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!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Game of Sevens - The Physic Garden

My Authors Electric colleague Pauline Chandler tagged me to take part in this little game. You go to the seventh page of your work in progress, or your newest work if, like mine, your current work in progress consists of a heap of reference books and some notes and not much else! Count down seven lines and post the next seven sentences. Or you can go to the seventy seventh page if you like. We're hoping you don't have a seven hundred and seventy seventh page, but I suppose it's possible. Pauline's extract was from a tantalisingly interesting historical novel - you can find it here, on the Authors Electric blog.

I decided to run with another historical novel - my own new novel, The Physic Garden. When I turned to page seven of the paperback version, and counted down some seven lines, here's what I found:

'I should have started the tale elsewhere and earlier. But I wanted to write about her, the way you want to talk about what you love. Loved. I wanted to bring her to life in words the way I would once have made seeds, bulbs, roots and tubers grow into plants, the way a few green shoots could grow and stretch out and blossom, the way affection grows and blossoms, although you never see it happening, no matter how closely you try to follow the movement of it.

All the same, I should have started the tale earlier. Perhaps I should have begun by telling you about my father, Robert Lang, who had been college gardener for many years, since I was just a lad. Or with myself, who loved green and growing things, even as a boy. Or with Thomas Brown, who had come to teach botany at the college, a few years before I met Jenny.

But I think that would have been the hardest beginning of all. So instead, here I am, telling you about Jenny Caddas and her swarm of bees, the way she smelled of sweat and honey, and how her hair flew about her head and caught the light, a tangle of flax in the sunshine.'


You can see right away that I've cheated! It seemed such a shame to stop, since these few paragraphs are right at the end of a chapter - and I think we need to know that Thomas Brown would have been the 'hardest beginning of all.'

Incidentally, I had occasion to meet a retired editor a little while ago (not my editor, I hasten to add, who was an angel in human form and the kind of editor who is beyond price.) 'How,' this person asked, 'could you write in the persona of such an unlikable character?'

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, gobsmacked. The novel is written in the first person 'voice' of William Lang. He is writing as an old man, remembering his youth in early 1800s Glasgow. Coming to terms with the events of his youth. Coming to terms with a grave betrayal. It would be no exaggeration to say that I loved every last thing about him, and still do. I had no way of answering the question, therefore, except to say that I didn't find him unlikable at all. Fortunately, a few other people agreed with me. They liked him too. What's more, they recognised him. But it got me thinking. And mostly what I thought was how very glad I was that this individual had not been my editor. Because if I had been persuaded to make William conform to somebody else's idea of 'more likable', I may well have destroyed the whole book in the process.

By the way, I'm hesitant to tag individuals in this game - I know how busy writers are. But if you are reading this and feel like doing it - why not just give it a go? And let me know how you get on in the comments below.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Robert Burns and Jean Armour


On this day, 21st July, in the year 1796, the poet Robert Burns died in Dumfries. He was only 37. His wife, Jean, was heavily pregnant at the time. In fact she was in labour during his funeral.

A few years ago, I wrote the play Burns on the Solway about the final weeks of the poet's life for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue and its lunchtime A Play, A Pie and A Pint series. I wrote it with the encouragement of the late, great David MacLennan, which makes it a doubly bittersweet memorial day. I remember when I first had the idea for this play, some time before I actually wrote it. It was when all our kids were young and we went on an annual camping trip to Loch Ken, over the Ayrshire border in Galloway. Some years there were up to fifty of us - adults, kids and friends and usually several good natured dogs as well. One year, while husband and son were canoeing and sailing on the Loch, I took myself off to Brow Well on the Solway Coast, which is where the poet was sent by his doctors in a last ditch attempt to find a cure for an illness that looked increasingly likely to be terminal. As indeed, it was.

It was one of those fine but cloudy days, when the sky had a dazzling, glassy tint to it. It was June, as far as I remember, not July. The flowers the poet loved were still in bloom. The Brow Well was a sort of poor man's spa, with a chalybeate spring. 18th century invalids would drink the waters and would also be prescribed seabathing, a fashionable 'cure' of the time. I parked the car and wandered down towards the shores of the Solway Firth. This is a landscape of long horizontals, mud flats (people still go flounder trampling here) and I remember how it struck me that poor Rab would have had to walk for a very long way if he were to immerse himself up to his waist in water. It must have been a torment to him in his seriously debilitated state. And that was how I began the play, with the poet's voice.

