About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Aidan Turner, Poldark and Robert Burns

Anyone who knows me well, will know that I'm a big Poldark fan. But at least one of the reasons I watched it so avidly, is that it was perfect inspiration when I was writing the Jewel. The period, the costumes, the scenery, all of them were exactly right for the turbulent romance between Rab and Jean. And it needed only a small stretch of the imagination to see Aidan Turner in the starring role. (I know there are brilliant young Scots actors in plenty, suggestions welcome below, but I'm sure he could 'do' the lowland Scots accent if necessary!)

I thought it was just me, daydreaming while simultaneously working on a novel and watching what I thought was an excellent adaptation, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, (the first series coincided with a time when I was researching and writing the novel.) But last week, I was speaking about Jean to a group of volunteers at one of the local Burns museums and somebody else - a man, no less - said 'You know, Poldark put me in mind of this story. Whenever I watched Ross Poldark and Demelza galloping along that clifftop, I thought about Rab and Jean!'

Me too, me too.

There have been so many attempts to make a film about the life of Robert Burns, but most of them have come to grief or come to naught in one way or another. I realised, as I worked on The Jewel, that it may be because most of them have ignored the real, romantic heart of the story. Ross Poldark would be unthinkable without his brilliant, strong, spirited Demelza. There's a sense in which the novels, the dramatisations too, are Demelza's story. And there's a sense in which the story of Robert Burns is just as much Jean's story - another brilliant, strong, spirited woman. If you try to make it about Highland Mary - a short intense relationship - or Clarinda - another intense but short relationship, mostly conducted by letter - then you miss the real, dramatic, romantic heart of the matter.

The other problem is that too often, Rab is played by an actor who seems to be a bit too old for somebody who died at the age of 37. It matters. During one of this year's many excellent discussions I've had with groups of readers, somebody remarked on how young the couple were when all the drama of their relationship was at its height. And it's true. They had all the passionate recklessness of youth and you ignore that at your peril.

Meanwhile, as far as I know - because there has been interest  - film rights in The Jewel are still available. Contact Saraband if you want to know more. I'd truly love to see this book on the screen.

Jean's fireplace, in Mauchline.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Poems and Songs for Jean Armour

Back when I was researching my novel The Jewel, about the life of Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, I became aware that there were many poems and songs that had obviously been written with Jean in mind. I suggested to my publisher, Saraband, that it might be a good idea to collect them all together in one place, and they agreed. 

The book - For Jean: Poems and Songs by Robert Burns  - is now available for pre-order here. It will be published in January 2017, just before Burns night. I've collected together the songs and poems that are definitely about Jean with some more that might be about her, or where the poet clearly had her in his mind. Many are love poems although one or two are angry poems of thwarted passion! There are notes on many of them, and a glossary where necessary. 

This is a lovely companion volume to The Jewel, a nice Burns Night gift, and also, a very handy little volume for anyone looking for poems for and about 'the lassies' or for a recitation at the increasingly popular 'Jean Armour Suppers'.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Writers and Notebooks - A Love Affair.

Some of the current collection
Today, a friend on Facebook posted about the way many notebooks are more expensive than actual printed books. She's right, of course. They are. But I still buy them.

I know lots of other writers who have a notebook habit. We accumulate them. Sometimes we sit and admire them without actually writing in them. The special ones are hoarded for some hypothetical future project that will be worthy of the perfect notebook.

I have very specific tastes in notebooks. First and foremost, the pages have to be blank. I hate lined paper. You'd be surprised how many shops seem to have stopped stocking blank paper notebooks altogether. Sometimes you have to hunt among the art materials to find them.

The paper has to be good quality, preferably off white or cream rather than bright white. I often write with italic or 'handwriting' pens, with broad nibs (yes, I know, but I was taught to write that way at school, a long long time ago and I can't help it!) and if the paper is nasty, the ink sinks in. It's so disappointing when you open a notebook with a beautiful cover to find that the paper inside is flimsy and impractical.

I quite like hard cover notebooks, especially brightly coloured hard cover notebooks: pink, turquoise, red, blue. Soft covers are OK though, especially for travelling. I have a couple of beautiful little notebooks I bought in Oxford last year, with Kraft paper covers, and ladybird designs, including an edge design like one of those wonderful old books that have a painting along the depth of the pages. I like them to be a decent size, although it's handy when they can also fit in my handbag. And if they have a little compartment into which I can slip notes for talks, train timetables etc, so much the better.

I have an ongoing love affair with Moleskine. I love these notebooks with a passion, which is a bit sad since they're not cheap. But they are the kings and queens among notebooks. Everything about them, including the quality of the paper, is wonderful. If any notebook might magically be able to make you into a better writer, these are the ones to try. (And no, they're not paying me to say this.)

