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!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ayr Waterstones: A Very Welcoming Bookshop.

It always gives me a bit of a kick to see novels with my name on the cover in a book shop. It's the kind of thing you dream of, not just when you're starting out (although you do, of course!) but as you're soldiering on, perhaps with a few successes behind you, when you've hit a rough patch and can't see anyone ever wanting your work again.

The truth is that a career as a writer - probably a career in any of the arts - is a switchback. There will be a handful of people for whom it's a dizzying rise to sustained to fame and fortune and good for them. But for the vast majority of us, it's a game of snakes and ladders and just when you think you've made it up the final ladder, there's that huge snake - an anaconda surely - that takes you slithering down to the bottom of the board again. So although most of us expect everything to be kind of temporary, it's exhilarating to see that you're building up a certain volume of work and that people want to know about it. I don't think I'll ever get tired of that.

Incidentally, everyone thinks that seeing the very first printed copies will be the most thrilling thing about being published, but for me at any rate, it isn't. It's exciting, no doubt about it, but coming to the end of a big project is always a bit of a let-down until you get properly started on the next novel. And there's a sense in which the box of advance copies - although undoubtedly lovely to have and hold and show off to friends and relatives - isn't just as exciting as you think it will be. Maybe it was the very first time I was ever published. Maybe it's a feeling that you can never quite recapture, the novelty of it all.

But seeing your books in a bookshop - especially seeing quite a lot of your books in a bookshop - that is thrilling and brings home to you just how far you've come. A few weeks ago a friend posted a picture of her novel on a table of recommended fiction in another Scottish branch of Waterstones and there was The Jewel as well, keeping good company with all kinds of  'weel kent' writers - and that was even more thrilling. We shouldn't make these comparisons, but it's only human to do it.

Anyway, these heaps of my books were on show because Ayr Waterstones was having its own small festival of local history. There were events for children and events for adults. I was speaking about researching and writing historical fiction and I began by saying something about The Curiosity Cabinet, and what will be coming after. But because we were in Ayrshire, I was asked so many interesting questions about The Jewel, and Jean Armour, that I spent quite a bit of the time chatting about Jean and Rab as well. There was a good, receptive audience in a lovely intimate space and it was a pleasure to be there. It struck me afterwards what a warm and welcoming bookshop Ayr's Waterstones is. Friendly and knowledgeable people, nice cafe, excellent range of books. I know I would say that anyway, but it's true. If you don't believe me, go along and see for yourself!


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Our Cottage Garden - The Pound Shop Amelanchier

Amelanchier
Some years ago I visited a friend who had a beautiful, elegant, delicate tree in her garden (we sat under it in the summer sun and drank gin and tonic!) I asked her what it was and she said it was called an Amelanchier. And yes, I had to look it up because I couldn't figure out how on earth to spell it.

Cue forward a little while and I came across a small, weedy plant in a Pound Shop. It was fainting from lack of water, and it didn't look very healthy, but when I examined the packet I saw that it was labelled Amelanchier - the only one on the whole stand, among the more commonplace trees and shrubs. So I decided it was well worth risking my pound on, took it home, nurtured it a bit and finally thought I could risk planting it out in the garden.

That was some four or five years ago, and just look at it now! It is probably the most beautiful thing in the garden - delicate, elegantly shaped and with gorgeous, fine blossoms. A pound well spent.

That's what gardening is all about for me. Not paying a fortune for high concept designs and expensive plants, but looking for wonderful finds in unexpected places and bringing out the best in them. Not a bad motto for life and maybe for writing too!

