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, September 28, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet on BBC Radio 4 Extra


Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that my trilogy of plays, The Curiosity Cabinet, first written and produced for BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre slot, some years ago, is due to be repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this coming week, 2nd, 3rd and 4th of October. You can read more about the plays and broadcast times here.  There are three episodes: The Brown Swan, The Mute Swan and The Swan on the Lake.

If you've read this story as a novel (currently available on Amazon's Kindle Store, here in the UK and here in the USA ) you may be surprised to learn that it was first written in dramatic form. It's generally the other way round. Novels are 'dramatised' as plays. But way back when I first thought about this story, I was writing lots of drama for radio and theatre and that was how I first 'heard' it in my head - as a series of plays. The novel came later.

Actually the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet had been in my head for a long time, ever since I visited an Edinburgh museum and happened to read the story of Lady Grange who was kidnapped to a remote Scottish island at the instigation of her husband. Like so many writers, I began to think 'what if?' What would it be like for a young woman (younger that the real Lady Grange) to be snatched away from all she held dear, not knowing why, and then to find herself plunged into a completely different culture? For Gaelic and Lowland cultures were very different and still are to some extent. The Henrietta Dalrymple of my imagination could not even understand the language, could hardly make herself understood, even in her state of panic and desperation. This was how the story began to take shape in my mind, but my Henrietta is nothing like the real Lady Grange. The story is set at a different time. The plot is very different. And my fictional island is a bit like Gigha and a bit like Coll and could be any one of a number of small Scottish islands.

I always knew that somehow the historical story would be intertwined with a modern day tale. I just wasn't quite sure what that story would be.  You can hear the tale in its first incarnation in the radio version but I was never very happy with the present day part of the story. This was, I should point out, nobody's fault but mine. The production was excellent and as always with the wonderful Hamish Wilson in charge it was a very happy time. But I knew I was going to have to revisit the story itself, knew I wanted to do more with it. Felt that it wasn't quite doing what I wanted it to do.

Paperback version by Polygon
When it came to the novel, the historical sections are pretty much the same but the modern day version changed a lot. I wrote the two stories separately, printed them out, and then did a literal cut and paste job of weaving them together, before replicating that on the PC. This was never going to be a real 'time slip' novel. That wasn't quite what I had in mind. My stories were always intentionally parallel. None of the characters move back and forth between past and present although the present day Alys (yes -  even her name was different in the novel version!) gradually becomes aware of Henrietta if only through some of her possessions. All the same, the stories are linked in subtle ways. This is a story about keeping secrets and learning to trust, about belonging, about motherhood and obligation. It's a story about the possibility of redeeming the past in the present. It's about the way small islands often seem to encompass past and present, layers of time, one overlain on another. It's a love story: not just the love between man and woman, but that between mother and child.

The novel was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and was subsequently published by Polygon. It's well out of print, but you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon and there's also an unabridged audio version by Oakhill, beautifully read by Caroline Bonnyman. In due course, I'll bring out a new paperback version with CreateSpace.

There's another thing about the novel. Before I was a playwright and a novelist, I was a published poet (I know, I know. Couldn't settle to anything!) and I found myself pruning and polishing this book in much the same way as I used to work at my poems. But now, I'm not entirely sure it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, you can polish a little too much. There's a fine line between the simple and the facile. With later novels, I gave myself permission to prune less. But as ever, the trick is in knowing when enough is enough and I'm still learning!

Perhaps because of this, The Curiosity Cabinet has occasionally been called a 'bit of froth' and a 'guilty pleasure' at the same time as John Burnside was describing it a 'powerful story about love and obligation.' You pays your penny, as they say...  But of all the many very nice comments and reviews this book has received, (when readers like it, they like it a lot) the one that probably pleases me most is the US reviewer who remarked that the book is 'so tightly written you could bounce a quarter off of it.' That one made me very happy indeed!

I find it hard to listen to Radio 4 Extra, here in deepest rural Scotland. I can only get it on my television. But if you are around next week, why not give it a try? It's a lovely, evocative production and it may also give you some insight into how ideas can change and evolve - sometimes quite drastically - over time.





























Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writing About the Canary Isles: A Handsome People.

Teide in the snow.
There has been a small gap in my Canary Island Winter posts, mainly because I've been so busy with the first in my Canary Island trilogy of novels - Orange Blossom Love - that I've had very little time for blogging. The result has been that I've been neglecting Wordarts a bit in favour of my regular Authors Electric blog post (on the 18th of every month) although I'll sometimes reblog it on here if I think it deserves a second outing.

