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!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Eeenie meenie... what next?

People are always asking me 'where do you get your ideas from' and I have to explain that I never have any problem with ideas, more that I never have enough to time to write as much as I would like. This is a problem which is exercising me right now.
I have finished my non fiction book about Gigha and I'm still waiting for publication date, which has been postponed for a week or two. But the launch of what has turned out to be a rather nice (ie nicely produced!) illustrated hardback is scheduled for 22nd November, so I'm assuming it will be in the bookshops by then.
Which in theory, means that I should already be deep into a new book. What contributors to various writers' message boards call the 'WIP' or work in progress.
And I am. I really am.
I have an idea for a brand new novel. I have a working title for it (The Fifth Mary). My agent thinks that it is a good commercial idea, with interesting characters and a strong plot. I have done lots of research. Although not a historical novel, there is a historical mystery, related to Mary Queen of Scots, at the heart of it. I have written a long and detailed synopsis (30 pages or more) and already have a few chapters under my belt.
So what's the problem?
Well the problem is my last unpublished novel, which is still tapping at the window of my consciousness and wailing 'Let me in! Let me in!'
I finished what I thought was the final revised draft of it (then called Darragh Martin) about a year ago, but Polygon/Birlinn who published The Curiosity Cabinet and ARE publishing God's Islanders within the next few weeks, didn't even want to look at it, on the grounds that it didn't fit their current list.
So my agent sent it out to other publishers, but the reception was lukewarm to say the least, so I did what all writers do in this situation - filed it away in the bottom drawer, and pressed on with something else, in this case a new play, which was subsequently produced in Glasgow, and a new non fiction book, my history of the people of the island of Gigha, which is about to be published in hardback and which has taken just about all my time and energy for the past year.
About six months ago, I took Darragh out of his drawer, scanned through the chapters, looked at some of the feedback from publishers, and realised that for the most part, they were right. The structure was too complex, and - perhaps more important - there was a gaping hole at the centre of the novel, and at the heart of one of the main characters. I didn't do anything about it at the time, since I was wrestling with God's Islanders, but made a few notes, and closed the drawer.
Not long afterwards, I came across a couple of references to the corncrake, in poetry, and started doodling the name on the old manuscript. It seemed peculiarly evocative of one of the characters, who comes and goes like that elusive bird.
Then the dreams began.
It is, I have to say, rather like being haunted.
The characters knock at the window of your subconscious, refusing to be ignored.
They lurk at the back of your mind, popping up at inopportune moments.
This is what I do, they say. This is where you went wrong. This is the way I am. This is the way I have to be. And what are you going to do about it? And what about this scene, and this possibility, and why did you never explore that bit of me?
It is almost sinister in its intensity.
Now, whenever I try to knuckle down to the new 'work in progress' the old one intervenes, muscling in, demanding attention.
So a couple of weeks ago, I got it out again and started revising the synopsis and suddenly it all slotted into place, and I thought 'No wonder nobody would buy it, because this, this and this was wrong with it, and now I can see, and now I need to do this, this and this to put it right.'
Which is what I am about to do.
Darragh Martin has become The Corncrake. Instead of being told from several different and unnecessarily complicated perspectives, it is going to be told in the third person as a straightforward (and rather different) story, spanning the years from the 1950s to the present day.
I will try to write the WIP while I am doing it, but I make myself no promises. And in any case, I may be on a hiding to nothing, because even when I have finished it, who will take a second look at a rejected novel?
Better better better says my head to forge on with the new.
But all the same as Ceit and Darragh, but especially Ceit, lovely, magical Ceit, who got so short changed in the last version, pace through my mind, demanding to be heard, there's nothing I can do but write the novel as I now know it was meant to be.
More in due course.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Arvon Foundation Writing Courses


