to talk to the press and not to take my script and leave. Weeping in the loo was not a helpful option but it was the one I chose.
Was advised to stick my head above the metaphorical parapet on behalf of a certain organisation. Got shot down in flames. Said organisation decided there was nothing they could do about it.
Was advised by my then agent, producer and script editor, to work without any payment on a detailed proposal for a television serial because 'something' would come of it, it was such an original idea. Wasted the best part of a year on treatment, episode breakdown, pilot episodes. The whole thing was kicked into touch - then I saw the very same idea emerge as a successful movie for somebody else, years later.
Worked on another television idea, this time suggested by a large commercial organisation, again with no development money, revising it many times to suit their changing requirements, attended endless meetings, only to have it kicked into touch again. Unpaid because another adviser had told me that it would be worth it in the end.
I could go on.

Was I culpably foolish? You bet I was. Especially since in all these cases, the various organisations had approached me. I was still quite young. Very hopeful. Are writers doing exactly the same thing right now? Of course they are.  A career in writing is always the triumph of hope over reality. The only way to avoid some of the pitfalls (you'll never avoid all of them) is to step back and assess everything on its merits for you, personally. Even then, you'll make mistakes, but perhaps not quite so many as I did.

The reality is that you'll always have to do some work up front. Every creative entrepreneur does. Small companies go in for competitive tendering. Writers and artists work on proposals. Novelists write whole novels on spec. I know I do. Now that self publishing is an option, even if you're trad published, or hybrid, there's no real reason not to. But you need to know the limits, know when the game isn't worth the candle. If - for example - a large commercial media company wants a significant amount of work from you beyond that first detailed proposal or first draft, work that you can't really take anywhere else, then they should pay development money. If they aren't prepared to pay something, they don't want you enough and you've lost nothing by politely walking away.

The single most important thing you can do in all areas of writing, is to take charge of your own career, and make decisions based on what feels best for you. Expect to be a partner in any enterprise that involves your work. But remember that being a business partner involves significant responsibilities as well as rights: keeping to deadlines, keeping promises, not throwing toys out of the pram when you can't have everything your own way. In other words, you should be as professional as you can be.

Finally, take all advice with the largest pinch of salt possible. Including - I might add - this post!







Saturday, June 04, 2016

A Treasure Hunt and a Slightly Spooky Experience.


Last night was our annual village 'Car Treasure Hunt'. We've been doing these on and off for years. In fact it's a testament to the relative peacefulness of Ayrshire's roads, that they are still possible in these parts. For anyone who has never participated before, you pay a small sum towards whatever good cause has been nominated, get a sheet with a set of 'clues' and instructions - and off you go, filling in the answers to cryptic (sometimes very cryptic indeed) questions and directions as you go.

Last night there were four of us in a friend's car and the hunt involved an hour or so's drive along the winding back roads of Ayrshire, through the kind of countryside that Robert Burns would have known. It was a sunny night, and the countryside was looking its very best - in that wonderful time between spring and summer, when the verges are full of pink campion and a few remaining bluebells, where the hedges are creamy with sweet scented may blossom, and the gentle hillsides are ablaze with whin (gorse) blossoms. Everywhere, farmers were working hard at the silage while the weather was so congenial and the nights so long and light. It doesn't get dark till well past ten o'clock now and even at eleven there is still light in the sky.

In truth it seems very little changed in the 200+ years since Robert Burns roamed these hills and lanes with his current squeeze. It was a clear and very warm evening and it seemed as though around every corner was another stunning perspective across woods and fields, white farmhouses huddled into hillsides, and long vistas west towards the glittering sea and the hills of Arran, with Kintyre behind.

It often strikes me that the powers-that-be in Ayrshire do not know what they have in terms of scenery. If this kind of vista was anywhere else, it would be proudly promoted - the 'garden of Scotland', unspoilt landscapes of the Burns Country, and so on. I have no idea why there is, instead, a relentless focus on golf. I've no problem with golf, but there is so much more to Ayrshire and it's odd that even the people who live amid such beauty and such historical interest don't seem to notice it.

