About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Amber Heart and Bird of Passage - the Novels I Feared No-One Would Ever Read


If you just happen to be reading this post on Wednesday 13th or Thursday 14th June 2012, you'll find that you can go to Amazon's Kindle Store and download my two newest novels for nothing. If you've missed the giveaway then you can still download them for the price of a couple of lattes - or a latte and a half, depending upon your cafe of choice. (I'm a Cafe Nero addict, here in the UK - an Italian style chain with cool, stylish interiors, friendly staff, good coffee and good music - and no, they aren't paying me to say as much!)

If you fancy an epic love story in the Dr Zhivago mode (I'm thinking of the movie, rather than the book)  - or a sort of Polish Gone With The Wind - you'll find it here if you're in the UK and here if you're in the USA.

One thing I've learned from the various reviews of this book over the past few weeks, as well as direct messages from readers, is that they have sometimes been uncertain as to whether they'll like the Polish historical background.

One enthusiastic reader remarked honestly that she thought it might be out of her comfort zone, but then got thoroughly swept up in the story and setting, found that she loved it and wanted to tell other people about it. Another calls it a 'rollercoaster of events and emotions' and I hope it's all of that. It's certainly what I intended it to be when I was writing it. And it's certainly what I myself felt about it as a story.



However, I can completely understand why readers might be a bit reluctant. For many of us here in the west, we have a vision of the Poland of the cold war years firmly lodged in our brains - part of that great unknown empire beyond the 'iron curtain.' When I was a little girl, growing up in post-war Leeds with my lovely Polish father and Irish mother, I used to hear them talking about the iron curtain and imagine it as a real barrier, a huge hanging made of shining metal, sweeping across the countryside.

But for me, there was another Poland and that was the one my father told me about, as magical and unattainable as a place in a fairytale.

I was quite a sickly child, with severe asthma, and dad would sit beside my bed and patiently weave his own lost past into fabulous stories for me, describing his family, most of whom had died in the war or in the various skirmishes that preceded it, especially in the east.

But he also told me tales of a time long before that: the superstitions and beliefs, the songs and poems, the eighteenth and nineteenth century history which he had absorbed when he was just a little boy himself.

His tales were full of that long-lost world of the Austro Hungarian Empire, where privileged people drank tea out of silver samovars, ate preserves from porcelain dishes with tiny silver spoons, and sometimes visited Vienna where they would eat cake ... and dance.

Of course it wasn't all like that. This was in so many ways a savagely dangerous world. Human life was cheap  and as well as the cake and the dancing, there was abject poverty and prejudice, bloodshed, misery and disease. All of these things have found their way into The Amber Heart, as well as an equivocal but attractive hero in Piotro, a heroine whose faults match her virtues in Maryanna, and a setting which I still find myself revisiting in my mind's eye from time to time - the big, beautiful, pancake yellow house of Lisko.

Give it a try. You might find yourself swept along too!




The only thing I ask is that if you do download this and enjoy it, you'll snatch a few moments from your busy day to tell other people what you liked about the book - and maybe tell me too. (Even if it's only the Viennese chocolate cakes and pastries, which I certainly had a lot of fun writing about...)


At the same time, you can download my contemporary novel, Bird of Passage. Here in the UK and here in the USA. Although the settings for these two novels are quite different, there are some similarities between them. Both owe something to my passion for Wuthering Heights, although of the two, Bird of Passage is by far the more intentional homage to that book. Even there, the references are quite subtle.

There are other similarities between The Amber Heart and Bird of Passage which I only noticed after I had finished writing and revising both novels. Both are love stories, both are big books in the sense that they are reasonably long and span a great many years.

I realised quite quickly  that I needed the elbow room to tell the whole story in each case.

Bird of Passage, which begins and ends in the present, has something of the 'family saga' about it. Mainly though, it's a haunting tale of obsessive love, betrayal, loss and institutionalised cruelty, set in Ireland and Scotland. I found some parts of this very distressing to write. It took me a long time to realise what had made Finn, my central character, into the person he was. I resisted exploring it. The book felt stuck and stupid for a while. But once I found out what had happened to Finn - and that's exactly what it felt like - finding it out - everything came together for me, even though exploring it was still a painful process. By then, I cared for Finn quite as much as Kirsty in the novel.