I'm just back from tutoring a week's fiction writing course for the Arvon Foundation at Moniack Mhor in the highlands - a lovely group of people, all intent on making that leap from shorter fiction to writing a full length novel, all working in an inspirational setting. These courses are hard work for the tutors, but when the people 'gel', as this group seemed to, from the outset, there is nothing better for getting the creative juices flowing, for tutors as well as participants.
Partly, it's the setting, which is magical: an old farmhouse and cottage, high on a hillside, with stunning views. There is a huge welcoming kitchen stocked with all kinds of excellent food and a sitting/dining room (warmed by a real fire) where everyone eats together around a long table, where workshops are held each morning, and where people gather each evening to read and listen and pool their ideas.
The way these courses work is that everyone gets his or her own breakfast and lunch, but the students are divided into groups of three and each group cooks one evening meal for the rest during the week. The tutors don't have to cook, but they are kept extremely busy in other ways. Apart from the long morning workshops, there are one to one sessions every afternoon! But even the cooking isn't an imposition, since all the food is bought in, menus are set in advance and detailed cooking instructions supplied. There is also a hefty commercial dishwasher, which takes about 4 minutes to complete a cycle! Add to that the odd glass of wine for the cooks, and the process seemed to go very smoothly. The results were invariably delicious.
In between times students are free to write, read, daydream (an essential part of the writing process and one which is too often neglected) and go for long walks through some of the most stunning countryside in Scotland, in the hills above Loch Ness.
Participants on this occasion ranged from a London based journalist to a retired man living in France, who had flown in specially for the course. The week was warm, friendly and more importantly, produced some excellent writing. There are always two tutors who consult over the course structure in advance - in this instance it was myself, and novelist David Armstrong, with a midweek visit from the incredibly talented Ruth Thomas, who brought her blissful baby Arthur along for the ride (and her friend Jenny Renton to mind him while she did her reading.)
It was, in short, a week full of unexpected epiphanies, and one which I would be delighted to repeat at any time. I think I probably got as much out of it as the students. I drove home through Glencoe, and stopped for a rest at Inveruglas on the shores of Loch Lomond, feeling quite stunned by the sheer beauty of the landscape. A double espresso in the little cafe there gave me the necessary kick to get me home safely. But Moniack, and the ideas it inspired, have been with me ever since.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Robin Hood again

Something curiously lacking in this production so far, but I'll reserve my judgement for a few more episodes. Its shortcomings were only highlighted by the wonderful, watchable 'A Knight's Tale', which was shown later, on another channel.
There was something almost tentative about it, but it may improve. And why was the wench who Robin snogged first wearing more eye make-up than your average Goth?
Robin himself lacks a certain something that Guy (of course) had in spades. It would have been much more interesting to reverse the casting, so that we had the moodier, more powerful and undoubtedly more handsome Armitage as Robin (all those crusading experiences would have been more believable) and Jonas Armstrong as the younger, quite sexy, but spoiled brat, who had stayed at home, and taken advantage. I reckon that would have worked better all round.
Incidentally, is anybody out there thinking of casting Armitage in the part he was so obviously born to play? I mean Heathcliff of course. And please, please, please, can I dramatise it? Please? Please?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Robin Hood, Robin Hood....

A late and much lamented friend of the family is always indelibly associated in my mind with Robin Hood. Whenever the old film was shown on the telly, he and my husband would phone each other up, and spend time chortling over the green tights. (Maid Marian is actually to be seen weaving those tights in that early film. Or at least there seems to be something green on her loom.....) The pair of them had been members of the same fencing club - the sword fighting kind - and would practice in the garden, or shoot longbows. One summer, I remember, they had an axe throwing contest on the lawn.

This week's Radio Times shows a Maid Marian in what looks more like lycra than homespun, but as with Doctor Who, there's a whole new generation to be enticed into viewing. Robin is being played by a friend of a young friend. I must say he looks very very young to me. Policemen, doctors and bank managers also look alarmingly boyish. 'What is he doing out without his mammy?' as they say up here in Scotland. On the other hand, Guy of Gisborne, alias the amazing Richard Armitage, smouldering away in black leather, on the cover of that same Radio Times, is obviously there for us slightly... how can I put this?... more mature ladies. Nobody smoulders like our Richard.
'Don't I look like that when I'm in my bike leathers?' asked my husband, somewhat plaintively. There's no answer to that one, is there? But then I'm no Maid Marian either....

Launch Parties

This week, I was contacted by the events manager at my publisher - some time ago, our local and very writer-friendly branch of Ottakars had said that they were interested in launching God's Islanders. When I went in last week, though, there was a general air of preoccupation. Like all paranoid writers, I thought 'was it something I said?' but of course the changeover to Waterstones is taking up so much time that launching books about small Scottish islands is probably the last thing on their collective minds.
I had an email from the publisher today to say that the shop will be happy to launch the book in late November, and could I supply them with a list of people to invite? I've been pondering this ever since. Numbers are reasonably limited, close friends and relatives are a must, as are members of local writers and book groups who have supported me over the years. But since this is a book about Gigha, it would seem rather sad if nobody from the island was there - and might it be possible to have a second launch on Gigha in the spring I wonder?
Meanwhile, our friends who run a local chandlery have told us that they will definitely be stocking the book, and Birlinn are also looking into the possibility of a signing session there. This is not as mad as it sounds - many people visit big chandleries in November/December looking for Christmas gifts for yachties, (I've done it myself!) and the little isle of Gigha is the first port of call for so many Clyde sailors when they decide to venture further afield, and round the mull of Kintyre - a daunting prospect in bad weather, as the Vikings knew to their cost, so many hundreds of years earlier! If you want to know more about them, you'll have to read the book.