Anyway, there we were, driving slowly along yet another of the intensely pretty back roads when we passed an old farmhouse that seemed to be peculiarly sunk in time. It certainly leapt out at me and I couldn't quite say why. It wasn't part of the treasure hunt. There were no clues to be had here, and yet as we passed, I had the urge to ask our driver to stop so that I could go back, have a closer look, find out more. It just seemed ancient and interesting and for some unaccountable reason, it drew me. But, we were on a treasure hunt and we drove on.

Later, back at home (we didn't win, but we didn't do too badly either!) I followed the route we had taken on a map - not easy because we had been on a road that I didn't remember driving along before, even though I've lived here for many years - and there it was. To my amazement, I discovered that the house was Mount Oliphant. Which was the place where the Burness family moved from the cottage in Alloway where the poet was born. Rab later changed his name to Burns. It hadn't been a particularly happy place for the family - the land was, as ever with these small tenant farms, particularly bad. Landowners would rent them out and the poor tenants would be responsible for 'improving' them, often at the expense of their own health and strength. It was this kind of work in conditions much less warm and congenial than last night, that the poet described as the 'toil of a galley slave'. And so it must have been. It helped to destroy his own and his father's health.

The place is, of course, changed. But there is still something recognisable about it when you look at old pictures such as this one.

Mount Oliphant
There's something about the total immersion of researching a historical novel - which is what I've been doing for the past two or three years - that makes the researcher oddly sensitive to places. Whether it is or not, it feels supernatural.  And you find yourself meeting with slightly odd and unexpected coincidences like this one!

If you want to know more about exactly what I have been researching, you could seek out a copy of my most recent novel, The Jewel - all about the life and times of Robert Burns's Ayrshire born wife, Jean Armour. It's available in all good bookshops, as they say - and on Kindle of course, and in other eBook forms as well.





Sunday, May 22, 2016

Musing About Muses

Burns House Museum, Mauchline
I've been musing on the notion of the poetic muse. I did a bit of thinking about muses in The Jewel, given that Burns is on record as describing his wife, Jean, as his muse, but later commentators seemed determined to personify his muse in other, more majestic and less domestic ways. Actually, the poet himself also described his muse as 'Coila' - the spirit of the Kyle district of Ayrshire that had nurtured him, and given that he wrote so vividly about the natural world, this is entirely understandable.

Just as an aside, one or two people at various book events, have mentioned to me how pleased they are not just that Jean has been given her due, but that for much of the novel, the poet himself is depicted in summer. Not exclusively, of course, since the novel covers many years. But it's a sunny, spring and summer book and there is a sense in which Rab was so often a sunny spring and summer poet. He wrote about winter, for sure, but it's clear that he wasn't at his best in the winter months. I reckon now he'd probably be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder!

One of my favourite Burns songs is O Were I On Parnassus Hill, here in a delightful version by Ceolbeg. 'My muse maun be thy bonnie self,' he says, of his wife. 'Then come sweet muse, inspire my lay, for all the lee lang simmer's day, I couldna sing, I couldna say, how much, how dear I love thee!'

This poem has been dismissed as a 'vapid lyric' - by a man, obviously. I've read it to largely female audiences, all of whom seem to appreciate it immensely as a 'honeymoon poem' which is exactly what the poet intended. You know, that intense feeling when you can't bear to be apart from the beloved for any length of time? But perhaps modern men prefer more stately and intellectual muses.

muse
myo͞oz
noun
(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
synonyms: inspiration. creative influence,  stimulus.
formal
"the poet's muse"
a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
noun: muse; plural noun: muses

Anyway, I got to thinking - what about women? I've never had a muse.  Have you? As a writer, I've had - and still do have - a very supportive husband. Before that I had a wonderfully supportive father. On the other hand, I've known men who have been downright counterproductive as sources of inspiration although female friends have sometimes inspired me. 

But I never felt the need of a muse and wouldn't know where to begin searching for one. Maybe it was a good excuse for writer's block. The man could blame the woman (or muse) for deserting him. All the fault of her indoors as usual. 












