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!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stained Glass - A Village Ghost Story



This ghost story was first published many years ago, in a magazine called Ayrshire Life, by Kenneth Roy, now - among much else - editor of The Scottish Review, to which I contribute from time to time. It's a story with a springtime setting - just to cheer us all up - but as a very spooky tale, it might also give you a wee frisson for Christmas!


The renovation had taken time, effort and money but now it was almost complete. Jack had bought the stone cottage in the long village street because he wanted somewhere of his own, a place on which he could lavish a little affection. Originally, the house had been part of a terrace. On the right it was still attached to the row of old weaver’s houses, but on the left there was a neat gap where another cottage had long since been demolished. ‘Room for possible extension’ the estate agent’s schedule had said.


Jack had also acquired the demolished cottage’s wilderness of a garden as part of his own, though as yet he had scarcely done any gardening. He had been much too busy on the house. His neighbour on the right hand side was an elderly widow who lived alone. A friendly pub was within walking distance and for the first time since the sudden death of his wife, a couple of years earlier, he found himself achieving a kind of contentment. He had worked steadily through the winter and now, with the coming of spring, he could look with pleasure on newly sanded and waxed floors, a restored stone fireplace, a white tiled bathroom and a kitchen in fumed oak. He had resisted the temptation to buy an Aga. That had been his wife’s dream, not his, and besides, funds were getting low.

Like all old houses, the cottage had objected to the disturbance, throwing a hundred problems at him. There had been a certain satisfaction in finding solutions. In his more imaginative moments, he thought that he and the house had sized each other up, and grown used to each other. All its nightly noises were familiar now: the creak and rustle of cooling wood, the tap, tap of hot water in the pipes, the occasional mousy scuttering from the loft. There were idiosycrasies too: the spare bedroom door that would not stay shut, but swung open without warning; the cool spot at the bend in the stairs. But none of them worried him, although his occasional visitors - friends from the city - commented on them. But there was a consistency about them that was reassuring. Now he could begin to think about getting the garden into shape. He anticipated the work involved with real pleasure.

He was a young man and had taken the loss of his wife very badly. They had planned children, later. Now he was torn between sorrow over what might have been and relief that he hadn’t been left alone to cope with a family. Unable to bear the pain of so many associations in the city where they had been together since graduation, he had asked for a transfer and come to work in a nearby town where there was a smaller, quieter branch of his company. He didn’t care so much for promotion any more. All his hopes for the future had been shared with Debbie. Now she was gone, he was content to spend all his free time on the house.

“He hasn’t an idle bone in his body” they said of him in the village and that was praise indeed, for they were slow to accept strangers. But they had begun to like him.

The house, however, lacked one finishing touch and at first he was at a loss how to remedy it. At the bend in the stairs and quite high up, there was a round stained glass window, like a small porthole. Or rather there had once been such a window but what was left of it was so cracked and splintered that he had had to seal it with hardboard to keep out the winter draughts until he should decide what to do about it. He was very much afraid that he was going to have to fill the space with clear glass but for some reason the idea disappointed him. He was conscientious about such things, liking the unusual features that characterised the place.

Jack had been discussing the problem one night in the pub with a friend who had come down from the city to admire the work on the cottage. Billy, the landlord, happened to overhear their conversation, or it may have been that he was listening. At any rate, later on in the evening, he approached Jack.

‘About that stained glass…’

‘Yes?’

‘I could let you have a window. I didn’t know yours was broken. This one’s just the same.’

Jack was mystified. ‘You could?’

‘Aye. It came from the cottage next door to yours, just before it was demolished. That was before my time, but they took out the glass. So my father said. I suppose someone thought it was too nice to throw away. It’s been up in our loft for years. You’re welcome to it if you can use it.’

‘Why was the other cottage demolished?’ asked Jack’s friend.

‘I wouldn’t know.’ Billy shrugged. ‘It lay empty for years. Eventually the dry rot and the wet rot and the woodworm got to it. The way it nearly got to yours.’ He mopped at the bar with a cloth. ‘They were always a pair those two houses. Built at the same time. But houses in this village weren’t fetching the prices they are today and nobody could be bothered with it.’

‘It’s given me a nice bit of extra land,’ said Jack. ‘I’m going to have my vegetable garden there.’

‘You’re really into all this self sufficiency stuff, aren’t you?’ said his friend, draining his glass.

‘Not really. But I’ve always wanted to grow veggies.’

‘Tatties’ said Billy.

‘What?’

‘Potatoes, that’s what you have to grow in the first year. Cleans the ground. You’ll need seed potatoes.’

‘Will I?‘

‘You will. And since you’ve got the land you may as well have the window.”




Billy brought it round the next day. It was wrapped neatly in yellowing newspaper. Jack took it out and set it carefully on the floor, sidetracked for a moment by the old advertisements for corsetry and tricycles. He folded the newspaper carefully. Worth keeping, he thought. He could see that the window was a fine piece of work. The glass was clear red with an intricate little chain of flowers and leaves as a border. Afraid of damaging it, he contracted a local glazier to set it in and was pleased to notice how the afternoon sun cast a rosy glow through the red glass, shedding a beam of light over his stairs.

The window fascinated him. Every time he passed through his hallway, he found himself pausing to admire it. The morning after its installation, a fine spring Sunday, he took a bowl of warm water up to his landing, stood on a stepladder, and began to clean the old glass, carefully sponging away the dirt of years, and the traces of putty left by the glazier. Presently, however, he found his attention focussed on the patch of garden he could see outside. The stone walls of his house were very thick and blinkered his view. Also the glass itself had a flaw in it that slightly blurred his vision but, leaning a little to the left of his window, he found that he was looking down at what seemed to be a small cherry tree. He could just make out a blur of blossom, as well as a patch of grass with scattered petals beneath. Somebody was sitting there. The warp in the glass prevented him from seeing clearly but it seemed to be a young woman, dressed in light clothing, her head bent over her lap. She might be reading, or even sewing. He screwed up his eyes. It occurred to him that he must be looking into next door’s garden: the one to the right of his own house. The window must have somehow funnelled his vision.

The old lady had visitors; a grand-daughter perhaps. There was a suggestion of long dark hair, a slim frame beneath. He stopped in his work of cleaning, his hand poised over the glass. A young man had come up and slipped his arms around the girl from behind. Jack saw a pale shirt, pink in the light from the glass, though he guessed it must be white. A loose shirt, dark trousers. The girl reached up her hands to grasp his. The man bent over and kissed the top of her head. Then she half rose, and they were in each others arms, embracing passionately in the sunlight.

Jack was embarrassed. He felt himself beginning to blush. It was as though he had intruded on their sudden moment of intimacy, although they could not know it. He took himself downstairs so that he shouldn’t be tempted to spy on the couple from the bedroom window. He was a good natured young man, and felt as though it wasn’t quite honest to watch them like this.

But the stained glass held its own attraction. The morning wore on towards lunch time. Whenever he had reason to pass through the hall, going out to the shop for the Sunday papers, or carrying a mug of coffee from kitchen to sitting room, he found his eyes straying towards it. It made him uncomfortable.

At last, he went out into the garden, on the pretext of making some plans for new borders and his vegetable patch. To his right, the old hedge between his own land and his neighbour’s garden next door was high and thick, a tangle of rosa rugosa and privet and juniper. Much further down the garden it thinned out a bit and it was there that he usually looked over it, and held friendly conversations with the old lady, as she pottered about among her roses. He had given her his phone number. ‘If you need anything, just give me a call’ he had told her, promising to come through and do some weeding for her later in the spring.

But he could see nothing from this end, close to the house. He stood outside his back door for a long time, listening, but he could hear only birdsong, and the usual Sunday village sounds: a distant lawnmower, an occasional car, the excited mooing of cows let out to grass at last, the lazy drone of a small plane, practising aerobatics, high above. Nothing else. No voices at all. Were they still kissing?

Unable to withstand his own gnawing curiosity he went back upstairs to the window, stood on the ladder, and peered out again. He felt extraordinarily furtive, seeing without being seen. The couple were still together. There was a desperation about their caresses that he found both moving and distressing. Thoroughly ashamed of himself, he was about to descend and leave them to it, when he noticed a sudden quick movement, just at the edge of the glass.