And what happens next and what happens next is ... I walk to the sea. Here, at the Brow Well on the Solway, I come to the edge of the land and almost tumble over into a great mass of thrift, clumps of pink, fringing the shore like some wild garden. But it is already dying. I go struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to my waist. That’s what the doctors advise. Sometimes I can feel the flounders slithering away beneath my feet. My landlady here tells me that she would go flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. I tell her I should like to have seen her.The seawater does some good only in that it numbs the pain. And what happens next is ...

All those years ago, I sat there amid that wild garden, listening to oystercatchers calling and thinking about the poet and his wife. It seemed like a sad but peaceful place and in my mind's eye, it still does. Clare Waugh as Jean and Donald Pirie as Burns in that play gave wonderful performances, bringing these two characters vividly to life and - what's more - making me determined to write more about Jean in particular. Well, I've just learned that Creative Scotland has given me some money to help me research a brand new, full length historical novel about Jean Armour. 

Now, I'm gearing myself up to start and today seems as fitting a day as any other to put the pile of papers and books cluttering this room in some kind of order and ...

And what happens next is ... 



Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Curiosity Cabinet: A Good Scottish Island Summer Read - On Special Offer Now.

'The island is a flower garden.'
This week, The Curiosity Cabinet is on a seven day special summer offer for only 99p. Download it onto your Kindle, and read it on holiday, especially if you're going to the Scottish highlands or islands! (Or here, if you're in the US.)

When I look back on everything I've written, I still have a lot of affection for this novel. I suppose that's mainly because I set it on a small fictional Hebridean island that isn't a million miles from a real Hebridean island - one I love dearly and visit often: the little Isle of Gigha, the most southerly of the true Hebridean isles. The island in my novel is called Garve, and in truth it could be one of any number of small Scottish islands - Coll, for example. Garve isn't Gigha and Garve's people are not Gigha's people, but the landscape of the island was certainly inspirational for me and if you get the chance to visit, take yourself off to Tayinloan on the Kintyre Peninsula - and see for yourself. It's one of the loveliest places on earth in my opinion!

Gigha is tiny - some seven miles long by a mile and a half wide, but since it has some 25 miles of coastline, you can imagine what an interesting place it is. It also has a fascinating history and prehistory, since it was always such a strategic place in the various battles between indigenous people and successive invaders. It lies outside the Kintyre Peninsula and as such - with its fertile landscapes and sheltered harbours - it would have been a very good starting point for anyone wanting to invade the mainland. I love the place so much that I've written a major history of the island, called God's Islanders  so if you're into Scottish history, you could do worse than get hold of a copy while it's still available. I've also set another, infinitely darker novel on a small Scottish Island - and if you've read and enjoyed The Curiosity Cabinet, you might like to give it a try. It's called Bird of Passage but be warned. It's a much more harrowing read - although I also think the magic of this very special landscape shines through.


Such beautiful seashores.
On the way to Donal's boat.'
The Curiosity Cabinet tells two parallel tales set in the past and present. Some three hundred years ago, a young widow, Henrietta Dalrymple, is kidnapped and taken to the remote island of Garve where she is held prisoner by the fearsome Manus McNeill for reasons she can't fathom but which eventually become clear in the course of the story. In parallel with this is the present day story of Alys, coming from Edinburgh to revisit the island where she spent childhood holidays, and renewing an old friendship in the process. Motherhood with all its joys and challenges is central to this novel, as is the gap between urban and rural living, between highland and lowland cultures - but most of all, I think this is a novel about the way certain landscapes seem able to contain past and present, all in one, like the layers inside some precious stone. And it's also about a theme that (I now realise) seems to obsess me a bit - the possibility of redeeming the past in the present. Maybe it's because I'm a part time antique dealer that I'm fascinated by the history of objects, by the way in which each owner, each 'keeper' leaves his or her mark on something. The cabinet of the title isn't really a genuine 'curiosity cabinet' of the kind in which botanical and other specimens were kept. Instead it's an old and precious embroidered box on display in the island hotel - a box which contains the key to Henrietta's fate and Alys's future.

An old laird's house.
 But really, I just hope it's a good and not too heavy holiday read: two love stories in one, in a beautiful setting, a magical place, a magical embroidered box, a couple of engaging heroines and a couple of attractive but realistic heroes. Oh, and a very nice little boy as well. That's what I was aiming for and I hope that's what this is! Meanwhile, cast more than a passing look at the gorgeous cover image, made for me by my good friend, Scottish artist Alison Bell who has a love for islands and the sea - and it shows!
Cover image by Alison Bell