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, December 20, 2012

MORE ICE HOCKEY MAGIC

Cover Image by Claire Maclean

This is an updated post of something I wrote back in October, when my new novel, Ice Dancing, was first published. It isn't really a novel about 'dancing' though. Or only in the sense that we dance through life, and sometimes we dance alone, but if you find yourself dancing on ice it might be easier to do it with a partner to support you!

The novel, currently available only in eBook form, has been selling pretty well here in the UK, but I'm about to start spreading the word to readers 'across the pond' as my sailor husband would call it. Especially - of course - to Canadians, although some of my Canadian friends have already bought the eBook and are telling me that they love it. That's a relief. The hero is Canadian, after all.

But how come I found myself writing a novel with a hockey background? Well, it's a little more than that. It's a warm contemporary love story with a charismatic hero, but it's mostly set in a small Scottish village. And as one UK reviewer pointed out, it's a novel about a coup de foudre  the lightning strike of love at first sight, the irresistible thunderbolt of intense attraction which changes everything in an instant, however unlikely, and however disastrous the results may be.

It's also a novel about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man - the kind of ten year age gap which, were it to be reversed, wouldn't so much as raise an eyebrow, but which still seems to be a cause for comment in these supposedly enlightened times. And which makes the thunderbolt even more difficult to deal with for all concerned.

But still - there's the hockey. So let me explain how I came to write a novel - my sixth published novel - with this particular background. My love affair with hockey goes back a great many years: to the time when - as a young woman - I spent a couple of years teaching English Conversation to adults in Tampere, Finland. My students mostly worked in the large paper mills of Tampere, which is a long, thin and rather beautiful town, sandwiched between two lakes which freeze solid in the winter. I taught engineers, management, secretarial staff. Sometimes I went out to the factories by bus and sometimes students travelled to the language school which was above a department store in the middle of town. There were a few other people - all ages and stages - doing evening classes for various reasons. When we weren't teaching, we clustered in the cafe downstairs, chatting, drinking coffee and eating rice porridge with milk or piirakka munavoi, the cheap and cheerful Finnish equivalent to scrambled eggs on toast.

Finns are friendly but quite shy and private people. Teaching conversation to people who are naturally quiet was challenging. The majority of my students were young men. And the only thing they really wanted to talk about, even in English, wasn't business. It was ice hockey about which, back then, I knew less than  nothing. But I sure learned a lot about hockey over the next two years, from my weekly conversations with Lasse and Jorma and Matti and Heikki with their bright blue eyes and old gold hair. (Especially Jorma!) I was young, footloose and fancy free as were many of my students, and I and my fellow teachers were often invited out to hockey games. Tappara and Ilves were the town's two teams and there was a good deal of rivalry between them. My landlady's cute ten year old son, Esa, played hockey too, and I got used to seeing him clumping about in hockey kit. I got used to tripping over it in the hallway too. I loved it all. I was smitten by the magic of this fast, enchanting and oh so physical game.

Cue forward some years. I'm married with a young son myself - and we're living in Ayrshire in Scotland. For a few blissful years, we get to watch Superleague ice hockey - The Ayr Scottish Eagles - in a brand new arena with one of the biggest and best ice pads in the UK: the Centrum. Ice hockey appeals to young and old, male and female, even in Scotland. Spectators include grannies and babies and all kinds of people in between. The captain of the Eagles offers hockey classes to the kids. Our son learns to skate and then learns to play hockey. For a few short years, I'm a UK hockey mom, helping him to haul kit about -  unbelievably heavy, smelly and expensive kit although fortunately much of it can be bought second hand even in Scotland - tugging on long laces, ferrying him to and from hockey summer schools, learning about cross-checking and high-sticking, wrist shots and slap shots.

Time passes. Our son hits sixteen, major exams loom and he's forced to make some tough choices. He wants to go to university, has ambitions to work in the video games industry, and he's in pursuit of a karate black belt too. Hockey has become just too time-consuming for him. And besides, the arena seems to be in trouble.  Regretfully, he decides that karate fits in better with his academic work, so he stops playing. All too soon, the Centrum is gone, demolished to make way for a supermarket, taking many thousands of pounds worth of public money with it. And here in the UK, the Superleague has gone too, although the Elite League has now taken its place and our 'local' team plays forty miles away at Braehead, in Glasgow, a difficult journey along our winding rural roads in misty winter. But not impossible. And this year, a few NHL players are drifting our way because 'hockey is hockey' and they'd rather play than not. And we love to watch them, we really do. We've remembered just how much we love hockey and miss it desperately when we don't see it, even though it's a minority sport in Scotland and our newspapers are only ever full of football. And when they call a television programme 'Sportscene' what they actually mean is 'Football, lots of it.'

All of which goes some way towards explaining the unusual background to my new novel, Ice Dancing. It may be a hymn to hockey - it probably is - but  just as there's a darker side to the game, there's a darker side to this novel as well. If this is a love story, it's one with a wry and painful twist because visiting Canadian hockey player Joe, who skates like an angel, has his own demons to cope with and Helen, a farmer's wife, living discontentedly in a rural Scottish backwater, finds her life disrupted in unexpected ways by this young incomer. And so, with their two quite different worlds in unlikely collision, Joe and Helen find themselves balancing precariously on ice, dancing between past disappointments and future possibilities, between hope and despair, together and apart.

My literary agent, on first reading Ice Dancing, thought it had echoes of The Bridges of Madison County and I can see what she meant. But this is also a novel about the quiet - and sometimes funny - joys and equally quiet frustrations of Scottish village life. It's a novel about coming to terms with your past, but it's also a story full of hope for the future. I've already been asked if I'm going to write a sequel. I don't usually do sequels, but with this one, I just might. Partly it's because I fell in love with the characters, Helen quite as much as Joe, and want to spend a bit more time in their company. Mostly though, it's because a good friend told me that she thought she knew what might happen next. But she was wrong. And I realize that I know exactly what happens next. So I might have to write it.

Of course that's a story for another day and quite possibly - given that novels are big undertakings - a story for another year.

Ice Dancing is available to download from Amazon's Kindle store
here in the UK and
here in the USA and now
here in Canada

.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I haven't forgotten about my 'How I Got Where I Am' series, but other things have intervened over the past couple of weeks! I'll pick up where I left off next week. Meanwhile, I feel the need to write a bit about 'cover images' for eBooks. And here's why.

In traditional publishing, you may be consulted about the cover of your book, but you won't have the final say - or, more often than not, any say at all. Marketing, branding, current fashions all take priority. (I used to loathe those headless women covers so much but it's a fad that seems to have faded thank goodness.) As a writer, you will hardly ever be able to communicate with the artist involved.  I liked the original paperback edition of the Curiosity Cabinet a lot  although it was very different from the eBook edition - of which more in due course. As far as I remember, the image of the embroidered casket which the artist used came from the Burrell in Glasgow, where there's a splendid collection of them. (Go and see for yourself!)