Writing about the Canary Isles has brought the place back to me with almost heartrending immediacy. I want to be there right now although it doesn't look as though that will be possible for a little while at least.  Luis, my hero in the novel, is a 'Gomero' born and bred, fiercely proud of his heritage, a guitarist and a chef. A slightly quirky combination, I know, but that's the way he turned out and whom am I to challenge him? Every writer knows that there is a stage in any novel when a character decides to be what he or she wants to be and there will be little you can do to change it. It's one reason why writers react so badly to other people saying 'can't you make him do this or that?' Many of us don't feel as if we're 'making' anyone do anything. We can shape the story, of course, change the structure, polish and prune and even change what happens, but there's a sense in which the characters make themselves, and that's an uncanny feeling. So, Luis is who he is. And good looking with it.

Earlier this year, when I was in the middle of doing some additional research for this trilogy, I discovered two fat volumes about the Canaries written by one Olivia M Stone, an Englishwoman who had visited the islands back in 1884. This was wholly thanks to Amazon. I didn't know about these books at all. A Canarian academic friend, who had helped me with the translation of some traditional poems, confessed that she didn't know about them either, but then they had been written in English, published in England in 1887 and had long been out of print. The re-emergence of facsimile editions on Amazon was only very recent. I typed 'Canary Islands History' into Amazon and these two volumes instantly popped up, with a long, engaging and informative review by a previous reader. I ordered them and was enchanted by them. Olivia had obviously fallen in love with the Canaries too.

Back when we were living there for that short time, it had struck me what good looking people the locals were. Olivia thought so too. She found the men handsome, especially their guide, the divine Lorenzo, and was not afraid to say as much. Even though she seems to have been a happily married woman, accompanied by her photographer husband, she was also quite a young woman and her obvious appreciation of a handsome and mildly flirtatious man seems curiously modern. She also noted several times that the island girls too were unselfconciously beautiful.

All of this is still true. Spaniards are a handsome people, but there is a fair mixture of the DNA of the original inhabitants of these islands - as recent tests have proved - especially on La Gomera. This isn't too surprising. Historians used to posit the idea that the Spanish invaders had massacred all the original inhabitants, but wholesale genocide is (mercifully) rare. Youth, life, sexual attraction tends to have its way. Like the early Scandinavian invaders of Scotland and Northern England, it seems as though those Spanish invaders - as well as shedding a lot of blood - did a lot of what we had better call intermarrying, although initially at any rate I doubt if it was as benevolent as that term suggests. But these were young Spanish settlers on a fertile land with a kindly climate and the surviving Guanche women were a handsome people of Berber ancestry. And sooner or later, men grow tired of war. The DNA evidence suggests that a great many of those incoming Spaniards must have taken Guanche wives, settled down and raised families, becoming Canary Islanders themselves.

This seems to have resulted in a happy combination in more ways than one. The Canarians are still a handsome, sunny natured people. It's as though the fierce energy of the incomers - but one which could all too easily tip over into cruelty - was tempered by the more peaceful qualities of the indigenous people. This is to oversimplify, of course. The Guanches were as capable of brutality in a brutal age as their conquerers. But it doesn't seem to have been their natural inclination. Whatever the truth of it, it does seem as though a partiality for artistry, cultivation, music, courtesy, peacefulness and a natural appreciation of beauty have to a large extent prevailed on these islands so that the old perception of them as 'blest' - as the garden of the Gods - is not too far from the truth.

www.wordarts.co.uk












Monday, September 02, 2013

THE AUDIO BOOK - CAN YOU DO IT YOURSELF?



This piece -  originally written for the Authors Electric blog - was  very popular with readers, so it seems worthwhile to reblog it here. Lots of indie writers are thinking about audio and wondering whether they can go it alone or not, so here are some things to think about before you do.

For about twenty five years from the mid seventies to the turn of the new millennium, I wrote for radio. I have more than a hundred hours of produced radio drama to my name, including many original plays, series and serials as well as dramatizations of classics like Ben Hur, Kidnapped and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Because most producers want the playwright to be there for the duration of the production – studio time is always tight, so you’re expected to do rewrites on the hoof - I’ve spent weeks in radio studios. Kidnapped and Catriona in ten hour-long episodes involved so much time in a small, stuffy Edinburgh studio with no natural light, that the producer pinned up a quote from Kidnapped on the wall: day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern. We knew how poor David Balfour felt. Although the hot scones sent up by the canteen at tea time were excellent!

I’ve worked with some wonderful producer/directors and equally good audio technicians. I’ve seen huge changes in the way audio is produced. I’ve also read my own work on radio – short stories, talks and poems. And I’ve written audio tours for the National Trust. Which is why I consider myself reasonably well qualified to advise writers about reading their own work for submission as an audio book.

Mostly, my advice would be: think twice.

