Antique of the Month: A Precious Reminder of My Polish Family History

A tiny silver and enamel mirror - a rare survival.

I might fit in more than one antique this month. After all, Christmas is a time when this old house really comes into its own and it's nice to reflect on the history of a few precious possessions - not particularly precious in terms of monetary value, but only in terms of the memories they hold for me, like my piano that I wrote about last month,

This month, it's a tiny mirror, no more than three inches long. It's in silver, although since it came from eastern Poland, there's no hallmark. The back has pale cream enamel in an intricate and pretty design that doesn't show up too well in the photograph, and I'm afraid the glass on the other side has been somewhat damaged, although you can still just about see through the centre of it.

My grandmother
It belonged to my Polish grandmother, Lucja Szapera and on the right is one of only two photographs I have of her. Looking at that rather pretty, vivacious face, you would never know that her story was not destined to be a happy one. Born into a reasonably wealthy Lwow family (and I don't even know if there were any siblings) she met and married my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski while they were both very young. She must have thought all her dreams had come true.

Wladyslaw was handsome, charming and potentially rich. He had inherited one large country estate while still a child, and stood to inherit another, the one where he was born. Many years later, my great uncle Karol Kossak, who had been one of his closest friends, having married into the family, told me that he had been 'fond of the ladies' as I'm sure he was.

I met Lucja once. My grandfather not at all. He died of typhus on the long march east and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road. Long after the war, the Red Cross found my grandmother and put my father in touch with her. By that time my refugee father had met and married my mother in Leeds, and made a life for himself. Everything the Polish side of the family had once possessed was deep behind the Iron Curtain. The English/Irish side of the family had very little to begin with, but that's another story.

Lucja came to visit us in Leeds while I was still a young child but I have almost no memory of her except as an old and complaining lady who didn't want to be in England and didn't want to be where she was in Poland either. She wanted the promised land of her past. Her health was poor, she had lost everything that mattered to her, and she never came to terms with it.

My father Julian, Wladyslaw and Lucja in happier times. 

Before the war, she had already left my grandfather and returned to the city. My father divided his time between the two. I think she had discovered that she hated living in the countryside. She disliked the mud and the flies in summer, the cold in winter. I sometimes picture her as a character in a Chekhov play, longing for something else. Besides, the marriage had not turned out at all as she expected. My sociable grandfather loved the countryside. He read. He liked music and painting. He loved horses. He was always planning some new venture, something to make money. Like so many he was property rich and ready cash poor.

Poor Lucja was discontented and when my father was born, she was fairly discontented with him too, although the picture above still portrays an idyllic existence. He always remembered his aunt Wanda, Wladyslaw's sister, with more affection, although being a very kindly man all his life, he never really elaborated on the reasons why. As for my grandfather - he was already conducting an affair with the wife of a local schoolteacher by the time war put an end to all such distractions and, ultimately, to him.

Nevertheless, my father brought this little mirror with him to Yorkshire, and thence to Scotland, via the battle at Monte Cassino in Italy, along with a handful of photographs and nothing else. I'm looking at it now. The older I've grown, the more I've come to sympathise with Lucja. Some can build a good life out of nothing. My father certainly did. But for others - and for all kinds of reasons we can only guess at - it becomes impossible, the hill much too steep to climb.

Who are we to judge?

Handsome Wladyslaw

Some years ago, I wrote a novel called The Amber Heart, based on my Polish family history. It's only available on Kindle at present, I'm afraid, but if you want to know more about the turbulent history of a family very similar to my own, in eastern Poland during the mid 19th century, then you could give it a try.

Antique of the Month: My Beloved 'Squire' Piano.

My genuine antique 'B Squire' piano.

Because my new novel, The Posy Ring, due to be published by the ever excellent Saraband in 2018, involves antique dealing, among other things - I thought I would begin to write an 'antique of the month' post. And since I've just had my wonderful old piano tuned, it seems like a good idea to begin with this instrument.