There are whole websites devoted to praising or slating eBook covers. There are competitions and awards. I sometimes wonder why we human beings are so darned competitive. Free us up to be what we want to be, do what we want to do, and people will instantly suggest that somebody (preferably themselves) needs to exert some sort of control, judge, make distinctions, create hierarchies. People become so alarmed by the random nature of the emerging eBook market that they suggest a string of controls involving submission and judgement followed by the acceptance and curation of the favoured few, seemingly unaware that they have just reinvented traditional publishing.

Over a long career in writing of all kinds, I've come to loathe that word 'submission' and to consider other models, other ways of doing things. Submission means the 'action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.' Which only works when that other person really is genuinely superior, a wise teacher, an experienced and respected expert. Writers begin their careers by submitting - we're routinely advised that we need to contemplate scores, nay hundreds, of submissions. We get into the mindset at a time when we really do need a modicum of expert advice, but the trouble is that even when we become seasoned professionals, we too often continue to yield our power, our ideas and significant equity in our product to other people. The fact that quite often those people don't really know their literary bahookies from their elbows somehow escapes us. They tell us how superior they are and we believe them. Relationships which should be creative partnerships become lopsided. Until Amazon came along, there was little alternative.


So where do covers come in? Well, eBook covers aren't really covers at all. They are images, images which you see at thumbnail size on Amazon and other listings pages, images which are enlarged on e-readers, but which can be works of art in their own right. To some extent, this was always the case. Years ago, one of my short stories, The Butterfly Bowl, was published in a glossy women's magazine and the accompanying image was such a small work of art that I bought the original from the artist. But images for eBooks may be an opportunity for creative collaboration of a new and exciting kind.  Let's free our minds from the usual design/marketing/judgmental constraints for a bit. Let's decide that if we want to, we can explore new ways of doing this, too. If we're eBook publishing because we're writing across genres or because what we write doesn't fit comfortably into any single marketing paradigm, then why shouldn't we consider new ways of approaching the images which interpret and reflect our books?

When I decided to publish The Curiosity Cabinet as an eBook, I knew that I needed a new cover image to go with it. A friend, distinguished textile artist Alison Bell - who had read and loved the book - offered to design an image for me. It is her own response to the novel, and a very beautiful one at that. I would no more have looked at it as a piece of utilitarian design than I would look at any other genuine work of art only for what it could bring to the 'pack shot'.

It's an approach which I have largely followed with my other novels, either asking the artist to read the book, or at least talking about the themes in some detail and asking for a creative response, much, I suppose, as one asks a designer to approach a play - discussing the thinking behind the project but then giving them the freedom to interpret, using their own individual  creativity.


The image above for Bird of Passage, by a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti, was a revelation to me. I had discussed the themes, the setting of the novel, passed on some of my own photographs, even  had something in mind. What Matt came up with, though, was utterly unexpected.  But the sheer brilliance of it as an interpretation of the novel, the loneliness of the central character, the sense of his imprisonment in his own past, all of them are there in Matt's superb image. I remember the first time I saw it, it brought a lump to my throat!

Two more novels have covers designed by another young Scottish artist, Claire Maclean. The Amber Heart is a big book, a sweeping love story, set in nineteenth century Poland. I wanted romance on an epic scale. It's a story of a lifelong and passionate love affair. Claire, with a deeply romantic imagination seemed the ideal choice and she produced a cover of such warmth and beauty that I had no hesitation in asking her to work on my next novel, Ice Dancing, as well.
But this was a different proposition.  Ice Dancing is grown up, sexy, quirky. An intelligent love story with a dark side.  The hero plays ice hockey, for sure. (The title is a metaphor for relationships that extends through the whole book!) But it's really  a story about an exotic and charismatic interloper in a small Scottish village - and love at first sight.. The idea of  hockey as 'fire dancing on ice' - the sheer, intensely physical sexiness of it, certainly permeates the whole novel, and that's what Claire seized on. Once again, the image practically took my breath away.




Now, Alison has read, and is meditating on the ideas in The Physic Garden, my next book, a historical novel set in Scotland in the early 1800s. She has remarked that it is a deeply melancholy tale (it is, I'm afraid) and - unerringly - she has honed in on a passage which is absolutely central to the novel. I await her interpretation with interest.

When it works well, we need to acknowledge that the symbiosis between artist and writer can create a piece of art which illuminates and comments on the writer's work. All of this is such a creative pleasure: a new and unanticipated benefit of inde publishing. The odd thing is that, although the covers have been created by three different artists, there is a 'look' about them which seems somehow to reflect my own voice as a writer. That voice is the common denominator and it shows.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Branding a New Novel and Illuminating Reviews - Ice Dancing

Every now and then, as a writer, you come across a review of one of your own pieces of work which illuminates your novel, play or story for you.  I've had reviews of my plays (in production) which seemed to indicate only that the critic had missed the point. On the other hand, I've had reviews of my plays which have taught me plenty as a playwright, the kind of helpful reviews which identified what I was trying to say and fed something back to me in the form of analysis, not precluding criticism, but doing me the courtesy of taking the work seriously, on its own terms.

It's the same with new novels. You wait with some trepidation for the early responses. And while it's nice to get good reviews and miserable to get bad reviews, the very best reviews tend to be those which in some way illuminate your own work for you (and others), with the reader doing you the courtesy of taking the work seriously and then taking the time and trouble to analyse their own response to it.

A recent review of my new novel, Ice Dancing, here , by Hilary Ely, on the excellent Vulpes Libris, was one such example. Not only is it, of course, very good to know that somebody has enjoyed the novel enough to want to write about it, but a review like this, which explains why, in some detail, is uniquely helpful to me as a writer.


As an independent 'writer as publisher' and at a time when traditional publishers also expect writers to do a great deal of their own publicity, you have to make some decisions about what kind of book you have written. And I don't just mean thinking about whether or not your novel slots neatly into any one genre. If you've embarked on eBook publishing, it probably doesn't. That may well have been part of your problem. It certainly was for me. I'm a natural mid-list writer, writing across many genres: love stories which are by no means conventional romances, historical novels with a contemporary dimension, family sagas which don't follow the usual pattern, reasonably literary novels which are nevertheless deemed to be 'too accessible to be really literary.'

