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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Orange Blossom Love - Holiday Reading (and an apology!)

I've spent at least some of the last month or so (in between working away at the Jean Armour novel) revising a novel called Orange Blossom Love in a fairly drastic way. When I first began the project a couple of years ago, I thought it was going to be a trilogy of novels - a Canary Island trilogy in fact. There were two books, Orange Blossom Love and a sequel called Bitter Oranges. With the possibility of a third. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea niggled away at the back of my mind that this really wasn't a trilogy. It was a single big book, a fairly mammoth beach read.

Anyway, a little while ago I unpublished the sequel - fortunately, it has only ever been an eBook and only ever been on Amazon's Kindle store - and set about the task of joining the dots to make this into a single long novel. Which is what it now is, and - I hope - all the better for it.

It needed an edit in any case. There were things about it that I needed to tidy up and that's what I've done. But there was also a bit more polishing and pruning to be done, even though I had done masses of polishing and pruning already. I now hope and believe that it's a much better and more satisfying novel, mostly because it doesn't break off at a crucial point but carries the reader on to a satisfactory resolution.

My humble apology is to anyone who bought both books - but to be honest, neither of them was expensive and the single long version isn't so very different that you would notice much as a casual reader. And it hadn't sold that many copies, which I suspect is also because it didn't 'feel' like a series.

It's a big, very sexy, sunny, vacation read. It's about a holiday romance that turns into something a lot more permanent and what follows after - the challenges and joys of a cross cultural marriage. It's set on Tenerife, and La Gomera and - some of it anyway - in Glasgow. If you're contemplating a holiday in the sun this year - or even if you're planning on going somewhere a bit damper - you could do worse than download it onto your eReader. At about 160,000 words, it will keep you going for a while. The good news is that it's also available on Apple, and various other platforms as well as from Amazon.  This is problem the most romantic novel I've ever written, or am every likely to write!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see some of the images, landscapes - and heroes - that inspired the novel, have a look at my Pinterest Board: Orange Blossom Love Inspirations.

On La Gomera

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Poldark, Aidan Turner and Seeing Your Characters.

broodingly handsome ...
I reckon there's a whole PhD thesis - or several - to be written about the obsession of so many women of all ages with the BBC's recent excellent adaptation of Poldark and the performance of broodingly handsome Irish actor Aidan Turner as the eponymous hero.

Me too.

But I've been a bit phased by how many men seem to have been genuinely upset by the lighthearted lasciviousness of so many of their female social media buddies. You kind of want to pat them on the head and say 'there, there, you do realise it isn't real, don't you?' What happened to the joys of fantasy? I mean my lovely husband doesn't mind at all, perhaps because he has a bit of a thing for Geena Davis. And why not? Although I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if I never had to watch The Long Kiss Goodnight one more time!

This is for my husband!
But I digress.We were talking about the divine Aidan, weren't we?

I could claim, of course, that I was watching it purely for research purposes, because I'm currently working on a novel set in the late eighteenth century and the BBC are exceedingly good on costumes. Well, I did claim that for a while and to some extent it's true. Watching Ross Poldark galloping along those beautiful Cornish cliffs isn't a bad sort of preparation for writing about Scottish poet Robert Burns, also dark, also - allegedly - extremely attractive, galloping along the Galloway cliffs. He did, as well. He rode some 200 miles every week when he was working as an exciseman, although for a lot of that time the weather must have been appalling, so he would have looked a little more like a drowned rat than Poldark, but still ...

Lots of people were saying - with absolute truth - what a good Heathcliff this actor would make. Lots of people were also saying to me what a very good Finn in my novel Bird of Passage, this actor would make. With even more truth, I reckon. But of course Bird of Passage is, among much else, a kind of homage to Wuthering Heights, so it would make sense.

Many of us go through a stage of envisaging actors playing the parts of our characters in our novels and stories. You've only to hang out on Facebook for a while with a few other writers to find out that lots of people do it and I bet even those who don't admit to it are occasionally tempted! We all dream about the film or television option, don't we?

I tend to do this even more, I think, because I have a background as a playwright and quite often a theatre director will say to you, 'Did you have a particular actor in mind' - and equally often you do, whether it's a male or female character. It isn't always possible to secure a particular actor, but you find yourself watching actors, the way they move, the way they handle a particular role, the energy they bring with them, and envisaging them in a part. I sometimes surround myself with photographs of various actors when I'm writing. They're for me, not the readers at that stage. I probably wouldn't describe them in too fine a detail in the actual work though, since each reader brings her own imagination to the book. And that's the way it should be.