A third figure had come within the compass of his vision, another man he thought, from the general size and bearing. The newcomer was standing just behind the tree trunk, in an attitude uncomfortably suggestive of extreme tension. Indeed the figure seemed at once furtive and yet poised as if ready to spring. As Jack watched, he saw the man raise a hand, a whole arm. But it was too long, too strong. He was holding something. What was it? A stick? Worse, an axe? He was stretching it up and out with a terrible tension about all his movements, a prelude to violence. It was the only interpretation Jack could place upon the gesture.

In an instant he had jumped from the ladder, and was running down the stairs, out of the back door and into his own garden, shouting ‘Hey!’ foolishly. ‘Hey! Stop that! Stop that!’
But even before he reached the part of his garden where the hedge ran low enough to see over, he felt that something was wrong. Feeling foolish, he parted the leaves and peered back along the length of the old lady’s garden. It was quite empty. A well tended lawn gave way to a newly dug vegetable patch. Jack remembered that she had told him her son was coming round to do it for her. There was a little group of apple trees bunched up at the far end. It was as he had remembered. She had no cherry tree. No other trees at all.

He turned slowly back to his own garden, looking towards his cottage seeking some explanation, but it too was basking innocently in the spring sunshine.

‘How stupid to live in a place for six months and not to remember,’ he thought, confused. His gaze slid across neglected flowerbeds to the rotting stumps of the old fence posts that had once marked the border between the two gardens, his own, and the demolished cottage on the other side. There was no cherry tree in the garden of his own cottage. The cherry stood fair and square in the middle of what had once been the lawn of the house next door. He could see it now, quite far away, with a pool of pink petals shed on the lengthening grass beneath. He glanced up to his little round window. Not easy to see that garden from up there. Particularly if you were standing to the left of it. Impossible to see the cherry tree. Completely impossible. The words dinned into his mind. His legs moved reluctantly as he retraced his steps back up to the window and peered out. The patch of grass beneath the cherry tree was quite empty now, the red glass turning the shed petals a vivid shade of crimson.




He had the window removed, the very next day. He gave it back to Billy with his thanks, explaining that it made his hallway too dark.

“I’ll just get some plain glass” he said.

With what may be considered a remarkable lack of curiosity, Jack made no enquiries at all in the village as to the history of the demolished house next door to his own. He liked his cottage far too much for that. Better not to know what had happened. When that year’s flowering was over he had the cherry tree chopped down. “It only covers the lawn with dead petals” he said, by way of explanation. Some of the villagers thought it was a shame. Others, older people for the most part, did not.

Catherine Czerkawska



Saturday, December 18, 2010

Something Spooky for Christmas.



I do love a good ghost story, for Christmas, don't you?  Looking through this week's Radio Times (the BBC's definitive UK magazine for television listings) I was excited to see that there was to be a new dramatisation of M.R.James' classic ghost story: O Whistle and I'll  Come to You. I won't spoil the denouement of this by relating the ending, but if you haven't read it, this is a tale about a loner, a university professor who, holidaying beside a remote stretch of English coastline, discovers an ancient whistle, tucked away among old ruins. The whistle has a Latin inscription which translates as 'who is this who is coming?' And yes - he blows the whistle. Even typing these words gives me a little frisson of pleasurable fright. By the end of the story he discovers who, or what, comes in answer to that whistle. And no - it isn't very nice!
Back in the late sixties, there was an excellent dramatisation of this same story, directed by Jonathan Miller, with Michael Hordern as the professor. The above picture is a still from that production. It was peculiarly atmospheric - deftly done - evoking the dreadful sense of nightmare that James so successfully creates in the original story. But reading about the new production, in the Radio Times, I was astonished to see that they seem to have decided not just to 'update it' which might have worked, but also to do away with the whistle. And as anyone who has read the tale knows, the whistle is the key. The whistle, with all that it implies in terms of history, belief, and reasons why, is absolutely central. To change that is to change the whole story, and that being the case, why not have the courage of your own ideas and write a completely new spooky drama? While I'm reluctant to pre-judge any drama without seeing it first, I don't think I'll be watching this one. Too afraid of spoiling it for myself. Instead, I'll give myself a Christmas treat and go back to the original story.
But it does bear out something I've noticed about dramatisations. They tend to fall into two sorts: first there are those where the scriptwriter clearly loves and understands the original, knows that changes must be made to recreate a story in a completely different medium, but never makes those changes just for their own sake. Emma Thompson's screenplay for Sense and Sensibility is as fine an example as any - not a word or image out of place, truly filmic, but also entirely true to the original.
Then - sadly - there are the dramatisations  where the scriptwriter  believes that he or she (and it so often seems to be a 'he'!) could make a much better job of it than the original writer, and proceeds to demonstrate that he or she can't. Into this category falls just about every attempted dramatisation of Wuthering Heights! I don't know about this version of Whistle, but I have my suspicions.
Back to Christmas spooks. If you want to terrify yourself, you could do worse that get hold of the collected ghost stories of M. R. James - read Whistle, and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, and Casting the Runes (some excellent film versions of that, over the years)  or the ghost stories of E.F. Benson. These were much overshadowed by his wonderful Lucia, but still fine stories. Or tell some real tales on Christmas Eve. Like the time I was walking down our village street, at twilight, and crossed over to speak to the old man on the other side - only to find that he disappeared, as instantly as though somebody had switched off a television picture. Later on, my husband said, 'That'll have been Jock. He always used to walk about the village in the evening.'
Jock was the village handyman, chimney sweep, blacksmith, who knew everything about everything. His picture is currently hanging in our village shop, which was once his workshop, keeping a keen eye on things. And there are those who believe he might still be around. Me too.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Life Like Other People's

Been reading and relishing Alan Bennett's funny, moving autobiographical book: A Life Like Other People's, not least because - although I knew that Bennett had lived in Leeds - I hadn't realised where he had lived, and how close his house had been to the place where - albeit some years later -  I spent the first few years of my life. There is something uniquely satisfying about recognising a place with which you are intimately familiar, in the work of a fine writer - although I'm not sure quite why this should be! But when Bennett describes Tong Road, and Green Lane, Bruce Street and Wellington Road, I am back there again, walking hand in hand with my mother, up Hall Lane, on the way to my little primary school: Holy Family. To get there, we had to pass close to the massive, looming presence of Armley Gaol, and in those days I hardly knew what it was, thinking it some magical, sooty castle.  Even more moving, though, are his depictions of his family, his  'aunties' and their attempts at glamour, their thwarted ambitions and unexplored talents, and these too have echoes in certain members of my own family, now long gone.  The picture above shows my own 'aunty' looking a mite sultry, my handsome Uncle George - and my little gymslipped mum, standing in Whitehall Road, Leeds, some time in the thirties, I think.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Moomins: Tove Jansson's Genius