And now Ice Dancing, a passionate, contemporary love story with a charismatic and handsome ice hockey hero - but mostly set in a small Scottish village. Of course it's the hockey that leaps out at you, from the rather beautiful cover, designed by a young Scottish digital artist called Claire Maclean. And when I started to think about marketing this book, I did think first and foremost of all those women, young, old and middle aged, who love hockey quite as much as I do, and go to as many games as they can. (Hockey is never just a male preserve, not in Canada and the US, certainly not here in the UK either)

But of course the novel is about so much more than that. I knew it, but it was Hilary's lovely, thoughtful and thought provoking review which clarified it for me. For this is a novel about a coup de foudre as it's known: the lightning strike of love at first sight, the irresistible thunderbolt of intense attraction which changes everything at a stroke, however inadvisable, however unlikely, however disastrous the results may be.
It's also a novel about a relationship between an older woman and a younger man - the kind of ten year age gap which, were it to be reversed, wouldn't raise so much as an eyebrow, but which still seems to be a cause for comment in these supposedly enlightened times. And which makes the thunderbolt even more difficult to deal with for all concerned.

It is, as Hilary points out, also a novel about adultery and guilt. Which may seem to be an old fashioned concept, but which can still wreck lives pretty comprehensively. And besides all that, there is a very dark back-story about the kind of damage, betrayal and maltreatment which can also wreck lives in all kinds of ways. So this is a novel about the after-effects of such things, and whether it's possible to come to terms with them and how. Besides all that, of course, it's a novel about rural life, a warm and loving account of what it's like to live in a small village: all the cosy, comfortable security of it, as well as all the stifling goldfish bowl downside when everybody knows everyone else's business and doesn't necessarily feel the need to mind their own!

I have the distinct impression that, when it comes to publicising Ice Dancing, (which my agent compared, with some justification, I think, to The Bridges of Madison County) I'm going to have to promote it to different and possibly distinct groups of people. The hockey fans will love the hockey. But even readers who don't care for sports but enjoy a good, passionate love story will find something to enjoy. The metaphor of 'dancing on ice' - precarious, slippery, needing a partner to steady you in an alien environment  - runs through the whole book, as opposed to the line dancing which is the heroine's hobby, line dancing where you don't need a partner, where you don't need to touch anybody at all. This is, I think, quite a sensuous story. And when I reread it now, I can see that it is, perhaps first and foremost, a novel about the extraordinary imperative of intense physical attraction. Which is, let's face it, endlessly fascinating for most of us, whatever our age and stage in life.






Thursday, November 22, 2012

How I Got Where I Am Now (Part 2 - Edinburgh Days )

Edinburgh was a revelation to me. As far as I remember, only one other girl from my school went there and we were in different faculties. I never saw her. I was reading English Language and Literature and - for my first year anyway - staying in the East Suffolk Road halls of residence. It had the air of a rather superior but chilly girls' boarding school. It was an all female establishment and the formidable warden would periodically issue a summons to the top table at dinner. Boys were frowned on in general and definitely had to be 'out' by a certain time, although we didn't always obey the rules. In fact we didn't often obey the rules. We were reading about feminism and the world was at our feet. I made real, enduring friendships in Edinburgh, people I still see and write to, people I like very much indeed. The kind of friendships where you can just pick up where you left off, even if you don't see each other for a long time. You can tell who they are, because they all call me Cathy even though just about everyone else uses Catherine, now. But I still answer to Cathy!

Top Withens in the 1920s
I'd been writing plenty of poetry before I went to Edinburgh: lots of deeply romantic adolescent stuff. I'd also tried my hand at writing for radio, which I still loved,  though I hadn't done anything with the fairly dire results, just filed the scripts away in a drawer, most of them typed on an elderly Remington which my dad had bought for me while I was still at school, and on which I slowly but surely taught myself to type, faster and faster.  I still have the machine and it's practically an antique. Nobody has typed anything on it for years. It looks like a prop from a movie and I love it to bits.

I even had a go at dramatising Wuthering Heights, just for the fun of it. I had a special relationship with Wuthering Heights, and it's one that has never really gone away, even though in all my years of writing radio plays and dramatising classics, the BBC has never, ever let me get my hands on this one. It was my mother's favourite novel. When I was just a little girl, she and my father had taken the bus to Haworth and trundled me over the moors in my push-chair, as far as Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse which was said to be the place, although not the building, which Emily had in mind for the Heights.

It was while I was at Edinburgh University that I wrote poetry. Lots of it. And stories and reviews and parodies. Between lectures we would sit in the basement cafe of the David Hume Tower in George Square, setting the world to rights and making plans for the future. We girls wore long skirts and maxi coats, bells around our necks, flowers in our hair - the guys were in old army greatcoats or shaggy, smelly, Afghan jackets and bell bottom trousers. We listened  to Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell on the Juke Box and smoked Gauloises, a little self consciously. One of the bookstores in the town was such a hotbed of another kind of smoking altogether that you couldn't browse there for more than half an hour without feeling light-headed. Outside the Fine Art department, beautiful Ian Charleson held court, admired as much by men as by women. There was a sit-in in the old Quad. I was there, but can't for the life of me remember what we were protesting about.

One of our lecturers, the late and much lamented Paul Edwards, who had translated many of the Icelandic sagas with the equally lamented and ever kindly Hermann Palsson, encouraged me to carry on writing. Paul used to hold court most afternoons in his big, untidy room at the top of a stair in Buccleuch Place. By the time I was in my third and fourth years, specialising in Mediaeval Studies, a friend and I would be invited up to what was essentially his literary 'salon'. There was home brewed beer and home made wine, and it was a place where visiting writers and lecturers hung out and talked about books and politics and new writing. He was clever, charming, iconoclastic, a little dangerous, but very protective of us younger visitors. Even then, these meetings were  frowned on by the authorities. I can't imagine that anyone would ever get away with sessions like this now in our deeply sanitised academic worlds, but I remember them as some of the most exciting and inspirational times of my life.


With John Schofield, Brian McCabe and Andy Greig among others!
Poetry was flourishing in 1970s Edinburgh. A friend called John Schofield organised a series of big poetry festivals and I participated in them, reading my own work, helping to organise sessions and publicity, herding poets from one venue to another, occasionally attempting to mediate between literary giants who clearly loathed one another. They were incredibly well attended, with poets coming from all over the UK and beyond. Robert Garioch and Norman MacCaig were writers in residence during that time, neither of whom, alarmingly enough, would now be sufficiently 'well qualified' for the post in an academic sense. After graduation, I stayed on in Edinburgh for another year, working part time in a small art gallery on Rose Street and writing obsessively. I had several collections of poetry published: one an anthology called Seven New Voices (Liz Lochhead was one of the other new voices!) one with Andy Greig, called White Boats, and a third solo collection, called A Book of Men, which won a Scottish Arts Council New Writing Award.



Much later, I would use some of these experiences to describe Kirsty's time in Edinburgh in Bird of Passage. She wasn't me, but I can tell you that I saw her one day, sitting with a friend, in a cafe, not far from the university, saw her in her long Indian cotton skirts, which I sometimes wore too, with her long red hair (mine was much darker) remembered her for thirty years afterwards, and eventually put her in a novel which also, oddly enough, turned out to be a homage to Wuthering Heights.