Meanwhile, you could do worse than explore the Pound Shops, and other bargain shops, which all tend to have stands of inexpensive shrubs, trees and other plants outside at this time of the year. But even in your local garden centre, there are amazing bargains to be found languishing in some sad corner: plants that may seem to be past their best, but only need food and water and dead-heading; plants that are just out of season, but will be wonderful if you can wait for next year; trays of annuals that are root bound and have dried out a bit and need potting on. All of them tend to be sold off at bargain prices, so if you're working to a budget but still want a nice garden, use your imagination and do a bit of rescue and rehoming. The plants will thank you for it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Curiosity Cabinet - The Book of My Heart

The Curiosity Cabinet has now been published by Saraband and is available in all sorts of places, including good bookshops like Waterstones, either in stock or to order, online and, of course, from Amazon, where the eBook version is also widely available here and in the US, here.

The gorgeous cover image is by talented photographer Diana Patient.

Of all the books I have written - and I suspect that even includes the Jewel, much as I love Jean and Rab to bits - this may be the 'book of my heart'. I've been wondering why I feel like this about it. It's quite short and it's a simple love story; parallel love stories, really, set in the past and present of a fictional Scottish island called Garve: bigger than Gigha and Coll; a bit smaller than Islay perhaps but with a similar southern Hebridean landscape. Garve is an island full of flowers. The Curiosity Cabinet is not just about the love between two couples - it's about love for a place, the gradually growing love for a landscape. Which may have something to do with the fact that I wasn't born in Scotland. We moved here when I was twelve. I've spent most of my adult life here. And along the rocky road of adjustment, I've grown to love the place and its people.


I've noticed that readers tend to fall into two camps. It's been a popular novel, and people do seem to like it. But some of them find it a 'guilty pleasure' and think it's just a simple romance, while others seem to notice that it's pared down, rather than facile. Which was kind of my intention, but when you're doing this in a piece of fiction, especially a love story, you're never sure that readers are going to 'get' it.

In a way, it doesn't matter at all.

If a reader gets pleasure from anything I've written, then who am I to complain? And I don't. Because lots of readers seem to have enjoyed the book. But all the same, it's gratifying when somebody understands the time and trouble taken, and then takes time themselves to comment on it. One of the best reviews I think I've ever had was from an American reader who said 'this is so tightly written that you could bounce a quarter off of it!'

I must admit, I loved that review! It cheers me up when I'm feeling down, reminds me why I write.


It may well appeal to some fans of the Outlander novels and the TV series, although it isn't a Jacobite tale, nobody goes back in time, and the past/present stories run in parallel only. Interestingly, I wrote the novel version some years after I had written it as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. (It isn't usually done this way round, but back then, I was writing a lot of radio drama!) These plays, produced by Hamish Wilson, were very popular with the listeners. It was a joyful production and one that those who worked on remember with a great deal of pleasure.


My husband was working as a commercial yacht skipper at the time, here in Scotland. We'd done a bit of travelling off the west coast of Scotland and I was particularly smitten with the landscape and history of these islands. I was beginning to be very much in love with them. The Curiosity Cabinet, in its various incarnations, is the result. I was also feeding my own textile collecting habit, and wanted to find a way of weaving it into my fiction. Not that I've never been lucky enough to own something as precious as an antique embroidered raised work casket. I had to content myself with viewing them in Glasgow's wonderful Burrell museum.

Now, however, there will be more novels in the same vein. I'm deep into a project that is not a direct sequel but a spin-off trilogy of novels, with the same island setting - but in a different part of the landscape, and in different time periods. I'm finding it equally captivating for me, as a writer. The first in the series won't be out till 2018. I'll keep you posted! 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Writing a Synopsis Part 2 - Here's One I Wrote Earlier!

Sometimes it's easier to see how you might do something by looking at a familiar example. So just for fun, I wrote a brief but detailed synopsis of Pride and Prejudice, a novel I love. For a different take on it, you could always try this one, here!

