About Me

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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.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Writing and Speaking

The Secret Commonwealth, my last stage play. 
Many years ago, when I first started out on this switchback of a writing career, I made the decision to try out all kinds of things to see what suited me best.

Back in the 1970s I wrote poetry and did quite well with it, having a couple of collections published and being invited to do various readings. I also wrote radio drama which was a reasonable way to make a living once you had learned your craft. I wrote original plays but also did dramatisations of classics. And because it was hard to say 'no' to paid work, I also did some writing for schools radio and television, wrote a young adult television series and then wrote a novel (called Shadow of the Stone) to go with the series.

After a while, though, I realised that it wasn't what I wanted to pursue. This isn't any kind of value judgment, incidentally - but we all have our own aptitudes and interests and this wasn't mine. So I moved on, still writing radio drama, but beginning to explore other options in fiction, as well as writing for the stage.

Then it struck me that I was still being asked to talk to writing groups about 'writing for children' even though I hadn't written for children for about a decade. I had to gently and politely suggest that I might be of more use in talking about radio drama, since it was a hungry medium that was willing to engage with beginners and help them to learn a very specific craft.

Cue forward another ten years and I found myself writing less and less for radio, and more for theatre, while - at the same time - starting to spend even more time on fiction, long and short. But by then, I was being asked to speak almost exclusively about radio writing. Since most writers are delighted to be asked to speak about anything, especially when being paid, I carried on doing occasional workshops but tried to point out that my radio knowledge was somewhat out of date, although I still knew quite a bit about writing for the stage. It worried me that I could be giving people the wrong advice, which is often worse than no advice at all. The whole submission and rejection process had changed out of all recognition in the intervening years.

Now, for the past ten or fifteen years, I've concentrated almost wholly on fiction, especially novels, with a some historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. I divide my time between historical and contemporary fiction. I've had several well reviewed novels published, the last two by the same excellent independent publisher (Saraband) with a third novel due to be published by them later this year and another one in progress even as I write this.

But I'm still sometimes being asked to speak about writing drama. Well, I can do that. But the truth is that I haven't written a stage play for years now. Haven't even tried. It has become incredibly difficult to get any kind of professional production unless you're willing to stage one yourself, with all the time and expense involved. And it strikes me that writing groups would get better value from a working playwright, if that's what they want to know about.

Of course, I'm generally very happy to speak to writing and book groups so this isn't a complaint. It's just that for some years now, I've been working exclusively on fiction. You never say never in this line of work and if somebody, somewhere wanted me to dramatise one of my own novels I'd definitely consider it. I still have those essential skills. But I'm much better value as a speaker if you ask me to talk about historical research for fiction - how much you need to do and when to stop - or the current state of publishing or getting to the end of your novel, or writing convincing dialogue, or using your family history as a source of fiction or 18th century Scotland or Robert  Burns and Jean Armour or using social media or ... well, you get my drift. Any or all of those and more.

Given that many writing groups will be starting their new programmes soon, it's worth thinking about what you want from a visiting writer, and what might be genuinely useful for your members. Sometimes it's our own fault as writers. We move on but forget to 'brand' ourselves in the new way, forget that we need to tell people what we are doing now. Most writers have websites these days or are listed with arts organisations. It's worth checking up on your potential visitor to see what he or she is working on. You're looking for an enthusiastic speaker, somebody to talk about what's obsessing them right now, somebody to communicate not just their skills and their excitement, but also the current state of play in that particular aspect of writing.

A few years ago, I remember hearing a successful television writer delivering a brisk 45 minute talk + question and answer session to a writing group. Afterwards, somebody said to me 'I learned more from that talk than from any book I've ever read on the subject.' She was right. The speaker knew exactly what he was talking about because that's what he was engaged with there and then and it showed.


















Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Poet's Funeral

Yesterday was the day on which, in 1796, Robert Burns was buried in Dumfries, in a simple grave in St Michael's churchyard. The big, ostentatious monument only came later. The funeral was far from simple. Invitations were sent out in Robbie, the poet's eldest son's name, as was the custom. The night before was showery but the day of the funeral turned out to be sunny, just in time for the grand procession. The weather this week, here in the West of Scotland, has been much the same. All those fine people who had crossed the street to avoid Rab a little while before, when the adulation had changed to small town disapproval, came out to show how much they had loved the great bard. And in spite of his wishes to the contrary, the 'awkward squad', the Dumfries Volunteers, not very efficient or soldierly, did indeed fire over him.