Given the state of the weather in Scotland at present, I posted on Facebook that I wanted to 'fill my tummy full of pine needles' and hibernate for the rest of the winter. To my surprise, many of my friends had no idea what I was talking about, and had never read Tove Jansson's 'Moomin' books. I can understand the reluctance to try them, because if you don't know about Moomins, and have never read the books, you may well assume that they are the usual twee anthropomorphism and leave it at that.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I read my first Moomin book - like so many books that I later came to love - because my father discovered  and enthused about them. My family were great readers. My mum's side of the family (Leeds, Irish, working class) gave me a series of old and magical  'Wonder Books' full of fairy tales and extracts from the classics. They also gave me Noddy and the Famous Five and the Secret Seven and the Faraway Tree. I was pretty obsessive about Noddy, much to my aunt's chagrin. She had to read them to me over and over again, thinking, so she told me when I grew up, what a selfish little pig he was!
Blyton was followed by Just William, The Alice books, the Wind in the Willows and then - later on - Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and an abiding love of Dickens. My Polish scientist dad gave me quirkier reads - well, quirky for the time: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, long before they became popular, the Narnia books, Three Men in a Boat, 1066 and All That - and the Moomins. But of all of them, I think it is the Moomin books that I love most.
It is almost impossible to categorise these books, which means they probably wouldn't have a hope in hell of being published nowadays - a sobering thought. The earlier books in the series, Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland and so on, are lighthearted, funny, poetic, imaginative but always with a little thread of what I can only describe as wisdom running through them. No heavy handed life lessons here - just a profoundly reassuring but unsentimental understanding of the power of love and the value of kindness. When Moomintroll wears the magical and dangerous Hobgoblin's hat, and has his entire appearance changed by it, when all his friends don't recognise him, and mock him, and tell him to go away, it is his mother, Moominmamma, who looks into his eyes for a long while, and says 'yes, you are my Moomintroll.'
When he was little, this was my son's very favourite book. His battered copy still falls open at an illustration of a  bridge over a stream, with young Moomintroll and his free-spirited friend Snufkin contentedly dangling their legs over it. I don't know quite why this image exerted such power over him, but I understand it very well. Many of us, I think, like to live our literature if we can!
The books though, do become more reflective and - eventually - somewhat darker. Moominland Midwinter, in which Moomintroll finds that he wakes up from hibernation much too soon and has to learn to adjust to winter, is not only entertaining but an exploration of other ways of living and our tolerance of them. We have all known - and secretly admired - a Little My (brave, difficult, rude, edgy, impulsive) a shy Misabel, an obsessively tidy Fillyjonk. The energetic Hemulen, who desperately tries to organise everyone and make them participate in winter sports whether they want to or not,  is a creation at once so comic, so recognisable, and so ultimately poignant that it's no wonder Philip Pullman calls Jansson a 'genius'.
By the time we get to Moominvalley in November (in which the moomins don't really figure at all) and Moominpappa at Sea, which are both about the acceptance of change and loss and other profoundly adult emotions, as well as beautifully simple and imaginative 'reads' Jansson is displaying awe-inspiring skills.
I dramatised her short adult novel, The Summer Book, a gentle story about the relationship between a little girl and her grandmother, for BBC Radio 4. It was directed by Marilyn Imrie and starred Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson. I had more letters about that production than almost anything else I ever dramatised for radio.
Jansson was a Swedish Finn, an artist as well as a writer, certainly a philosopher. The illustrations are part of the unique charm of these books. But it wasn't till I visited Finland itself, and worked there as a teacher of English for a couple of years, that I realised just how very 'Finnish' these books are, how the changing seasons are so important in the lives of the Finnish people, and just how many of my lovely students seemed to display all kinds of traits to be found in the books themselves. It wasn't necessary but it certainly added another dimension of understanding. I adored Jansson's work before I went to Finland. I admired it even more by the time I came back.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Father, in Poland, in the Snow



I'm spending a lot of time researching Polish history in general, my family history in particular, and just generally feeling my way back into that time and place. I find myself absolutely enchanted by it! It's almost impossible to describe to a non-writer that feeling of entering into another world that seizes you at the start of a project and - with the occasional hiccup when you wonder what on earth you are doing with your time - possesses you for days, weeks, months and just possibly years on end.
That's my father, Julian, in the picture. He was Julian, not the more Polish Juliusz, since my grandfather was an anglophile. Just as well really, given what happened next. Not sure how old Julian was in this picture, but he learned to ski and ride at the same time as he learned to walk. In the UK, where he finished up at the end of the war, these were not really pursuits he could ever resume. Many years later, I remember him pony trekking, here in Scotland, when our son was very small. He seemed as comfortable then, on horseback, as he must have been as a small boy. I'm not sure that he ever tried ski-ing again, although in this picture he's a supremely confident young man. If you look closely, you'll see that there's a man in an apron, in the background, standing beside the tall structure (what is it? I don't know!) and, presumably, 'keeping an eye' on him.

The picture above - summer, this time - shows him at the wheel of his father's car, (I do like the motoring gear, the goggles etc!) In the background, you can just make out a building of some sort, a group of cottages or thatched houses. And again, it's the sense of mystery about old pictures like this that I love. When and where was it. Certainly pre war. Can't you just smell the leather of the car seats? It was the only car in the district and my young grandfather couldn't really afford it, but he bought it anyway. And what is the blurred object at the top right? This picture always gives me a little frisson since the child that my father was looks so like the child that I was!
But of course, his life changed very radically, in the UK. He was a 'refugee alien' by then and such pursuits as ski-ing were way beyond his reach. He had a choice. He could work in the mills or the mines, so he worked in a textile mill for some years, and went to 'night school.' I remember him cycling home on his push bike, when I was a little girl.
He became a very distinguished research scientist, which says a great deal for his spirit, and his determination - considering that he had lost everything, and I mean everything, except a handful of battered photographs to remind him of his past.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Copyright, Intellectual Property, Publishers and and Writers

Recent debates about these issues on Twitter and Facebook became heated and no wonder. As writers, we feel that our very livelihoods are at stake. But since at least one of these threads degenerated into an unpleasant attack on publishers, who are surely not the villains of the piece, I thought it might be worth revisiting the subject.

One of the problems is always assumed to be that we are faced with a generation of young people who have grown up with the idea that all information 'out there' should be free. They will happily pirate software, download and share tunes. Partly, this is the fault of an older generation who, in far too many cases, condone what is essentially theft. We can all help to remedy this in a small way, by setting a good example for our children and grandchildren and pointing out just how much effort - and expense - goes into creating the finished product. But given the impossibility of instituting mass prosecutions (actually, it's possible, but financially ruinous) I think everyone involved in the so-called Creative Industries needs to be able to debate these issues, and explore ways of dealing with them, to the advantage of all concerned.

Most writers can think of bouquets and the odd brickbat we would like to award to certain publishers (sometimes, come to think of it, the same publisher!) but I also think that when the relationship works well, as it so often does, we value it enormously. As a personal example, I could name Nick Hern, who has been publishing plays for many years and keeping them in print as well. Every year, when a nice little cheque arrives for my royalty share in one of his excellent anthologies of Scottish plays, I find myself giving thanks for his commitment and dedication.

But we also need publishers because they can save us from ourselves. Self publishing is a respectable option for professional writers with a project which may not be commercially lucrative enough for conventional publishing or a non fiction project with a very specialised market. I've self published a poetry pamphlet to my own satisfaction - but most of the poems had been published elsewhere first. And I wouldn't rule it out for other projects. But we have all read - or tried to read - dire examples of self published work, where it is clear that the writer has a fine conceit of his own abilities coupled with no editorial sense whatsoever. Writing is a craft and too many beginning writers seem to have little idea of the hard graft, the many revisions and drafts - as well as the vast amount of work involved in designing, producing and distributing that small paper and cardboard entity known as a book. Like all jobs which we know little about, this part of the business is a great deal more complicated than we suspect. It is argued that there should be far fewer gatekeepers, only 'aggregators' and that people should be allowed to decide for themselves. I've been known to argue as much, myself. But the grim reality is also that it can be very hard to find the occasional treasure amid the mountain of ill-thought-out verbiage and most of those treasures are the work of fellow professionals with many years of experience.

However, changes in technology do mean that all of us are going to have to adjust our way of thinking, publishers as well, although I'm sure many of them - perhaps the small to medium concerns most of all - have already taken this on board. When it comes to new developments, the video games industry may have something useful to teach us. We often assume that if people are willing to pirate music, they will also pirate  game downloads. Experience and hard evidence, however, tell developers that this is not necessarily the case. Huge numbers of people will happily pay £5 or £6 for a video game download, even quite a simple one, and many companies of all sizes are making themselves a very good living this way. Not only that, but the stakes are that much lower, so there's room for experimentation and the odd failure.

So we must ask why. Partly it seems to be the perception of value for money. Partly, it's because, even with these reasonably simple games,  there is the possibility of an update, or other 'enrichment' in the future. And partly, I suspect, it's that - although the video games industry has its problems, a relationship has developed between producer and customer (often by means of related online material, blogs etc) which in turn leads to an acknowledgement of value and a willingness to pay. Since a similar positive relationship usually exists between writer and reader, we must find new ways of tapping into all that goodwill. Most of us already do this,  but I get the sense that the games industry is also researching itself in a seriously committed way, (my own son is part of that movement!) while so much of publishing's relationship with the new technology seems to be posited on assumption, rather than hard evidence. But perhaps it's too soon. Perhaps the evidence will come. At any rate, the advent of e-readers, of Kindle and similar methods of delivery for the written word mean that the technology is in place to do the same thing for publishing. These are early days, and there are interesting possibilities for writers and for booksellers as well as publishers, in facilitating this method of delivery, not as a replacement for the conventional book, but as another aspect of distribution to a changing demographic.