I acquired my upright 'cottage' piano when we first moved to Scotland from Yorkshire, and I've had it since I was twelve years old. That's a very long time, and I love it dearly. I had been learning to play the piano since I was seven years old. My first teacher was a formidable but kindly woman called Miss Ingram who taught at Leeds College of Music in the late 50s. I can remember the head of the college saying that she was an 'iron hand in a velvet glove' and my seven year old self finding this vaguely alarming because she wore little fingerless gloves when she played and taught. The college was in a big and decidedly chilly old building at the end of Wood Lane, in Headingley and I always wondered if the mittens were concealing the iron! She had short grey hair, she wore a faintly Bohemian black velvet jacket over a pleated skirt, she massaged Nivea cream into her hands to keep them supple (the scent of it still takes me back to that time and place) and cleaned her piano keys with milk.

We must have had a piano in the house then, although I don't remember what it was like. But I suspect it had once belonged to my aunt Nora, my mother's much older sister, who was a fine pianist. In fact she had been offered a place at that same college of music to study full time, but she never took it up. Back then 'people like us' - working class people - didn't do things like that, and she  played only for pleasure. Being a good deal older than my mum, she had also - so I'm told - played to accompany the silent movies in the local cinema, when she was still a girl. It was when my mother married my Polish father that things changed, for me at least.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire and my mother bought me a good piano in the local saleroom. There were two salerooms in the town of Ayr back then, and I can't remember which one it came from but it could easily have been from our single surviving saleroom - the one I visit pretty much every week - Thomas Callan. Mum and dad found me a new music teacher in Ayr and I carried on with my piano lessons until I went off to university in Edinburgh at the age of seventeen, by which time I had reached Grade 7 and was reasonably competent, although I was only ever going to play for fun.

The piano has been tuned by the same person for all those years, a man called Paul Cohen, who is not only a fantastic tuner, who knows all about old instruments, but a brilliant musician in his own right as well. Every time he comes to the house, he marvels at just how good this lovely old piano sounds, because - he says - it IS old. In fact he reckons it dates from the late 1800s! It lives in our cottage sitting room and since the house is much older than the piano, having been built in 1808, and not particularly overheated, the piano seems very happy here.

This time, when he had taken the front off, we examined it more closely, and I took some pictures. The piano was sold by Paterson, Sons and Co but the maker is B Squire - Squire was an old and distinguished London company of piano makers, and when the original Mr Squire died, his wife Betsey took over, in the middle of the 19th century, and thereafter the firm was known as B Squire and Son. Inside, there's a serial number, 17420,  which we can't find anywhere else, but fascinatingly there's also a price of 44 guineas. Which - when you think about what people earned in those days - makes this a very expensive purchase indeed. 

I've played it for many years, sometimes more and sometimes less frequently. Our son had lessons for a couple of years when he was a wee boy, but as his lovely teacher, Lisa Occleston, observed, he was never going to enjoy it much. So when he stopped, I took his lesson slot, to refresh my memory, and a high old time we had every week, while I learned some quite demanding pieces of music. That came to an end when Lisa moved away, and again, I neglected my piano for a while. I always tend to play more in winter than in summer. 

Now I've dug out a heap of music, the piano has been tuned, and I plan to spend a lot more time this winter, refreshing my memory all over again. That's the huge benefit of learning to a certain standard. Even though you neglect it for a while, you don't really forget and can pick it up again with a little application. 

Paul tells me that pianos can hardly be sold these days. Everyone has gone digital. Which seems a pity. When all these gorgeous old instruments have been broken up, they'll probably become valuable all over again. But I wouldn't willingly part with it. And anyway - I don't think we could move it! 

My New Scottish Island Novel - Maps, Plans and Other Displacement Activities.

My fictional island of Garve
Anyone who has read and enjoyed The Curiosity Cabinet  and, like me, loves small Scottish islands, might be interested to hear that I've spent the last eighteen months or so working on a 'spin-off' novel called The Posy Ring, the first in a series of novels set on my fictional Scottish Inner Hebridean island of Garve, which is bigger than Gigha, smaller than Islay, and sits somewhere in the region of Jura - in my imagination, anyway!

