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!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatal Flaws - How Do You Like Your Characters?


This was originally posted on the Authors Electric blog, earlier this month - but it seems worthwhile reblogging here on my own blog. Worth thinking about and discussing, anyway! 

A little while ago, I was asked to speak to a group of readers. One of them had spent many years as a professional editor with one of the big, prestigious publishing corporations. All of them had read the Physic Garden and were interested in talking about it and asking questions. I’ve done plenty of these sessions and you don’t expect everyone to like the book. Some of the questions can be challenging, so you have to be able to think on your feet. All of which is a good thing. But on this occasion something happened that brought me up short.

‘How on earth,’ said this ex-editor personage, ‘Did you manage to write in the first person voice of somebody so unlikeable?’

There was one of those dismayed silences in the group, with everyone trying not to catch my eye. An uneasy stirring. A little murmur of protest. I’ll admit I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that she was questioning my writing abilities. Not really. She was asking me how I could possibly have written 90,000 words in the voice of a totally unlikeable person. Except that of all the characters I have ever created, and if you include my plays and stories that’s a lot of people, I think William Lang is right up there with my favourites.

I simply love him.

Which was all I could say, really. The story was no hardship because I loved William to bits. Still do. And moreover, as somebody else in the group was quick to point out, even though William lived 200 years ago, you can still find his like today. Many of us know them and some of us think ourselves lucky if we do: elderly Scotsmen, very clever and sometimes self-taught, a little prickly on the outside, but with a loving soft centre, dry, humorous and with all the wisdom of their years. They’ll be doting grandfathers too, given half a chance.

Did it matter that she didn’t like him? Not a bit. But it did get me thinking. Because this was a person who had been an editor, a person of some influence within traditional publishing. And if she had still been working in that role, it would have mattered a lot. Because that would have been her judgement and yet it was one that the rest of the group – voracious readers - disagreed with.

And then it struck me that I've had other responses like that. Not, I hasten to add, from the excellent editor who worked on The Physic Garden, a pearl among editors, who confessed that she too loved William. But in the past, I've had agents and editors telling me that a particular character wasn't likeable enough. And although I’m prepared to admit that sometimes they might have been right, I suspect mostly they were wrong. It was a matter of personal preference. Something to do with their own prejudices. We all have them. But when publishing acquisitions stand or fall by them that’s when the trouble starts. Perhaps, like the advice to decorate a house as blandly as possible if you’re putting it up for sale, this goes some way to explaining so much that is anodyne in contemporary fiction emanating from the big corporations.

Do you have to like your main protagonist to write about him or her? Do you have to like this person in order to enjoy the book? I don’t think so. I rather dislike Jane Eyre, the character, I can’t help it, but I do like the book very much. I don’t like Heathcliff and Cathy at all. Who would? But I love Wuthering Heights almost more than any other novel and reread it practically every year. I don’t much like Fanny Price, but I enjoy Mansfield Park.

As for my poor William, she thought him too dour, too Presbyterian, even though he makes determined efforts not to go to the kirk as often as his family would like. And I think she believed that William had been prone to over-reaction, which is an opinion she shares with a few other readers, and makes a good point for discussion. For anyone who hasn’t read the novel, and without giving away any spoilers, our narrator remembers a time when he is reading in the library of his much wealthier friend, Thomas. There, he comes across a book called The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, complete with illustrations, and is shocked to his youthful core by the pictures he sees there. This is a real book. I was able to see a very old and precious facsimile in Glasgow University Library. But you can also find some of the images online. I remember seeing them for the first time. And I, with all my 21st century assumption of sophistication, was also shocked to the core. The images are very beautiful. But the horror lies in realising their beauty and almost immediately becoming aware of the fact that they are depicting the deaths of women and children, mostly through privation and poverty. You can see some of them here. But be warned before you click on the link, they are not at all comfortable to see!

Anyway, we agreed to disagree about William’s likeability or otherwise, although most of the rest of the group seemed to be on William’s side. But it also got me thinking about all those letters of rejection that said, ‘I liked the book but I didn’t love it.’ Or ‘I loved this book but I couldn’t carry marketing with me.’ (i.e. they didn’t love it.) I used to sigh and resolve to do better next time. Now that I only have to submit a novel if I want to, I realise that liking and loving a character are personal judgements and may have nothing to do with the quality of the book – but more importantly, they may have very little to do with whether or not I enjoy reading a book. If that were the case, neither Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner would be the astonishing reads they undoubtedly are. And as for Scarlett O’Hara? Oh dear me no. Consigned to the outer darkness as terminally unlikeable.