As writers, we should be supporting bodies such as the Society of Authors, in making sure that we are fairly rewarded for our Intellectual Property within this changing market. But I think we might also stop talking about copyright, and start talking about IP. Intellectual Property theft has many manifestations, from the blatantly criminal pirating of material, on an industrial scale, to the borrowing-without-permission of copy from a blog or website as a one-off irritant. The former should be addressed with the full might of the law - or as much of it as publishers and writers can afford. The latter might be better remedied, in the first instance at least, by pointing out the 'error' and asking for attribution. In hard cases, fighting fire with fire, online ‘outing’ of culprits can have devastating effects on recalcitrant offenders. But whatever the transgression, it is the concept of Intellectual Property that seems to me to stand most chance of appealing to the emotional involvement of those people at the other end of the chain, who are guilty of the many small piracies that could add up to a big loss of income for all of us. If I accuse you of infringing my copyright, you may not give a damn. If I accuse you of stealing my Intellectual Property, you may at least pause for thought. Words are powerful tools when it comes to stirring up emotions. As writers, we know this better than most!

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to turn the tide by conventional means. Somebody working in the video games industry said to me, 'Effectively, you can't really protect your IP. People will steal it if they want to.' But the companies involved at least do whatever they can to try to protect their creative ideas, not least in enforcing secrecy agreements on their employees. There can be few professional writers who haven't seen at least one cherished idea turning up with somebody else's name attached. Most often it's pure coincidence. Occasionally you just know that it's been stolen, but there's not a thing you can do about it. And you have to get the stuff out there, take the risk. This is quite different, however, from seeing a project which you and others have taken to hard-won completion being pirated by somebody else - these are the true parasites and they drain the lifeblood of the industry. But we must remember that tides are also sources of energy, and perhaps, instead of struggling to turn this particular tide, we should be seeking ways to harness it to our own advantage.

As an example, I do wonder why publishers can't keep their entire backlists active in download form, for which readers would pay a smallish amount, a fair percentage of which could go to the writer. There are, no doubt, all kinds of logistical and legal problems with this, but it seems to me that the availability of many of these texts, coupled with a willingness to support writers in their own publicity drives, might be instrumental in sparking a renewal of interest in a particular writer and lead, eventually, to hard copy sales of new work. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for agents, authors and publishers to hammer out reasonable deals along these lines. At the same time, this might allow smaller publishers to address the problem of the 'collapse of the mid-list.' I can visit a supermarket these days, and hardly see a single book that I might want to buy, although I can fully acknowledge that no self respecting business is going to turn down the chance to capitalise on a brand. On the other hand, the potential cheapness of downloads, means that many publishers might be able to follow the example of the games industry and supply new mid-list novels, initially as downloads, relying on the potential of the internet to spread the word to niche markets and capitalising on the often considerable online following of a mid-list author.

A parallel and fascinating example from the world of games involves a game called Flower, which – being gentle, philosophical, poetic and demanding of no particular technical skill - is vastly different from our conventional ideas of that industry. It was never going to be a so-called Triple A title, on sale in the big stores. But sold on the Playstation Network, as a £6.00 download, and spread largely by word of mouth, bloggers and a few mentions in significant books, it gives hours of pleasure to many thousands of people worldwide, (myself included) and has made a tidy profit for its extraordinary development team, with the backing of a major company, backing which would probably not have been forthcoming without the possibility of distribution in this easy, cost effective way.

It is my view that, in the current highly polarised debate, we are not only underestimating the exciting potential of new technologies, but  also underestimating the genuine fairmindedness of many - not all, but certainly many – people, young and old, who would be prepared to pay a reasonable price for what they see as a good return in terms of entertainment.

We have to work out exactly how to organise this team effort, between publishers, online and real world booksellers, (the return of the smaller, private, niche seller might be facilitated if downloads could be obtained instore - especially if these smaller bookstores offered coffee, wifi, and their own expertise and advice), agents, writers, illustrators and all those other invaluable professionals in the middle, such as editors and publicists. All of these have their counterparts in the games industry, and without them, nobody would ever think they could produce a reasonably complex and entertaining game, even as a simple download. Or if they did, they would soon find out how hard it was. The 17 year old genius producing a best selling game in his bedroom is something of a myth. Look at the credits (beautifully organised within the game itself) on Flower. Look at exactly how many talented people have worked to produce this ‘simple’ hugely creative game even though it was initially conceived in the mind of one man. It is in working out how best to facilitate something similar for the written word that the challenge truly lies.

Are we up for it? I certainly hope so. Because I think that if we go about it in the right way, the benefits for all concerned could be immense.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Polish Grandfather

Here he is, my Polish grandfather, Wladyslaw. This little picture of him (looking a bit, I always think, like Olivier, playing Maxim de Winter, in Rebecca)  accompanied my father to the UK, via Monte Cassino, in the later years of the war, when dad was still a very young man. Nobody knew what had become of Wladyslaw, and it was many years later when I began to piece his story together. I am still doing it and it has proved to be altogether more romantic and tragic than almost anything I might be able to make up. One of my father's favourite movies was Dr Zhivago, and - when I began to find out exactly what had befallen my grandfather, and what an extraordinarily eventful, albeit very short, life he had led - I could see exactly why this should be so. There's definitely a quality of that film - with its tale of a deeply attractive man, a beautiful woman, an illicit and ultimately doomed love affair, the demands of family and the tragedies of war - about Wladyslaw's story.
But fictionalising all this - ah, that's where things get a little tricky. I always find, when writing historical fiction, or drama, that there comes a moment when, no matter how much research you may have done, you have to give yourself permission, as it were, to turn aside from the research and dive head first into the piece of fiction you wish to create. But the closer you are to your subject matter, the harder it can be. It is always the rejoinder of the beginning writer, when faced with editorial criticism of a piece of fiction, however mild or tentative, to say, 'But it really happened like that!' Which is, of course, entirely immaterial. As long as there's a certain level of authenticity about a piece of fiction, as long as you don't make howlers that jolt your reader out of their willing suspension of disbelief, the fact that 'it really happened like that' is neither here nor there. What matters is the 'made up truth' of your work. As my agent says, there's always the risk, with historical writing,  that a project will fall between two stools, being neither accurate non-fiction, nor a fully imagined piece of fiction. And the closer you are to your subject matter, the harder it can be to achieve the required separation.
My new novel, The Amber Heart, set in nineteenth century Poland, is finished  now and with my agent,  and I'm about to start work on the sequel, The Winged Hussar. But I'm aware that with this tale, I'm on more precarious territory.
The Amber Heart is loosely based on some episodes from my own family history. The house - called Lisko, in the novel -  was a real house - alas, no longer in existence. One of the characters, in particular, was inspired by an historical character about whom there was a certain amount of material in the public domain, because he was a Polish representative to the Austro Hungarian parliament. And the love story which is central to the Amber Heart was inspired by the tale of a scandalous liaison, related to me by my father, about his own grandmother. But that time and place always seemed so remote, fascinating and wildly romantic, as to be the very stuff of fiction. The resulting novel isn't quite family history - it's genuine fiction, inspired by family stories. With the Winged Hussar, the sequel, however, I am on more familiar territory. I grew up with stories of Wladyslaw. I never met him, but I knew a great deal about him, even before I began to interrogate his life. I met one of his sisters, and spent time with his best friend. I loved him although I had never met him, used to dream that one day, he might turn up on our doorstep. So how to turn his life story into a credible piece of fiction? And how to avoid the pitfalls along the way?
Well, I came up with the idea - and I must confess that I've borrowed this from an artist friend who is embarking on a creative practice PhD - of keeping detailed diaries/scrapbooks all about my research and my writing, not just the usual complicated notes for the novel, but books that will allow me a certain amount of reflection on the process itself and my own emotional response to it. These should allow me to document the reality behind the story, should give me something concrete, which I may even be able to turn into an interesting non fiction project once the new novel is finished. The diaries will, to some extent, anchor me in reality, and allow me to reflect on my own pursuit of this mysterious character who is a part of me and to whom I feel strong emotional ties. But at the same time - I hope - they will also allow me to move confidently forward into the stand-alone fiction that the Winged Hussar must become, if it is to be a marketable and readable novel and a genuine sequel to The Amber Heart.
And I'll post a little of that exploration on here, from time to time, especially where I feel it may help others who may be embarking on similar projects.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ideas, Poland, The Amber Heart and The Winged Hussar