If you want to know what Garve is like, the map on the left might give you some idea. My artist husband, Alan Lees, painted this for me, following my instructions, so that I could keep track of everything during the first tricky drafts of the book. The novels will be centred around an old house to the north of the island (you can just see it on that map) called Auchenblae, or Flowerfield, and like the Curiosity Cabinet, there will be past and present day stories, although nobody actually goes back in time.

You will, however, meet a few of the characters from The Curiosity Cabinet all over again, although this time they are not central to the story.

While I was writing the early drafts of the new novel, I found myself even making plans of my fictional house. It's a rambling old place, a bit run down, and I knew that if the story was going to be consistent, I had to know the exact shape of the building, inside as well as out. So I made floor plans. It was fascinating - one of those tasks that you find so absorbing that it becomes a kind of displacement activity that you do instead of knuckling down to write the book.

I did write it though, and also did a great many revisions and rewrites before I felt it was ready to be sent to my publisher. Now, I'm working with an excellent editor. This is a necessary part of the process because like most of us, I always get to the stage where I can't see the wood for the trees. If you have the luxury of time, I always recommend to people that they finish a piece of writing and then let it lie fallow for as long as possible - because when you go back to it, you'll usually see what needs to be done. But a good editor is beyond price.

It definitely helps to have an editor who 'gets' the way you write, but who is sharp and clever and meticulous enough to ask all the right questions. Fortunately, the problems, such as they are, aren't structural (always a nightmare) but nips and tucks and clarifications. We use 'track changes' and have interesting conversations in the comments. I must admit I find those kind of edits enjoyable rather than otherwise - a process of polishing, and I've always enjoyed polishing things.

Besides, since my two main contemporary characters are antique dealers, I think they might enjoy polishing things as well.

First Person Heroines and Physical Descriptions

The other day, I had one of those insights that I think it might be worth sharing for the benefit of anyone embarking on writing a piece of fiction for the first time. (I hate that word 'budding' when applied to writers, so I'm not going to use it!)

One of the first things you have to decide, when you're starting out on a novel, is whether you are going to write it in the first or third person and whether, even if you are telling your tale in the third person, (he/she) you are going to be the all-seeing authorial presence with access to the minds and hearts of all your characters at once or, the more likely alternative, whether you are going to be with one or two of your characters, maybe with some insights into the minds of others.

Throughout the summer, I've been working on a new novel called The Posy Ring, with a past and present dimension, so I've been with two different people at different times telling two intertwined tales in the third person. Nobody goes back in time. These are parallel stories with connections between them.

In The Jewel, we are with Robert Burns's wife Jean Armour herself. But even though the whole story is pretty much told from the point of view of Jean, it's another third person narration. I wanted this to be her tale, but I also wanted to be able to have more of an overview than would have been possible if I had tried to tell the story wholly in her Ayrshire voice. The voice is there, of course. How could it not be? But I found I needed just a little distance which is what the third person narration gave me.

Today, though, I'm thinking about first person narration. I used this in The Physic Garden, mainly because William Lang, the main character in that novel, needed to tell his story and it seemed the only possible way of telling it. His voice in my head was very strong. I did, however, borrow a technique from that finest of writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and made sure that an older and more experienced William was telling the story of his youth. This is the technique used to such good effect in Kidnapped, where an older David Balfour is telling the story of his brash younger self.

Sometimes when I read a novel written in the first person, especially from the point of view of the heroine, I find myself tripping over a certain aspect of the narration. For what it's worth, here's why. We are not, most of us, models of self confidence. When the older David Balfour looks back on the young David he finds himself doing what most of us do from time to time (usually in the middle of a sleepless night) and cringing at our own thoughtlessness or selfishness or bad behaviour. William does much the same in The Physic Garden, as well as trying to rationalise and come to terms with and forgive a terrible betrayal.

But even without that narrative distance, we do not, on the whole, gaze at ourselves in mirrors and notice our bouncing curls or our snub noses or our mouths, 'just too large for prettiness.' We do, sometimes, get up in the morning and gaze at ourselves and think 'what the hell happened?' And the older we get, the more inclined we are to think 'who is that elderly person gazing back at me?'

