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, August 28, 2011

Cover Art for eBooks.

 There have been some interesting discussions lately, on Facebook and on various writing blogs, about covers for eBooks  - so here's my take on it. I thought it might be informative to make a comparison between a few of my own covers. To the left is the cover image which was commissioned by Polygon for the print version of The Curiosity Cabinet. It was done by James Hutcheson and I think it's a fine piece of work, in rich reds and browns. Central to the story of The Curiosity Cabinet is a Jacobean casket in 'raised work' embroidery. You can see an image from something similar here.  I know that a real cabinet of curiosities was quite different, but the casket in the novel has been on display in the island's hotel for many years, along with its intriguing contents, and this is what the hoteliers have nicknamed it. There's a scene, early in the book, where one of the characters gazes at the casket and its contents and makes the connection that they are all women's things. She finds herself wondering about the person who once owned them. I think it is this scene which is reflected in the cover. I never met James, although I was certainly asked for cover suggestions, during the publication process, and I think my ideas were taken into account.  I know this doesn't always - or perhaps even often - happen. I've heard tales of wildly unsuitable covers inflicted on writers in the name of 'marketing' - covers which would probably mislead readers about the nature of the novel -  and it would be true to say that there are fashions in cover design, like everything else. For a while, it seemed as though every historical novel seemed to display a nearly headless female in fancy dress, a fashion which seems fortunately to have faded!

When it came to deciding on a cover for the eBook version of the Curiosity Cabinet (now in Amazon's Kindle Store) I was delighted when my friend, distinguished textile and digital artist Alison Bell offered to design a cover for me. She's an 'island' person herself, having lived and worked on the Isle of Arran for many years, and she made the cover (below) as an artwork in response to the book itself. She says 'The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island's presence is constant, a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind's eye as each chapter unfolds.'
It was a real pleasure to me to have the artist read and respond to my book - yet another of the serendipitious pleasures of Kindle publishing, tricky as the process may be!



I first started thinking about cover art some years ago, when I published a small poetry collection called The Scent of Blue - mostly poems that had been published elsewhere, in literary magazines and anthologies. I used my own photograph for the cover: a closeup of an antique Chinese embroidery. The designer incorporated that image into the overall design. It was very effective and attractive and I've been complimented on it ever since but it certainly made me think hard about cover image reflecting and in some way interpreting contents. I know how complicated is the connection between design and marketing and how many other factors must be taken into account, such as an overall 'house style' or an image that means that a reader will recognise you as a brand . However I do think that in this brave new world of eBook publishing, we should be just a little wary of succumbing to the same pressures that beset conventional publishing.
We need to acknowledge the expertise of artists and designers, and we will need to buy that in. But I think we also need to reserve the right to take some decisions for ourselves. If we are going to become empowered as writers, then we need to take charge of our covers too. And that may mean taking a 'horses for courses' approach. It may mean working with - and giving free rein to - artists who want to read and respond to a text or it may mean giving an artist a definite brief and I suspect the same writer may want to take different approaches for different books.


When the 'artist response' approach works well - as I think it has for the new Curiosity Cabinet cover - it results in the creation of a companion piece of art with a life of its own. There is much  that can be done with this as an image for an individual book, for an individual writer, rather than a branding exercise for a  publisher. I've had postcards made of The Curiosity Cabinet eBook cover, for instance, and they are a promotional tool not just for me and my book but for the artist as well.
 
But I'd be the first to admit that this is only one of a number of possible approaches, for an eBook 'cover' is at once more and less than a conventional book cover. The thumbnail hooks the potential reader in, the larger picture reinforces the purchase. I think we have to examine each project individually. I'm currently working on covers for three of my professionally produced plays which I intend to release onto Kindle, and these covers will have a certain similarity of theme, so that they are recognisable as part of a little series. The same goes for stories. But I'm already planning the publication of my next Kindle novel, and I can 'see' in my mind's eye the way I want the cover to look, the way that I want it to represent what is quite a dark, Gothic, Wuthering Heights-ish sort of tale - albeit with a Scottish setting.
 