Both of these books have something else in common and I'll own up to it here. It was almost impossible for me to find a conventional publisher for these two novels  although I and my agent(s) spent long and frustrating years searching. I'll let you into a secret. One of the many editors who said of Bird of Passage that she 'loved it but didn't think she could sell it' told me that it was 'too well written to be popular but not experimental enough to be literary'. Even back then, when eBooks were just beginning to loom on the horizon, I despaired at the judgement and thought it was a serious indictment of the way in which conventional publishing views its potential readers. The books I loved to read myself were accessible, well written stories that drew me into a world created by the writer. That was what I wanted to write. I couldn't imagine (and I can imagine a lot of things - it's what I do after all!) that I was alone in this.

I don't think I was.
I don't think I am.

The Scottish island setting of Bird of Passage

But really, this is not a complaint. I used to have a few chips on my shoulder, I'll admit. I had too many years of agents and editors raving about work which they could neither sell nor publish. Even the sympathy of friends was unbearable. But now, thanks to Amazon, and Kindle, I'm as happy in my work as I have ever been in my life. And I have more stories to tell, more novels to finish and new books to start. So watch this space.

For those who are still not quite sure about eBooks, or just don't like the medium, I'll definitely be getting both of these out as Print On Demand paperbacks, early next year. Sooner, if I can manage my time just a little more efficiently.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about me, visit my website at www.wordarts.co.uk and if you want to know a bit more about the Polish background to the Amber Heart, visit my other blog at http://theamberheart.blogspot.com

Monday, June 11, 2012

Amber

Cover art by Claire Maclean


Most people will now be familiar with Baltic amber jewellery which you can find in many shops here in the UK and - I'm sure - worldwide. Of course there is plenty of fake amber on the market. You can usually spot it by its regularity and general nastiness but if you're in any doubt, rub it against a wool sweater - amber will pick up bits of paper afterwards; plastic won't. I love amber. I love its warmth, and its glow - the way it has the look of trapped sunshine, the way you can see tiny seeds and even insects, trapped deep inside it. 

On one of my first visits to Poland, back in the 1970s, my cousin took me to visit a friend of hers, an artist who worked with amber and silver. I can still remember the smell that filled his studio as he polished a big chunk of amber on some kind of machine - it was the scent of long dead pine forests, pungent and magical.  On that visit, my Polish great aunt Wanda gave me an old and beautiful amber necklace with a tiny fossil in each bead. It had survived the war with her and now she was passing it on to me. She told me that I should wear it often, because it would be good for my health. A couple of years later, while I was living and working in Poland, teaching English at Wroclaw University for the British Council,  I was given one or two tiny amber hearts - it seemed to be a favourite way of shaping the resin. 

When I first drafted out what I thought of as my 'Polish novel' - it went through various titles over the years - I always had in my mind a piece of jewellery as a sort of talisman, something that would have significance for the main characters,  something that might change hands, but that would survive down all the years as my own amber beads had survived. I knew that it had to be amber - something warm and beautiful and desirable and rare. Gradually, I began to 'see' it in my mind's eye, and it had to be a heart, encased in a delicate silver filigree. I don't possess such a piece of jewellery. I only wish I did! And I've never seen one quite like it - not consciously, anyway. But I found it easy enough to conjure it up in my imagination and set it down on the page. As you'll find, if you read the novel, it threads its way through the story, not so much significant in terms of plot as in signifying something about the relationship between the heroine, Maryanna, and the hero (if hero he can be called) Piotro: some enduring, warm and magical quality. 

If you find yourself reading this blog on or before  the 13th or 14th June 2012, you can go to the Kindle Store at Amazon UK or Amazon US and download both The Amber Heart and my other new novel, Bird of Passage, to your Kindle, for free. There are similarities between the two books which I think I only realised after I had written them, over a span of years. Both are 'big' stories, heart rending tales of a love affair which - if not exactly forbidden - then is one which is pretty certain to encounter problems. Both of them involve a relationship which begins in childhood and lasts throughout life. And both of them deal with certain tragic realities of the time and place within which they are set - one in nineteenth century Poland and the other in twentieth and twenty first century Scotland and Ireland. 