Meanwhile, I had also gone back to writing radio drama. But that will have to wait for next week's episode.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Amazon (Part 1 - Early Years)

Catherine in Blue Organdie
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do a talk loosely themed on 'how I got to where I am now'. Quite apart from the fact that I'm not quite sure where I am now, the actual exercise of looking back over all these years of writing, producing and publishing was a salutary experience. The wonder of it is that I'm still here, still writing. Clearly, it's an obsession. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't writing, and I definitely can't remember a time when I wasn't happier making up stories than living in the real world.

 I was severely asthmatic as a child. Books, radio and the power of my own imagination were my salvation back then. I've looked at my old school reports and it's clear that I spent far less time at my primary school than I ever did at home. Those were the days when you were kept at home with asthma. The available medication was ineffective and had unpleasant side effects. We lived next door to my grandparents and my mother helped out in their tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop in smoky Holbeck, not far from the centre of Leeds, so there was always somebody to look after me: my mum, my aunt, my nana or my beloved grandad.
Aunt Vera, Dad, Mum and Me
As well as the asthma, I had a string of other illnesses, one after another it seemed: whooping cough, mumps, serious measles, influenza. (I'd like to give them all to the milkman's horse, instead of you, my grandad used to say, only half in jest.) The world of make believe was so vivid, so enticing, that it became a place of retreat for me from the miseries of sickness. Actually, if I'm honest, I hardly remember being ill at all, although I have vague memories of the sense of 'unease' which was always the preliminary to some nasty affliction or other. I do remember struggling to breathe, the hideous, concentrated panic of it. And being delirious, and seeing, quite literally seeing, dark horsemen galloping across the foot of my bed. But I also remember the pleasure of being at home, of beginning to feel better, of being free to listen to the radio and read my books and play complicated and inventive games with my toys. I remember the time my Polish father spent with me, lots of time, even though he was working by day and studying by night. But he always seemed to have time to tell me stories, and draw with me and read to me and make things for me.

Then, when I was twelve, we moved to Scotland where dad had secured a new job in a scientific research institute, and everything changed - except my need for make believe. Nothing in my life till then had prepared me for the cruelty inflicted on an awkward, ugly duckling of an English thirteen year old by her Scottish schoolmates. One with glasses and a Yorkshire accent at that. I didn't help myself much, it's true. I was naive, shy and desperately homesick for Leeds. I suffered two years of misery, leavened only by the bright beacons of vacation in a sea of educational despond. None of it was physical. They just froze me out.They mocked my accent, they mocked the way I looked, they sniggered and passed clever, insulting remarks just loud enough for me to hear them, while I stood like a rabbit, caught in the headlights of their self satisfaction, and all the time, as bullied children will, I blamed myself and told nobody. Afterwards, as an adult, I thought what hell it must be to be a bullied child in a boarding school. At least I got to go home at nights. Sanctuary. Not that I told anyone at home what was happening at school. I used to pray for the illness I had suffered when I was younger, but on the whole, I could breathe more easily in Scotland.

I did very well academically. The classroom was another, lesser refuge. I can remember wishing that we had no break times at all. I spent even more time living inside my head, and I began to write poetry. Things improved during my third year in Scotland and when we all changed schools for our final two years and travelled out of town by train each day. I was beginning to find my place, lose weight, make a few friends, although I was always aware that I didn't quite fit in and possibly never would.

I was still writing. And starting to be known and acknowledged within the school community as the girl who wrote stuff. Then, in spite of a longish spell in hospital with another severe bout of asthma when I was sixteen,  (during which I had a couple of only-half-joking proposals of marriage from two kindly young male nurses from Mauritius!) I managed to get a place at university and set off for Edinburgh where, once again, everything changed. For the better this time.

Next week: Poets and Parties and Protests: Edinburgh in the Seventies.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Eliza Marshall's Tale - For National Short Story Week

We first moved to Scotland when I was twelve years old and - although I've travelled about a bit - I've considered it my home ever since. Much of what I write is set in Scotland. But recently, I've begun to want to go back to my Yorkshire roots. Memories of Leeds are tugging at me, especially the place where I spent the first seven years of my life, industrial Holbeck, demanding to be explored and examined. Next year, therefore, I plan to write Yorkshire Girl,  a very personal memoir of what it was like growing up in Leeds back then. It's something I've tinkered with and thought about for a long time, but now it's positively demanding to be written! Meanwhile, for National Short Story Week, I'm posting a short piece of 'made up truth'. Poor Eliza Marshall gave her testimony to the Factory Commission in 1832 and you'll find her true story here on the wonderful Leodis website. Eliza's story is heartrending. I took some of her words and shaped them into a monologue with a Yorkshire accent. I remember Marshall's Mill from when I was a little girl. Even then, it seemed to be a strange place, one set apart from the clearly industrial buildings round about.