We are often beset by genuine doubts and uncertainties, by uncomfortable memories, hesitations, and the inconvenient and sudden desire for unsuitable people. But we hardly ever describe ourselves to ourselves in terms of our appearance. We reserve that for the few occasions when we are meeting strangers, and even then, we tend to say what we'll be wearing. Or send a picture.

Why, then, do so many heroines indulge in this form of self description? Tell us what your character feels. Tell us that she can't decide what to wear, and why she finally chooses some article of clothing. Let her express her doubts and fears, her memories, her wishes for the future. Let her tell us how she feels about the hero, if you're writing a love story. Or let the hero tell us what he sees and feels and why he likes or loves what he sees. But be very wary of those mirrors because they can become a cop-out.  Please, please, please don't have her gaze 'critically' in the mirror and then describe her own unruly curls, her green eyes, her inconveniently slender figure, her tiny feet, her long fingers, and so on, while this reader at any rate thinks 'aye right.'

In the Curiosity Cabinet, the heroine is given a mirror, but she doesn't want to look in it - not at first. The reason is that she has had smallpox, and it has left her with scars. She has seen them once, as a very young woman, and after that has avoided the sight of her own face. She doesn't gaze on those scars at all and the point in the story where she is eventually persuaded to look in the mirror is vital to that story, but not because of what she sees. Rather because of who persuades her and why.

The Price of a Fish Supper - staged in Ayrshire at last!

Ken O'Hara as Rab, The Price of a Fish Supper, Ayr Gaiety.

This week, my play The Price of a Fish Supper finally had an Ayrshire production, with Ken O'Hara as Rab, and Isi Nimmo directing: three performances at the upstairs studio in Ayr's excellent Gaiety Theatre. 

What a joy it was to see it.

This play was the first one I wrote for the Oran Mor's 'A Play, A Pie and a Pint' season in Glasgow. Even then, it had been sitting on my PC for a while, with scant interest shown, until it was passed on to the late and much missed David McLennan, by Dave Anderson. Almost immediately he contacted me to say that he wanted to stage it. That first performance was directed by Gerda Stevenson, with Paul Morrow as Rab, and was extremely well reviewed. It was produced at the Edinburgh festival fringe and went on to have a production on BBC R4 (although we had to cut out all the swear words for that one!) It was also published by Nick Hern Books as part of an anthology called Scottish Shorts and as an individual eBook.

Cue forward some years and Isi, who had directed Ken in a splendid version of Alan Bennett's heartrending A Chip in the Sugar, asked if I could recommend any more one man plays. 'Well, I might have something,' I said. And pointed both of them to The Price of a Fish Supper. That was some months ago. Eventually, we were offered space at the Gaiety and the play has proved to be more successful there than any of us anticipated - the tickets sold out quite quickly, and the Gaiety added a matinee, since there was such a waiting list.

The interest in this production was, I think, down to a number of things. Ken is very good at publicity - proactive and imaginative. It goes without saying that he's also very good at acting! The play is about the demise of the fishing industry, which means a lot to many people here, but it's about a lot more than that. I still find the central character heartbreaking: he's an alcoholic ex fisherman, but I think all the time, watching it, you realise what he might have been, what he could have been in different circumstances. I had Ayrshire in my mind while I was writing it, and hearing Ken perform the play with an Ayrshire accent, with the energy of the language of the place where I live and work, was something of a revelation, even to me. I suddenly realised that I had written it with the voice of the place I now call home very firmly in my mind - and here it was, on the stage.

Ken 'got' it in a remarkable way. So did Isi. I'd forgotten how much I like theatre when it goes as well as this. This is the first production of any drama I've been involved with for some time. I'd also forgotten that peculiar, nerve racking sensation of wondering what an audience will make of it  - and the sheer pleasure of knowing that some combination of skills has made them 'get' it too.

At Brow Well on the Solway - the last days of Robert Burns's life.

At Brow Well on the Solway, you walk to the very edge of the land and almost tumble into a mass of thrift, clumps of pink flowers fringing the shore, like some wild garden. They face the sea, looking outwards and when the wind blows through them, they tremble with a dry, feathery sound.

