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, April 29, 2015

Poldark, Aidan Turner and Seeing Your Characters.

broodingly handsome ...
I reckon there's a whole PhD thesis - or several - to be written about the obsession of so many women of all ages with the BBC's recent excellent adaptation of Poldark and the performance of broodingly handsome Irish actor Aidan Turner as the eponymous hero.

Me too.

But I've been a bit phased by how many men seem to have been genuinely upset by the lighthearted lasciviousness of so many of their female social media buddies. You kind of want to pat them on the head and say 'there, there, you do realise it isn't real, don't you?' What happened to the joys of fantasy? I mean my lovely husband doesn't mind at all, perhaps because he has a bit of a thing for Geena Davis. And why not? Although I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if I never had to watch The Long Kiss Goodnight one more time!

This is for my husband!
But I digress.We were talking about the divine Aidan, weren't we?

I could claim, of course, that I was watching it purely for research purposes, because I'm currently working on a novel set in the late eighteenth century and the BBC are exceedingly good on costumes. Well, I did claim that for a while and to some extent it's true. Watching Ross Poldark galloping along those beautiful Cornish cliffs isn't a bad sort of preparation for writing about Scottish poet Robert Burns, also dark, also - allegedly - extremely attractive, galloping along the Galloway cliffs. He did, as well. He rode some 200 miles every week when he was working as an exciseman, although for a lot of that time the weather must have been appalling, so he would have looked a little more like a drowned rat than Poldark, but still ...

Lots of people were saying - with absolute truth - what a good Heathcliff this actor would make. Lots of people were also saying to me what a very good Finn in my novel Bird of Passage, this actor would make. With even more truth, I reckon. But of course Bird of Passage is, among much else, a kind of homage to Wuthering Heights, so it would make sense.

Many of us go through a stage of envisaging actors playing the parts of our characters in our novels and stories. You've only to hang out on Facebook for a while with a few other writers to find out that lots of people do it and I bet even those who don't admit to it are occasionally tempted! We all dream about the film or television option, don't we?

I tend to do this even more, I think, because I have a background as a playwright and quite often a theatre director will say to you, 'Did you have a particular actor in mind' - and equally often you do, whether it's a male or female character. It isn't always possible to secure a particular actor, but you find yourself watching actors, the way they move, the way they handle a particular role, the energy they bring with them, and envisaging them in a part. I sometimes surround myself with photographs of various actors when I'm writing. They're for me, not the readers at that stage. I probably wouldn't describe them in too fine a detail in the actual work though, since each reader brings her own imagination to the book. And that's the way it should be.

But I have to see characters to write about them, and sometimes I'll admit to seeing them played by a particular actor in some hypothetical but much wished for dramatisation.

Turner is Irish, which helps. Finn is Irish too, a Dubliner. He spends his adolescent summers in Scotland, harvesting tatties on an island farm, but his accent would be right. He's a dark and seriously damaged individual - physically strong, mentally vulnerable - and I suspect he would have those kind of good looks that men sometimes grow into: a sullen and silent child who can unexpectedly blossom into a deeply attractive man.

There were times, watching Poldark, when I wanted to write the screenplay for Bird of Passage so much that it hurt! Not least because Eleanor Tomlinson who plays Demelza, would be perfect for my lovely red headed Kirsty in the novel. I've liked her as an actor - and remembered her - ever since I saw her in an excellent film called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.

I always think of Bird of Passage - a bit sadly, I'll admit - as the novel that 'got away'. But of course it didn't. It's out there on all eBook platforms now: Amazon, Apple and most other places and in a little while I hope to have it out in paperback as well. So you can find it and read it. But I haven't the foggiest notion why the traditional publishing world rejected it out of hand. It is, when all's said and done, a big story. (Not in the sense of a good story, that's not my call, but in the sense that a whole lot of things happen!) And many readers are enthusiastic about it. Not only do they take the trouble to tell me how much they like it - it seems to stay with them. I love this because these characters have stayed in my head too: poor, unhappy, abused Finn, his gentle friend Francis and sweet, strong, loving Kirsty.

Still, the book is out there now and available and not lurking unseen on my PC where it sat for several frustrating years while a couple of agents asked me if I couldn't come up with 'something just a bit more commercial'.

I still think it would make a film or a Scottish/Irish television co-production. So if you're reading this and looking for a new project, let me know. I have some interesting ideas about casting!










Monday, April 20, 2015

Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 


Cover by Alison Bell



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bird of Passage

Cover art by Scottish artist Alison Bell
This is just a small update about Bird of Passage - because I'll be writing some more about the background to the novel next week. I've done some minor revisions - nothing structural or important - just a bit of reformatting and a few edits to punctuation and so on. This was one of my earliest independently published novels and it needed a little care and attention.

At the same time, I've taken the opportunity to publish it to a number of other platforms, so if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle App, you'll find it on Apple, Kobo, Nook etc. I'm planning a paperback edition later on this year, as soon as I've finished the first draft of my Jean Armour novel.

A surprising and gratifying number of readers have taken the time and trouble to tell me how much this novel means to them - and that kind of feedback can't be ignored. I'm very much moved by it and very grateful to them for contacting me or reviewing the novel. It does, I fear, make it all the more surprising that no traditional publisher ever took this one on. A few publishers saw it and turned it down. Successive agents read it, said 'no thanks - you need to come up with something more commercial' and wouldn't even send it out. But I knew that those people who had read it - real readers, not industry insiders - were telling me that it should be published.

Sometimes you can see why a book might be turned down. Even if it's a well written book, you can see that it might not be quite what the market wants. But sometimes, you simply don't understand. And this is one of those books. I self published it with some trepidation - but then various people - strangers as well as friends - told me how much they loved it. So I'm glad that now, other people can read it.

I've also been thinking about the serious and distressing background to this book - the Irish Industrial Schools that were still in existence until the 1970s and that have left a great many damaged individuals behind them, people who are still seeking the redress and closure they so badly need and deserve, but don't seem able to get. I'll be blogging about this a little bit next week. It was distressing to research and heartbreaking to write. It isn't even 'my' story to tell. But I had an Irish grandmother who - for reasons too personal to go into here - could easily have found herself in this kind of situation.

Bird of Passage is a love story - of course it is - and something of a homage to Wuthering Heights, but it's also a story about a damaged individual and how that damage spreads and is inflicted on others. And of course it's set in a landscape that I love very much indeed - a wild Scottish island landscape like this one.



Friday, April 03, 2015

Robert Burns's Magnificent Response to a Critic


I don't know how this had escaped my attention until this week - but it had: Robert Burns's incomparable response to a critic who had complained that his poetry contained 'obscure language' and 'imperfect grammar'.

I mean I've felt like this often enough - haven't we all? But I never had quite these words to express my feelings!


Ellisland, 1791.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

R.B.



Ellisland