I like my characters flawed, sometimes fatally so. How do you like yours?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Curse of Presentism - today's eBook Festival post.

Cover by textile artist Alison Bell

All this week, I'm resident on this year's Edinburgh eBook Festival where I'm blogging about historical fiction. Here's an extract from today's post - but do visit the festival site here, to read the rest of this post. There are four more to follow about aspects of historical fiction -  and a great many good things besides for the whole month of August, including free books and insights from an excellent cross section of writers.

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this residency. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past

A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. 

We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to elucidate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

You can read the rest of today's post on the Edinburgh eBook Festival site.

For this week as well, there will be a couple of special offers on two of my own historical novels: The Amber Heart, set in mid nineteenth century Poland, and Bird of Passage, in which the story spans the years from the 1950s to the present day. Does this qualify as historical? I think so, since some of the issues explored in the book have a very definite historical dimension. Do feel free to argue with me if you disagree - and if you download the novels, you can decide whether or not I follow my own advice! 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Ellisland: the long road to a new novel.

Ellisland Farm
Last week, we headed south to Ellisland, near Dumfries, the farm where Robert Burns and Jean Armour spent some three years of their early married life and where he composed - among other memorable poems - Tam O' Shanter. 

The last time I visited this place, I was very young. Even then, I was so 'into' Burns, a fascination that has never really left me, that I was always persuading my mum and dad to drive about the countryside, visiting places with connections to the poet. It helped that we lived within walking distance of Burns Cottage in Alloway and I would wend my way there on fine spring and summer Saturdays, always hoping to see a ghost or two. Rab remained obdurately unwilling to manifest himself, even for such a fan as me. 

Later, much later, I wrote a couple of plays about Burns: one for BBC R4 about the writing of Tam o' Shanter, notable mainly for a stunning performance of the poem from Liam Brennan as Burns, with Gerda Stevenson as Jean and an early appearance by Billy Boyd (of later hobbit fame) who was an absolute joy to work with and made everyone laugh. 

Later, I wrote a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, about the last few weeks of the poet's life down on the Solway coast. But in both of these plays, Jean Armour, the poet's long-suffering wife, figured largely, her voice more or less demanding to be heard. (Much as William's voice would not be denied in The Physic Garden!) 

Ever since then, I've wanted to write a novel about Jean. Not a piece of non-fiction, although like all my historical fiction it'll be well researched. But I've had this longing to crawl inside Jean's head and try to write her story. You've only to read a few accounts of the poet's life to see how easy it seems to have been for academics to dismiss Jean as 'not quite worthy of the bard.' Creative Scotland, it seems, agrees with me, because they have just awarded me a very welcome sum of money to research the novel and here I am, at the start of a longish road to a new book. 

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean

Anyway, I loved Ellisland. And I loved it not least because it hasn't been overly interpreted. It remains one of those atmospheric places where nobody has got their hands on the displays, nobody has introduced sound and light effects with a hundred buttons for kids to press, and nobody has tried to tell you what you ought to think and feel. 

I don't know how long the Trust in charge of Ellisland will resist the temptation to revamp it, so I'm very glad I saw it as it is. It was a very fine day, there were house martins flying and calling about the old buildings and the walk along the Nith, where Rab is said to have composed Tam, was a green, shady pathway, fringed with wild flowers, dappled with sunshine. The curator, who lives in the cottage, was knowledgeable and helpful, and the exhibits - oh the exhibits were to treasure: Burns's sword, Jean Armour's much mended 'mutch' and the poet's wooden box, hewn from a single log, with his initials on the top. 

This is how these small museums used to be and sometimes I find myself wondering what it is about them that I enjoy so much and what it is about the new museums that - splendid and well thought out as they are - so irritates me sometimes. I can only conclude that where there is too much explanation and interpretation, there is no room at all for imagination. You are always being told what to feel and what to think. 

One of the tricks to writing historical fiction is to do just enough research. But then, you give yourself permission to make things up. And only then do you find out what you don't know, what you actually need to know. So you go back and find some answers. But if you do too much research to begin with, if you dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's there's a good chance that you won't want to make anything up at all. 

Ellisland is open to the public and it's magic. If you're a Burns enthusiast, go and see it while it's still in it's wonderfully welcoming state. If you're not a Burns enthusiast, you may well have changed your mind by the time you come away!