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!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

One More Reason To Love Amazon

Old Los Cristianos.
I'm in the middle of a new project which involves extensive rewrites and revisions of an old back-list title, which will be my next eBook publication. Actually, it will be two books, possibly even three, loosely based on a novel which was written and published many years ago. I don't often like to go back to old projects, but for all kinds of reasons which had more to do with changes in the publishing world, the publication didn't turn out quite the way I wanted. It was written (and acquired) as one kind of book and published as another. The novel I intended it to be - a book about cross cultural marriage and the adjustments that have to be made - disappeared somewhere down the corporate hole in the middle of the deal. It was reasonably popular at the time but when I read it now I can see all kinds of problems which should have been addressed at the editing stage. And it's rather dated. But at the heart of it, I think there's a good strong story in an intriguing setting. And I still like the central characters very much.

So I'm rewriting it. Drastically. Adding a lot, subtracting a lot, changing a lot and all of it in the light of experience. I seem to be a sadder and wiser person these days and it's showing in the story. By the time I've finished the first book in the series, it will - I feel - be quite different, although with enough of the old skeleton in there to satisfy the people who liked it the first time round.

So what has all this to do with loving Amazon, other than the fact that the new novels will be published on Kindle?

Well, this first novel in the series is set largely in the Canaries, on the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera. I wrote the first draft of this story back in the 1980s when I was living aboard a giant catamaran (called Simba - big cat - get it?) mostly at anchor in Los Cristianos Bay,  although with occasional sorties elsewhere, particularly to our favourite place in the whole archipelago: La Gomera. I'll be blogging a bit more about that time over the next few weeks. Needless to say, it wasn't OUR yacht. My husband was working as skipper for a charter company, and we would sometimes be joined by paying guests. Which wasn't all that happened. I came back expecting a baby!

But over the past few weeks, I've realized that I both need and want to know more about the history of these islands. Not because these are historical novels, but because one of my main characters is born and bred on La Gomera. I already knew something of his family heritage and was intrigued by it but - you know how it is with research - I had a hankering to know more, even if I didn't make detailed use of it in the new novels. Searching for the history of the Canaries, even online, doesn't elicit very much information. I had read as much as I could, back in the eighties, and still had some of the books and pictures from that time. I still had my notes from various sightseeing trips, and conversations with local historians. But there seemed to be a dearth of detailed histories in English and my Spanish leaves a lot to be desired. (Living on a boat, you learn the words for fibreglass polish and folding table but not much of an academic nature.)

I did a bit of googling which only pointed me to books, papers and sites I already knew about. So I turned to Amazon. Which, I now realize, was where I should have started. When you're looking for a book, but you haven't a scooby what it is, what it's called, who wrote it or even if it exists, Amazon is the place to go. I swear, within three clicks, Amazon had presented me with a couple of extraordinary accounts of the Canaries from the late 1800s, facsimile editions, complete with gorgeous pen illustrations. Not only that, but when I hesitated, wondering if I should buy these fat doorstops of volumes, I clicked on a review to read a charming, funny and detailed exposition by another reader who made the books sound irresistible. Another click and they were on their way to me. They arrived the following afternoon. (OK. I've succumbed to Amazon Prime. They even give you a two hour window for delivery)

And here they are. Beside me as I type this. Lengthy accounts of travels in the Canaries first published in 1887, written by an enterprising and engaging 'lady traveller' called Olivia M Stone.

So that's another reason why I love Amazon. There must be some seriously good and intuitive programming at work here. Within moments, they had suggested two books I didn't even know existed, books they delivered to my doorstep twenty four hours later, books which turned out to be exactly what I needed. Spooky. Like Lois Lane said of Superman: Can you read my mind?


Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Hybrid Writer

Paul's Himalayan Musk Rose (Not a Hybrid!)

The following is reblogged from my April post on Authors Electric. I thought it was something worth repeating here, on my personal blog,  because the links may be useful to other writers while the idea of some writers doing all kinds of writing, published and produced in all kinds of ways, not just a particular genre or a particular form of publishing, may be interesting to readers as well.

Hybrid is, apparently, the new buzz term. 'You're going to be hearing about hybrid writers a lot soon,' remarked a colleague gleefully. Actually, the term was first invented (I believe) by the excellent Bob Mayer, some time ago but my colleague was absolutely right, and I already had been reading about it here, there and everywhere. I noticed it because I rather like the idea. It's one I'm comfortable with for various reasons and not just because I love roses, hybrid or not!