Jean was at home, giving birth to his last child, a son called Maxwell. The night after the funeral, Jean's husband came home, briefly. That's what she recounted later. And here's my version of it.

'The whole house was quiet, Maxwell swaddled in her arms, She had been singing to the new wean until he slept and she saw Rab coming into the room. He was as bold and clear as though he had still been in life and, she thought, rather more healthy than the last time she had laid eyes on him, a gleam in his eye and a flush of sunlight on his cheek. 
She was not afraid.
When had she ever been afraid of him? Rather she felt the wee bubble of laughter, even in the most serious of situations, at the general absurdity of everything, even the worst of things. She looked up at him while he gazed down at her and, in particular she thought, at the baby. Well, why not? He had aye loved the weans best, loved the curve of their cheeks, the soft, vulnerable place at the back of the neck, their perfect wee fingers and toes. Then he shook his head sadly, as though regretting that he could not stay, and disappeared, so suddenly that it seemed like a snowflake, melting away in your hand.' 




Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Drizzler

Armour's the jewel for me of them all.
Somewhere in my new novel about the life and times of Robert Burns's wife Jean Armour, there's a reference to the practice of 'drizzling' and 'drizzlers'. When I first heard about this, the eighteenth century – and largely female – practice of snipping precious metal embellishments from male garments, with or without the wearer’s permission, and selling the gold and silver to be melted down, I was intrigued by the notion and of course, it found its way into the novel. You'll have to read the book if you want to know who, when and where! I say in the end note to the book that everything either happened or could have happened, so you'll have to make up your own mind about certain events. Although you might be surprised ...

Anyway, a good long while before I wrote the Jewel, I was so intrigued by the notion of drizzlers that I wrote a poem in the persona of one of them. I thought you might like to read it, so here it is.

THE DRIZZLER

The play’s the place for this game,
crowded halls, assemblies, balls.
I keep a pair of scissors in my
needle case, birds of steel, their
beaks as sharp as my tongue and
a spool for winding my booty on.
My skirts are a garden,
how my nimble needle flies.
A froth of smuggled lace at my wrist
hides my hand from prying eyes.

Peacocks are my prey.
Rich young men or old no matter
so long as their coats are fancy.
Roses, purls and picots are good,
dangling spangles are easy,
acorns are fine, fringes are better
but I have grown so bold that
I have slit silver buttons from their
waistcoats beneath their noses
and I remember one young buck who
wore medallions of beaten gold
with cupids and I had them I had them but
I was sorry to send such cherubs for melting.

Some women call their pillage flirtation.
What can their gallants do but submit?
But the covert assault excites me more.
I gauge them from behind my fan.
Up close, their hearts beat far too loud to
hear the slice of blade on blade.
They never see my work.
They’re watching the shady cleft
between my breasts, they never catch
the swiftness of my hand
between their baubles but
with their warm lips on mine
I’ll palm my shears and
clip their treasures one by one.

My mother died when I was
much too young to grieve.
My father pays lip service to thrift while
donning his powdered wigs, his velvets,
his hose, his ruffled linen shirts.
So I’ll take what’s offered elsewhere
snipping in secret, concealing my
rich pickings in my sleeve.

Later, I’ll tease my stolen gold from
silken thread and take it to the old woman
who weighs it on her scales and
hands me a few coins instead.
Pin money. It’s never enough
but the thought of this subtle robbery
makes me flush and catch my breath.
I’ll prick their vanity with my tiny shears.
A small piracy.
We are drizzlers.
We are buccaneers.




Monday, July 04, 2016

The Way It Was: A History of Gigha


Sorry for the rather long silence between posts, but there's been an awful lot going on here in the UK. Wish there wasn't. Glad I'm in Scotland.

Foxglove and fuchsia at Keill.
Anyway - my old/new book about Gigha is out now, and what a smashing cover (painted by Pam Carter) they've come up with at Birlinn. Lots of the research for this book was actually done in the little white cottage on the right of the picture, which is where we stayed for a number of summers: Ferry Croft One, very close to the beach.

This is an update on God's Islanders that was published some years ago, in hardback: a revised and updated paperback, just the right size for you to slip into your pocket and carry around the island with you. Gigha is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I've set some of my fiction on an island not a million miles from Gigha as well. I'm already planning a new project with an island setting.

Misty morning at the ferry terminal. 
This morning, Undiscovered Scotland features a lovely review of the book. Once you've read the review, perhaps you should also visit the island. We were there for a few days - not nearly long enough - in early June and I wish we were back there now: it's a gem, small, but very beautiful indeed.






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.