Thursday, May 19, 2016

Launching a Novel: Pausing for Breath

Research material.
Last week was a whirl of train travel and book events for me: the Boswell Book Festival, followed by Blackwell's in Edinburgh followed by Waterstones in Argyle Street, on a warm and sunny evening in Glasgow. In between I managed to spend a very happy couple of hours chatting to my son - who had come down to Edinburgh  from Dundee for the occasion - in the gorgeous Cafe Royal in West Register Street, a place I used to visit occasionally with radio producers and other 'media people', back when I was writing radio drama for a living.


'You look very comfortable in here,' he remarked.

I studied at Edinburgh University and I lived in Edinburgh for five years in total, two of them in a big, shabby, cold, but beautiful flat in the New Town, and I still love the place. One of these days, I keep promising myself, I'll move back there.

Truth to tell, I love the book events as well. What's not to like about chatting to nice people about a subject you love? And this time, the questions have been fascinating, perhaps because so many people know about Robert Burns, have wondered about his wife, and are now really interested to hear more about her.

But it's also good to have a breather this week, if only to catch up on the mountain of paperwork that seems to have accumulated on my desk in a short space of time - as well as tackling the garden that was awash with mare's tail and ground elder. Besides, I have letters to write, books to post, people to email. And a husband with an art exhibition coming up next month to add to the confusion.

The book is going very well, I'm pleased to say. It is Scottish Book of the Month for May in Waterstones and Blackwell's Book of the Month too. I feel an extraordinary sense of pride in Jean, my long neglected heroine. You can't live with such a fine character for so long - a couple of years of intensive research and writing - without growing to love them.  I feel as though Jean is a friend. Rab too, although you'd find yourself coping with the warm blast of his charm.

Next week I've an event in Ayr and then what promises to be a really fun evening at the Globe Inn in Dumfries - where the poet bedded Ann Park - on 22nd June. (In conjunction with Waterstones)  I use an academic year planner - August to August - so yesterday I pinned up a new one because I'm beginning to be booked for autumn and winter and even a few dates for next year.

In between, there's a new project or two nipping at my imagination. Meanwhile, I've been thinking about muses. Of which more in the next exciting post!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Three Common Misconceptions About Jean Armour's Husband - and the Probable Truth.


In among various conversations about The Jewel, Jean and Robert Burns, over the past few months, both with individuals and with groups, I’ve realised that three misapprehensions about the poet are still current. These are beliefs I thought had been disproved by more distinguished academics than me years ago. Let’s look at them.

So many people have repeated the judgement that Burns was a drunkard. He wasn’t but it goes back a long way. A mean spirited Dumfries draper called William Grierson attended his funeral in 1796 and wrote that the poet was ‘of too easy and accommodating a temper which often involved him in scenes of dissipation and intoxication which by slow degrees impaired his health and at last totally ruined his constitution.’

Well, he was as fond of a drink as the next man at a time when a prodigious amount of alcohol might be consumed by the gentry perhaps even more than the poor. Partly this was because in the cities at least – less so in the countryside where houses might have a well – fresh water was at a premium and it could be safer to drink ale, although ‘small ale’ contained very little alcohol. Actually, Rab was probably less inclined to overindulge in hard liquor than most, although he certainly had his moments. But when you look at the body of work he produced, alongside a vast amount of clever, entertaining, thought provoking correspondence, as well as hard physical work, first as a farmer and then as an exciseman, riding some 200 miles each week, winter and summer alike – and being a loving father to a great number of children - you can see that the occasional spree is much more likely than any persistent problem. He was a social drinker on high days and holidays. He also thought the odd ‘session’ contributed to his creativity (as perhaps it did). He was occasionally led astray by men who ought to have known better. And during his last grave illness, alcohol seems to have given him some slight relief, if only as a painkiller. But it wasn’t what killed him.

