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, August 29, 2015

Linens and Lace and Other Inspirations

The occasional old shawl like this gorgeous Cantonese shawl
For some years now, I’ve been running another business on the side, supplementing my writing income by buying and selling antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. Textiles have been pretty much a lifelong passion with me. It all started when I was a child and used to go with my mum to the saleroom – she would always be looking at pottery and porcelain while I would be gazing at linens, lace, embroideries and the occasional old shawl that was always thrown in the corner of the saleroom, because nobody bothered much about old clothes back then. Or, come to think of it, old teddies. How time have changed!

An old fabric doll, fully dressed in Polonaise style
For me, there seemed to be something quite magical about them. When I went to university in Edinburgh, I was fascinated by the emerging vintage clothes shops there, even though ‘vintage’ had not yet become a mainstream interest. My mum was a very good seamstress and she made me a long Dr Zhivago coat (well – Lara coat, really) in black wool with fur around the hem and neck. There was a maxi dress too, from one of those Vogue Paris Original patterns, a beautiful thing with a weighted hem. I still have that, along with a long white lacy skirt, originally a petticoat, very ornate and detailed, bought from a little shop down in Stockbridge with carefully saved cash. Old army greatcoats were in fashion for the boys, long skirts, Indian cotton dresses for the girls. I remember going to one party in a nightdress from Marks and Spencer, a long candy-striped garment with a high waist, straight out of Jane Austen.

'Do you know,’ said the shocked wife of one of our lecturers, ‘that some students wear nightdresses to parties?’ I’m still not 100% certain whether she guessed what I was wearing or not ...

Nowadays, with a lot of writing to do, I spend less time on the textiles, but I still browse boot sales and the local saleroom, still splash out on a box of old linen and lace and sell most of it on to other textile nuts. But all this has certainly helped to enlighten me about costume in my historical fiction. Finding out what somebody would have worn, the how and the why of it is a vital part of the research for me. And also you’ll spot the howlers, like the mediaeval underpants mentioned in a recent post about anachronisms in historical fiction by Mari Biella. 

A lady's bonnet, rather than a baby bonnet - from France.

A few years ago, a curator of textiles gave a small group of Society of Authors in Scotland members a private viewing of a few of the textiles in storage in one of the big Scottish museums and since they were for study purposes, we were even allowed to handle some of them. It was enlightening, not least because certain items were beautiful to look at but very badly stitched ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. Clearly some dresses were like theatrical costumes - the illusion was everything. She also told us that although the really poor would obviously have great trouble keeping clean, for many ordinary eighteenth and nineteenth century people - tradespeople or tenant farmers, for instance - keeping their linens clean would have been important. 

Essentially, they would not be as smelly as we think. 

Looking at inventories of possessions, you can see that people of even limited means would have several shirts, shifts, etc so that the items worn closest to their bodies would be reasonably clean. Which makes sense when you think about how uncomfortable it would be to play host to fleas and lice, the inevitable result of filth. And for country people, a great deal of linen was spun and woven at home. Elsewhere it could be bought by the yard. Pretty printed cottons were also becoming fashionable through the eighteenth century and ease of laundering was an important factor in their popularity.

If you think about how seldom even today we dry clean a winter coat, for instance – perhaps only once a year, unless we’ve been out in the mud – you can see how little we've changed in this respect although I don't think a daily bath was an option or even thought desirable. But then nor was it the norm back in the fifties, and I don't remember that the world felt particularly grubby, even then.  

The embroidery that inspired The Physic Garden
This interest in clothes has been very important to me in several of my novels. In The Curiosity Cabinet, not only is an embroidery central to the plot, but the clothes of a dead woman, gifted to another woman in desperate straits, provide a turning point in the story. In my nineteenth century Polish historical epic, The Amber Heart  what the heroine wears became a sort of indicator of her character, all the way through - and certainly it mattered to me in terms of how I perceived her relationship with the hero (or possibly anti-hero) of the novel. And in The Physic Garden, an authentic embroidered garment looms very large in the story. 

Perhaps most of all, though, it has been important to my work in progress, the Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife Jean Armour. The daughter of a master stonemason, she was not hugely wealthy but still cared very much about her appearance as a young woman of some consequence in the small town of Mauchline. This perception of her ran contrary to many subsequent accounts of her as a plain countrywoman, not quite 'worthy' of her famous husband. I never really believed that. The six ‘Mauchline Belles’ of which Jean was one - I always see them as eighteenth century cheerleaders - are described by Rab as being keen on fashion too. ‘Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, In London or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.’ So even in Mauchline in 18th century Ayrshire, the lassies were happy to imitate London or Paris fashions if they could. 

