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!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

MORE ICE HOCKEY MAGIC

Cover Image by Claire Maclean

This is an updated post of something I wrote back in October, when my new novel, Ice Dancing, was first published. It isn't really a novel about 'dancing' though. Or only in the sense that we dance through life, and sometimes we dance alone, but if you find yourself dancing on ice it might be easier to do it with a partner to support you!

The novel, currently available only in eBook form, has been selling pretty well here in the UK, but I'm about to start spreading the word to readers 'across the pond' as my sailor husband would call it. Especially - of course - to Canadians, although some of my Canadian friends have already bought the eBook and are telling me that they love it. That's a relief. The hero is Canadian, after all.

But how come I found myself writing a novel with a hockey background? Well, it's a little more than that. It's a warm contemporary love story with a charismatic hero, but it's mostly set in a small Scottish village. And as one UK reviewer pointed out, it's a novel about a coup de foudre  the lightning strike of love at first sight, the irresistible thunderbolt of intense attraction which changes everything in an instant, however unlikely, and however disastrous the results may be.

It's also a novel about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man - the kind of ten year age gap which, were it to be reversed, wouldn't so much as raise an eyebrow, but which still seems to be a cause for comment in these supposedly enlightened times. And which makes the thunderbolt even more difficult to deal with for all concerned.

But still - there's the hockey. So let me explain how I came to write a novel - my sixth published novel - with this particular background. My love affair with hockey goes back a great many years: to the time when - as a young woman - I spent a couple of years teaching English Conversation to adults in Tampere, Finland. My students mostly worked in the large paper mills of Tampere, which is a long, thin and rather beautiful town, sandwiched between two lakes which freeze solid in the winter. I taught engineers, management, secretarial staff. Sometimes I went out to the factories by bus and sometimes students travelled to the language school which was above a department store in the middle of town. There were a few other people - all ages and stages - doing evening classes for various reasons. When we weren't teaching, we clustered in the cafe downstairs, chatting, drinking coffee and eating rice porridge with milk or piirakka munavoi, the cheap and cheerful Finnish equivalent to scrambled eggs on toast.

Finns are friendly but quite shy and private people. Teaching conversation to people who are naturally quiet was challenging. The majority of my students were young men. And the only thing they really wanted to talk about, even in English, wasn't business. It was ice hockey about which, back then, I knew less than  nothing. But I sure learned a lot about hockey over the next two years, from my weekly conversations with Lasse and Jorma and Matti and Heikki with their bright blue eyes and old gold hair. (Especially Jorma!) I was young, footloose and fancy free as were many of my students, and I and my fellow teachers were often invited out to hockey games. Tappara and Ilves were the town's two teams and there was a good deal of rivalry between them. My landlady's cute ten year old son, Esa, played hockey too, and I got used to seeing him clumping about in hockey kit. I got used to tripping over it in the hallway too. I loved it all. I was smitten by the magic of this fast, enchanting and oh so physical game.

Cue forward some years. I'm married with a young son myself - and we're living in Ayrshire in Scotland. For a few blissful years, we get to watch Superleague ice hockey - The Ayr Scottish Eagles - in a brand new arena with one of the biggest and best ice pads in the UK: the Centrum. Ice hockey appeals to young and old, male and female, even in Scotland. Spectators include grannies and babies and all kinds of people in between. The captain of the Eagles offers hockey classes to the kids. Our son learns to skate and then learns to play hockey. For a few short years, I'm a UK hockey mom, helping him to haul kit about -  unbelievably heavy, smelly and expensive kit although fortunately much of it can be bought second hand even in Scotland - tugging on long laces, ferrying him to and from hockey summer schools, learning about cross-checking and high-sticking, wrist shots and slap shots.