He didn’t die of the drink, and he didn’t die of consumption either. The evidence seems to point to a diagnosis of endocarditis – chronic inflammation of the heart muscle – which would certainly have been a challenge to his ‘constitution’, especially for a man involved in hard physical work in all weathers. Then, in Dumfries, he had a painful tooth abscess, and it’s now thought that the resulting massive infection, at a time when there were no antibiotics, would be enough to trigger acute endocarditis. He became gravely ill, with all the symptoms of that painful condition and died the following summer. During his last few weeks, he seems to have been able to eat nothing. Milk mixed with a little port wine was all that gave him any relief. But the ‘flying gout’ diagnosed by the doctors of the time was only a way of describing the dreadful widespread pains that beset him during his last few weeks.

Finally, I’ve been asked more than once if I thought Rab was a violent man. Well, I reckon he was a lover not a fighter. Fond of fishing, he was no fan of shooting and once took a neighbour to task for wounding a hare on the borders of his land (and wrote a scathing poem about it afterwards). He was, nevertheless, a man of significant presence, physical and intellectual. He was a better friend than an enemy and was known to threaten to ‘skewer in verse’ anyone who overstepped the mark, like the Celtic bards of old. But his reputation was always for non-violence, for tolerance and good humour and there is no evidence that he was ever violent towards any of the women with whom he was associated.

Who knows just what went on with Jean in the stable in Mauchline when the couple were, frankly, at their lowest ebb in a great many ways. Was it overwhelming passion or something verging on assault? We have Burns’s own version in a letter to a friend, bragging about a coupling he had persuaded himself Jean enjoyed as much as he did. But Rab was a chameleon and could write what he thought might most impress an individual correspondent. We would know nothing about this episode if Rab hadn’t chosen to brag about it himself. We have the fact that Jean was struggling with a mass of intractable problems not least a second unwanted pregnancy, and she went into labour very soon after the incident. But even then, she undoubtedly loved this man. The tension between desire – theirs was clearly an intense mutual physical attraction – and Jean’s obvious vulnerability presented me with some problems as a novelist. My interpretation may be slightly shocking, but I suspect it may be closer to the truth than the poet’s version. Of course we should remember at all times that we are reading and writing about an 18th century man. Laddish he may have been, but for his time, the poet’s ability to project himself into the minds of the ‘lassies’ – to defend them and appreciate them and befriend them – is one of the things that most endeared him to me when I was writing the Jewel. I suspect Jean loved him for it too.



Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Archers: Why I've Stopped Listening.

I listened to the Archers back in the fifties, hearing the familiar signature tune as I lay in my bed as a very little girl, waiting for sleep. And then, when I was old enough to understand it all, I listened properly but intermittently. Sometimes I would absent myself for years, coming back, catching up, then leaving it again. Regretting the loss of Walter and then Nelson Gabriel. I loved Nelson. And I was very sad about Nigel but found myself giggling at the jokes too. Don't jump off the roof, Nige...

The Archers saw me through marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, various troubles with parental sickness and death - and lots and lots of my own writing. As a fairly sickly child, I had listened to plenty of radio drama and in my twenties, I began to write it professionally too. I had some thirty years of writing for BBC radio, more than one hundred hours of original plays, series, dramatisations. Oddly, I never wanted to write for the Archers. I was asked once, but I said a polite no. I knew I wouldn't enjoy having to stick to other people's constraints about overall plot and character development.

One of my early radio plays, O Flower of Scotland, was about rape - a rarely tackled theme back then. It won a major award. I think it worked because it was about the kind of assault that is not carried out by a stranger, but by somebody known to the victim and it didn't shrink from examining the horror of it, not least in the after effects.

When the radio work stopped - quite suddenly, as careers at the BBC are apt to do for no very obvious reason - I turned my attention with continuing success to novels, short stories, non fiction and some stage plays as well. I still run occasional workshops on writing drama, still know how to write - and how not to write - issue based drama in particular. My stage play Wormwood, written for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was all about the Chernobyl disaster and you don't get much more issue based than that.

Which is why I've been following recent events in The Archers - and the vast numbers of passionate and occasionally heated comments about what has undoubtedly become the 'Rob and Helen Show' - with interest. Listeners are pretty much divided. Some people, especially people who are all too aware of the reality of abuse, are praising it for its authenticity. 'It really happens like that. In fact it's much worse. It goes on for years,' they say. A significant number of people on the other hand assert that they have stopped listening. I switched off a little while ago but I dipped back in again a few times out of sheer curiosity, when a denouement threatened, only to switch off again more permanently. And now, I'm examining my own motives.

