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!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Writing Non Fiction - a Hard Row to Hoe

My book on the history of the people of the island of Gigha is finished. I travelled through to Edinburgh with the manuscript and a bundle of old photographs last friday. I decided to take the whole lot to the publisher myself, mainly because I daren't trust the photographs, precious old pictures, to the post office, and I didn't have the wherewithall to do the necessary high resolution scanning here at home. Besides the pictures had been lent to me by one Angus Allan, whom I have never met, but who sounds delightful, and the redoubtable Willie McSporran, Gigha's answer to Alan Breck, and a man who, like that most wonderful of literary characters, one would 'rather have as a friend than as an enemy.' Hence my panic over the pics.
Actually, I write that the book is finished, but there will be rewrites. I feel it in my bones. Once some editor gets his or her hands on it, there will most certainly be rewrites. The problem will arise (I know already) because although most of it is carefully researched and backed up with the necessary references, I have allowed myself (as a writer of fiction, after all!) the occasional flight of fancy. I know that this will not appeal to a certain cross section of historians, possibly including the man who commissioned the book, although I am prepared to fight my (feminist) corner. We'll see. My Master's degree was in Folk Life Studies and although it does its best to be a sound academic discipline, it is one that has to take serious account of oral history, and the transmission of information without reference to written texts. I find that quite exhilarating - the fact that even the most wild flight of storytelling may actually have some germ of truth at the heart of it. But most academics of my acquaintance feel vaguely threatened by it.
When I began to research this book some years ago, the publisher said that it was 'not a work to make you rich.' What he didn't say, in so many words, was that it would be a work to make me very very poor. So far they have paid me £750 for something that I feel as though I have been researching and writing for ever. I can't complain, because I volunteered for this. But the last year has involved almost nothing else apart from one short play. Only a very helpful bursary from the Scottish Arts Council allowed me to continue, but even so (and with our last oil bill, for a very small tank, coming in at £350) it has highlighted for me the fact that something has to change, for me at least. No wonder such non-fiction books are so often written by academics with tenure, who - although not well paid by most standards except those of freelance writers - do it in their spare time as a kind of adjunct to their researches .
It has been a steep learning curve for me because there were all kinds of things I hadn't really thought through. When you write fiction, you do a certain amount of research - usually a real pleasure, because you are so embroiled with your subject - but then you 'give yourself permission' to fictionalise. The story itself, with all its implications and resonances, takes precedence, and once you begin, the characters carry you forwards.
With non fiction, the research is non stop, and whenever you finish a chapter or a section, you feel as though you have finished the whole thing, and have to wind yourself up to start all over again, with the next part. It is exhausting, or I certainly found it so.
You have to paraphrase and reference and compare accounts and make sure your footnotes make sense . You have to write a bibliography, and an index. Even then you know that somebody is going to quibble about any original conclusions you may have decided to reach. There are as many interpetations of fact as there are academics to make a career out of them. Mind you, that's exactly what they are doing to Dan Brown as well, and he was writing fiction, although I can't feel too sorry for him. Would that Gigha was going to earn only a tiny fraction of his income.
The book is with the editorial manager at the moment, but his concern is mainly with the book's production rather than the content so I still await a verdict on the text. I'll let you know what happens next!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Crucible