There are always exceptions. You may be an actor as well as a writer and if you are, you’ll know how to set about it. You may also know all about audio recording or know a person who does. If that’s the case, you can go ahead with confidence. Otherwise, you should approach such a project with extreme caution. The difference between a professional and an amateur reading is marked and obvious to the listener. Anyone who has worked in radio knows that even among actors, there are some who have a flair for the work. Audio is a subtle medium. Bringing a novel to life, not overdoing it, but not making it boring and all while being aware of the technical constraints, demands a certain level of professionalism and experience. If you don’t have that, don’t automatically assume that you are going to be able to do it from scratch and do it as well as somebody who has spent several years learning the craft.

But there’s more to it than that. An unabridged reading of a full length novel presents challenges that you may not even be aware of. I was in the middle of writing this piece when I read some comments elsewhere and realized that many people don't understand that there is a vast difference between a full scale dramatization of a novel and a straightforward reading - even when a novel is read in several different voices. They are birds of a different feather. Hell, they aren't even both birds. It's like the difference between, say, a novel and a film. They are written and made quite differently. Most of my radio work involved this kind of full scale dramatization. The technique is to produce a very rough draft and then leave the book completely to one side and work at producing a stand alone drama for whatever medium you're working in, be it film, television or, in my case, radio, only going back to the book later, to make sure that you have done justice to the original.





But for the purposes of this post, let's assume we're talking about a reading of the text of your novel, either the whole of it, or extracts from it. Trailers are fair game, as are short extracts and I’ve seen and heard some great examples online. But even with an ‘abridgement’, problems start to arise. For radio, these tend to be five or ten episodes of some fifteen minutes duration each and there are audio companies specializing in abridged readings. Fifteen minutes of audio is approximately five or six thousand words depending upon the pace of the text. So you can imagine what has to be cut out of an eighty or ninety thousand word novel to achieve an abridgement lasting ninety minutes. This in itself is a tricky job. I’ve done it a few times - albeit not with my own books - and it’s a great way of finding out the internal structure of a novel, of going straight to the heart of a piece of work. And I can imagine that it would be very interesting (and illuminating) to abridge your own novel for somebody else to read.

But an unabridged audio book? And you’re considering reading the whole of it yourself?
Before you do, here are some practical things to think about.

You’re going to have to read with clarity and subtlety, pulling your audience in, doing just enough but not too much of the ‘voice’ of each character. Remember that wherever you trip over your words – and you will trip over your words – even seasoned actors do it - you have to leave enough space for somebody (who?) to tweak the digital file so that when you resume, it sounds right. And what about turning pages? Although it would be easier and quieter to read from your Kindle. And those astonishingly loud tummy rumbles you weren’t even aware of but the microphone was picking up. Which brings me to how you are going to record it. Well – equipment is cheaper than it was, but you need the right acoustic. You need a dead room that excludes all extraneous sound. So you will still need to hire or borrow a studio and some technical assistance. A local college perhaps? Or you could find yourself a company who will do it for you.

The full length audio version of my novel The Curiosity Cabinet is on Audible. The reading, by Caroline Bonnyman, is superb. It was produced by an excellent small company called Oakhill which - back when it was first produced - paid me for the rights. This was when the novel was first published in paperback. If I wanted to produce a similar recording for my own use, and maintain control over it, I would have to pay somebody to do it for me. If you’re contemplating doing a recording of your own book, download a few similar novels read by actors – either unabridged or in short form - and ask yourself in all honesty if you could do it and keep it up for the several hours needed to read a whole book. Could you be consistent? And get the pacing and the overall tone right. And stop yourself from speeding up towards the end of a page or a chapter. Would you be able to continue a sentence when you turn over a page without hesitating between pages?  What about sitting too close to the microphone. Or moving your head too far away from the microphone. Or moving your chair, which creaks. Or finding when you play it back that you’ve done a horrible combination of all of these and introduced some weird extras into the reading. In other words, can you produce a polished and professional enough version to do justice to the novel you’ve spent so long perfecting? Well, you can do all these things with a good producer and a little practice. But I’ve sat in a studio with a producer and watched inexperienced readers taking an hour or more to record a decent, usable five minutes worth of radio. And that didn't even begin to involve the editing needed. So if you want to do it yourself, I think you need to acknowledge that you will need expert help. Or you could hire the right actor for your book.

I can do the short stuff myself. I’ve read my own short stories on radio. I have audio ‘times’ firmly embedded in my head, so I can judge the pace of a reading pretty well. I'm used to the peculiarly 'dead' acoustic that makes your voice sound odd to your own ears. I’m more experienced than most at this. I know a lot of the pitfalls.

This means that I would definitely like to have a say in who reads my book, just as most writers like to be consulted about casting for a stage play.

But would I read one of my own novels as a full length audio book?

I doubt it. I know too many good actors to believe that I can do it better than they can. I would never say never. But it would have to be the right novel, and it would have to be done in a professional studio with somebody who knew exactly what they were doing, producing and editing. Otherwise, I don't think it's feasible. But I'm quite happy to be proved wrong