The relief was immense and that surprised me. The thought of not having to listen to it brings a little extra frisson of pleasure to my day. I didn't expect that, but it's true. Nobody, incidentally, should ever assume that people switch off a particularly distressing programme because they don't want anything to disturb the even tenor of their days. Life isn't like that. Radio, as I was always told back in the olden days, when working producers had the time to teach aspiring writers their craft, is incredibly immediate and consequently can be very shocking. Much more so than television. It happens right inside your head. Everyone has his or her own stresses and struggles, worries, challenges, miseries. So although we can and do care for others, sometimes we also have to be realistic about looking after ourselves and those close to us and the need to avoid piling on extra sadness.

What else? Well, I'm sorry to say that anyone who believes that producers only plan these kind of storylines from the purest possible motives knows very little about the ways in which media corporations function. It might be true to say that those at the top live or perish by audience response and happy endings do not equate to increased listener numbers. That's why there's added jeopardy. Trams fall off viaducts, cars are driven into canals and landowners slide off roofs. They aren't doing this just to drive home a health and safety message. Listening figures matter. Coverage matters. Publicity matters. The fact that the Archers has been covered across so many different media - I'm blogging about it now and in a small way, feeding into the craze - is so much jam for those in charge.

But I still have a whole heap of reservations.

One of the first things you tell aspiring writers, as an experienced playwright is that 'It really happens like this' is no excuse for poor storytelling or cynical manipulation of a set of pre-existing characters. It seems to me that the Rob and Helen story has thrown the balance of the whole programme out of kilter. 'It really happens like this' (and of course it does! It happens like this and like that and it goes on for longer, it goes on for years and people are scarred for life and sometimes they die) is paramount when we're talking about the accuracy or otherwise of a factual documentary.

But this isn't a documentary. And it worries me that people seem to have lost the ability or even the desire to distinguish between drama and documentary. It used to be that listeners would send wreaths when a much loved character in a soap died. We snigger at them, but at least that was down to naivety. Now there's a certain indignation if a playwright or novelist doesn't always adhere to some strict representation of the truth as the listener perceives it.

Which is more unreasonable? To assume the truth of fiction or to assume that fiction must always reflect your own personal truth?

The Archers is a drama and a well loved one. Made up truth if you like. So it must be 'true' but it must also be shaped and - you know - dramatised. To get to the truth of a situation or an issue, to involve people, to enlighten them, you have to do it sensitively and by that, I don't mean prudishly avoiding the issue. I mean that you must be aware of when you are dealing with complex and long established characters, when you are shaping reality to enlighten, inform, engage - and, by contrast, you must know when you are cynically turning the screw.

The structure of recent episodes seems all wrong to me. You involve listeners or viewers in a continuing drama by putting them on a switchback and skilfully orchestrating the issues in terms of the characters as we know them, rather than taking them on a long slow slide into hell - however 'realistic' that may be. The Archers could have done this by - for example - shifting the focus to Helen's parents, Pat and Tony, from time to time, as they gradually became aware of what was going on but were still powerless to stop it. There are plenty of people in Ambridge who, on the evidence of past storylines, are all too aware of 'what Rob is really like'. Rather than a wholesale - and faintly ridiculous, let's face it - isolation of Helen by giving everyone else a sort of collective amnesia or mass delusion (Rob's a demon, oh wait, what a nice man he is!) and rather than the introduction of Cruella in the shape of Rob's mum, the writers could have been allowed to explore those tensions. I'd lay bets some of them wanted to. Helen might have made several attempts to leave, resulting in an escalation of her husband's violence. It would have been infinitely more dramatic and credible than the current 'Free The Ambridge One' scenario. It would also have been 'true' to a great many incarnations of domestic abuse.