I've been neglecting my blog over the past week or so, mainly for the aforeposted reason that I have been writing about nothing but the Isle of Gigha. The end is in sight, however, and last week I permitted myself a small break to go and see a production of the Crucible, by the new National Theatre of Scotland, which was touring, in collaboration with various community groups. Besides, an old friend was in it, one of the best radio producers I ever had the good fortune to work with, an award winning director who the BBC, as is their inexplicable habit, made redundant some years ago. Having returned to his old profession of acting, he is doing rather well, and his performance as Giles Corey shone out on this occasion. I love the play. Not, mind you, that it is a bundle of laughs, as my husband remarked somewhat sourly, when someone asked him if he had enjoyed the show. Enjoyed is not quite the word.
As for the production, however, I'm not sure. I saw a youth theatre production of this same play some years ago, and although it was an ambitious project, it worked extremely well. The kids were committed and there was something very moving about seeing the whole thing done by a company whose oldest member couldn't have been more than 19 years old. But this mixture of professional and amateur was problematic and the main stumbling block was the play itself. It is quite impossible to treat the Crucible like a "devised drama" or "text", the theatrical buzz word these days, and an alarming concept for playwrights everywhere. Sometimes it seems to me as if we don't write plays any more. We draft out texts for other people to manipulate at will. A text can be altered to suit a production and a cast which involves a mixture of talents. It can result in a worthwhile project, and of course it involves "inclusion" - another buzz word and one that is always good for a few more thousands in funding. (Or am I being exceptionally cynical here?)
On this tour, the main parts were taken by professional actors, with the so called minor parts being allotted to amateurs from the various venues. I don't know where they were recruited from, but on the whole and in the production I saw, they were not particularly competent, so maybe were simply volunteers.
But the real stumbling block is that there are no minor roles in Miller's plays. Each character, each scene is a finely crafted part of some astonishing whole. One of the kids in the audience, sitting behind me, said to her friend "So who IS the main character?" and I sensed the dead hand of Standard Grade or Higher preparation in there, with teachers posing unanswerable questions.
Whenever one of the "community" participants forgot his lines, stumbled over words, or gabbled incomprehensibly, our suspension of disbelief was broken, a large gap appeared in the production, and the play started sliding into it. Or at least that was the way I felt.
The audience, though, were appreciative, so maybe I am being too hard. And one of the nicest things about the whole evening, was the way in which the very young audience which consisted in part of large numbers of school students, who were obviously studying the play at some level, behaved so immaculately. They were interested, absorbed and much more attentive than most adult audiences of my experience.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dr Who and Monet

The new Doctor is, frankly, the bees' knees. I loved Christopher Eccleston's dangerously contained energy but Tennant's glittering, mercurial and manic air is just as engaging. Also he's probably the most emotional Doctor so far. But then a lot of that is down to the writing, which is superb. Just as I used to watch it from behind a cushion, I now watch it with my tongue practically hanging out at the quality of the scripts. The trouble is that so much else suffers by comparison. I think the fault with almost everything else (other than some soaps, see previous post) is a chronic lack of subtlety. Why does so much television drama assume that the audience - arguably the most sophisticated ever- needs to have everything flagged up and explained all the time?
The Impressionists, for example, just clunked along. Not even a bunch of high calibre actors could do anything with all those conversations that seemed to consist of people telling each other things they already knew, for the sake of the audience. Way back when I was starting out in Radio Drama it was considered to be the sin that knew no forgiveness, so why aren't all these hordes of script editors picking up on it? Or are they all so wet behind the ears that they don't notice it either?
I found myself hiding behind a cushion, just as I used to do with those old episodes of the Doctor, but for quite different reasons. The visuals were lovely, but I didn't for one instant believe that was the way these guys talked to each other. I don't believe they proclaimed how avant garde they all were. I don't believe they were so art-history-book sure of what they were doing at the time that they sat around name dropping and having profound discussions about their revolutionary new talent. It was like a third rate audio tour. I write scripts for audio tours myself, sometimes, and I know the pitfalls. And yet once again, you sensed that there was a proper drama in there, struggling to elbow its way out. Maybe the poor writer sensed that too, but was browbeaten by aforementioned hordes of script editors firm in their belief that the audience needed to be educated.
Last summer, I went down to Kirkcudbright and saw a magnificent Monet. It was part of a travelling exhibition from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow which was closed for renovation and is due to open this summer. I forget the name of the picture, but it was a simple stretch of Mediterranean coastline with a village and the sea. Perhaps it was the setting - a smallish room, not that well lit. Perhaps it was the fact that the picture seemed closer and more accessible than it would have in a bigger and more formal gallery. But it was a stunning experience, a glittering and mercurial performance too. It drew you inexorably from the other side of the room. People would stand in front of it till those coming after jostled them out of the way, and then veer back round to look at it again. We weren't simply viewing a picture. We were experiencing it and we would never be quite the same again.
Out in the little shop, we searched for a print of the image to take away, but although prints were on sale, we came away empty handed. The prints were nice enough but it was as if the light had gone out of them. Only the original would do and I expect they would have noticed if we had tried to take it with us. The TV version of the Impressionists is, I'm afraid, only a print of a much more enticing original.
Meanwhile, back with the inimitable Dr Who, the return of Sarah Jane and K-Nine were handled brilliantly as well. I can remember a time when I wanted to BE Sarah Jane. OK, so now I want to BE Joyce Barnaby but back then I was a bit more adventurous. Sarah Jane didn't look all that much different, and the whole episode had an emotional depths that brought a tear to my somewhat jaded eye.
PS I'm about to start work on a new play, called The Physic Garden, about a Glasgow gardener in the early 1800s. David Tennant, will you be in it please?