A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of first year Creative Writing students on the topic of 'Ideas'. It is probably the single most frequently asked question during readings and talks  - 'Where do you get your ideas from?' - and the temptation to reply with suggestions like 'www.ideas.com' and 'Ideas-R-us' is almost irresistible. Well, I did resist the temptation, and I think the session was both productive and interesting - they were a lovely group of youngsters - but I still feel that if you have to ask that question, you may be in the wrong line of business. Most writers of my acquaintance have far more ideas than time to work on them. We all have folders and/or notebooks, stuffed with them. Of course most of these fledgling ideas don't stand the test of time, and are discarded along the way - get tipped out of the nest, so to speak. But every now and then, something stays with you and nips at you until you simply have to do something about it. The ideas are never the problem. But getting started, deciding what shape something should take, finishing, revising, revising again, finding time, finding commitment, finding a certain relentless application, revising for the twentieth or even the thirtieth time - all these can be a little problematic. But not the ideas. They just come and keep on coming.
However, I am currently in a bit of a quandary. My big Polish historical novel, The Amber Heart, is currently with my agent, who loves it, and is about to start sending it out. The Amber Heart has been rewritten to within an inch of its life and we are both very happy with it. It is set in the nineteenth century and is very loosely based on some episodes from my own impossibly romantic family history in Poland's 'wild east'.  I am sitting here with a draft of  a Scottish historical novel called The Physic Garden which I think has potential, but which I also know needs a great deal of work, (essentially, changing a first person narrative to a third person narrative, and adding in several other points of view) before it can be sent out. So I'm wondering whether to do the necessary work on that, because I'm very fond of it, and think I could make it work, before going back to Poland.
But if I go with my heart's desire, what I really want to do is to start writing the sequel to The Amber Heart. This is - again very loosely - based on the story of my grandfather, the grandfather I never knew, who was born in a sleigh, and went on from that somewhat surprising start in life to have a short, dramatic, and also impossibly romantic story. It will be called The Winged Hussar. I have done lots of factual research already, know more or less what the story is, and feel a bit like a diver on the edge of a pool. Once I pass the point of no return, that'll be me for the next year or so. But it will be a big project - I know that it will be emotionally draining - and I need time and space to work on it, which means that I also need somebody out there to have a little faith in The Amber Heart. At present, I'm in a kind of limbo.
And here's the interesting thing. I've been browsing online for pictures of Lwow/Lemburg/Lviv which was the closest city to the place where these people lived, and the city where my grandfather first met my grandfather. Back then it was Polish - now it's Ukrainian. These were deeply troubled borderlands, and that's part of the story. But to my surprise I find that eBay has a number of old, hand tinted, colour postcards of the city, not just buildings, but street scenes, with people, horses, horse-drawn vehicles, trams, from the early years of the twentieth century. I find that I can sit for hours, gazing at these. I'm even in the process of buying some of them. I find them not just fascinating, but curiously moving. They give me a small pain, in my heart, a sense of sorrow, loss, nostalgia. Not sure what the right word is, but I'm fairly obsessed with them right now. It strikes me that any one of these people could be one of my forebears, but I wouldn't know it. That man crossing the street, he could be my great grandfather. In another picture, there's a smart little girl, arm in arm with an older woman, and she could be my grandmother. Those shops, perhaps they visited them. For many years, when my father was young, I was told stories about this time and place, but they were as remote and inaccessible as fairy tales. Now, suddenly, because of the internet, they are real, they push themselves into my consciousness and into my dreams - a thousand stories, begging to be told. I'm obsessed with them. What can I do, but obey? Where do you get your ideas from? That's the easy bit. It's knowing exactly what to do with them that's problematic.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Paying the Piper, Again.

Excellent piece about 'getting paid' on Jenn Ashworth's blog - here . I think we all know this, but I also think that we can't be reminded of it too many times, because it's a hard row to hoe and we regress, unless reassured that fellow professionals, like Jenn, feel the same. The labourer IS worthy of his or her hire, and just because we love what we do, we shouldn't be conned into thinking that it isn't work. It is.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Telling Tales

Some time ago, I asked on Facebook - which is where I do a lot of my writerly networking - why so many people I knew were being told that some of their work was 'beautifully written, but too quiet.' It had happened to me too. At the time, it seemed a little unfair, and there were those who said that it was 'just one of those expressions' that publishers or agents use when they have to turn you down, but can't really think of a valid reason. Which is comforting, but not, I think, entirely true! One friend and well-published fellow writer, however, said that she was sometimes told the same thing. She said most publishers and/or agents are looking for the holy grail of the beautifully written, stonking great story, but if they can't have both in the same package, they will settle for the stonking great story any day. I'm sure this is absolutely true, and as time has gone by, and I've been working on the latest (big, Polish, historical) novel, The Amber Heart, I have started to see just how right she was and how very much story matters.
We are, after all, creatures who love to listen to stories. It is one of the things that makes us human. From the time when we can first talk, we are enthralled by narrative, by the act of listening, or turning the page, (even little children are fascinated by the physical act of turning over, long before they can read) or watching the screen, to find out what happens next.
I've come to realise, therefore, that we ignore this natural instinct at our peril. We can craft our elegant prose till the cows come home, but if the reader doesn't care what happens next, then we aren't going to get anywhere. Which is not to say, of course, that honing the prose doesn't matter, because it does. It matters a lot. But if we are writing for other people, as well as for ourselves, we also have to be aware of the need to hook the reader into the narrative so that he or she is desperate to turn the page, desperate to know 'what next', and may even stay up all night, if need be, to find the answer.
I've been thinking about this a lot, recently, because it strikes me that Firebrand, Gillian Philip's wonderful and deservedly well reviewed new novel, has exactly this quality. It is beautifully written, it is hugely imaginative, it is involving and surprising and original  - but, above all, boy does it have a stonking great story. Not only that, but when you get to the end of it, you're left thinking 'so how quickly will she have finished the next one, so I can find out what happens next.'
It's a gift, this extraordinary storytelling ability and Philip has it in spades.
But it is also - to some extent at least - a craft and one which, as writers, we should all be aware of.
It isn't possible to teach somebody with no talent how to write. But, given that somebody has a natural talent, a natural curiosity about human beings, and the desire to learn,  they can be helped towards an understanding of what makes a good story. And I sometimes think it is an aspect of the craft of writing that is all too often ignored in creative writing classes, because teachers (and I don't necessarily excuse myself here) concentrate a little too much on the beautiful prose, and not quite enough on the nuts and bolts of plotting, the generation of excitement and drama, and the sheer skill of telling a great story and telling it so well that - as with all the fine storytellers you can think of - Dickens, Stevenson, The Brontes, Austen, Hardy, M.R. James, E.F. Benson and so many more - the joins between the wonderful prose and the wonderful story don't show at all. We read the book, we are in the reality of the tale and - as I recently did with Firebrand - we finish with a sigh compounded of satisfaction, regret that it's finished and anticipation for what might come next.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tell Me A Story: The Pillars of the Earth and Single Father

Last weekend, I almost broke one of my cardinal rules, when deciding which TV programmes to watch. I paid attention to the previews in the Radio Times: fulsome praise for Single Father and faint damns for The Pillars of the Earth, from David Butcher. Normally, I read them and then ignore them, preferring to make up my own mind. In this instance, if my husband hadn't suggested that Pillars of the Earth might actually be good, I might well have given it a miss. 'It ought to be either a romp or a sweeping saga but it's neither,' says DB. Why ought it? Afterwards, it struck me that I get bored by romps and sweeping sagas in about equal measure. The Pillars of the Earth has - so far - kept me glued to my television, in a way that few other dramas have, this year, and the main reason is that it is a wonderfully involving story, beautifully acted, visually stunning, thoroughly well told. In fact it's just sweeping enough to be exciting but not so sweeping that the viewer doesn't give a stuff; just enough of a romp to be emotionally engaging, but not such a ridiculous mangling of historical fact that it challenges the viewer's suspension of disbelief. I love it and I love it most of all because it's telling me a damn good story, and I find myself sitting, enthralled as a child. Believe me, that doesn't happen very often on UK television these days.
On the other hand, reading Butcher's ecstasies about Single Father, I did wonder if we'd been watching the same thing. Don't get me wrong. I've been watching this and been entertained by it. Any new TV drama is to be welcomed. But this has been mostly because of the very fine acting of David Tennant and Suranne Jones, who could perform the phone book together, and still make you watch them. Did I find it 'grabbing me by the emotional lapels and demanding attention'? Er, no. And I'll tell you the thing that irritates me most about it. It's that they have set a drama in Glasgow, and not made it about crime, drugs and murders (two cheers). But then, they've chickened out, haven't they? They've deliberately manipulated the plot so that they can go to Edinburgh to make it picturesque,with lots of touristy shots of the castle, Princes Street Gardens, and so on, ignoring all the very real beauties of Glasgow itself. Shame on them.
More about 'story' in the next post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Submissions, Rejections - and Reappearances.