At all times of the year, the wind blows unhindered across these mudflats. There is nothing to stop it, down here, on the Solway. And the sky is dazzling: high and bright with the malicious glitter of a sun half hidden behind clouds. It is a place of endings, of dizzying infinities. A place where long horizontals constantly carry the eye outwards and beyond. Where these same long horizontals dull the urge to fly.

In June, when the thrift is still in bloom, it is as restful as it will ever be. There are wild roses in the hedgerows, white, pale and dark pink. There is a froth of bramble flowers with the promise of fruit to come. Oystercatchers and peewits patrol the mud. There are whaups, curlews, bubbling in the peaty wastes. And you can hear the laverock, the skylark, climbing higher and higher, to the very edges of sound and tumbling through the skies in an ecstasy of movement. Down there, in front of you, a burn meanders through the mud, fresh water meeting salt, while beyond that again is more mud and silver water, cloud shadows and the misty hills of another country. But it is still the loneliest sight you will ever see.

On the third day of July in the year 1796, Robert Burns left his home in Dumfries, left his wife Jean and his children, and travelled to Brow Well on the Solway. It was, essentially, a poor man’s spa. There was a chalybeate or mineral spring with a stone tank built to house it and not much else. One Doctor Maxwell had diagnosed a wholly fictional malady called Flying Gout, and advised the poet to drink the waters in an effort to alleviate his symptoms. He was thin, he was weak, he could barely eat and he was in constant pain. It is likely that a systemic infection from a tooth abscess had caused his chronic endocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) to become acute. It would quickly prove fatal.

He was very ill.
He stayed in a cottage close by the well. He ate a little thin porridge, and drank some porter with milk in it. When the porter bottle was empty, he told his landlady that the ‘muckle black deil’ had got into his wallet, and asked her if she would accept his personal seal as payment but she refused it and brought him the porter anyway.

In July, the thrift would have been dying. As well as instructing him to drink the foul tasting waters, the doctors had recommended that Robert should try sea-bathing. They were only following the fashion of the time. In the south of England there would have been snug bathing machines and separate beaches for men and women to indulge in the novelty of salt water against skin. One month’s bathing in January was believed to be more efficacious than six months in summer. But perhaps there was a sense of urgency in the poet’s case. No time to wait for winter.

He was, no doubt, in that state of desperation where you will try anything. He would have gone struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to his waist, because that’s what the doctors had advised. Did they know how shallow these waters were? How far he would have to walk? How bitter the struggle for desperate mind over failing flesh? His landlady would have gone flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. Did he feel the Solway flounders slithering away beneath his unsteady feet? It was his last chance of a cure and he was full of fear. Fear for his beloved Jean who was heavily pregnant. Fear of debt. Fear of death.

Nearby is the village of Ruthwell. In the church there is an Anglo Saxon cross. It is so tall that the floor has been dug out to make room for it. Because it was judged an idolatrous monument with its intricate carving, its runic inscriptions, which must have seemed suspiciously pagan, it was smashed into pieces on the orders of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. That was in 1664, but it lay where it fell for many years and the good folk of Ruthwell used the stone blocks as benches to sit upon, while they yawned their way through interminable sermons. 

The poet was invited to visit the manse at Ruthwell, but when the ladies there offered to pull a curtain across to shade his eyes from the sunlight, he asked them to leave it be. 'He will not shine long for me,' he said. 

The seawater would have done some good only in that it numbed the pain. It would have been his last chance. He had been a week at the salt water and wrote that he had secret fears that the business would be dangerous if not fatal. No flesh or fish could he swallow. Porridge and milk and porter were the only things he could taste. And how could he attempt horse-riding, which the doctors had also ordered, when he could not so much as drag himself up into the saddle?

‘God help my wife and children if I am taken from their head with Jean eight months gone’ he wrote. He sent letters to his father-in-law, James Armour, in Ayrshire, begging him to ask Jean’s mother come to Dumfries, but Mary Armour was visiting relatives in Fife and there was only silence from Mauchline. His correspondence reeks of desperation.

