About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical novels and some non-fiction. I also collect the antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Events Galore

Last week, I did three book events in quick succession, all of them enjoyable. But the first one, in Grantown on Spey, organised by the wonderful Marjory Marshall of the Bookmark, a splendid independent bookshop in the town, was extraordinary.

The shop is small, crammed with the kind of books you really want to read - if I lived there, I'd be in there three or four times a week - so the event was held in the Garth Hotel, just along the road, which was also where we were staying. It's a comfortable, typically Highland hotel and we'd go back in a heartbeat.

The audience, especially given that Grantown in reasonably small, was massive - the room in the hotel was crammed with people. Some had even travelled from Inverness. ('I'm very persuasive,' said Marjory, with a smile.) There was a singer too, a beautiful singer who accompanied herself on a Celtic harp and gave us all an idea of what Jean herself must have sounded like. Marjory runs three book groups connected to the shop, which means that there is an excellent baseline group of enthusiastic people to attend any events she organises. Grantown itself is wonderful, a neat little town, 'the kind of town where people seem to care about the place' as my husband pointed out, with lots of interesting little shops, real shops of the kind that disappeared from many lowland high streets a long time ago.

Our next stop was the Apex Hotel at the City Quay, in Dundee - a place we've visited many times, and love. It always feels like coming home, except that home doesn't have a spa, with a pool, a hot tub, and a sauna. And we don't have such a massive bed with fresh, cool cotton sheets, feather pillows. Oh, and a bedroom with a fabulous view. And another nice little duck to take away with us.

My events were in Waterstones, St Andrews - friendly and welcoming. The Jewel has been selling very well to tourists over the summer. And the following night, with lovely Peggy Hughes in the excellent Verdant Works museum in Dundee - a place that should be on any visitor's must-see list. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Sales of the book are going well too!

Tomorrow, (Friday 23rd)  I'm heading off to Wigtown, to the book festival, to discuss Jean with Lee Randall, over tea and cakes - and then on Sunday, I'll be going to Irvine - closer to home - to take part in the Tidelines Book Festival at the Harbour Arts Centre.

After that, I'm a bit relieved to have a break before the next event! I have a big new project to work on, of which more in due course. But I should be able to get a good month's intensive writing done, before we head off to the Tarbert Book Festival at the end of October. Late November brings a clutch of events to mark Book Week Scotland, but not before I've visited Melrose Writers to talk about drama. A busy autumn ahead!

Friday, September 09, 2016

On Cleanliness

The author, back in the fifties. I look quite clean. 
We have been without a shower for three weeks and counting. (Mega building work in the bathroom) It has taken me right back to the fifties in industrial Yorkshire, when you had a bath every week (whether you needed it or not) and a lick and a promise at the sink for the rest of the week. I don't remember that we felt either dirty or smelly, and our clothes were certainly kept very clean, but we have got so used to the daily shower that if we don't have it we begin to feel incredibly downhearted.

God bless our lovely neighbours who have been letting us use theirs. What would we do without our friends?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

New Projects and Old Houses

I have a couple of new projects on the go, one of them at least involving plenty of research and plenty of writing.

Truth to tell, I can't wait. I'm at that stage of enchantment where I'm living with my characters and where I just want to leap right in, but I know that I'll need time, peace and a certain amount of quiet to devote to it all. And at present that's in short supply.

There are various reasons. I'm involved with a great many events, here there and everywhere, for The Jewel, and I'm certainly not complaining about that. Lots of people want to know all about Jean Armour and that's fine by me. If you check the events listing on the home page of my website you'll see exactly what I mean.

The other problem is that we've been having some work done on this old house. It's a lovely house, we've lived here for years and we love it to bits, but truth to tell, we could do with somewhere just a little bit easier to manage and with a slightly smaller garden. But there's work to be done and a massive decluttering exercise to be undertaken before we can even think of putting it on the market. I've already taken out four large boxes of books and guess what? I seem to have exactly the same shelf space as before.

Anyway, the net result is that I'm desperate to get started, and have set aside pretty much the whole of October so that I can make big inroads into the work. After that, I've a few more book events lined up throughout the winter, but I should be able to work steadily, all being well, through the dark days. I always feel better once I get the first draft of a new novel down. Then I can leave it to lie fallow for a little while before starting the long but - for me anyway - pleasurable process of editing and rewriting through the spring of 2017.

There will be a couple more publications from me in January and February of next year as well. Can't wait to spill the beans, but as soon as I'm allowed, I'll tell all. Meanwhile, the picture at the top of this post is a small clue.

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 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.