Now I know that a percentage of new authors self publish in the hope of being noticed by traditional publishing, big or small. Nothing wrong with that either if that's what you've decided you want. The slush pile has all but disappeared, having an agent no longer guarantees publication - nor has it for some time - and stories of traditional publishers trawling Amazon for successful novels are legion. Although if you do hit pay dirt with a best-selling eBook, the deal on offer would have to be pretty good to compete. I've had some good relationships within traditional publishing and production: excellent and committed small publishers, producers and directors who have taught me plenty over the years. Some of these relationships are still ongoing and I'm very glad of them. But I have also experienced the exact opposite in all its hideous misery.

These days I self publish very happily, love the experience of being a 'writer as publisher' and I'm certainly not publishing my work digitally in the hope of being 'noticed' or only by my readers and potential readers.  I'm also publishing in order to make some money. But I'm not totally independent and I doubt if I ever will be. Only some of us on Authors Electric are. Many of us have a foot in both camps. The truth is that (to mix my metaphors a bit) as a hybrid author, you can now have a finger in just about as many pies as you have fingers, especially when you write an eclectic mix of all kinds of work. With me, it isn't just fiction, long and short, but plays and non fiction too. And even with my fiction, there's no single genre and some of my novels are - I suppose -  more 'literary' than others. That's part of the fun of it. Not being tied down any more. Not having to shoehorn yourself into a tight little category because that's what your single publisher wants. Being able to say, 'let's do the show right here,' with some degree of success, being in control, but also being open to partnerships or the occasional traditional deal, whether it's for a story or an article, a review or a play, where what's on offer seems reasonable and non-exclusive.

The problem in the olden days of publishing and production wasn't just discoverability. It was maintaining professional visibility. Even people with whom you have worked successfully and happily in the past tend to forget about you if they don't see or hear from you. It's one of the reasons why so many playwrights camp out in theatre bars. Show face. Chat. Socialize. Now, I find that social media have been an undoubted factor in my rekindling some old professional relationships and that's an unexpected but welcome by-product.

Perhaps the simple truth is that writers have almost always undertaken a mix of work not just in order to survive, but in order to grow and learn and hone their craft. The number of writers who have moved smoothly from creative writing course to literary acclaim is vanishingly small but they also tend to be the most vociferously indignant and embittered about the new state of publishing. Perhaps they just feel threatened by change.

I think many of us would settle for being happily hybrid, writing, talking, teaching if that's what floats our boat, undertaking the occasional piece of contract work for a variety of outlets, aiming to thrive rather than just survive. Thriving is something that has been on my mind recently. Money doesn't buy happiness but it sure makes living a lot more comfortable in all kinds of ways.

Most of us write for love. Well, there's nothing wrong with that either. Nothing wrong with loving what you do even though it's hard work. Even though there's a certain dour mindset which subscribes to the belief that if you love it, it can't possibly be work. But even when we write for love, we can publish for money, especially now. Anyone seriously contemplating a career as a writer might think about doing some kind of business course if only to avoid exploitation. I remember what an eye opener it was for me, the first time somebody pointed out exactly how I ought to go about costing my time. (If you want to know more, you can download a guide from Glasgow's Cultural Enterprise Office, here) And the shocking perspective it gave me on major commercial organisations which still try to tell us that there's 'no money in the budget' to pay the writer for all kinds of extra work. I once found myself trekking through to Edinburgh from Ayrshire for a radio script meeting on my own time and money because there was 'no money in the budget to pay for travel expenses.' Back then, I put up with it. Many of us did. My favourite story from that time was of a friend who had something published in a magazine devoted to cats for which she was paid £5. Not a lot, even in the 90s. They also sent her a copy of the magazine and subtracted the price of the publication from her fiver!

These days, I'll do the odd gig for good causes, but I tend to subscribe to the Harlan Ellison school of thought where paying the writer is concerned. (But then it's a long time since I fell off the turnip truck!)

Meanwhile, I'd like to know how many college and universities offering Creative Writing or Creative Industries courses also offer detailed modules on the self employed business side of writing, everything from simple accounting and tax issues to branding and marketing. I'd lay bets not many of them do. Only last night I heard a contestant on Britain's Got Talent (I know, but it was a VERY quiet Saturday night and I was too tired to do anything except be a couch potato!) saying that he had started a music course at college, but his father had changed it to a business course. And I thought - surely, he would need both.