Of course your own project will dictate how your synopsis goes - but you can see that you don't need to be too formal. Nor so complicated that you confuse your potential publisher or agent. You're aiming for clarity and entertainment and you're trying to persuade the recipient that they will want to read on. I'd go so far as to say that when you send 'three chapters and a synopsis' most writers imagine the recipient reading the three chapters first. The truth, however, is that most people will read the synopsis first and if it's rambling and confused, they might not go on. If you're submitting to a competition, the judge will, of course, give you the benefit of the doubt and read everything, but if you're submitting to an agent and a publisher, you have to realise the sheer volume of submissions. Get your synopsis right, and you've given yourself a head start. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I've always been quite bad at writing synopses, although it helps when you have a fully revised novel already written.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The novel is set in England, around the year 1800. Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourne have five daughters and Mrs Bennet is desperate for them to marry well. Jane, the eldest, is beautiful and sweet natured. Lizzie is clever, witty and sharp. Mary is self consciously studious, Kitty is not very bright and Lydia is incorrigible and selfish. There is a certain urgency about the need to find good husbands, because the house is entailed on a remote cousin, a clergyman called Mr Collins, and the girls will not inherit. Mrs Bennet worries that if her husband dies, she will lose house and home.

A pleasant single gentleman, Mr Bingley, rents the nearby manor house, Netherfield, and sets local hearts a-flutter. At a village dance, Mr Bingley is obviously attracted to Jane, but his proud friend, Mr Darcy, refuses to dance with Lizzie and insults her within her hearing. She laughs it off, but it stings.

Mrs Bennet’s attempt to throw Bingley and Jane together results in Jane catching a bad cold while on the way to Netherfield in the rain, and having to stay there for a few days. Lizzie visits and is insulted by Mr Bingley’s snobbish sisters. But Mr Darcy has changed his mind about Lizzie and seems to be falling for her.

Mr Collins, the remote and, as it turns out, unbearably pompous cousin, visits and proposes to Lizzie who refuses him, much to her mother’s rage and her father’s joy. Lizzie is alarmed to discover that her best friend, Charlotte, has accepted him. Charlotte explains that this may be the only chance she has of obtaining an ‘establishment’ – a home of her own.

Mr Wickham, single and attractive, arrives and bad-mouths Darcy to Lizzie who believes him, because she is predisposed to despise him– (the prejudice of the title.) Mr Bingley and Darcy leave for London, breaking Jane’s heart in the process.

Lizzie goes to stay with Charlotte and Mr Collins after Charlotte’s marriage. She meets his appalling ‘patron’, Lady Catherine, who lives nearby, with her pallid daughter, at Rosings. She is surprised to find Darcy there because Lady Catherine is his aunt. One of Darcy’s friends confides in Lizzie that Darcy recently saved Bingley from an unwise marriage. Lizzie realises that he is unknowingly talking about Bingley’s attachment to her own sister. Much against his better judgement, Mr Darcy proposes to Lizzie. He makes it clear that he loathes her family but loves her! She refuses him, furiously accusing him of ungentlemanly behaviour to herself and to Mr Wickham and of ruining Jane’s life.

Shocked, he leaves, but also sends her a long letter, explaining that his conduct towards Wickham was exemplary but Wickham is a bounder who almost persuaded Darcy’s innocent little sister to elope with him.

Confused and unhappy, Lizzie goes on a trip to the north of England with her charming and respectable Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. They visit Darcy’s massive house, Pemberley, as tourists, and she realises just what she has turned down. She also begins to understand how well his staff, especially his housekeeper, think of him, and what a loving brother he is. He arrives home unexpectedly and is kindness itself to all of them. Will he propose again?

Then – disaster! News comes that Lydia has eloped with Wickham. If he won’t marry her (and she has no money to tempt him) she’ll be ruined, and the whole family – socially - with her. Much angst ensues, but then Lydia and Wickham arrive home, married. Lydia lets slip Darcy’s secret role in the whole affair. Lizzie is mortified to realise that he has pursued the couple and paid Wickham to marry Lydia. She now realises the true nature of her feelings for Darcy.

Prompted by his friend, Mr Bingley comes back and proposes to Jane, who accepts.