But I have to see characters to write about them, and sometimes I'll admit to seeing them played by a particular actor in some hypothetical but much wished for dramatisation.

Turner is Irish, which helps. Finn is Irish too, a Dubliner. He spends his adolescent summers in Scotland, harvesting tatties on an island farm, but his accent would be right. He's a dark and seriously damaged individual - physically strong, mentally vulnerable - and I suspect he would have those kind of good looks that men sometimes grow into: a sullen and silent child who can unexpectedly blossom into a deeply attractive man.

There were times, watching Poldark, when I wanted to write the screenplay for Bird of Passage so much that it hurt! Not least because Eleanor Tomlinson who plays Demelza, would be perfect for my lovely red headed Kirsty in the novel. I've liked her as an actor - and remembered her - ever since I saw her in an excellent film called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.

I always think of Bird of Passage - a bit sadly, I'll admit - as the novel that 'got away'. But of course it didn't. It's out there on all eBook platforms now: Amazon, Apple and most other places and in a little while I hope to have it out in paperback as well. So you can find it and read it. But I haven't the foggiest notion why the traditional publishing world rejected it out of hand. It is, when all's said and done, a big story. (Not in the sense of a good story, that's not my call, but in the sense that a whole lot of things happen!) And many readers are enthusiastic about it. Not only do they take the trouble to tell me how much they like it - it seems to stay with them. I love this because these characters have stayed in my head too: poor, unhappy, abused Finn, his gentle friend Francis and sweet, strong, loving Kirsty.

Still, the book is out there now and available and not lurking unseen on my PC where it sat for several frustrating years while a couple of agents asked me if I couldn't come up with 'something just a bit more commercial'.

I still think it would make a film or a Scottish/Irish television co-production. So if you're reading this and looking for a new project, let me know. I have some interesting ideas about casting!










Monday, April 20, 2015

Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 


Cover by Alison Bell



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bird of Passage

Cover art by Scottish artist Alison Bell
This is just a small update about Bird of Passage - because I'll be writing some more about the background to the novel next week. I've done some minor revisions - nothing structural or important - just a bit of reformatting and a few edits to punctuation and so on. This was one of my earliest independently published novels and it needed a little care and attention.

At the same time, I've taken the opportunity to publish it to a number of other platforms, so if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle App, you'll find it on Apple, Kobo, Nook etc. I'm planning a paperback edition later on this year, as soon as I've finished the first draft of my Jean Armour novel.

A surprising and gratifying number of readers have taken the time and trouble to tell me how much this novel means to them - and that kind of feedback can't be ignored. I'm very much moved by it and very grateful to them for contacting me or reviewing the novel. It does, I fear, make it all the more surprising that no traditional publisher ever took this one on. A few publishers saw it and turned it down. Successive agents read it, said 'no thanks - you need to come up with something more commercial' and wouldn't even send it out. But I knew that those people who had read it - real readers, not industry insiders - were telling me that it should be published.

Sometimes you can see why a book might be turned down. Even if it's a well written book, you can see that it might not be quite what the market wants. But sometimes, you simply don't understand. And this is one of those books. I self published it with some trepidation - but then various people - strangers as well as friends - told me how much they loved it. So I'm glad that now, other people can read it.

I've also been thinking about the serious and distressing background to this book - the Irish Industrial Schools that were still in existence until the 1970s and that have left a great many damaged individuals behind them, people who are still seeking the redress and closure they so badly need and deserve, but don't seem able to get. I'll be blogging about this a little bit next week. It was distressing to research and heartbreaking to write. It isn't even 'my' story to tell. But I had an Irish grandmother who - for reasons too personal to go into here - could easily have found herself in this kind of situation.

Bird of Passage is a love story - of course it is - and something of a homage to Wuthering Heights, but it's also a story about a damaged individual and how that damage spreads and is inflicted on others. And of course it's set in a landscape that I love very much indeed - a wild Scottish island landscape like this one.



Friday, April 03, 2015

Robert Burns's Magnificent Response to a Critic


I don't know how this had escaped my attention until this week - but it had: Robert Burns's incomparable response to a critic who had complained that his poetry contained 'obscure language' and 'imperfect grammar'.

I mean I've felt like this often enough - haven't we all? But I never had quite these words to express my feelings!


Ellisland, 1791.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

R.B.



Ellisland