For every parent who has no idea what is going on with their beloved child, there will be another who knows exactly what is going on and is desperate but unable to do something about it. And if you really want to advise and instruct people as well as entertaining them, then you tackle that much more low key but equally challenging state of affairs by dramatising it and you take your listeners with you on that journey, rather than force them to shout 'you deluded moron' at the radio throughout more than one episode.

Here's a recent example, from television. A single brilliantly written and acted couple of scenes in Happy Valley told me more about the reality of coping with alcoholism in a loved one than any number of documentaries on the same topic. But don't you just get the feeling that if this had been the Archers, right now, the much loved sister who had fallen off the wagon would have been abandoned by Catherine and been found dead in a ditch the next morning instead of sitting with a sore head and a cup of tea? That too would have been 'true to life' but it would have evaded all kinds of sensitive and subtle issues that Sally Wainwright managed to explore in fairly short scenes that have - interestingly enough - stayed with me ever since.

If the BBC wanted to run a piece of continuing, issue based, real time drama about domestic abuse - and it might have been a worthy project - then that's what they should have done. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Instead, we have an impossibly long drawn out melodrama imposed on characters we have known and lived with for years, changing them beyond all recognition. My willing suspension of disbelief was challenged weeks ago and is now gone beyond recall which is another reason why I've switched off. There's a way of tackling these things, of bringing in new listeners without alienating the old, of stitching them into the ongoing fabric of the drama that would continue to move people and involve them and might stand a chance of doing some good as well.

But I don't believe this is it.

Perhaps, too, it's as simple as recognising that a scant quarter of an hour at a time is much too short for such an exploration of evil, for such grim intensity night after night, day after day. The 'lighthearted' scenes in between seem forced and stupid by comparison - which is because they are. But pity the poor writers, because they don't stand a chance. Ruth, laughing for fifteen seconds over the profoundly unfunny stock cube in the shower is just one example. For me, the programme is bursting out of its format in no good way and it will be a brave and skilful producer who manages to get it back on track. But who knows, having jettisoned a heap of listeners, perhaps the new fans will stay. Which may have been what they intended all along.

All the same, they need to beware of what one of my old and very talented producers used to call the 'shit click' effect. It's when your listener says 'shit' and switches off. That's what I did. It'll be a long time till I go back.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Voices and Stories


I'm reblogging this from my March post for Authors Electric, with whom I've been blogging for some years now. Sadly, it'll be my last-but-one post for them. I've loved my time blogging with the group, and will remain in touch with everyone, but pressure of work has caught up with me and one or two commitments have to be pruned so I'm taking a sabbatical from AE. I'm hoping that it'll give me a bit more time to devote to this blog which I've been neglecting lately. I'm aiming to write a few more posts each month especially since this is shaping up to be an exciting year for me, with the publication of my new novel in May, and the paperback reprint of my history of the Isle of Gigha (now titled The Way It Was) in June, so do check in here from time to time.

But this post, all about voices and stories, seems well worth reblogging since it's something so many writers find problematic. And if writers have problems, then so do readers!

Having published The Physic Garden, a first person narration historical novel (although not my first historical novel) a couple of years ago, I then found myself contemplating the challenge of writing a new historical novel, more or less set in the same period, late 18th and early 19th century Scotland, for the same publisher.

But I knew almost immediately that this wouldn’t be a first person narration – although it could have been. I’m generally comfortable with first person narration because – wearing my other hat as a playwright – I’ve written a number of dramatic monologues: vivid first person narratives, with a strong voice and a strongly visual element too. In fact I think the key to writing a successful monologue is to cast the whole audience as another character, so that the actor is telling his or her story to the audience. I don’t mean audience participation, which can be at best surprising and at worst embarrassing. But for the audience to be engaged, they have to feel that the character is engaging with them, personally. I always liken it to the role of the wedding guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in a play called The Price of a Fish Supper, I made a direct reference to the poem, with my fisherman narrator ironically aware of the poem from his schooldays and of the parallels with his own situation, his own personal albatross.