All of which leads me to another point - and perhaps a subject for my next post. There is a lot of advice out there. Almost too much. And - of course - I'm only adding to it! When I started out on my writing career, many years ago, there was too little advice. We soldiered on, made mistakes, begged for help where we could find it, and wished that we had learned some things earlier. Now, however, a person with only a tiny amount of experience can represent themselves as an expert. We all need advice, all need to learn, all the time. But when following advice about writing and publishing, do it with your own critical faculties well tuned. If the person giving the advice is an experienced writer or editor, somebody whose work you respect, then by all means take them seriously.  But just be aware that sometimes we have to make our own mistakes and find out what works for us. On the whole, the more experienced the advice giver, the less prescriptive they will be about telling you exactly what you need to do!

Friday, August 26, 2011


Henrietta Dalrymple's Receipt for Cosmetic Lotion


Take a quart of dew, gathered at sunrise upon a May morning, with half a pint of fumitory water. Put to them of lavender and rose water, two ounces of each, then let all the ingedients be properly mixed and put in a vessel to settle.

Now take clean water into which you have thrown dried chamomile flowers, and allow it to simmer, gently, for some time. When it has thoroughly cooled ,use it to wash your cheeks, neck and breast. Next, when the skin is quite dry, gently apply the dewy lotion, scented with rose and lavender, and your skin will soon appear very clear and bright and white.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Curiosity Cabinet on Kindle - Sources of Inspiration




With the blessing of my agent, Edwin Hawkes at Makepeace Towle, and with the encouragement and very practical help of a number of friends who have gone before (Linda Gillard, Chris Longmuir and Bill Kirton, especially) I’ve now uploaded the Curiosity Cabinet to Kindle. It’s for sale at the bargain price of £1.94 and – right after the steep learning curve that is Kindle - I’m embarking on another exciting venture: publicising it. People keep asking me questions about all this, just as I kept asking other people for advice, and I want to blog about the experience as much to pass on some of the generous help that I received, as anything else.

But first things first. The book. Let me tell you a bit about it. Because it’s no coincidence that TCC is my first Kindle novel. When you write a novel, you have to fall in love with it. Not just with the characters, but with the idea of the book in your head. It’s hard to describe this process to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It isn’t anything like the white heat of inspiration that new writers seem to think has to strike before they can write. So much of writing is perspiration rather than inspiration. But I’ve blogged about this feeling before. It probably applies to all creative ventures. The idea of it must excite you as much at the end of the work as it does at the beginning. Most writers have far more ideas than time to write them and we all keep ideas folders or notebooks, or similar . But the ideas we pick up and run with are those which excite us most, ideas which carry on exciting us from start to finish, no matter how many edits we have to do. Twenty or more drafts is not out of the ordinary. It can be exhausting, it can be irritating, it can even be superficially boring. It is always hard work, but all the same, you never quite lose the feeling in the pit of your stomach that here is a world you love to be in, with people you need to know more about. And that means that you are able to live with an idea for a very long time, even while you are working on all kinds of other creative projects. Which is what I did with this novel.

So - I first had the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet more years ago than I care to remember. I had read a little piece – I forget where now, but suspect it was in an Edinburgh museum – about Lady Grange who was kidnapped to St Kilda on the instigation of her husband. Incidentally, there is an excellent new book about Lady Grange,  The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley, whom I met recently on Gigha. I can recommend this wry, beautifully written and immensely readable slice of history. The Curiosity Cabinet is, of course, nothing like this story, or only insofar as it involves a woman, in early 18th Century Edinburgh, being kidnapped to a remote Scottish Island, for reasons which are not revealed till the end of the novel. At the same time, I had been working on a truly mammoth dramatisation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, for BBC R4, in ten episodes. Gradually, these things fermented away in my imagination and eventually resulted in a radio trilogy produced and directed by Hamish Wilson.