I generally buy mine online, from Amazon or from T K Maxx, where you can find a good selection of notebooks and nice paper of all kinds. Although once you've discovered the Moleskine shop, you might well be enticed in. I use one every day, for lists of things to do. I've also been using one this year to keep track of the many events I've been asked to do, venues, contact details, train or bus times, hotel bookings  - and again, Moleskine provides the perfect notebook: robust, with a piece of elastic to keep it firmly shut, a bookmark and a wallet at the back.

Oddly enough, I use a Kindle for reading all the time, and although I love paper books and have too many of them, I can't say I feel excessively attached to them, can't say I miss them, especially when I'm reading fiction. I also write directly onto a PC and would never dream of writing a novel in longhand now. Too slow. It would drive me mad.

But when it comes to research, planning and plotting, or making my various lists, I prefer my notebooks. I really do love to use pen and paper.

I've a feeling that you can never have too many notebooks. I wonder what other people think. Do you have favourites, pet hates, perfect specimens?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Excellent Events and a Wee Bit About Payment

Book Fair at the Carrick Lodge Hotel,
organised by the ever excellent Ayr Writers. 
This year, I've been snowed under with book events, and I've loved every minute of it, loved talking about Jean, and chatting to readers and signing books. Some events have been purely promotional, launching the Jewel at various venues, while others have come under the category of paid work, talks at excellent book festivals, workshops and visits to writing groups.The latest - the Pentlands Book Festival in Juniper Green - was a model of how to organise such things and a pleasure from start to finish. (Very many thanks to my hosts for their hospitality.)

I'm aware that I'm lucky and that many writers just starting out would be glad of the opportunity. But as a freelance writer married to a freelance artist, I've been trying to balance event payment with promotional value for years now. This has also been something that the Society of Authors has been tackling on behalf of all its members, although it has to be said that Scottish book festivals are extremely good at paying their writers.

So here are some general thoughts, ending with one plea in particular.

The vast majority of writers do not earn large sums of money from their writing.
Book events of all kinds are excellent promotional tools. We build our readership one satisfied reader at a time, hoping that they will tell somebody else if they've enjoyed a book.
Book events are, on the whole, extremely enjoyable.
Book events are also hard work!

The truth is that most writers are happy to do a limited number of free events in any one year, especially local events, so there's no harm in asking. Personally speaking, I'll do bookshop events when I can, especially with a new book, and I'll also do a number of freebies for local book groups, or even local non commercial organisations such as the WRI (although in my experience they are scrupulous in paying travel expenses and offering hospitality.) I'll also happily do some book events where - for example - travel and accommodation are paid by a proactive and enthusiastic host. There are no hard and fast rules. But out of sheer practicality the paid events and the actual writing will have to take precedence. If you take a look at the News and Events Page on my website, you'll find more details.

Many groups in Scotland can and do apply for writer funding under the Scottish Book Trust's excellent Live Literature Scotland scheme, and that's good for all concerned. The host organisation is funded, the writer is funded, and everyone's happy.

But when funding of various kinds is applied for and obtained or when it's offered by a festival, some starry writers (there are a few!) or perhaps even writers who have another and more lucrative profession, will waive their fees.
Which is very nice of them, but I wish they wouldn't.
The problem is that the cash may actually be ring fenced, so can't be used for anything else. But even more of a problem is that it sets a precedent, while most of us - however much we would like to be able to do the same - simply can't afford to do too many free events.

So my plea to the handful of rich writers out there is - please, for the sake of the rest of us, accept what's offered, and then if you really don't need or want the money, donate it to whatever worthy cause you choose - your local school library or one of a number of excellent book charities that help children all over the world to obtain books. Many of us would love to be able to do the same. One day, some of us will be able to.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Female Desire

Of all the feedback I've had about The Jewel - and people have said and written some very nice things about it, which is a great relief, because when you send your baby out into the world, you never know what the response will be  - I think the judgment that I found most gratifying was from a bookseller. Almost casually, she remarked 'You write female desire very well.'

I hope so but it was nice to have it confirmed by another woman. It got me thinking though. I'd be the first to say that women can write successfully about men, just as men can write successfully about women. But not always. Like all kinds of writing, it demands the ability to step outside yourself, crawl inside somebody else's mind, make yourself comfortable (or uncomfortable, depending on the character) and write from their point of view. Which is hard to do. So just as we have women writing impossibly romantic male characters, we have men writing women who gaze at themselves in a succession of mirrors, thinking thoughts that no woman I have ever known would think. Or - and this is a topic for another post - people write only about themselves, seemingly unable to see beyond the fascination of their own lives.