Jean's silk shawl? Maybe. But not from Rab!
Later on, it becomes obvious that Rab liked his wife to dress as well as possible on their limited budget. He spent money on the finest ‘lutestring silk’ for her gowns, and the latest fashion in printed shawls. His own stylish mode of dressing was one of the things that her family so disapproved of during their courtship– and also one of the things that made Jean fall for him. She continued to appreciate nice things and pretty clothes throughout her long life.

Finally, the single sexiest garment the textile curator showed us on that museum visit, was a linen shirt. I’ve found these kind of things in boxes of old linen, but never something just as wonderful, as old, as well preserved, as that late eighteenth or early nineteenth century linen shirt, a man’s garment, with flowing sleeves, lots of fabric and a smooth, cool texture under the hand: a bit like the ones you see Ross Poldark or the musketeers wearing on the recent television dramas. 

But the really interesting thing is that such shirts were deemed to be very intimate. They were undergarments. So if a young lady actually saw a man in his shirt, like Mr Darcy on that TV adaptation, it would have been very shocking indeed, even for somebody as forthright and brave as Lizzie Bennet! 



I'm hoping that the new novel will be published in 2016. Meanwhile, if you're another textile nut (or even if you're not) you could check out The Curiosity Cabinet in particular. I only wish I possessed an embroidered cabinet like the box of the title - but unfortunately, I don't.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Do you really need an agent? Six things for writers to think about before writing a hundred query letters.


The Society of Authors will NOT do this to you! 

I’ve blogged about agents before, but it seems worth revisiting, since things seem to have moved on in the intervening period. I’ve had good agents and not so good agents but now I’m not looking for one. To be fair, my ex-agency – the one that actually did a lot of good work for me - still remits my share of royalties and residual payments for past work with great promptness and efficiency. But for some time now, I think that the relationship between writers and agents has been skewed. For a start, there are too many potential clients chasing too few agents and this is partly because of the myth still being perpetuated by most creative writing courses, that you need an agent to find a publisher. The other fiction is that if you get an agent, you will find a publisher. Neither is strictly true.

So here are some things to think about.

1 What, realistically, are you expecting your agent to do for you? Do you want somebody to nurture you, or do you want a productive business partnership? If the former, consider that you will always be a humble supplicant, sending in your latest manuscript and nervously waiting for the response. Bit like Scheherezade, really, and that’s an unenviable, not to say unnecessary position to find yourself in. If the latter – and your putative agent agrees – you might have the basis of a decent working relationship. But really, nurturing is for babies.

2 Your agent is meant to be working for you. Too many agents have lists of requirements for submissions that sound like job specifications. I’ve even seen people advising writers to ‘treat your query letter like any other job application’. But it isn’t, is it? Nobody is going to be paying you a regular salary. This is, of course, a result of the imbalance in the market: too many writers with too little experience, chasing too few agents. But it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re looking at a partnership, and that you have every right to expect a modicum of efficiency, courtesy and commitment. Just as your agent has every right to expect the same from you. Do I have some sympathy with agents? Sure I do. They have to cope with a lot of submissions, including the bottom drawer manuscripts typed in single spacing on both sides of sheets of vibrant pink paper. But this is their job and they're volunteers. Actually, some of them really are volunteers. I just saw an ad for an unpaid graduate internship with a big literary agency and found myself wondering how many of those hopeful aspiring novelists know that they are being summarily rejected by a 21 year old recent graduate with almost no experience of what mature readers might want.

3 Whose side will the agent really be on? They’re meant to be fighting for you, the client. But the reality is that corporate publishers wield a vast amount of power, and an agent will be cultivating good relationships with a certain number of ‘acquisitions’ editors. These editors will, in turn, have to answer to ‘the team’ and a lot of decisions will be dictated by buyers at the big chains. It used to be the case that if one of these major editors loved a book, the company would take a chance with a new writer. Now, an editor may love a book but if it doesn’t have the potential to be mega successful that may be as far as it goes. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, and in their shoes, you would probably feel the same. The agent will almost never want to damage the relationship with the editor. So you’ll be told to try again, write something else. But you may also be warned that an informal ‘three strikes and you’re out’ situation exists. By the time you get to your third novel, the editor may decide that she doesn't even want to look at anything from you again. This doesn’t happen so much with small-to-medium independent publishers, which is why so many popular mid-list novels of recent years – and the occasional bestseller - have emerged from micro publishers. But the sad truth is that many agents don’t much like submitting to small publishers. Advances are not high enough to make it worthwhile even though the resulting deal may be worthwhile for you as an author.