THE PHYSIC GARDEN, my new novel, now on Amazon's Kindle Store, here in the UK and here in the USA with a beautiful cover by Scottish artist Michael Doig. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Old Scottish Fashion Doll

 I don't know what she's called and I'm not even sure how old she is. She is a little like a doll called a 'Pandora' - a precisely and beautifully clothed 'fashion doll' . You can read all about these kind of dolls in an excellent research paper called Pandora in the Box, Travelling the World in the Name of Fashion.
Fashion, dress, is certainly her purpose. I don't think she was ever played with in the conventional sense - her condition is too beautiful. I found her in a local saleroom, here in Ayrshire, many years ago. I can't remember what I paid for her, but it wasn't a huge amount of money and she seemed like a bargain. I know that her dress is a variation on the 'Polonaise' style of eighteenth century dress, but she definitely wasn't made at that time - well, I'm fairly sure she isn't as old as that! She has the face of a Lenci doll in a way, but by no means so precisely moulded or so characterful, and if she were a Lenci doll she would be a lot more valuable. She is a rag doll of sorts, made of something that looks and feels like stuffed stockinette, with a head and face of stuffed linen, gessoed, I think and then with painted features and a (slightly spooky) wig of real human hair.

 She stands about 18 inches high, and as you can see from the pictures, she is fully clothed in layers and layers of hand stitched costume. These seem so very authentic that they taught me a great deal about how this mode of dress worked! Working from the outside inwards, she had a hat in pale pink satin, trimmed with little glass beads and with a blue glass hatpin. She has a pink satin 'Polonaise' overdress, with embroidered net sleeves, and tiny frills of hand made lace edging at collar and cuffs.




 The underside of this pink satin overdress is lined with a different peachy coloured material which is hand embroidered with beautiful little flowers and leaves.
Beneath this is a deep strawberry pink underskirt, consisting of a double layer of satiny fabric, peach on the inside, deep pink on the outside, all hand quilted together and fastening at the back with a little button. She has a white linen camisole laced with pink ribbons, and under that is a deep peachy pink satin corset, neatly laced, with under that a short linen shift (the kind of 'cutty sark' that Burns wrote about in the poem Tam o' Shanter.) You can just see the bottom edge of it underneath the pink corset, as I undressed her, below.



As you can see, she has a beautifully hand made petticoat under the quilted skirt. This too is in white linen and has a deep frill of scalloped cutwork embroidery, making a double layer with the plain edge of the skirt, and fluffing out the whole costume still more. 



Underneath that is a frilly peachy pink flannel petticoat (for warmth!) again buttoned, and with a little line of hand embroidery around the waist.
After that, come a pair of utterly gorgeous linen pantalettes. with tiny pintucks and tinier lace trim at the bottom, pulled together with pink ribbon.
And below that, a pair of handmade cotton stockings, with - an absolute triumph - a tiny but very handsome pair of white kid leather shoes with coloured beads trimming them.



She even has a little handmade hankie, with lace trim in her podgy fist. 


 I think she's wonderful. I keep her wrapped up in acid free tissue paper, but sometimes I take her along when I do talks about textiles, especially about Scottish whitework. I let people handle her with great care and admire the needlework. Many people see these kind of things in museums, but seldom get to handle them. I keep thinking there may be a story in her somewhere! But I'd dearly love to know more about her. I suspect she may have been a Scottish version of a fashion doll, a dressmaking project on which some seamstress demonstrated her many skills. I get the sense that she might not be that old, but the style of the work may well mean that she could be a hundred years or more. I've researched and hunted, but I have never seen anything quite like her. There are rag dolls in plenty and fashion dolls too but these are generally more lifelike and delicate with carved wood or porcelain heads. I've never seen such a marriage of a fairly crudely made doll with really exceptional needlework.

If you're reading this and you have any ideas, do comment below!

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Bird of Passage, Free on Kindle to Mark the Start of Spring.

Cover art by Matt Zanetti
My novel Bird of Passage will be free to download on Kindle from 4th - 6th April. It's another 'island-set' novel. I seemed to go through a period of setting my novels and plays on islands, until I exhausted that particular piece of inspiration, but it still nips away at me from time to time. So the rewritten version of an old novel, The Golden Apple, due for publication next month, is set on a completely different kind of island: a much warmer place altogether, La Gomera in the Canaries. And even The Physic Garden, set fair and square in early nineteenth century Glasgow, has a trip to the Isle of Arran as a central and very important scene.