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about how to describe my novels for readers. None of them slot comfortably into any single genre, which I think is why I've had such problems finding a publisher in spite of a string of rave rejections of the 'we love this, but we're not sure how to market it' variety. They are unashamedly love stories, but not really romances in the conventional sense. And I think that's set to continue with the next two at least - both of them love stories, but not in any conventional sense. However, I realise that I enjoy a good romance as well as the next woman. And if you look for definitions of that word online, you will find this one: 'A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.' 

Well, I'd be very happy to have that applied to any of my novels, but especially, I think, to the Amber Heart. And it seems to me to be a pretty good description of amber itself. It's certainly one which my cover artist, Claire Maclean, picked up and ran with in her gorgeous cover design, which seems to encapsulate the novel and the idea of amber all in one beautiful artwork. 



Friday, June 08, 2012

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury.

Some years ago, while I was still writing radio drama, and having already worked on a serial based on a little known Sci Fi novel by Zenna Henderson, called Pilgrimage, I was asked to dramatise some of Ray Bradbury's short stories for a radio series called Tales of the Bizarre. My fellow playwright was Brian Sibley, a fine writer and a friend of Bradbury's who has written his own tribute to the great man here. The series was produced by award winning producer/director Hamish Wilson, with whom I was doing a fair amount of radio work at the time.

There was no prescription about the work. I was simply handed a huge volume of Bradbury's collected stories and asked to pick the ones I liked best. The only difficulty was in choosing, because there were so many wonderful stories - and not all of them 'science fiction'. Some of them could more accurately be classed as 'horror'; some of them were simply bizarre.  But all of them were beautifully written and often poetic. I loved them. And fortunately, Brian and I chose different stories, so there was no haggling!

There were two series and my choice included I Sing The Body Electric, Skeleton, The Man Upstairs, The Day It Rained Forever, Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You and And So Died Riabouchinska. All of them were quite different, but all were a pleasure to dramatise.

I've written plenty of original drama, but when I was working in radio, I was sometimes asked to dramatise classics and contemporary fiction. I've also found myself turning my own radio plays and series into novels and stories, reversing the process. My novel The Curiosity Cabinet began life as a trilogy of radio plays, also directed by Hamish Wilson. The act of dramatising a work of fiction, of finding the drama while staying true to the original, is a peculiar and quite difficult skill, not to be undertaken lightly. It can be especially challenging when the work of fiction is well loved. And - unexpectedly - the dramatist can find a piece of work dissolving in the transformation. It has happened to me on one occasion and it can be disturbing to realise that a widely acclaimed novel seems to be all style and no substance.

This, however, never happened with Bradbury. These stories were all brilliant combinations of style and substance.

Although I enjoyed the whole process, there were two stories which stand out in my memory, perhaps because both of them were uniquely suitable for radio. One was Skeleton, a truly horrific tale of a 'bone specialist' who turns out to be a little more sinister than a simple osteopath. Think vampires, but fixated on something quite different from blood, and you get the drift. It was fun to do from start to finish, including our bone specialist, played by Liam Brennan, crunching on breadstick, to get the sound effects just right. Oh, and there was a bowl of jelly somewhere in the studio. The result was both revolting and riveting.

The other story which worked very well as radio drama was The Day It Rained Forever. This is a magical story about so many things that you can't pin it down. It's about drought and rain, about sterility and fertility, about death and life, about age and youth, about poetry and rejuvenation. I still think about it sometimes, with that little kick of pleasure that a great story gives you, even in retrospect. Oh, and it involves a woman who plays the rain on her harp: a delicate and beautiful tale, quite the opposite of Skeleton. And therein, I think, lies the genius of this writer.

Bradbury introduced each episode of Tales of the Bizarre in his own inimitable and generous way. I remember being very happy that he approved of my dramatisations, and also being touched by the fact that - unusually - he always pronounced my surname accurately, without having to ask! Somehow, that little courtesy seemed to encapsulate the man I knew only from his stories.