From the middle of the month, the tides were unsuitable for bathing, so he went home, borrowing a gig from a farmer named John Clark, in Locharwoods. When he got back to Dumfries, he was too weak to walk up the Mill Vennel, let alone climb the stairs to his bed. His young neighbour, Jessie Lewars, had to come out and 'oxter' him into the house.

Poor Burns had almost run his course. Still, he must struggle with the stream, 'till some chopping squall overset the silly vessel at last'. Love swells like the Solway but ebbs like the tide. Life too. 
He who always sang of rivers and streams, was coming, at last, to the sea. He died in Dumfries on 21st July 1796. Jean gave birth to his last child on the day of his funeral. 

If you want to read more about Robert Burns, but especially about his beloved Jean, look for my novel, The Jewel, all about the life of Jean Armour.

Creating a Fictional Setting - My Imaginary Scottish Island

In the Curiosity Cabinet, I created a fictional Scottish island called Garve. In writing The Posy Ring, the first of a new series with the same setting, I've deliberately set out to find out even more about it. It's an Inner Hebridean island. It's medium sized: bigger than Gigha but smaller than Islay. It sits somewhere between Islay, Jura and Gigha but like the mythical Celtic Tir nan Og, there's a nebulous quality to its situation. Of course the characters know exactly where it is, but readers should be able to speculate a bit!

In the Curiosity Cabinet, I could permit myself to be vague. I knew a lot about the landscape of my fictional island of Garve or Eilean Garbh. The name means 'rough' in Gaelic, and I knew that this was an island that might indeed look a little rough from the sea. Trees would have been planted only later in its history but it would still be a softer landscape than those of the Outer Hebrides. There would be wild flowers in plenty, some trees and some decent grazing, although the upland parts of the island would be less hospitable.

But now that I've been working on the first of a series of novels with the same island setting, I've spent a while happily working out the entire landscape of my made up island: the houses, the villages, the farms, the archaeological remains (a great many of these) the harbours, the roads and where the streams flow through the landscape. My husband has drawn out a map and I've been filling in names and places.

Many years ago, at my primary school, I remember working on a 'desert island' project. We were given a board each and lots of old fashioned plasticine. I can smell it now! We were encouraged to make an island of our own. We could bring in things from home: beads, feathers, flowers, sticks, anything that we thought might enhance our island. I can remember being practically obsessed with it for weeks.

I recognised those same feelings all over again when I was creating my fictional island. I've spent ages poring over my makeshift map, writing in place names, putting in landscape features, imagining what it would look like and feel like to be there, with my two feet on the ground. Inhabiting it, just as my characters do. Now my artist husband is painting a colourful and rather more arty plan of Garve, but I'm still engrossed by my bigger map, deleting things here and there, adding things too. It is displacement activity, for sure - but it's also a necessary part of creating a world that really hangs together, that exists in my imagination.

It now seems so vivid to me that I daily feel a certain amount of disappointment that I can't actually hop on a CalMac ferry and visit it in reality. Most writers spend a large part of their lives living in their own heads, so to speak, and this is a prime example. Garve and its people have become as real to me as any other place that I know and love.

Grown Up Love Stories - Reclaiming Romance

I've been neglecting my blog again, mainly because I've been working on a new novel, called The Posy Ring. It's a spin off novel to The Curiosity Cabinet, set on the same fictional Scottish island of Garve and since I'm some 75,000 words into it I can at least begin to talk about it!

There's a point in any new project where not only does it not seem to exist at all, but where you begin to doubt that it ever will be a living, breathing thing, as opposed to a random heap of words. I've been through that and out the other side, and although I'm still not 100% certain that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train, I have high hopes that I will emerge blinking into the daylight in a month or so.

People often ask me what kind of novels I write and they're already asking what this new novel, the first of a series, is 'about'. I've always found the question difficult to answer precisely.  I write a certain amount of well researched historical fiction, and the new novel is at least partly that. The story deals with events in the past and present, but, as in the Curiosity Cabinet, nobody goes back in time. Rather, I'm telling two parallel tales in the same fictional setting. And that setting has a profound influence on both stories.