Lady Catherine arrives in a towering rage. She has heard rumours of an engagement between Lizzie and Darcy and asks Lizzie to deny it. Lizzie admits it is not true, but won’t make any promises for the future. Then Darcy proposes to Lizzie and she accepts. Cue deep joy all round: riches, secure futures, Mrs Bennett overwhelmed with happiness - and they all live happily ever after.

The tale is told in the third person and the author herself sees all and knows all, but it focuses very much on Lizzie, her feelings, her perceptions. She is very clearly our heroine. The tale is deeply unsentimental, with realistic dialogue. It is a surprisingly passionate love story (lots of sexual tension between Darcy and Lizzie) with some sharp observations on Georgian society and the ‘marriage market’ as well.





Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Writing a Synopsis for a Novel Submission

Are you budding or blooming? 
I realised recently how few new writers, or even not-so-new writers (I hate that overused word 'budding'. People have started using 'emergent' but I'm not sure that's any better) know very much about writing a synopsis of a novel for a submission to an agent or publisher. I'm not surprised, because it's something I didn't know much about either when I was starting out, and even when I had been writing for some time.

Part of the problem for me, anyway, is that I'm what is known as a 'pantser'. I write by the seat of my pants. I often know the beginning and the end of a novel, but am not certain how I'll get there. I write to find out. If I do know in too much detail, I tend to get a bit bored. Not everyone works this way. I know writers who plot in great detail and writers who even work through a series of ever more complex synopses until the novel takes shape. There is no right or wrong way. Whatever works for you is right for you.

However, if you're intending to make a submission to an agency or a publisher, or even to a competition, you may be asked for a synopsis and the first three chapters of your novel. Sometimes it's a synopsis and a certain number of words. But they will always want the synopsis. So you're going to have to work out the characters, the overall shape of your book, the story you want to tell before you do the submission. Now you may think this is a tall order - and it is. But of course as a new writer, before you actually submit anything to an agency or publisher, you should have finished the novel itself, so it shouldn't be impossible to summarise your 80,000 words into a page or two at the most. The media are very fond of running tales of writers who submitted three chapters to an agency, were quickly inundated with offers to publish, and had to write the whole book in a hurry, but this is as rare as finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's more helpful to assume that you won't be inundated with offers, but you may be asked for a full submission.

The biggest mistake people make is to confuse a synopsis with a blurb.

A blurb is a teaser. It is intended to whet the reader's appetite, to give just a taste of the tale on offer, but no more. To suggest that all will be revealed later on. It's what you get on the back of a book: maybe the start of the story, a brief but enticing summary of what it's about, maybe a suggestion of a cliff hanger if it's that sort of book, often accompanied by a 'cover quote', either about the book or about previous work. Essentially, it's a tool for selling the book to the reader. The cover may make them pick it up, or click on it - the blurb may help to make them buy it.

A synopsis, on the other hand, is a tool for selling the book to the agent or the publisher, and in it, you need to summarise the whole story, who and what it's about and what the story is, as briefly and as clearly as you possibly can. You don't need to go into too much intimate detail. What we're looking for is the main cut and thrust of the story accompanied by tiny character sketches along the way.  If the plot gets complicated, simplify it, but not to the point where the thread is lost. Clarity is important. Remember that you probably know all about these characters now, but the reader, coming to it cold, doesn't. Try to avoid confusion. But above all, don't hold back. Now is not the time for mystery. Don't hesitate to tell all. If there's a twist in the tail, reveal it. You are aiming to make it lively and involving, but it has to make sense. Imagine a good friend asks you to tell him or her about your novel, not just 'what is it about?' which is a difficult question to answer, but 'tell me the story as vividly as you can.'

So there you are. Next week, I'm going to give you an example. Just for fun, I summarised Pride and Prejudice. I did it from memory, and I did it as though I was planning to submit it to a publisher. Watch this space!