Time passes. Our son hits sixteen, major exams loom and he's forced to make some tough choices. He wants to go to university, has ambitions to work in the video games industry, and he's in pursuit of a karate black belt too. Hockey has become just too time-consuming for him. And besides, the arena seems to be in trouble.  Regretfully, he decides that karate fits in better with his academic work, so he stops playing. All too soon, the Centrum is gone, demolished to make way for a supermarket, taking many thousands of pounds worth of public money with it. And here in the UK, the Superleague has gone too, although the Elite League has now taken its place and our 'local' team plays forty miles away at Braehead, in Glasgow, a difficult journey along our winding rural roads in misty winter. But not impossible. And this year, a few NHL players are drifting our way because 'hockey is hockey' and they'd rather play than not. And we love to watch them, we really do. We've remembered just how much we love hockey and miss it desperately when we don't see it, even though it's a minority sport in Scotland and our newspapers are only ever full of football. And when they call a television programme 'Sportscene' what they actually mean is 'Football, lots of it.'

All of which goes some way towards explaining the unusual background to my new novel, Ice Dancing. It may be a hymn to hockey - it probably is - but  just as there's a darker side to the game, there's a darker side to this novel as well. If this is a love story, it's one with a wry and painful twist because visiting Canadian hockey player Joe, who skates like an angel, has his own demons to cope with and Helen, a farmer's wife, living discontentedly in a rural Scottish backwater, finds her life disrupted in unexpected ways by this young incomer. And so, with their two quite different worlds in unlikely collision, Joe and Helen find themselves balancing precariously on ice, dancing between past disappointments and future possibilities, between hope and despair, together and apart.

My literary agent, on first reading Ice Dancing, thought it had echoes of The Bridges of Madison County and I can see what she meant. But this is also a novel about the quiet - and sometimes funny - joys and equally quiet frustrations of Scottish village life. It's a novel about coming to terms with your past, but it's also a story full of hope for the future. I've already been asked if I'm going to write a sequel. I don't usually do sequels, but with this one, I just might. Partly it's because I fell in love with the characters, Helen quite as much as Joe, and want to spend a bit more time in their company. Mostly though, it's because a good friend told me that she thought she knew what might happen next. But she was wrong. And I realize that I know exactly what happens next. So I might have to write it.

Of course that's a story for another day and quite possibly - given that novels are big undertakings - a story for another year.

Ice Dancing is available to download from Amazon's Kindle store
here in the UK and
here in the USA and now
here in Canada

.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I haven't forgotten about my 'How I Got Where I Am' series, but other things have intervened over the past couple of weeks! I'll pick up where I left off next week. Meanwhile, I feel the need to write a bit about 'cover images' for eBooks. And here's why.

In traditional publishing, you may be consulted about the cover of your book, but you won't have the final say - or, more often than not, any say at all. Marketing, branding, current fashions all take priority. (I used to loathe those headless women covers so much but it's a fad that seems to have faded thank goodness.) As a writer, you will hardly ever be able to communicate with the artist involved.  I liked the original paperback edition of the Curiosity Cabinet a lot  although it was very different from the eBook edition - of which more in due course. As far as I remember, the image of the embroidered casket which the artist used came from the Burrell in Glasgow, where there's a splendid collection of them. (Go and see for yourself!)

There are whole websites devoted to praising or slating eBook covers. There are competitions and awards. I sometimes wonder why we human beings are so darned competitive. Free us up to be what we want to be, do what we want to do, and people will instantly suggest that somebody (preferably themselves) needs to exert some sort of control, judge, make distinctions, create hierarchies. People become so alarmed by the random nature of the emerging eBook market that they suggest a string of controls involving submission and judgement followed by the acceptance and curation of the favoured few, seemingly unaware that they have just reinvented traditional publishing.

Over a long career in writing of all kinds, I've come to loathe that word 'submission' and to consider other models, other ways of doing things. Submission means the 'action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.' Which only works when that other person really is genuinely superior, a wise teacher, an experienced and respected expert. Writers begin their careers by submitting - we're routinely advised that we need to contemplate scores, nay hundreds, of submissions. We get into the mindset at a time when we really do need a modicum of expert advice, but the trouble is that even when we become seasoned professionals, we too often continue to yield our power, our ideas and significant equity in our product to other people. The fact that quite often those people don't really know their literary bahookies from their elbows somehow escapes us. They tell us how superior they are and we believe them. Relationships which should be creative partnerships become lopsided. Until Amazon came along, there was little alternative.


