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, May 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters, Part One: The Fortune Teller

'The world ends where the sea is no longer navigable. There are the Gardens of the Hesperides where Atlas supports the sky on a conical mountain and where the great dragon guards the Golden Apple.' Herodotus.

Last week, I reblogged a post from Authors Electric about a trilogy of novels I'm working on, based on an old title. (You can read it just below this post if you want.) I plan to publish the first part in late June - as an eBook to begin with - if I can get my head down and work hard for the next few weeks.

One interesting aspect of working on something I first worked on many years ago is that all kinds of memories come flooding back. It was a magical time for me and now I find myself inhabiting it again. We can't ever go back, but as a writer, you can do it in your imagination. When I'm working, I often surround myself with mementoes, remembrances, evocations of the themes, the background and setting of a particular novel. This can involve pictures and books, music too. I'll watch films which somehow echo the mood of the novel I'm working on, pin up pictures of actors I would choose to play the characters in a movie. Scents play their part (which is why I'm walking about in a cloud of Neroli, right now)  Food, flowers, wine, herbs and spices -  you name it, it all somehow feeds into the project. I suppose it's like making a literary mood board and just as much fun. Maybe it's one of the reasons why I like Pinterest so much. I've started making a mood board for the novel(s) on there too. I know it's displacement activity, but since it seems to result in all kinds of ideas, I find it an invaluable tool for helping me to immerse myself in the story.

One other thing I've decided to do, and I'm not sure whether I'm doing this for my readers or myself - a little bit of both, I suspect - is to write a series of blog posts about two magical winters spent in the Canary Isles, back in the 1980s. They proved to be the inspiration behind several stories and an old novel of which this new trilogy will be a drastic and extended rewrite.

'The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,' wrote L P Hartley in The Go-Between. Well, that's true, but sometimes it's good to revisit your own past, just to remind yourself of how you got where you are. And since readers so often ask, 'Where do you get your ideas from?' I'd like to say, this is where many of my ideas came from.

It was the 1980s. After university, I spent three years living and working in Finland and Poland, followed by a couple of years working as a Community Writer for the Arts In Fife. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, into his 200 year old cottage where we're still living, here in the West of Scotland. I was pretty much writing full time, working on radio drama in particular with some television thrown in for good measure, and I was making a reasonable living. An ex-trawlerman and commercial diver, Alan was betwixt and between jobs. He had dipped into retail for a couple of years with a craft and pottery shop. The turnover was high, but not high enough to make it worthwhile. (Everyone else got paid. We didn't.) We were playing around with ideas as to what to do next, were wondering whether to move to the Isle of Arran and had even looked at properties there.

I went to see a fortune teller.

I'm not entirely sure why. She had come highly recommended and I was intrigued. I don't think I wanted to know anything in particular. I suppose I had questions about my career, but I wasn't dissatisfied in any way. Maybe I had some idea of writing about the experience since at the time, I was writing the occasional newspaper feature.

It was a very strange experience, one of the strangest of my life. She lived in a small, quite ordinary house in a small, quite ordinary Scottish town. She looked a little eccentric, but she was kindly and welcoming. She used - as far as I remember - Tarot cards and a crystal ball.  She warned me right from the start that she would describe a random series of events to me but she would have no idea whether they were in my past, my present or my future. Presumably I would be able to tell that but she didn't need to know. She didn't need me to say anything, really. She wasn't claiming to be communing with spirits (thank goodness) so there were no otherworldly platitudes. It was all curiously matter-of-fact but very vivid.

She did, indeed, seem to know some very odd and unusual things about my past and my present including something which was deeply personal, which had happened a long time ago, and which she told me about in some detail. There were a number of other events she described which I didn't recognise at all. Not until much later, anyway.

And then, she said, 'I can see an island. There's a mountain of some sort. Houses. The sea. You're going there. It's going to be very very important to you. Very important indeed.'

Now, we had been wondering about living on the Isle of Arran, had even looked at houses and businesses there. So I said - and any self respecting sceptic would have been proud of me for feeding her useful information  - 'Yes. You could be right. We were thinking about going to live on Arran.'