I found the 'female desire' remark so pleasing because that is one of the things I set out to do when I wrote The Jewel: to tell the story of why and how an otherwise sensible young woman might fall for and continue to love (but clearly not always like) an unsuitable man against all the careful counselling of family and friends. What is it all about: this web of connections and attractions, the pain of rejection, the physical and mental fascination verging on madness?

Unfortunately, any woman writing about female desire, even as part of something much larger, will be misunderstood by the literary establishment. No matter how well crafted the book, no matter how 'true' the depictions of said desire, a love story will seldom be taken seriously. Except of course by readers.

Fortunately, they're the ones who matter.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016


It's national November novel writing month again. I'm not really taking part, even though I do have a new novel to write - well, actually, I have three - and I'll certainly be hustling to get that first draft of the first book onto the PC before Christmas.

If you're doing it, good luck. You're more than a quarter of the way through. If you're flagging, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going.

I was thinking about this last weekend at a small gathering of friends, most of whom also happen to be writers. One of them asked me if I was disciplined and wrote at a set time each day.  To which the answer is, no, I don't. But I do try to write almost every day. And if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing, plotting and planning and getting to know my characters. But the truth is that some days, all kinds of other things get in the way. I find deadlines help. And when I have a fixed deadline, I find that my work rate escalates so that I might be writing for many hours in a day and half the night as well. Just not at the beginning. It all spirals upwards!

So why is this relevant to NaNoWriMo? Well, if you can do it, and stick to it, you'll get over the significant hurdle of the first draft, the horror of the blank screen. All writers work differently. Some of us are plotters and some pantsers - we write by the seat of our pants. That's me, more or less. I know the beginning and often the end, but a lot of the time I don't know how to get there. I write to find out. That's where the fascination lies. It's as though the characters have to tell me their story. On the few occasions where I've been persuaded to write more than two or three pages of a synopsis, I get bored and find myself writing something else. But not everyone works that way, and it's fine. We're all different.

However, I've tutored a lot of writers over the years and the single biggest problem for most them when it comes to making the leap from short fiction to novels, from one act plays to full scale dramas - seems to be in finishing the first draft of something so dauntingly long. The temptation to stop, revise, rewrite, change your mind, is almost overwhelming.

That's where something like NaNoWriMo comes in. My advice to most people starting out on a big project such as a novel, has always been to forge on. Don't worry if you find you have to leave gaps, miss out chapters, realise that there are gaping holes in the plot. Don't worry if you find yourself writing passages of what seems like gobbledegook. Just keep going, tell the story, get to the end. Nobody else is going to see this draft, warts and all unless you want them to. Nobody but me ever sees my first drafts.

But it's so much easier to revise and restructure a draft, however rough and ready, than it is to face the blank screen.

A couple of other useful tips.
Stop each day at a point where you really want to go on.  I wish I could remember who first told me this, because I bless them. That way, when you come back to the project the next day, and reread the last few pages, you'll get into the story a lot more quickly and easily than if you've stopped at a nice neat chapter ending.
The second thing to remember is that novels, like bread and beer and gardening, need time. Once you've got your first rough draft done, set it aside, don't be tempted to go back to it for several weeks. It's another reason why November is a good month for a first draft. You can enjoy Christmas with a clear conscience, and then get back to some serious editing in the New Year.

Good luck. And if you've any questions, add them to the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Remember Remember ...

 Last night we had our annual village bonfire and fireworks display. It's always well attended - especially since every year there seem to be fewer of the big municipal displays in the nearby towns. Ours is organised by the community - a lot of work. It's free, but we sell hamburgers and glow sticks and collect donations which go towards next year's event.

I love it, love the fireworks, love the primitive and enticing quality of the fire. It always has a feeling of something that has been going on for hundreds of years as of course it has, not always on 5th November but always around this time of year when people even now feel the need to fend off the encroaching cold and dark.

These last few years, though, it has felt just a little sad for me too. There are ghosts:  my dear late mum and dad, who always used to come - my dad just loved a bonfire and fireworks. Lots of other lovely people who lived in the village and are no longer with us but are always remembered. They're all missed, but at this time of year, you can almost see them and certainly feel them, drawn to the warmth of our fire, and the joy of the people watching.

And then, of course, there are all the grown up children. Some have come back especially for Bonfire Night, some are far away,  their places taken by lots more wee kids, scooting about, full of excitement. But if you look long and hard enough, I swear you can see all of them, all these people, as they once were, caught in the light for a brief moment in time.