This morning, my post contained a fattish package from Birlinn, who published my history of Gigha, God's Islanders, a couple of years ago. The package contained a very pleasant, albeit apologetic letter from the managing editor. Besides the letter, there was a little wedge of papers, the first three chapters, plus synopsis, of a novel called The Corncrake, which I had submitted to a Scottish publisher called Mercat Press, 'a number of years ago', having heard good things about them from one of their authors. I'm not exactly sure how many years ago, because I don't have my original letter and I had long since assumed that the submission had fallen into the Great Silence which usually befalls unsolicited manuscripts not sent through an agent. In 2007, Mercat merged with Birlinn, and 'some archive material was set aside and subsequently overlooked.' A quick glance at the chapters revealed that they had long, long ago been superseded by other work. What writer stands still for four or five years? Which made it all the more strange that they had 'reviewed it once more but regret that, bearing in mind current market conditions, we do not feel it would be suitable for our current list.'
This put me in mind, very vividly, of a story told with some relish by a friend who (sometimes) writes for television. She was surprised to find in her morning mail, a very old script, with a similar kind of letter. 'We have reviewed this but regret etc etc.' What was even more surprising was that the script had been bought, made and shown by this same company, some years previously...
Since submitting The Corncrake to Mercat all those years ago, I have - of course - moved on. I have a new agent, and the Corncrake itself has been more or less consigned to the dustbin. Writing is a job for me. Not a hobby. To be honest, I have taken a little of the material it contained and have rewritten it, comprehensively, into what amounts to a completely different novel. Both my new agent and I, myself,  feel that it is a much better novel. The characters are different, the names are different, the story is dramatically different. Only a little of the setting remains. But even that novel - although I am very fond of it -  isn't currently 'on the market' because it too has been superseded by a sweepingly romantic historical tale which my agent and I both feel is potentially more commercial, with the additional possibility of other novels on the same theme.
 I suspect that most professional writers would - if an old manuscript came dropping onto the mat - find themselves in much the same position. So while I genuinely appreciate the letter, which was kind, generous, and apologetic - I hope I meet this nice man, one day! - I find the assumption of stasis just a little worrying. But then, perhaps his experience has taught him that many people are content to recycle the same old stuff for ever and a day, without attempting to progress at all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Some Useful Quotes from Playwright, David Mamet

I have found all of these useful, at some time or another, and not just for plays. They make sense when applied to other kinds of writing too!

 

1: Things have been disordered. The drama continues until a disordered status comes to rest.
We don’t have to worry about creating a problem. We make a better play if we worry about restoring order.

2: It is the objective of the protagonist to keep us in our seats.

3: Alice said to the Cheshire Cat, ‘Which road should I take?’ and the Cheshire Cat said ‘Where do you want to go?’ and Alice said ‘I don’t care.’ And the Cheshire Cat said ‘Then it doesn’t matter which road you take.’

4: How do we keep the audience’s attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but on the contrary, by withholding information. By withholding all information, except that information, the absence of which, would make the story incomprehensible.

5: The deeper you can think, the better it is going to be. Deeper, in the sense of writing, means ‘What would it be like to me?’

6: Clich├ęs in themselves are not necessarily bad. But maybe if we thought deeper, we could find a better way of expressing things.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ten Practical Tips on Preparing a Manuscript for Submission.

A writer friend who teaches on various creative writing courses told me the other day that he had started one course by attempting to give students advice about layout, revisions and how to submit a manuscript. 'They laughed,' he said. 'They thought they already knew all about it.' Predictably, as soon as the coursework started to come in, he realised that they knew almost nothing about it. They just thought they did.
I've been considering this thorny issue recently for a number of reasons. My nice new agent, when reading through my latest manuscript, The Amber Heart, told me that he thought the actual novel was 'wonderful', but then went on to issue a rather stern admonition about my use of commas which was - seemingly - not all it should be. He was right, of course, and I went back over the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. But I've also spent some time, recently, reading other people's manuscripts for a literary competition which I was asked to judge, and although the standard of the actual writing was - in many cases - very high, the standard of presentation, even among the prizewinners, was not good. And it wasn't just commas and a bit of careless word spacing, either!
So here are my ten practical pieces of advice on preparing your manuscript for submission.
1 Never send in a handwritten manuscript, even if it means bribing a friend or relative to type it up for you.
2 Never attempt to save paper by copying or printing on both sides of the paper. Printer paper is cheap, especially in supermarkets (you can buy 500 sheets of good 80 gm paper in Morrisons for rather less than £3.00) and just for once, forget about saving the planet.
3 Never attempt to save paper by formatting your manuscript in 9 point with no spaces between lines. You need decent margins, 2 or at the very least 1.5 spaces between lines, and 12 point font, something clear like Ariel or Times New Roman. So it uses a bit more paper. See (2) above!
4 By all means use a Fast Draft setting for your own printouts, but when preparing a manuscript for submission, make sure that it is printed out properly, even if it means buying a new print cartridge. (These are always cheaper online.)
5 Never staple the pages together. Leave them loose. For stories or poems, you can use a paper clip, top left corner. For novels, leave all the pages loose. They can go in a box or wallet file if you are posting them.
6 When sending speculative submissions to publishers or agents, these should never be more than the first three chapters and a synopsis, plus covering letter and CV if applicable.
7 Do not lay out your manuscript, whether story or novel, in the 'report' format that seems to have become increasingly acceptable for academic essays. Have you ever seen a published novel laid out like this? It is very disconcerting indeed to see these strange blocks of paragraphs, with acres of white space between them and no indents. Write your story in the format that you see on the printed page with proper old fashioned paragraphs, with indents, with dialogue also indented, and with the occasional space which may indicate the passage of time within a chapter, or a change of perspective.
8 If you are not good at punctuation, try to get somebody else to check it for you.
9 Make sure you use your spell checker before sending your manuscript out.
10 Make sure that your whole submission, whether it is for a competition, an agent or a publication, looks neat and professional. If you ever find yourself thinking 'that'll do' you can be sure that it won't. And all of the above apply, even if you are making an online submission.

This may seem a little pedantic, and it is! But consider for a moment - the person you are submitting to may well be seeing not just dozens but perhaps hundreds of submissions every week. There is never enough time, nor enough people to read them and - as an editor once confessed to me - the easiest way of sorting them, initially, is to take all the badly laid out, badly spelled, poorly presented manuscripts and put them right at the bottom of the pile. Where they may well remain for ever. If you don't care enough about your work to devote a little time to presenting it in the right way, why on earth would you expect anyone else to care enough to read it?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Play 200 and the Lunardi Bonnet

Play 200 at the Oran Mor - and an excellent review by Joyce Macmillan. I haven't been to see this - or my own contribution - yet, but plan on going on Saturday.  The show consists of lots and lots of 2 minute plays, loosely themed on Glasgow Then and Now. It's remarkably hard to write a 2 minute play without turning it into a comedy sketch. Mine was about eighteenth century balloonist Lunardi's visit to Glasgow. They tethered his balloon in Glasgow Cathedral, since it was the only public space big enough to hold it. I find that image enchanting! I've cheated a bit, though, since I've already used that story in a novel called The Physic Garden. Or perhaps I should say a 'half written novel' called The Physic Garden. Mind you, it's as good an illustration as any of how ideas germinate and grow and change. The Physic Garden started out as an idea for an Oran Mor play, which I even drafted out, but was never very happy with. At last, I decided where the problem lay. The whole idea was much too big for a 45 - 50 minute play. It kept fidgetting, pushing against the time constraints, desperate to break out. So then, I thought I might write it as a full length play. But I kept postponing it as a project, or tinkering around the edges, never feeling very happy with it. And all the time, I could hear this voice inside my head, telling a tale that - somehow - needed to be told. So I let the voice take me where it would, and some 90,000 words later, it turned into a novel. But that wasn't the end of it. Because - some months later - having left those 90,000 words to lie fallow, and having let one or two people read the novel, I now think that it's only half the story. So what I'm about to do is write the other half, prune the 90,000 words I've already written, interweave the two tales - and bob's your uncle. Or not, as the case may be.
Will it work? I've no idea. And if other, more pressing projects intervene, I'll probably shelve it and get on with more immediate work. But I know that it will be there, lurking at the back of my mind, waiting its turn. And I think that I now know what needs to be done. Just a case of getting on with it, really!
Meanwhile, I found the story of Lunardi and his balloon lurking in there, when I was looking for inspiration for a two minute play - so in a way, it wasn't only a response to a request for a contribution - it was also a small way of experimenting with the ideas in the novel, trying to find out if they might have a life of their own. I think they probably do!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Publishing Angel