'Oh no,' she said, very firmly. 'Heavens no. It isn't Arran. I don't know where it is. There are little white houses. The sun's shining. It's warm. The sea's blue. There are lots of flowers. And there's a mountain like a ... ' she hesitated, 'like a mountain a child would draw, you know. That kind of shape. You're going there. It will be very important. In fact, it's going to change your life.'


A year or two later,  (the Arran venture having petered out) Alan had decided that he would like to try to carve out a career as a professional yacht skipper.  With considerable seafaring experience already, he quickly gained the necessary qualifications. Then, all unexpectedly, he was offered a job as skipper aboard a 50 foot catamaran called Simba. He would sail the boat to the Canaries in the autumn of 1985, making landfall at Tenerife, where Simba would sit at anchor in Los Cristianos Bay. The company who owned it would send charterers or occasional guests to spend time on board and he would take them where they wanted to go.

We'd been living together for a few years by that time, but in October 1985, we were married. We had our honeymoon in Bath and climbed Glastonbury Tor in brilliant sunshine. Then, only a little while after our return,  Alan sailed south (through a violent storm in Biscay, as it turned out) and reached the Canaries more or less in one piece. Just after Christmas 1985, I flew out to join him.

The sun was shining, the sea was blue, there were lots of flowers, and there was the peak of Teide, like a mountain a child would draw ...

Sometimes even Teide has snow!






Sunday, May 19, 2013

Falling In Love (All Over) Again - Reblogged from Authors Electric

I'm reblogging my recent post on Authors Electric here today. Incidentally, if you haven't been to Authors Electric before, do have a look. You'll find a miscellany of interesting posts - a new one every day - by 29 independent and independently published writers including myself. Some of us have been traditionally published as well - some of us still are which I suppose makes us 'hybrid' writers, to use the current buzz word - while some have elected to go wholly indie. We're none of us too keen on labels, but our group includes genre, literary and mid-list writers (sometimes all within the same versatile person!)  award winning writers of all kinds, poets and playwrights, novelists and storytellers and non fiction writers. Many of us have held Royal Literary Fund fellowships or have been involved with teaching creative writing. Most but not all of us are UK based. What we have in common is experience and professionalism, coupled with an enthusiasm for writing and for our lovely readers. 

The post below will be the first in a whole season of Canary Isle themed posts here on my own Wordarts blog, because I'm working on a major new project, a trilogy of novels set largely in the Canaries and loosely based on an old back-list title, but substantially different from that early novel. There's also an interesting back story to all this, the inspiration behind it, and it struck me that it might be nice to tell it here, on my blog as I prepare the new novels for publication. 

When I first started this project, I thought it would involve typing up the manuscript, revising as I went along, but it soon became obvious that it needed much more than that. Major changes were in order. The book was originally bought by a medium sized publisher a long time ago. I think the central story is fine, but I’ve matured as a writer. Just as well, really. When I reread it before starting work on it, my chief emotion was a sort of horrified embarrassment and NOT, I might add, embarrassment at the significantly erotic content. It was more a question of writing technique and not the other sort. What, I kept wondering, was I thinking about? More to the point, what was my editor thinking about?
Happy days on board  'Big Cat' Simba
When I look at the novel now, I can see so many elements of it which need work, not least a confused and confusing perception of point of view. It began as a tale told from a limited third person point of view.It’s a story about Margaret Sinclair, in her thirties, newly divorced, shy, rather innocent and a little depressed. Desperate to get away from Scotland, she secures a job in property sales on the Canarian island of Tenerife. My editor at the time suggested that we also needed to see things from the perspective of the other main character, a Canarian called Luis. She may have been right about that (I'm still thinking about it) because (a) this is a story about a cross cultural relationship and we need to know what is going on in the head of the other half and (b) musician Luis comes from the small island of La Gomera which is central to the story, so his background is both interesting and important to the plot. 