So where do covers come in? Well, eBook covers aren't really covers at all. They are images, images which you see at thumbnail size on Amazon and other listings pages, images which are enlarged on e-readers, but which can be works of art in their own right. To some extent, this was always the case. Years ago, one of my short stories, The Butterfly Bowl, was published in a glossy women's magazine and the accompanying image was such a small work of art that I bought the original from the artist. But images for eBooks may be an opportunity for creative collaboration of a new and exciting kind.  Let's free our minds from the usual design/marketing/judgmental constraints for a bit. Let's decide that if we want to, we can explore new ways of doing this, too. If we're eBook publishing because we're writing across genres or because what we write doesn't fit comfortably into any single marketing paradigm, then why shouldn't we consider new ways of approaching the images which interpret and reflect our books?

When I decided to publish The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, I knew that I needed a new cover image to go with it. A friend, distinguished textile artist Alison Bell - who had read and loved the book - offered to design an image for me. It is her own response to the novel, and a very beautiful one at that. I would no more have looked at it as a piece of utilitarian design than I would look at any other genuine work of art only for what it could bring to the 'pack shot'.

It's an approach which I have largely followed with my other novels, either asking the artist to read the book, or at least talking about the themes in some detail and asking for a creative response, much, I suppose, as one asks a designer to approach a play - discussing the thinking behind the project but then giving them the freedom to interpret, using their own individual  creativity.


The image above for Bird of Passage, by a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti, was a revelation to me. I had discussed the themes, the setting of the novel, passed on some of my own photographs, even  had something in mind. What Matt came up with, though, was utterly unexpected.  But the sheer brilliance of it as an interpretation of the novel, the loneliness of the central character, the sense of his imprisonment in his own past, all of them are there in Matt's superb image. I remember the first time I saw it, it brought a lump to my throat!

Two more novels have covers designed by another young Scottish artist, Claire Maclean. The Amber Heart is a big book, a sweeping love story, set in nineteenth century Poland. I wanted romance on an epic scale. It's a story of a lifelong and passionate love affair. Claire, with a deeply romantic imagination seemed the ideal choice and she produced a cover of such warmth and beauty that I had no hesitation in asking her to work on my next novel, Ice Dancing, as well.
But this was a different proposition.  Ice Dancing is grown up, sexy, quirky. An intelligent love story with a dark side.  The hero plays ice hockey, for sure. (The title is a metaphor for relationships that extends through the whole book!) But it's really  a story about an exotic and charismatic interloper in a small Scottish village - and love at first sight.. The idea of  hockey as 'fire dancing on ice' - the sheer, intensely physical sexiness of it, certainly permeates the whole novel, and that's what Claire seized on. Once again, the image practically took my breath away.




Now, Alison has read, and is meditating on the ideas in The Physic Garden, my next book, a historical novel set in Scotland in the early 1800s. She has remarked that it is a deeply melancholy tale (it is, I'm afraid) and - unerringly - she has honed in on a passage which is absolutely central to the novel. I await her interpretation with interest.

When it works well, we need to acknowledge that the symbiosis between artist and writer can create a piece of art which illuminates and comments on the writer's work. All of this is such a creative pleasure: a new and unanticipated benefit of inde publishing. The odd thing is that, although the covers have been created by three different artists, there is a 'look' about them which seems somehow to reflect my own voice as a writer. That voice is the common denominator and it shows.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Branding a New Novel and Illuminating Reviews - Ice Dancing

Every now and then, as a writer, you come across a review of one of your own pieces of work which illuminates your novel, play or story for you.  I've had reviews of my plays (in production) which seemed to indicate only that the critic had missed the point. On the other hand, I've had reviews of my plays which have taught me plenty as a playwright, the kind of helpful reviews which identified what I was trying to say and fed something back to me in the form of analysis, not precluding criticism, but doing me the courtesy of taking the work seriously, on its own terms.