My agent is in Frankfurt, my novel is with my agent, and I'm here in Scotland, waiting to see what happens next.
Meanwhile, I'm saying prayers to the Publishing Angel.
Is there such an entity? I hope so. Because the Parking Angel works pretty well. I should know. I've been using his services for many years now.
I first heard about him/her from a friend who said that she always found a parking space by asking the Parking Angel to find one for her. I was suitably sceptical, but at the time I was doing readings in a wonderful tea house called Tchai Ovna, on the South Side of Glasgow. This has since closed, although the West End Tchai Ovna is still open. The South Side Tchai Ovna was in Shawlands, a place in which it is notoriously difficult to find any kind of parking space, in the evening - this is because it consists of rather narrow streets with lots and lots of small flats and houses. There was one memorable occasion when - having driven round for about an hour, occasionally hampered by pizza delivery vans parked in the middle of the road - I just turned around and went back home again. I thought I would have one last try, drove up to Shawlands in some trepidation and invoked the help of the Parking Angel.
Almost immediately, a van pulled away from the kerb, and a very large parking space materialised. Moreover, it was right in front of a church!
Since then, I have regularly employed the services of the Parking Angel in all kinds of tight places, and I can state that he almost never lets me down.
But it has occurred to me to wonder why I can't therefore invoke the Publishing Angel as well. I mean, there must BE one, mustn't there? And if there is one, I reckon he might look a lot like the rather militant chap above, who lives in Glasgow's amazing Necropolis. In other words, 'a bonnie fighter.'
So come on, Publishing Angel. Lend me your muscular right arm. Please.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Amber Heart and Made Up Truth



The Amber Heart, all 130,000 words of it, is now finished and with my agent. I have come to think of it as 'The Great Polish Novel'. Great is right in one sense, at least. I printed it out, last night, and it would make a pretty efficient doorstop. It is loosely based on my own family history, but - of course - very much fictionalised. I've been thinking about this project and researching it for years. In fact, I've made previous attempts to write it, but this is the first time I've achieved something I'm really happy with, and my agent seems to like it too. This is the first of two planned novels. The sequel, called The Winged Hussar, is already under way. The story is almost impossibly romantic (in the best sense of that word, I hope!) But as ever, when working with factual material, the trick is to give yourself permission to move away from those facts, and shape it into a work of fiction: what that fine writer Bernard MacLaverty calls 'made up truth.'
As a writer, when you are working with beginning writers, they will sometimes say 'but it really happened like that' - whenever you query some aspect of a piece of fiction that doesn't quite seem to be working.
It is, I think, one of the first and hardest lessons you have to learn. When you are writing fiction, you are aiming for 'made up truth.' It has to be believable in the sense of being self consistent, in the sense that your readers will say 'yes, life is like that' or 'yes, people are like that' or 'yes, I believe in this world you have created for me.'
But 'it really happened' is no guarantee that your readers will suspend their disbelief. You are wooing them and winning them and drawing them in. Therefore, if you are writing fiction, and not biography, you have to give yourself permission to do whatever it takes to achieve that!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Firebrand by Gillian Philip

I've been reading the new novel by Gillian Philip - Firebrand. This is the first book in the Rebel Angels series of novels.  It is also the best and most exciting read you will have this year. Or - quite likely - next year as well. Go out and buy it now! This is, nominally, young adult fiction, but I suspect anyone from teens onwards will be captivated by it. I remember talking to Gillian about this book, the first of a series, some time ago, and thinking 'I'd buy that. I'd read it.' Well, here it is, and it surpasses all expectations. This is fantasy, but a world so fully and vividly realised, so self consistent, that you immediately enter it, believe in it, become involved with it. This is, of course, down to the quality of the writing, which is exceptional.
Firebrand is the tale of Seth, the young Sithe warrior, through whose eyes the story is visualised - flawed, deeply attractive, deeply likeable, utterly real. It is also a tale of two worlds, running side by side, and of what happens when the border between those two worlds begins to be compromised. Gillian has based the setting of this tale on old Celtic legends of the Sithe, the People of Peace, the fairy folk of old Scottish stories, with the result that there is an essential familiarity about all this. It doesn't feel 'made up' at all. It feels entirely and disturbingly real.
Coupled with that, of course, we are in the hands of a superb storyteller and a fine writer. The pace of this is mind blowing. Once you start reading, you won't want to stop. Once you get to the end, you'll want to read the next book in the series. Personally, I can't wait. And I'm more than honoured that Gillian used a quote from my play, The Secret Commonwealth, at the start of the novel.
Firebrand is published by Strident, one of the most exciting and innovative publishing houses in Scotland and is available from major bookshops including Waterstones, and online from Amazon.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Scottish Shorts - Short Plays from Scotland

On Thursday of last week, I went over to Edinburgh to the Playwrights' Studio summer party, and the launch of  Scottish Shorts, a new anthology of short plays from Scotland, edited by Philip Howard, just published by Nick Hern Books and which includes my own play, The Price of a Fish Supper. This was the first time I had actually met Nick Hern - and it was a great pleasure to meet a publisher who (a) seems to enjoy his job so much and (b) is tremendously positive about books in general and plays and playwrights in particular. Some years ago now, Nick Hern published my full length play about Chernobyl, Wormwood, in another anthology called Scotland Plays, and has kept it in print ever since. The play was first produced at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and I have already had tentative enquiries about another production to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Nick Hern says that these anthologies are still selling pretty well and I can vouch for the truth of it because a nice little payment arrives each year . He offers writers a small advance and a royalty, and also handles enquiries about licensing of the plays for professional production. The books are well  produced and edited, and - unlike so many publishers - he keeps things in print, with small runs. Wormwood is on the Scottish Higher Still syllabus, so schools which offer courses in drama (not - sadly -  South Ayrshire, which seems to approve of neither drama nor history at secondary school level) buy a number of copies.
But, as talented playwright Jo Clifford remarked to me at the launch, what a pity that, although all these plays are kept in print, they are seldom if ever produced again. There is a vast body of  vibrant and exciting work floating about out there which can be read, thanks to Nick Hern, but not seen and heard. And there is an argument to be made that - unlike, for instance, a novel - a play which is not being produced, which has no audience to see it, and interact with it, is frozen, static, not quite alive.
Years ago, when my son was studying English at school, it saddened and infuriated me in about equal measure, that there seemed to be no notion of taking students to see productions of the plays they were studying. They were being asked searching questions about the text which could only really be illuminated by seeing the play as an entity on the stage.
In the current financial climate, and with current government attitudes to the arts, things are clearly not going to get better any time soon - but with that small light on the horizon of a possible new production of Wormwood, I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wuthering Heights Again

I blogged about this when it was first shown, but last night - weary to the point of catatonia, and with absolutely nothing else to watch while I drank a late night cup of tea - I switched to the repeat of the first episode of ITV's recent dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, half hoping that it might have improved in the intervening months. It hadn't. The best thing about it was still  the scenery, which was gorgeous. Everything else was wrong.
I have a great many friends who adore WH (and about as many who loathe it!) and I think all of us who love it tend to share the same reservations about the many and varied dramatisations to which we have been subject over the years. These are major reservations which are almost never inspired by - for example - the dramatisations of Austen novels which have come to our screens over the past few years. We may have a few quibbles about these, but on the whole, they are forgivable and in some cases - the film version of Sense and Sensibility springs to mind- we get so caught up in the brilliance of the production that it's hard to find any fault at all! This never seems to happen with Wuthering Heights. Instead we watch, with the triumph of hope over expectation, only to have our fears realised yet again. They can't ever seem to get it right.
I know it's a difficult novel, but I still find myself wondering why, since when I talk about it to the friends who DO love it, we all seem to love it for the same reasons: the intensity, the passion, the cruelty, the primitive, mythic quality, the uncompromising nature of so much of it, the way in which we don't need to like these characters to be caught up in their story.
So what was wrong with the latest version? Well, just about everything except the landscape jarred with me.  Wuthering Heights itself was all wrong, for a start: much too big, too clean, too grand. It looked more like Thrushcross Grange. The Heights of the book is described as a Yorkshire farmhouse in the old style, sprawling rather than monumental, with its yard, and its sheepfolds and stables: low ceilinged, dark - except for the roaring fire at the very heart of the house, whose flames run through the book, warming the place and the people, central to the story. I've never pictured it as the large, light building of this adaptation. Cathy was all wrong too, but then they never do seem to get Cathy right. She's always too wishy washy and while I'm at it, the real Cathy would have scorned to call Heathcliff 'my love' all the time, the way this one seemed determined to do, whining about his desire for revenge. She's never ever strong enough. Frankly, she should be lovely to look at but mad as a fish, difficult, dangerous and not very nice to know.
Heathcliff looked all wrong too, but maybe that's a personal judgement. Worse, his lines were all wrong. The central conceit of WH is that Heathcliff is utterly obsessed with Cathy, and no matter how badly she treats him, he would die rather than take his revenge on her. But that won't stop him taking his revenge elsewhere. (In many ways, this has the strange, claustrophobic atmosphere of a Jacobean revenge drama). If she asks him not to do something, whether it's refaining from killing lapwings, or refraining from killing her husband, he'll obey her but only because it's her. When she's gone, when she is no longer there to temper him, he becomes utterly demonic. But this doesn't make any sense at all, if you haven't shown the extraordinary nature of that relationship first.
Better to quote from the book itself, don't you think?