Cellar Dwelling
My name is Eliza, Eliza Marshall, and I live in Bayton Street. We live in a cellar. I pay a shilling a week for it. Nobody lives with us. Not now. What do I do? I do nothing and no, I have no mother. I live with my little sisters. There’s three of us. The youngest is going fifteen. The other’s sixteen. I’m turned eighteen. It’s cold, even in summer. There’s a range when we can get coal but we can’t always afford it. Sometimes we get given a bit. If the neighbours have owt to spare. Damp runs down walls. You can’t keep owt. It all goes black. And there’s bedbugs.  They smell quite nice. I don’t like them. No. But you can squash them if you catch them. What you must do is scrub beds down with paraffin and water, but they get into blankets and there’s nowt you can do about that. My sisters work. They’re spinners an all. I have two and six a week from town. That pays rent and a bit more but I can’t go out to work. Not now.
Yard off Meadow Lane
I were born in Doncaster. I were nine when we came to Leeds. We’d no father so we all had to work one way and another.  Later, we’d a stepfather but he were a great big waste of space. Great big lump of a waste of space. He’d take money and drink it. We lived on Meadow Lane first and I worked at Marshalls. Same name as me. That big mill with great pillars outside.  I thought I were going to church first day it were that strange. Like a palace or something. Then I went to Burgess’s in Lady Lane. That were where I learned to spin.        
I worked from six in morning till seven at night. There were a knocker upper went down street but you’d to pay him a penny a week so we didn’t always do it. Besides, everyone else in house were running up and down stairs so you’d hear them anyway. Nobody slept in. I got three shillings a week and then three and six. After a bit  Mr Warburton took over. I were a good worker so he set me on to doing five to nine. Five in morning till nine at night. You got half an hour for your dinner which you brought with you and heated up. And you knocked off at five on Saturdays. That were good.
Workers in Marshall's Mill
I weren’t lame then. I had my strength very well while we worked from six to seven. I had my health very well till I took from five to nine.  My sister were well an all. She began to fail when we began long hours. I were just turned ten when I began long hours She were turned nine. I tried to leave. I were like killed wi it. My legs were like to break in two. It were work and hours together and always having to stop  flyers wi your knees. It were having to crook your knees to stop flying shuttle as much as owt else. It were heavy and it went that fast and it clattered against your legs and you couldn’t rest.    
Marshall's Mill
Our mother tried to find work for us at Wilkinsons. Wilkinsons were better.But Warburton said I must come back and work for him. I asked Wilkinson what I should do and he said I should go an all. I didn’t know but they were hand in glove at that time. He said Warburton weren’t happy to lose a good worker and he were right. So Warburton asked for me and Wilkinson made me go. What could I do?
It were after I went back that he knocked me down. Warburton. He hadn’t struck me since I were little. He strapped me many a time then. It were a common thing for him to beat hands then. I’d been glad to get away from him. But not long after I went back, he came in and he were that vexed with me for having left him that he just walked up to me and hit me with flat of his hand and sent me flying against my machine. I slid down onto floor and lay there looking up at him. I couldn’t think. He knocked thoughts clean out of my head and I don’t think I've been same since. Mind you I were that weak I were soon knocked down.
I were about eleven when I started to go lame. By the time I were seventeen I couldn’t work in factory. It were just as well because my mother were ill by then. She got  very ill and I had to mind her. When she died my stepfather walked out and left us to fend for ourselves. He said we weren't his and that were true enough.
Timble Bridge
I used to go to Sunday school so I could read a bit. I were learning to write and I could sew. When I couldn’t work in factory any more I thought maybe I could be a dressmaker. I went to Mrs Darley of Timble Bridge to learn. Where that tall house is, near bridge end.  But then my mother fell ill so I had to give that up. And then I were very poorly myself. I’ve never been able to go backwards and forwards since.
The iron is so heavy. It supports me so that I can stand up but I don’t feel any stronger. Sometimes I’m a bit better and then again another day, I can hardly stir.
My sister says we should move closer to Timble Bridge so that I can start sewing again. There's money in sewing. But lessons cost half a guinea a year and besides  I don’t want to move. We’ve lived here seven year. We have friends here to help us if we need them. If my sisters need them. I shouldn’t like to leave them. Where would you be without your friends? No. I shouldn’t like to leave them behind.


If you would like to read more short stories, I have a couple of small collections available on Kindle
A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture 
and
Stained Glass.



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Carry On Writing

Beware of the Bull 
A very long time ago, when I first started out on the long road to publication and production (but not writing. I had been doing that for a long time, writing stories and poems since I could write) somebody said to me 'the only way to learn how to write is to write.' At the time, because I was still in my teens and thought that instant solutions might be possible, it seemed a bit glib. But as time passed, I realised that it was nothing less than the truth. 
I thought about that advice earlier this year when I read Stephen King's excellent memoir On Writing for the first time and realised that he too was advocating intensive writing - and intensive reading, anything and everything, good, bad and indifferent - as the only way to find your own true voice. Practice makes perfect. 
Let's face it, there is a lot of advice out there not just for self publishers, but for all kinds of writers starting out on the same long road. And this blog is probably only adding to the confusion.
But I've felt recently - and uneasily - that some of the advice handed out doesn't just throw the baby out with the bathwater. It forgets to put the baby in the bath altogether. It concentrates on platforms and promotions, but seems curiously reluctant to talk about the need to - well, to do a lot of - you know - writing.
Here's a thing. When I first started to publish my novels on Kindle, backlist and new titles, I read all that 'how to promote your book' stuff myself and I did it a couple of times, posting here, there and everywhere. 
I had some success with Kindle Select which allows you give away your books for up to five days in any three month period in exchange for digital exclusivity for those months. This works well for some writers, hardly at all for others. For me - and I understand that this is perhaps because I have quite a lot of work out there, traditionally published too - it worked pretty well and certainly resulted in sales of other books. But I was also beginning to wonder if intensive promotion might not be counter productive. (It irritated me a bit when I came across it myself even though I fully understood why people were doing it.) 
So I decided to experiment with minimal promotion of a few free titles: putting a link on my Facebook page, doing the odd tweet (but not a steady stream of them!) adding one or two links to one or two groups. And guess what? People still downloaded the books. If anything, they did rather better. Which suggests that letting Amazon do what Amazon does best works at least as well as any other form of promotion. 
Which is not to say that you don't need to do anything. Because whether you go with the odd freebie or not, you do need to do something.
First and foremost, I think you need to concentrate more on the baby than the bathwater. Like my old correspondent said, you need to write. (And rewrite!) A lot. I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. Most writers who achieve any measure of success do an awful lot of writing and they do it because it's what they do.  It's more important than anything else. If you find yourself routinely neglecting your writing in order to do promotion, you've got things the wrong way round. The best way to achieve sales as a 'writer as publisher' or to achieve a publishing 'deal' if that's what you want, is to carry on writing. 
It used to be a sad truth that writers would often find themselves sitting on a body of highly praised but unpublished material - unpublished because it was deemed to be 'unmarketable' for various reasons: too long, too short, too mid-list, too niche. That was the position I found myself in. Now, if you want to, you get get that work out there yourself and still carry on looking for a traditional deal if that's what you want to do. Or not, if you don't. But above all, in order to give yourself options, you have to write. And care about what you write. The more you write, the more material you will have to publish and the more you will sell. 
Promotion is important too.
In fact it's an essential part of treating yourself in a professional manner, treating some aspects of your writing as a business - and engaging with your readers, where and when you can. And whether you're traditionally published, or embarking on the 'independent writer as publisher' route, you had better start thinking like a business person, because either way, those waters are worryingly shark infested and the baby that is your precious work may be gobbled up whole. And don't let anybody fool you into thinking that you won't have to devote a lot of time to promotion if you're traditionally published because you will. 
The trick is in getting your priorities right. Managing the time available to you. 
I'm feeling my way towards something here, as I have been all year, and I think it's this. In my opinion, the best promotions are those which are not so much promotions as 'optional extras' to the sheer pleasure of writing. They add value or interest in some way to the contents of the book. You must be prepared to share something. It could be about the subject matter of the novel, the characters, the setting, the themes. Or it could be about the process of writing. It could be about a particular genre, or none at all.  It could be about some aspect of your research -  or it could go off at a complete tangent. It might well be a recommendation of somebody else's book. What inspired you? Who inspired you? But whatever it is, you're giving your readers something extra, sharing something and - often enough - getting something back in the process. That, too, is one of the joys of social media and blogging. Just make sure that you aren't shouting so loudly about your own work that you miss hearing somebody else's intriguing or moving or inspirational story along the way. 




Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Real People



Michael, in Quartz
In the course of one of our frequent discussions about each other's creative practice, an artist friend asked me a fascinating and thought-provoking question.
'When you create a character,' she said, 'Does that person seem real to you? I mean do you actually think of them as real in your mind?'
Now I've done many talks on the potentially thorny issue of creating a character, writing believable dialogue and all the other things that go into a writer's armoury of techniques. And I've been asked all kinds of questions. But I don't think it had occurred to anyone to ask this one before. Or not in so many words. The questions had all assumed a certain artifice, a certain control. How do you 'make' a character like this or this or this?
But the answer to my friend's question popped into my mind straight away. I didn't even hesitate. 'Yes,' I said. 'Absolutely and completely real. I think about them as real people existing in real places. Always.'
It's an uncanny thought, but when I write a novel or a play, the people are real. As real as anyone else. In some strange way, they occupy the same part of my mind. When I've finished a novel, they may recede into the background a little, but only because somebody else is more immediately in my mind. Currently, it's a mismatched couple called Joe and Helen who are hogging most of the space. I go to sleep thinking about them at night and I wake up still thinking about them in the morning. Sometimes I dream about them as well.
But somewhere in the bizarre landscape of my mind, easily summoned, as easily as any of my real friends,  Kirsty and Finn from Bird of Passage are wandering the hills above Dunshee together, while Donal and Alys, from the Curiosity Cabinet, are down on the shore, a different shore, watching a little boy called Ben gathering treasures from the beach. Somewhere, Henrietta is standing on a cliff top, while the sea-birds ride the wind, while elsewhere, a young man called Michael is making jewellery out of quartz. Somewhere, an ex fisherman called Rab is sitting in a cafe with a cup of cold coffee, telling his story to whoever will listen while in a different place and time, a pretty young woman is skating on a frozen pond - and even earlier, two young men called Thomas and William are meeting for the first time in a summer garden and finding that they have many things in common.
And all of them, every last one of them, seems as real, as alive to me, as my next door neighbour who is cutting his grass, and the kids who are walking past the window on their way back from school.
Until my friend pointed it out, I hadn't actually thought about just how odd this is. But it's the absolute truth.
Also - possibly - true, is that not a lot of  people do this.
Do you?






Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Oven Bottom Cakes. Family Secrets, My Irish Nana and Me


The Irish Famine by George Frederick Watts
I recently spent some time rewriting the blurb for Bird of Passage before a forthcoming free promotion (16th, 17th and 18th August). It's one of the big advantages of Kindle publishing that you can go back and refine something in the light of reviews, reader feedback, or just general intuition. The novel is set in Scotland, but it's probably the most Irish thing I've ever written, with the exception of a sad little story called Civil Rights, first published in the Edinburgh Review some years ago, and scheduled for another airing during the Edinburgh eBook Festival. 

I was born in Leeds, and my nana was Irish. Her name was Honora Flynn. Anne Honora, to be precise, although everyone called her Nora. Her father, James Flynn, was registered in Liverpool although later records mention Ireland as the place of his birth - maybe he was just off the ferry! - in 1856 or thereabouts which means that the migration of the family was probably related to the after effects of the Irish famine. 

Family tradition puts their place of origin as Ballyhaunis in Mayo and Flynn is certainly a Mayo name. By 1887, though, James was living in Leeds. He was a 'paviour' as the records state - which means he built roads. At the age of thirty, he married one Mary Terran or Terens who was a widow with children. His father Timothy was dead by then, but the marriage was witnessed by Charles and Mary Flynn, (his brother and sister?) who couldn't write, so marked their names with an 'X'. My nana, Anne Honora was born the year before their marriage, but it's a fairly safe assumption that she was Mary Terran and James Flynn's child. They went on to have more children, Timothy, Michael and Thomas. 

Later, my nana met my auburn haired grandad, Joe Sunter, in Holbeck, in Leeds, but at some point, she went to Canada looking for work and a new life. She didn't find it and sailed back again, to find that Joe was home from a trip to Singapore with the Merchant Navy. They were married not long after and had five children of whom my mother, Kathleen Irene, was the youngest. 

My grandad's family had been dalesmen - of Norse descent in all probability - from the upper reaches of Swaledale, lead miners turned coal dealers and farriers, and they were staunch Methodists. My nana's family were Irish Catholics and there was always a certain Irish element to my upbringing. I think the Catholic Church is a bit like Hotel California in the song - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I went to a small Catholic school, although we weren't what you might call 'red hot' in our religious observance. But when, at the age of 16, I first went to Ireland, working for a family in West Cork, looking after their children for the summer, it felt strangely familiar. 

The extended family, two sisters, with their husbands and assorted children, were renting an apartment in a big, beautiful, tumbledown house. It was a farmhouse but it must once have belonged to some minor Anglo Irish gentry before the 'troubles' changed everything. There was a dusty ballroom, an overgrown fountain in the garden, and a fearsome sow who would come galloping through the undergrowth in pursuit of strangers. The big holiday apartment had once been the servants quarters and the mice partied in the attics all night long. I was one of two nannies, temporary nursemaids, mother's helps, whatever we were. I looked after eighteen month old triplets and three older children by day,but at night, when they were mercifully in bed, the other nanny and myself went dancing in the nearby villages escorted by various local boys. I fell in love, just a little bit, and walked back down the long drive in the moonlight with a good looking boy called Paddy (what else?) who kissed me beneath the damp buddleias. I can never smell that honey scent now without remembering it. 

Later, I worked in Dublin too and everything about that time and place fed into the fiction which would come after. But much as I loved Ireland - much as I still love the place and its people - I didn't realise until years later that the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries and the cruelty of the Industrial Schools was still going on, even while I had been innocently holding hands with Paddy on that moonlit lane. Which is a chilling thought, even now.


Tattie Howkers
Tied up with all that is the story of what happened to my beloved nana, and how we - my elderly aunt and I, because my own mother was dead by that time - came to find out something about Nora which she had kept secret her whole life - which she had taken with her to her grave. Nobody knew, until much later when somebody, ferreting through official records, found it out. Later still, I wondered if that had been why Anne Honora had decided to leave for Canada. Maybe she felt that she had no more to lose. But she had come back and married my grandfather anyway. 

I wrote about it when those most closely concerned with it were dead even my dear aunt, who had been deeply upset by it. I wrote the poem below, Oven Bottom Cakes, before ever I wrote Bird of Passage. But although it's quite different, and Anne Honora's story is nothing like Finn and Kirsty's story - I still feel those little connections and inspirations, nipping away at me like midges on a summer night. For Bird of Passage is a story about secrets and lies, about concealment and shame as well. 

And I think the inspiration for these two quite different pieces of work must come from the same beloved place. 


 OVEN BOTTOM CAKES

My Irish nana made oven bottom cakes
with the last of the dough,
furiously working the elastic on
cold marble, her hair thrust back
like a schoolgirl’s with a clip.
I see her print pinafore and her body
flex as she presses her thumb into
the middle of each cake then
leans across the rag rug to throw
deft flour into the oven to judge
if the temperature is right.