Back then, and although feedback after publication was good, I don’t think I did it very well. To be fair, it isn’t easy. It’s the kind of thing I wrestled with in The Amber Heart where sometimes we needed to be with Maryanna and sometimes with Piotro, but not both at the same time. I think, eventually, I got it right in that novel, moving between the two without too many clunky changes, but learning how to handle it was a steep and very long learning curve. Now I need to go back to my Canary Isles novel with all the benefit of experience.

I reckon I also didn’t do it very well because we were in something of a hurry. If the novel had been published by the (old, distinguished) publisher who bought it, there might well have been a modicum of nurturing. But because the publisher was immediately bought over by a major corporation, it was published differently and with a garish cover. The novel was and will remain a sexy read. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it was a bit OTT, a bit too ‘80s’ – like the cover - in no good way. And why did I spend so much of it telling the reader what people said instead of having them actually say it? Beats me!

A close friend, a whole generation older than I am, has said to me that the central story is still good and vividly filmic. I hope she’s right. But I knew immediately I started working on it that it needed to be retold. There’s another thing about it: I can remember a phone call from the girl who was involved with publicity when it was first published. ‘I fell in love with Luis,’ she confided. ‘I mean really fell in love with Luis. I’ve never ever felt like that about a fictional hero before.’ Clearly I’d got something right then.

So what am I doing now?

Apart from listening to/watching this, on a loop, (OK, OK, I'll admit it, my hero was that young Banderas) I’m wrestling with point of view, and making it work, making it better.
I'm writing a lot more dialogue.
I’m working on the sexy bits, making them better. (This is a lot of fun, have to admit.)



Above all, I’m turning the basic story into three new and quite different novels, which involves a lot of extra writing, as well as drastic changes: The Golden Apple, (which was my old title because the one thing I really like about it is the title), Orange Blossom Love and a third novel called Hera’s Orchard. I’m planning to publish the first one in June, the second in the autumn some time and the third at Christmas, if I apply myself.

I’m also falling in love with my hero all over again. It’s a strange thing this writing love stories. You have to be a little bit in love with your characters, warts and all, to be able write about them. It doesn’t just apply to love stories either. When I was writing The Physic Garden, I had to crawl inside William Lang’s head and stay there for a very long time. I was passionate about William, emotional about him, even though The Physic Garden is a story about friendship and betrayal and by no means a romance. I felt for him in my heart as well as my head. But Luis was a dimly remembered affair and I had to rediscover him, find out what it was I liked about him all those years ago, find out what it was about him that made that young publicist fall in love with him so comprehensively.

It has been a surprisingly slow process. There's a part of me still hankering after Joe and Helen from Ice Dancing, to the extent that I know there’s a sequel to that novel kicking around somewhere in my imagination. And some part of my head is still back there with William Lang in 1800s Glasgow, in the physic garden of the old college of Glasgow University.

But I’m getting there. Luis is undeniably attractive. That's why Margaret falls for him against all her cautious instincts. He plays the guitar and sings. He’s impulsive, sensuous, fiercely proud and when all’s said and done, a wee bit too tempestuous for poor Margaret’s comfort. You know what? When I went back to this story, I felt the same way. Like when you meet an old boyfriend and wonder what you ever saw in him.



Sitting on board in the sun, writing. 
When I first drafted the story – like Kathleen Turner in The Jewel of the Nile - I was sitting on board a boat in the sun, writing, and I was madly in love with the Canary Isles myself. I'll tell you a bit more about that time in the coming weeks and months. The new Golden Apple is a story full of life and sunshine and music and that’s kind of what I need right now. I always liked Margaret, quiet, sweet, sensible, put-upon Margaret, with her hidden depths. Now I’m getting to know Luis all over again. Falling a little bit in love again. I think. I hope. Finding out a lot more about him. 

Or as one of the traditional Canary Island poems which run through the novel would have it: 
I love you because I love you.
Nobody tells me what to do with my love.
I love you because I feel it
deep in my heart.'

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym - A Reading Between The Lines Review.