'You teach me now how cruel you've been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you—they'll damn you. You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?'

'Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I’ve done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!'
'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?'

I strongly submit that if you can't live with that central premise, can't accept the novel on its own terms, rather despise it in fact, then you had much better dramatise something else: Jane Eyre or Villette for instance. Instead, they always seem determined to transform Emily into Charlotte, even if it means rewriting the whole story in the process. It won't do. Definitely could do better.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Amber Heart


I'm currently revising my great Polish story, now called the Amber Heart, which is loosely based on episodes from my own Polish family history. Browsing my bookshelves, recently, I came across some illustrations of work by artist Juliusz Kossak who was the rather famous grandfather of my own gorgeous great uncle Karol Kossak (below).



I met Karol in Ciechocinek, where he was living with my Aunt Wanda, when I was a very young woman and he was an old man. I think I fell a little bit in love with him, and even wrote a poem about him called Potato Fires:

I remember

talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There was no cure for it.
Though I hurtled through youth
for love of him
he’d gone too far before.


In truth, he was the closest I would ever come to meeting Count Danilo from the Merry Widow, and it occurred to me that that was indeed his world. It was part of my heritage too, but as impossibly strange, remote and magical to me as a fairytale - or a Viennese Operetta!


The pictures by Juliusz Kossak, and his equally famous son, Wojciech, were something of an inspiration for me, when I was writing. There's a heroic quality to many of them, for sure, but also a lovely evocation of atmosphere and detail that is something all writers of historical fiction are searching for.  Even now, when I look at them, I get a little thrill of excitement. It's the equivalent of walking through the fur coats and out the back of the wardrobe - and it's part of my own family history. How wonderful is that?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Focus

A couple of years ago, feeling that my career was somehow 'stuck' and that I was floundering about a bit, I booked an advice session from the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. It turned out to be very helpful in allowing me to assess where I was at, and where I might want to go in the future and I would certainly recommend it to any writer who, in mid career, has that familiar feeling of frustration that things may not be going quite the way he or she expected or wanted.
The single most useful piece of analysis, however, and - as it turns out - the thing that has stayed with me over the succeeding months, has been the idea of 'focus.' What emerged from an afternoon of detailed one- to-one discussions with the adviser, was a sense of my own dissatisfaction with the way I work - not so much with the work itself, which I love, as with my propensity for spreading myself too thinly. Am I a playwright who also writes novels? Am I a poet who writes plays? Am I a historian who writes lots of other things? A number of conclusions and recommendations emerged from the session but the one that I have carried with me all this time is the idea that - for various reasons, some personal and some of them practical - I have always found it hard to focus. I don't mean that I start things and don't finish them, because I do. I finish lots and lots of things! But ... when I'm working on a novel, I do find myself wondering if I should be writing a play. When I'm writing a play, I'm distracted by the thought that I could be making more money writing for business. I'll have a spell when all I want to do is write poems, and then, quite suddenly, the need to do this will vanish, and everything I want to write will present itself as a novel or a short story.
Over the year or so since that session, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that my main focus, the place where my true love of writing lies, is definitely with novels.  There is quite simply nothing I would rather be doing. And the result is that I have a couple of manuscripts to sell, and another one on the way. But this is also a frightening realisation since it is now so hard even for agents to find publishers, and yet novels take up very large swathes of your time! And so, it's time to recognise my own fear - and do it anyway.
I was considering all this last night, when - having watched The Dragons' Den - I was involved in a discussion about successful people in all walks of life  - how some people make it, while others, arguably with equal amounts of talent - don't. The conclusion we reached - and it may seem obvious, but I hadn't clarified it in my own mind until that point - was that the people who had made it in a big way all had massive 'focus' in some aspect of their working lives. My friends who have been most successful are those who - perhaps not immediately, but at some point in their lives, maybe even quite late in their lives  - have found out what they really want to do and then gone for it, relentlessly. This may or may not have involved money. For some of them the money-making was purely incidental. For others, they made very little money, but didn't care. The focus on something was all important. If you look at successful people currently in the media you'll find plenty of examples. Mary Portas has that same almost scary focus - in her case, on the retail experience. The Dragons themselves seem to have a focus not so much on their individual businesses - but on making money. I know a few people like that. We probably all do! They are the businessmen and women who seem to have the midas touch. All their enterprises prosper, and it isn't necessarily because they are ruthless or greedy. It's more that the actual business of making money, of profit and loss, seems to fascinate them so that they focus on it more clearly, more exclusively than any of their competitors, regardless of whatever business they are involved in.
Looking at some of the most successful writers I have known or worked with, the single most important thing they seem to have in common is that same ability to focus. And I don't just mean the ability to ignore distractions and naysayers. It's more than that: it's a kind of singlemindedness. Given the obvious necessity of a baseline of real talent (without which, nothing)  success so often seems to come to those who are very clearly focussed on some aspect of writing. They seem to know exactly what they want to do and they go for it, like an arrow, strong and straight and true. Obviously, they may then go on to do other things, to branch out and experiment but I become more and more convinced that part of the trick of professional success in all walks of life, is to find out exactly what you want to do - and go for it.
Of course, the finding out can be tricky. Self help books tell you to listen to your 'inner voice' - but I'm not sure that it always tells you the truth. Because your inner voice can be frightened as well. And of course - as we concluded in our late night discussion - it may be that what you want is not to focus on any one thing. My own father was a case in point. He was clever man and a distinguished research scientist, with a myriad of other interests. He had a good career, but by no means as starry as some. It didn't matter to him. His interests were many and varied, he loved his life and his family, and he was one of the happiest people I have ever known.
All the same, I've reached some conclusions, the main one being that from now on, my focus has to be on novels. Long fiction seems to be where my heart lies, as well as my head!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Marit Barentsen and The Scent of Blue

Had a lovely email from Dutch artist Marit Barentsen asking if she could use an extract from my poem The Scent of Blue, in a design for a 'skinny' card, which she wanted to show on her blog. I was delighted -and I love her card. You can see it here if you scroll down the post. And what a fascinating website this is! One I'll definitely go back to again and again, I think.
I wrote the poem The Scent of Blue some time ago, and then later on, published it in a pamphlet of the same name. You'll also find the whole text of it somewhere in this blog!
I don't know why my poetry writing is so erratic. I think it's probably because novels are certainly my first love, followed by plays, with poetry and short stories hovering somewhere in the background. I have ideas for more novels than I will ever have time to write, and spend a lot of my life half in and half out of whatever fictional world I'm currently involved in. Mostly, it seems much more real to me than the 'real' world I inhabit! However, I began my writing life as a poet, years ago, but poetry seems to come and go with me and when it's gone it's gone. Then, quite suddenly, something like The Scent of Blue will arrive, and I'll spend an intensive few weeks working on it - only for that particular muse to desert me all over again.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Price of a Fish Supper - Scottish Shorts

My play, The Price of a Fish Supper, is about to be published by Nick Hern Books, as part of a new anthology of Scottish Plays  - Scottish Shorts. It's already flagged up on Amazon, and I'm told it'll be published in time for the Edinburgh Festival. The editor is Philip Howard, late of the Traverse - a lovely director to work with  - and I'm slightly phased by the distinguished company I find myself in with plays by Stanley Eveling, Louise Welsh and David Greig among others. I've a soft spot for this play so it'll be nice to see it in print, especially since Nick Hern has a reputation for keeping books IN print.