On a February morning in smoky Leeds
in 1910 my nana, a shirt maker,
gave birth to twin girls Gladys and Ethel.
She named no father and they died within days.
Later, she told nobody.
They were erased from our story
as surely as if they had never lived
until years after her death when
some  remote cousin gleefully
excavating the family tree,
sniffed them out and spilt the beans.

Toddling, I would nap with her
in the afternoons and she would
push me out of her bed for
fidgetting, my soft breasted nan.
Did she see in me those
babies she had buried?
My nana baked bread for me.
How she loved to feed me good things,
made oven bottom cakes and we’d
eat them with the best butter
and blackberry jam that
nipped your teeth with seeds.

Catherine Czerkawska.

Magdalenes

Monday, August 06, 2012

Buried Treasure



As you can see from the picture above, if you look closely, even my doll's house has books in it! I'm seriously considering making some tiny, bound manuscripts and stacking them on shelves in various other rooms. Maybe the lady of the house - which is my current pride and joy and refuge from all things online - could be a writer in her spare time. This idea occurred to me because I spent a couple of days last week climbing up and down a real stepladder in my real house, my upstairs study to be precise, with a nice view of the garden and the woods beyond. I've been storing folders and box files on a high shelf that runs the length of the whole room for years now, and I decided I needed to investigate and take stock of exactly what I had in the way of material.

With three full length novels, a couple of short story trios and a few plays already published and selling quite nicely on Amazon, I've been considering what I'm going to publish next and what my future publishing strategies might be.  It seemed to me that I had a lot of work just sitting there. Moreover, I suspected some of it might be good work, not just those early 'bottom drawer' novels you cut your teeth on and then hang onto out of sheer sentimentality, not because you think they're any good, but because it's hard to destroy something you've spent so much time on. So I thought it was time for an assessment.

I know that my PC has two (almost) completed but unpublished novels sitting on it. To be more accurate, the novels are on a PC, a laptop, various flash drives and stored in DropBox and on a Norton Cloud somewhere. So - I'm paranoid. There are also printouts. One, called The Physic Garden, is a historical novel set in Glasgow around the turn of the 1800s. It's related by an elderly bookseller who was once a gardener - although he's remembering the events of his youth - and it's a book about male friendship and extreme betrayal. I'm very fond of it. In fact, I think I'm probably more fond of it than anything else I've written. Oh, it definitely needs work. And it needs more words as well as less, additions as well as pruning. This novel was read (I assume) by a young intern at my previous agency. Her response was that it was 'just an old man telling his story.' Which is true. This casual, stupid remark so influenced me that I wasted several months trying to tell the story in the third person.

It didn't work.

There was no way that my narrator was going to allow his story to be told in anything except his own strong voice. Now, the possibility of publishing The Physic Garden as an eBook has allowed me to go back to my original plan and make this the book I intended it to be. It should be coming to a Kindle near you before the end of the year.

Also on my PC is a rather odd piece of contemporary fiction called Line Dancing, part romance, part literary fiction. I don't think anyone at any of my agencies ever wanted to read this, for the simple reason that it's about an older woman having a relationship with a younger man and none of the young women and men who inhabit agencies ever found anything to interest them in the proposal. But again, when I reread it now, I get that little kick of excitement that suggests the book is OK, probably worth publishing. And aren't there lots of older women out there who haven't quite given up on love?

That's just on the PC. It was when I started rummaging in all those old folders and files that a pattern began to emerge. I would climb the ladder and lift them down a couple of boxes at a time. Many of them hadn't been opened for years and there were not just cobwebs but dead spiders lurking inside. I had to use antihistamine for the sneezing and a vacuum cleaner for the spider skeletons.

Here's what I found:
First of all, there was a huge manuscript called Salt Sea Strawberries. Many years ago, I wrote a trilogy of dramas for BBC Radio 4, called The Peggers and the Creelers. It was about a Scottish fishing community and an inland boot and shoe making town, (not a million miles from Dunure and Maybole, in Ayrshire) and the plays constituted a densely woven series of dramas about the sometimes stormy relationships between the two communities and the demise of traditional industries. This was well before I ever had a PC. It had been written on an old electric typewriter, and now here it was, printed out on that flimsy old fashioned paper. A huge box of it. 130,000 words of it.

I read a few pages and remembered that the original radio series had elicited lots of fan mail. People had loved it. The novel isn't half bad either. Actually - like the plays - it probably amounts to a trilogy of novels, or it will, by the time I've rewritten it. I don't remember my agent - whichever agent I had at the time - reading this one either. She 'wasn't keen on family sagas. Nobody wants family sagas.'
And you know what? I had forgotten all about it! I hadn't forgotten the plays, just that I had actually spent a year or two of my life writing 130,000 words of a novel based on the plays that nobody then would even look at.

Another folder contained a novel called Snow Baby, a manuscript full of my own scrawled annotations. This is contemporary fiction, literary, lyrical, quite poetic. Extracts from it were published in Carl MacDougall's beautifully designed 'Words' magazine, way back in the 1970s. Which was a difficult magazine to get into. We're talking about a very youthful work here, written when I was supposed to be a 'literary' writer but in reality wasn't quite sure what kind of writer I was. I was a mid-list writer for sure - desperate to tell well written stories that would appeal to all kinds of people, but perhaps to women in particular. The problem with Snow Baby was that it was set in Finland and - you've guessed it - 'nobody wants to read anything set in Finland.'

There were also some 70 pages of a novel called The Marigold Child. This was a novel with an intriguing Mary, Queen of Scots connection. I had done the research and although the premise on which it is based is outrageous, everything fits. My agent's eyes lit up when she heard about it. I wanted to write it as a historical novel, but 'nobody wants historical novels' - or they didn't back then, though they do now - so I spent a year wrestling with it to try to give it a contemporary framework. The 70 pages is set in the here and now. I read it through and thought it read pretty well, spooky, with a couple of engaging central characters, but I'm still not sure that it shouldn't be a straightforward historical novel. That may be what it wants to be. We'll see. The point is that now, I can do what I want with it, not what somebody else is telling me might be flavour of the month.



There are besides this, files full of single plays and series with detailed background material. All these were made and produced on BBC Radio 4 and well received. Among them there's a series of plays about a Scottish family of yacht builders, and another set in Roman Britain, all well researched, all vividly written, albeit in dramatic form. By the time these were written, even though I knew in my heart I had material for more novels, I had had enough of soldiering through thousands of words and hoping for the best. There are folders full of detailed ideas and plans for novels, whole plots, meticulously worked out. There are short stories and even some non-fiction pieces. There's a young adult novel - the publisher no longer exists although my television serial on which it is based is still available on YouTube. There's a backlist novel which I always felt was published in the wrong way. Now it seems horribly dated and needs extensive rewriting. But somewhere inside it is a good piece of contemporary fiction - and that too seems a bit like finding buried treasure.