Friday, February 03, 2017

10 Questions About The Jewel for Book Groups

Last week, somebody contacted me to ask if I had any questions about the Jewel, to prompt book group discussions. I was very glad she had done so, because it's something I had originally thought about and then forgotten. I know some writers include them in the book itself, but in this instance, it seemed better to keep them separate.  Besides, I wanted time to think about them!

One good reason for delaying is that now, lots of people have asked me all kinds of questions about the novel, so I have a pretty good idea of the kind of things readers might want to discuss.


Anyway - here they are. There are no hard and fast answers and I'm sure people will have plenty of ideas of their own, but these are the issues that seem to have most interested audiences whenever I've been asked to speak about the Jewel.

1      1 Why do you think Jean has been so neglected as a significant figure in the poet’s life for so long? 

2 Why do you think Catherine wrote this in the third person – he said, she said – and not a first person account? Even though this is a third person account, we are pretty much always with Jean throughout the story. What problems might a first person account have presented?

3 What do you think first attracted the couple to each other, and why?

4 Why do you think Jean’s parents so disliked the idea of Burns as a prospective son-in-law? What made them change their minds?

5 How did you feel about the couple by the end of the novel. Did it change your perception of Burns as well as Jean? Did you feel better or worse about him? If you are female, do you think you would have fallen for him and why? Or why not?

6 What does the novel tell us about the kirk and family and attitudes towards morality at the time. Did any of this surprise you and if so, why? Why do you think having a child outside marriage seems to have become so much more of a disaster after the Industrial Revolution?

7 Burns seemed able to distinguish between an attachment of ‘romance’ and the reality of his love for Jean. The word romance itself has changed over the years. What do you think he meant by making this distinction, since he is at pains to stress his ‘love’ for his wife in letters and poems.

8 How far has the author succeeded in taking the reader back to the Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire of the eighteenth century?

9 The author says that everything in the novel either happened, or ‘could have happened’ but that most of the story is true. If you checked up on anything afterwards, were you surprised?

10 Do you think Jean was the love of the poet’s life? What do you think would have happened if he had lived longer?











Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

There was a lad was born in Kyle, 
But whatna day o' whatna style, 
I doubt it's hardly worth the while 
To be sae nice wi Robin. 

Robin was a rovin' boy, 
Rantin', rovin', rantin', rovin', 
Robin was a rovin' boy, 
Rantin', rovin', Robin! 

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane
Was five-and-twenty days begun, 
'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' 
Blew hansel in on Robin. 
Robin was, &c. 

The gossip keekit in his loof, 
Quo' scho, "Wha lives will see the proof, 
This waly boy will be nae coof: 
I think we'll ca' him Robin." 
Robin was, &c. 

"He'll hae misfortunes great an' sma', 
But aye a heart aboon them a', 
He'll be a credit till us a'- 
We'll a' be proud o' Robin." 
Robin was, &c. 

If you want to read a bit more of Burns's poetry,  you could do worse than get a copy of For Jean - poems and songs written for and about Jean Armour, the poet's wife - and also entertaining extracts from letters that the poet wrote about their relationship, especially when it was at its most dramatic. If you want to know the whole story, you'll find it in my novel, The Jewel. (Both volumes published by Saraband.) People keep asking me which bits of my novel are true, and it's always a pleasure to be able to tell them that most of it really happened, even the part about the poet's race with the highlander. It was on the shores of Loch Lomond and both wild men finished up in a hedge, bruised and battered, but none the worse for the experience.  

Last night, I gave the Immortal Memory speech and toast, not of Robin, but of Jean herself. It was at a Jean Armour Event at the gorgeous Lochgreen House Hotel near Troon and it was organised by the Rotary Club of Troon. It was an exclusively female affair, apart from the waiters. No wild men at all,  and (if I dare say it) all the better for it: a wonderful, warm, generous talented bunch of women of all ages including young Becca Harris whose own 'wood note wild' was as beautiful as Jean's, and whose address to the haggis was the best I have ever heard. 

But really, it was all good. I can't remember when I last enjoyed anything so much. I think Jean would have loved it too!