Bird of Passage, though, is set on a fictional and unnamed Scottish Hebridean island, which could be just about anywhere, from Gigha, which I know well, to the Isle of Skye, or Mull or Islay, or some amalgam of all of them. Oddly enough, the perception of where it is seems to depend on the reader's own experience and that's fine by me. I love that process which seems to go on, whereby the reader recreates the world of the novel within his or her own mind.

Susan Price, reviewing the novel for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure describes how she realized that there was a connection with a much more famous classic novel:
'I was three-quarters of the way through this book – or even more – before it dawned on me that it was Wuthering Heights in modern dress. I was tipped off by a couple of sly and amusing references to twigs tapping on windows and ghosts, and by the hero disappearing for twenty years and then returning a rich man.
It’s not a re-telling, though – it’s a re-imagining. A dialogue with the older book, if you like. It asks, would the same story, the same deathless love, be possible in the modern age, and if so, how?
'
Link to the rest of the review here.

A very young me, in Wuthering Heights mode!
Susan is right. I wasn't attempting a retelling. I wouldn't dare. But Wuthering Heights has always been my all time favourite novel. I was born in Yorkshire and was trundled over the moors to Top Withins when I was still in my pushchair, or so I'm told. Bird of Passage is a book I was desperate to write, partly because of my own obsession with Wuthering Heights, but I spent years hunting for the right story, the right setting, the right set of characters.

Reviewing the novel for the Indie eBook review, Gilly Fraser writes:
There are no pat answers in this story and no neatly contrived solutions. Endings are jagged, situations remain unresolved. Yet at the end of the book there is a feeling of satisfaction that things did work out as they should – at least to some extent. I think that makes the story and its characters all the more realistic and credible. It’s hard to pigeonhole this book to a specific genre. It’s a love story, yet sometimes defies the label. It’s contemporary, yet dwells quite a bit in the past. As to its audience – I think this would appeal to readers who don’t need to be led by the hand and who enjoy
challenging relationships. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Read the rest of her review here

One of the nice things about reviews - especially when they are positive but quite analytical - is that they give you as a writer a new perspective on a novel. It's odd how often you're not entirely sure what you've written, or what you might have achieved, even though you've been in the thick of it, even though you may have had all kinds of intentions for the book. 

I'm often asked to describe the kind of books I write. It's a question I find genuinely difficult to answer, and reviews like Susan's and Gilly's help me to find some answers. My books aren't really romances in the conventional sense because they don't always have the traditional happy ending or even the traditional structure. They have a resolution of sorts, and I hope they give the reader a sense of satisfaction, but the characters don't generally walk off into the sunset. Or not often. One reviewer who loved this novel still found it heartbreaking, and people who have read The Physic Garden, even while they tell me they couldn't put it down, still tell me that they simply couldn't bear what happens in the end. I know what they mean because I couldn't bear it either, and I wrote it! 

Whenever I finish a novel, I try to work out what kind of book I've written. I know that may sound a bit daft. But when you're in the middle of a piece of work, you're so buried in the time and place, so deep into the minds of your characters, that you really can't see the wood for the trees. So it can be very helpful to stand back and try to analyse exactly what kind of novel you've produced. At first, I despaired of finding any common denominators within my fiction. Everything I write seems to be quite different: some are historical, some contemporary, some are more literary than others, some quiet, some complex.

Quite a while ago, an agent told me (and I'm paraphrasing here) that my work was too well written to be popular but too accessible to be really literary. She saw it as a fault. The more I speak to my readers though, the more I see that a lot of people out there are looking for stories which are well written and grown up, but accessible too. And I think that's what I write. Mainly because that's the kind of book I like to read. Lots of them are love stories. But I suppose they are 'grown up' love stories. I wish Amazon had a category like that, but they don't yet - and 'adult' has quite a different connotation! Even the Physic Garden, which isn't really a love story at all, but a story about male friendship and betrayal, is a grown up tale.

Bird of Passage is a very grown up love story -  about past damage and the obsessive attachment that is the result. And of course it is, unashamedly, a homage to my much loved Wuthering Heights. If this sounds like something you might enjoy reading, it's free to download for the next three days, here in the UK and here in the USA.