'I wish', said my husband, wistfully, surveying the great heaps of manuscript, 'all this had happened twenty years ago.'
So do I.
But we can only work with what we have and, as of now, I think I just have to get my head down and get more work out there. Lots of it. Once I've whittled my way down the pile I can stop, take stock and decide what might be best to do next. CreateSpace is calling, for instance, since I can't deny that I'd love to have paperback copies of all these.
There's a lot more to come and much of it is already written in some form at least. Editing and polishing takes time - years, probably, but there's an excitement about it all and a freedom that I haven't known for a very long time.
Kindle, other platforms, CreateSpace  - all I can say is, watch this space.









Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Amber Heart: a Big, Sexy, Old-Fashioned Historical Romance?

Cover art by Claire Maclean

The novel has been called all the above things at one time or another. It's certainly a love story and it's certainly a historical novel. Set in 19th Century Poland, The Amber Heart is the passionate (and at times explicit) love story of two people whose lives will be inextricably and hopelessly entwined.

Maryanna Diduska is the spoilt only daughter of a wealthy Polish landowner. Piotro Bandura is the son of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian peasant. Their paths should never cross. But fate has other ideas.

In one sense at least, the armies of traditional publishers who were wary of acquiring The Amber Heart were perfectly right.  I had no idea just how firmly the notion of Poland as a grim ex-communist concrete jungle, famous only for exporting plumbers and plasterers to the UK, had become so firmly rooted in the national consciousness.The big publishers, so market oriented, were all too well aware of it, and although I could paper a wall with fabulous rave rejections - I love this, it made me cry, I stayed up all night reading it, what a wonderful book - nobody would actually take it on. A string of editors told my agent that, much as they, personally, liked it, they had no idea how to market it, and perhaps they had a point.  But this is neither a complaint nor a rant - just an explanation of sorts.

You see my perception of Poland was different. For me, throughout my childhood, it seemed like a romantic other-worldly place, as remote and magical as a land in a fairytale. The fact that my visions were just as skewed in their own way - that the truth lay somewhere between the two -  is neither here not there, because we're talking about inspiration here: that impulse to tell a story and what lay behind it.


My late father had almost literally been Prince Charming to my mum's post war Yorkshire Cinderella. One day I'll bring the Amber Heart up to date by telling their story but for now, this will have to do.
My dad, looking a bit girly, with his parents at Dziedzilow
My dark and handsome dad had been born into a certain amount of privilege, much like Maryanna in my story, but he lost everything in the war. After a dangerous time as a young courier for the Resistance, followed by a spell in a German prison camp, he came to Helmsley in Yorkshire with a Polish tank unit, part of the British army. That first wave of Poles inspired a certain amount of prejudice, even then. After he was demobbed, he went to Leeds where he worked in a mill as a textile presser. He also met my mum at a dance. He was thin and pale and faintly heroic. She had a cold sore on her lip and her hair was tied back with a bootlace but they maintained that it was love at first sight. I suspect it was - and for both of them, it would last a lifetime. 

My Aunt Vera, dad, my mum, Kathleen on the right, and myself in the sun hat.
In truth, they were a handsome couple. She was pretty. He was exotic and charming. He kissed her hand and clicked his heels together when they met. Even his accent was deeply attractive. She had never met anyone quite like him in sooty Holbeck where she lived, the youngest - also spoilt - daughter of a big family. Her father worked in a tailoring factory and sold maggots to fishermen for bait in his spare time. Her Irish mother ran a tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop whose main customers were the factory workers who passed by morning and evening.  If this reads like a family saga, it's because it is.
Me, in pale blue organdie.

Growing up
Fortunately, my dad turned out to be as lovely as his manners. He was creative, kindly, and clever. They married and by the time I was born, he was attending night school so that he could get out of the mill. At his retiral, he was a distinguished research biochemist who had travelled the world as an expert adviser for Unido. But back then, I think he was just relieved to be alive and in a reasonably peaceful place.
He didn't say much about his wartime experiences, but what he did say was harrowing. And for quite a while, he wasn't well: thin and grey faced and somehow attenuated. Now, I can see that it must have been a reaction to everything that had happened to him. Back then, I was worried about him, as even young children can be - vaguely and without really knowing why.


I remember being carried on his shoulders, and touching his black curls. I remember him telling me stories and teaching me to draw and taking me off into the countryside around Leeds every weekend, to show me things: a wasps' nest, a grass snake, flowers, birds, trees. I remember going to some church event with mum and dad and dancing with him, proudly, like a grown-up. I wore an organdie dress with little blue rosebuds and had my hair up. I stood on his feet and he waltzed me around in time to the music. 

The Poland he told me about was - of course - the rural Eastern Poland of his childhood, a place called Dziedzilow. This was by no means an idyllic place, beset as it was by bloody battles, constant border skirmishes and the occasional massacre. And my grandparents' marriage was not a happy one either, in spite of their comparative affluence. But I think dad had a happy childhood all the same, because the Poland he described for me, weaving countless stories, was as strange and foreign and magical as a place in a fairytale. I recognised it for what it was, the first time I encountered Housman's poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

For dad, surely, Dziedzilow (I call it Lisko in the book - you can understand why, can't you?) was the land of lost content where he knew he could never come again. He was never bitter, tucking the memories away inside him, just happy to have survived.
Dad with goat.

And of course writers do come there again in their imaginations. I mined my father's experiences when I was writing the Amber Heart as surely as he had once mined his memories for his little daughter. Oh, I did a lot of other research besides. A truly prodigous amount, most of which simply informs the story, rather than being inserted into it. But it was my dad's voice I went back to time and again when I wanted to feel how it might have been. I went visiting with him in my imagination, and there it was. I could see it, smell it, touch it. Dad died back in 1995 but I still feel the connection sometimes. I felt it especially when I was writing this novel.

Wojciech Kossak, one of my forebears, painted this. Another inspiration for me.
Reviewing The Amber Heart for the Indie eBook Review, Cally Phillips says 'There is passion, brutality and deep emotion on display as we are whisked through the nineteenth century and the long lives and deaths of a panoply of characters.'

As an adult, I came to realise that the passion and the brutality were always there, a muted subtext to so many of the stories (as they are in so many 'fairy stories') changed and transformed by my gentle dad to delight his little Kasia - my Polish name. I was never disturbed by them, but I think I recognised the deep emotion and the vivid memories that lay behind them. I think many of them have found their way into the Amber Heart which begins a hundred years before my father was even born. In a way, I think that those editors were right. It probably is a big, sexy, old fashioned historical romance. With a setting which may not be immediately popular. But still, it's quite a story. It'll be free on Kindle, here in the UK and here in the USA, on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd August 2012. Why not give it a try?

Dad with student.