But still the story gnawed away at me, as though there was more to be told. I hadn’t got it quite right. And that was when I embarked on the novel which is markedly different from the plays. It seemed to me that I was trying to tell a passionate love story, but one in which, in some strange, almost supernatural sense – (and without being in any way an overt ghost story) - the tragedies of the past stood a chance of being resolved in the present. I spent a great deal of time on the Isle of Gigha while I was writing the novel, and eventually wrote a factual history of that island and its people called God’s Islanders (Birlinn 2006). But the island inspired the story of The Curiosity Cabinet, as much as anything else – the sense of a small world, with many layers. The sense, as Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean calls it, of a ‘thin place’ where the boundaries between this world and whatever lies beyond can be very slight indeed.


The novel was eventually submitted for The Dundee Book Prize, was one of three shortlisted, and was published in 2005 by Polygon. That edition sold out. People liked it. My hero, John Burnside, liked it. Lorraine Kelly liked it. Although for some it was seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Why? Because it’s unashamedly a love story of course. Well, I make no apologies for that. It is indeed a love story spanning three centuries. Of which more, later, in future posts.

For this new edition, there’s a brand new cover, beautifully made by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell, who interpreted her response to the book as follows: ‘The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island’s presence is constant, as a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind’s eye as each chapter unfolds.’

And of course, she’s right. As an ‘island person’ herself, she can see all too well that the island’s presence is central to the book. So if you like love stories, but also if you love Scotland, and Scottish history – and small Hebridean islands too – this may well be the book for you.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Onwards and Upwards - The Curiosity Cabinet

A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture, already has two lovely reviews, for which I'm deeply grateful. And now, after an intensely sociable, enjoyable - albeit tiring - weekend, I'm starting the process of formatting and checking the manuscript of the Curiosity Cabinet before launching that too onto Kindle, as well as searching for, (and finding), the rights reversion letter which proves that the copyright has reverted to me. As a writer, you become so deeply involved in the world of current work - the 'work in progress' - that it's very hard to pull yourself out of it, and pay attention to other projects. At the moment, I'm working on a newish novel called The Physic Garden, which has undergone several changes over the past year, about which I'll write in due course. Watch this blog! But I'm also spending some time rereading The Curiosity Cabinet so that I can make sure the upload goes as smoothly as possible. I don't think I'll be making many changes to it, except perhaps to the acknowledgements which now need updating.
This was a novel of which I was very fond - and I find that I still am. I don't mean in any self satisfied sense. I just mean that I still like these characters, still love this setting. It's a strange experience, rereading something you wrote a while ago (in this case, five or six years ago). It's almost like a re-encounter with something written by somebody else. Sometimes you even find yourself thinking 'how the hell did I write that?' But The Curiosity Cabinet was a project I lived with for a very long time, because I first wrote it as a trio of plays for BBC Radio 4, produced by Hamish Wilson. That was a tremendously happy production, and the novel that followed was - for some reason which I can't quite fathom - an equally happy experience. It's a quiet story, really - a Scottish love story spanning centuries - but when I think of it, it still warms my heart. I find it easy to summon up the sense of enchantment and involvement I had when I was writing it - and that doesn't always happen, believe me!
Meanwhile, because we had a great many visitors over the weekend, many of whom asked me what I was working on these days, I also had the 'Kindle' conversation with a number of people.
Me: I'm publishing some work onto Kindle. It's very exciting.
Friend: Oooooh, nooooo!
Me: But it's such a beautiful little device.
Friend: But I love books so much!
Me: Er yes, (looks around at house bursting at the seams with real paper books) So do I! But I love being able to download something at the click of a mouse. And I love being able to carry all these words about with me in one little package.
Friend: Hmm. Yes. Well, there's that. My mother/brother/sister/best friend has one. She swears by it. Well to be honest, I'm thinking of asking for one for Christmas!
There was a variation on the conversation and it went like this
Me: I'm publishing some work onto Kindle
Friend: Aaah. (cautiously) How do you feel about your Kindle?
Me: I love it.
Friend: Oh good. (sigh of relief) I love mine too, but I wondered what you might think...