It's the same with new novels. You wait with some trepidation for the early responses. And while it's nice to get good reviews and miserable to get bad reviews, the very best reviews tend to be those which in some way illuminate your own work for you (and others), with the reader doing you the courtesy of taking the work seriously and then taking the time and trouble to analyse their own response to it.

A recent review of my new novel, Ice Dancing, here , by Hilary Ely, on the excellent Vulpes Libris, was one such example. Not only is it, of course, very good to know that somebody has enjoyed the novel enough to want to write about it, but a review like this, which explains why, in some detail, is uniquely helpful to me as a writer.


As an independent 'writer as publisher' and at a time when traditional publishers also expect writers to do a great deal of their own publicity, you have to make some decisions about what kind of book you have written. And I don't just mean thinking about whether or not your novel slots neatly into any one genre. If you've embarked on eBook publishing, it probably doesn't. That may well have been part of your problem. It certainly was for me. I'm a natural mid-list writer, writing across many genres: love stories which are by no means conventional romances, historical novels with a contemporary dimension, family sagas which don't follow the usual pattern, reasonably literary novels which are nevertheless deemed to be 'too accessible to be really literary.'

And now Ice Dancing, a passionate, contemporary love story with a charismatic and handsome ice hockey hero - but mostly set in a small Scottish village. Of course it's the hockey that leaps out at you, from the rather beautiful cover, designed by a young Scottish digital artist called Claire Maclean. And when I started to think about marketing this book, I did think first and foremost of all those women, young, old and middle aged, who love hockey quite as much as I do, and go to as many games as they can. (Hockey is never just a male preserve, not in Canada and the US, certainly not here in the UK either)

But of course the novel is about so much more than that. I knew it, but it was Hilary's lovely, thoughtful and thought provoking review which clarified it for me. For this is a novel about a coup de foudre as it's known: the lightning strike of love at first sight, the irresistible thunderbolt of intense attraction which changes everything at a stroke, however inadvisable, however unlikely, however disastrous the results may be.
It's also a novel about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man - the kind of ten year age gap which, were it to be reversed, wouldn't raise so much as an eyebrow, but which still seems to be a cause for comment in these supposedly enlightened times. And which makes the thunderbolt even more difficult to deal with for all concerned.

It is, as Hilary points out, also a novel about adultery and guilt. Which may seem to be an old fashioned concept, but which can still wreck lives pretty comprehensively. And besides all that, there is a very dark back-story about the kind of damage, betrayal and maltreatment which can also wreck lives in all kinds of ways. So this is a novel about the after-effects of such things, and whether it's possible to come to terms with them and how. Besides all that, of course, it's a novel about rural life, a warm and loving account of what it's like to live in a small village: all the cosy, comfortable security of it, as well as all the stifling goldfish bowl downside when everybody knows everyone else's business and doesn't necessarily feel the need to mind their own!

I have the distinct impression that, when it comes to publicising Ice Dancing, (which my agent compared, with some justification, I think, to The Bridges of Madison County) I'm going to have to promote it to different and possibly distinct groups of people. The hockey fans will love the hockey. But even readers who don't care for sports but enjoy a good, passionate love story will find something to enjoy. The metaphor of 'dancing on ice' - precarious, slippery, needing a partner to steady you in an alien environment  - runs through the whole book, as opposed to the line dancing which is the heroine's hobby, line dancing where you don't need a partner, where you don't need to touch anybody at all. This is, I think, quite a sensuous story. And when I reread it now, I can see that it is, perhaps first and foremost, a novel about the extraordinary imperative of intense physical attraction. Which is, let's face it, endlessly fascinating for most of us, whatever our age and stage in life.