Experience of writing plays is useful for writing first person narrative fiction, since you inevitably find yourself casting the reader, whoever he or she might be, in the role of audience/listener/participant in the story of the novel, and this gives the narration an immediacy and intimacy it might otherwise lack. I think it worked well enough in The Physic Garden since by the time he was narrating the story, William Lang was an educated and experienced man – one who had become scholarly, but who was able to look back on his raw, youthful self with a measure of wisdom and understanding. The whole book was ‘about’ how he got there, the story of the harrowing events, the betrayals in his life that conspired to make him the man he turned out to be.

My new novel, The Jewel, however, is about the life and times of Jean Armour, the long-suffering wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and I was aware even before I began researching the subject that she had been somewhat neglected by the critical establishment, especially the Victorians, but even by those commentators who ought to have known better. In her 1930 biographical novel about the poet, Catherine Carswell was content to dismiss Jean as an illiterate and unfeeling ‘young heifer.’

I briefly considered telling the tale in Jean’s voice. Although I was born in Yorkshire, I’ve lived in Ayrshire long enough to be well aware of the vibrant language of this place, although like so many people nowadays, the poet himself seemed to find it remarkably easy to switch between Scots and what reads very much like standard English – and we’ve no reason to suppose that, with a good ear and a ready wit, he wasn’t able to do the same thing in speech, if he thought the situation and company warranted it. Jean was a different matter. Her father was a prosperous stonemason in the busy town of Mauchline: busier in the 18th century than it is today. She would have spoken – especially as a young woman – an Ayrshire version of Scots, although like William Lang, time and experience would probably have changed it somewhat. But much of the ‘meat’ of the story involves the complicated courtship of the couple, with all its ups and downs. She had a level of education, was literate but not literary. She had a fund of old songs, and knew all their melodies, passed on to her from her mother and grandmother. It was one of the things that seems to have attracted the poet. She was never foolish and emerges as a kindly, sensible, down to earth woman whose sincere affection for her frequently errant lover, later husband, is never really in any doubt. She loved him although there were clearly times when she found it hard to like him much.

I could ‘hear’ her voice in my head, just as I can hear Ayrshire Scots spoken every time I go down the street or into the nearby town for my shopping. But would it be right to attempt to reproduce it on the page? I soon decided that it would be better all round if the novel was written in the third person, but very much from Jean’s perspective. We are with Jean throughout the whole novel, but the slight remove of a third person narration allows us to see through her eyes, to feel through her feelings and to hear her voice, without introducing the undeniable hurdle for many readers of fixing the whole narrative in 18th century Scots.

I wanted and needed a wider audience. I wanted and needed to convey the story in an authentic but accessible way.

So, I was listening for cadences of speech, for the shape of conversations, and for expressions that are – to a great extent – almost as commonplace now as they were then. People still call their children ‘weans’ here rather than ‘bairns.’ Still say that they are ‘black affronted’ by something. Still tell people that their coats are hanging on a ‘shoogly peg’ when they are overstepping the mark in some way. I have heard a woman call her husband a ‘knotless threid’ – a knotless thread who might slip away at time of need. It seemed to me enough to introduce words and phrases and the shape of certain conversations to fix the novel in the particular time, but just as vitally in the place of its setting. And to attempt to avoid anachronisms as far as I could, of course. But all while making the story as comprehensible as possible to the casual, non Scottish reader. And yes, there is a small glossary, even though I’d hope everything makes sense from its context!

Incidentally, anachronisms are not always what we think them. I remember an editor questioning the phrase 'ghostly gear' in The Curiosity Cabinet. She thought it was modern. But it isn't. It's a very old word for your 'stuff'.

The other vital element in all this, though, seems to me to be story. However authentic a voice, however firmly embedded in a time and place, if that voice does not have an absorbing story to tell, then the novel – or play, or short story – will fail. It doesn’t have to have a complex plot. There doesn’t have to be a twist in the tail. But there has to be a story for those voices, for those people to tell, something that carries us forward, that makes us want to find out what happens next, that satisfies the reader’s desire for illumination, for the perception that the book is perhaps about more than the sum of its parts – but that each of those parts really matters. The love of story is one of the things that makes us human. This is true for the writer, quite as much as for the reader. Whether successfully or not, we write to find out. Or at least I know I do.

What do you think?