4 Who is telling you that you need an agent? You can’t believe everything you’re told. Are agents telling you that you need them? Well, they would, wouldn’t they? If you’re studying for a creative writing degree, have a good look at your lecturers’ back stories. They may be very fine writers, and they may be truly excellent teachers, but do they know anything about the business side of writing? Have they been happily and successfully agented for years, in which case, do they know anything about the downside? Are they bringing in agents to ‘cherry pick’ the top students in any one year, leaving you struggling with a multitude of query letters? And if they are lecturing full time in creative writing, consider that they may well be employed rather than mainly self employed, and may be reiterating the conventional wisdom of writing and publishing as it was twenty years ago. If your creative writing course doesn’t include a sizeable module or part module on the changing business of writing, taught by people who are brought in from the world outside, ask yourself and your university why not.

5 What are the benefits? There are some valid reasons to have an agent, among which might be: access to Big Publishing, (but as we’ve already seen, publication doesn’t always follow) better deals, (maybe) vetting of contracts, (but a good IP lawyer or the Society of Authors will do that for you, and sometimes they will do it more efficiently) and foreign sales. This last is important, and might well be a good enough reason for seeking an agent. But in all my years of being agented, nobody did anything for me with foreign sales. Now that could be entirely down to me. Maybe my books don't appeal to foreign buyers. But I'm unconvinced and if I could find an agent to sell books and plays to foreign countries for me, I might consider signing with them – but for that purpose only. Or perhaps an agent to capitalise on a particular book – a flexible project-by-project arrangement. Do such agents exist? Possibly, but I suspect this is an area that is ripe for expansion. And yes, that would be an interesting development and one I’d be happy to consider. I'm all for a 'horses for courses' approach to writing and publishing. It works in other areas of creativity so why not writing? But I also suspect there would be resistance to it in some quarters.

6 What other options do you have? That question used to be simple to answer, if depressing. None, except for spending a small fortune on some vanity publisher. Now, there are lots of options, but all of them demand a certain amount of application on your part.
You can submit to the many and varied small and micro publishers that accept unagented submissions. You have to be careful. You must have contracts vetted by somebody who knows what to look for before you sign them. The Society of Authors will do this for you in the UK if you are prepared to join, but you can also pay an Intellectual Property lawyer. You may think this is expensive, but it’s not half as expensive as signing away all kinds of rights you never thought about. The truth is that there are a great many good small publishers out there, and many of their contracts are much simpler and far less onerous than those imposed by Big Publishing – so making sure you’ve got it right shouldn’t cost a fortune.
You can self publish with Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon and elsewhere, onto various other worldwide platforms, via Smashwords or D2D. You can publish Print on Demand paperbacks. You can even go the whole hog and set up your own small publishing business and make a deal with a local printer for short runs of books and pamphlets. You will have to deal with covers and editing and formatting but it isn’t as difficult as you think and there are lots of freelancers out there so you can do what other businesses do and outsource the work you don't want to do yourself. You will have to do some publicity and promotion, but you’ll have to do a lot of that anyway, whoever you publish with. The big campaigns are reserved for the very big names these days.
Or you can do a mixture of both self and traditional publishing. Or you can publish with several small publishers at once.  Even though, in order to do this, you will need what my Canadian friend calls 'inventory'. So you need to get your head down and get writing. But since you might spend two or three years writing query letters to agents, or rewriting your single finely wrought novel to the demands of various agents and editors - you could instead decide to spend those years honing your craft, working on a couple of novels, a small collection of stories, a series of novellas ...and give yourself some options. 

Decisions, decisions.
If you are wildly successful, you will have agents beating a path to your door. If you are moderately successful, you will get a small but steady income and will realise that a book nowadays has a much longer shelf life online than you have been led to believe. A book that might have quietly fallen out of print after a year in the old system can go on selling for many years in the new. You may well realise that you enjoy this whole process and that you don’t want an agent at all. If you are not successful, what have you lost? Nothing is forever. You can take a book off line, rewrite it, republish it. You can work on something else, instead of wasting years of good writing time on rewrites to somebody else’s requirements. You can self publish your first two ‘competent’ novels (as opposed to the novels that should probably never see the light of day) and then you can write something quite new and submit it to an agent if you decide that’s what you want to do.

But the interesting truth is that many people who reach that point are often so comfortable with running their own affairs that they think twice before relinquishing control. Some writers may decide otherwise, and that’s fine too. I'm not here to dictate to anyone. What suits one may not suit another. The point is that the power is in your hands. Think about what you want.

Your choice, your business.

And finally – one other thing you might like to consider, if you’re female: you might want to think about changing your name!

If you've found this remotely helpful, have a look at my Amazon Author Page because the books there reflect my own experience pretty accurately. I'm the same writer that I ever was - perhaps a bit more competent and confident - but I'm both traditionally and self published and very happy to continue trimming my sails to the prevailing wind.