I’ve just finished rereading Excellent Women for the umpteenth time. I really have lost count of the number of times I’ve read this book but it’s like going back to an old friend, comforting, stimulating, always amusing. My paperback copy from 1980 is quite literally falling apart. I had to read it clutching the pages together. It’s foxed and battered and pretty much disintegrating. I’m going to have to buy a new one very soon.

I like all of Barbara Pym’s novels, but the battered state of this one is testament to just how much I love it. The novel is set in postwar London, in a suburbia which reminds me very much of the London suburb where I spent a year as a child, when my father was working at a research institute there. That was a bit later, for sure, but still recognisable. We were in a flat very much like Mildred's, owned by the people downstairs, an elderly retired vicar and his rather scary wife with their 'good' furniture. She took my mother to church jumble sales and other events. I still remember her lamenting the fact that mum wouldn’t wear and had never in fact owned a fancy hat. Or indeed a hat of any kind. This lady was certainly an excellent woman.

Mildred Lathbury, the narrator in the novel, is a spinster in her thirties though she seems older, from a present day perspective when women are no longer set in spinsterhood in their thirties. She is a churchgoer, self deprecating, an ‘excellent’ woman – but her wry observations on life, on academia, on the church and on the opposite sex in particular, still delight me and make me laugh out loud every time I read them.

This is a ‘quiet’ novel but David Cecil called it ‘high comedy’ and it is. It is as sharp and well observed in its own way as the work of Jane Austen. Every time I reread it, I see more in it. It is as intricate, as well made as some beautifully inlaid box. This time, I suddenly became aware – as I think I had not before – of the wonderfully wrought overall structure of it: how perfectly made it is, and how excellent the ending – where we are invited to look to Mildred’s (very interesting) future without ever being certain of precisely how things will turn out. Except that for those who have read all her books, we do find out, because Barbara Pym was very fond of referencing earlier characters in later novels.

The other characters are all superbly drawn, superbly realised. There are no cyphers – all are vivid and vividly recognisable, from the attractive Rockingham Napier – Rocky – who was kind to the ‘Wren Officers’ in Italy during the war and who almost charms Mildred in the same casual way, to the fascinating but selfish widow, Allegra Gray, who enchants the vicar, Julian Malory. ‘I was a little dismayed,’ says Mildred, who has felt reluctantly compelled to offer to help Allegra with her curtains for her new flat ‘as we often are when our offers of help are taken at their face value, and I set to work rather grimly, especially as Mrs Gray was not doing anything at all... “I’m afraid I’m not very good at sewing,” she said.’

Miss Pym’s pen can drip acid, so gently that you hardly notice that it is acid. As Mildred and her friend Dora travel to a school reunion we learn that ‘In the train we read the school magazine, taking a secret pleasure in belittling those of the Old Girls who had done well and rejoicing over those who had failed to fulfil their early promise.
‘”Evelyn Brandon is still teaching Classics at St Mark’s, Felixstowe,” Dora read in a satisfied tone. “And she was so brilliant.”’
Who among us hasn’t done something similar? Who among us can claim never to have known an Allegra Gray? Who has never found themselves reluctantly undertaking some task on behalf of another person who complacently looks on and points our how we ought to be doing it?

In short, I love this writer and I love this novel. The writing is subtle, deceptively simple, unshowy, intelligent in the best possible way, human, insightful and in the last analysis, loving. A. L Rowse said ‘I could go on reading her for ever.’ I must say, I feel exactly the same. How Cape could ever have treated her so badly is beyond me. I remember that article in 1977 in The Sunday Times – after Pym had been shut out, denied traditional publication for some fifteen years, after a very successful career - when Pym's friend Philip Larkin (of whom I was and remain a huge fan) and David Cecil both nominated her as ‘the most underrated writer of the 20th century.’ I had already come across her novels in library sales, and subsequently pounced on anything else I could find. She writes about a world we have lost, she writes with astounding truth about women, she writes about a society which has undergone vast changes, but because she writes the most profound truth and writes it from the heart, she and her work will never really go out of fashion.

This is a 'Reading Between The Lines' review for the RBTL Review Collective. Go to our Facebook group for more review links here.