I remember being startled a few years ago, when a colleague introduced me as a writer of 'romance'. Now I'm fond of a good romance, but the term - which used to be a very broad one - seems to have become synonymous with a certain structure of story, especially one aimed only at female readers (but sometimes written by men) and almost invariably with a happy and upbeat ending.

I often tell people these days that I write 'grown up love stories.' They are, I hope, about recognisably real men and women and they don't always end happily ever after. The Physic Garden is a good example although there, the central 'love story' mostly concerns a friendship between two men. (OK, it's a bromance!) It's also a book about an extreme betrayal which leads to tragedy. There is a happy ending of sorts, but like real life, it's equivocal and happens many years after the event.

The Jewel is about the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour.  That certainly was a very grown up love story - arguably Scotland's greatest - and if we know anything about the poet's life, we know that it isn't going to end with them living happily ever after. Or not for very long.

The Curiosity Cabinet involves two distinct love stories, one past and one present. The Posy Ring is heading the same way, but there is, I find, a significant element of this new book that involves love for a house and its contents. And for an island. The quality of mystery and excitement is there. Love is there too. But it's also about a search for a sense of belonging.

Maybe though, we just need to reclaim that word 'romance' which is a perfectly good word after all. Perhaps we need to go with a much broader definition. I have many friends who write 'romances' but they all, even within the more conventional parameters of that genre, write quite differently. Looking it up, I found it described as 'a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love' and  'a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from every day life.'  These are fine as far as the mystery and excitement go, although many fine romances seem to be firmly rooted in everyday life - and none the worse for that.

Back when the Curiosity Cabinet was submitted for the literary prize for which it was eventually shortlisted, one of the readers remarked that it was a 'guilty pleasure'. Even then, I wondered what was guilty about it, and why, since he then went on to say that it was well written and involving. The only conclusion I could reach was that it is essentially a pair of parallel love stories and he felt guilty for enjoying it only because of the subject matter, whereas, presumably, he wouldn't have felt quite so guilty about reading and enjoying a novel involving the extremes of murder and mayhem.

This is not to say that everyone has to like everything, because patently they don't. I don't like too much gore in my reading, for example, but I know a lot of people who do. It's when we start to make value judgements on the basis only of subject matter that we run into trouble. I thought I didn't like 'fantasy' much till I discovered the amazing China Mieville. Perhaps we should all decide to take genre labels with a pinch of salt and be a bit more adventurous in our reading.

Perhaps we need to indulge ourselves in a bit more pleasure without any self imposed guilt.

Casual Gardening: The Rampant Rose

Paul's Himalayan Musk in full bloom
I've decided to try to write a weekly post about gardening, as well as everything else, since every time I put something about our cottage garden on Facebook and Instagram, people seem to be interested. And gardening is another subject that often finds its way into my fiction.

To tell the truth, I'm a fairly casual gardener, albeit an enthusiastic one so that's what these posts will be labelled as: Casual Gardening. Almost everything grows for me. That may be because we have a sheltered, south facing cottage garden that is some 200 years old, which means that it's incredibly fertile. Or it just may be because I talk to my plants ...

The picture above is of a rambling rose - boy does it love to climb - called Paul's Himalayan Musk, bought about twenty plus years ago from David Austin Roses. I first saw this rose at a place called Holker Hall in the Lake District where the gardens are fabulous. The roses there are spectacularly beautiful and I immediately wanted a rose clambering through a tree in our own cottage garden. Which is what you can see in the picture. It has a flowering period of a few weeks, although it doesn't repeat flower. But it's worth the wait and the flowers last quite a long time. It's a robust but incredibly elegant rose that grows very quickly. The scent is just wonderful. I'm looking at it now through the window of my office and thinking how beautiful it is with the evening light turning the flowers a deep pink - much deeper than in the photograph.The pink colour also deepens as the flowers mature.

Back then, I just planted it and let it go. Which it did, climbing through the tree at a rate of knots. Periodically, we get somebody to chop it back a bit, which is - it has to be admitted - a prickly job. But that's all the care it seems to need - and it doesn't even need to be done every year.

It seems to like rain and sunshine - we have lots of both. We have fairly mild winters here in the West of Scotland, but we still get hard frosts from time to time, and it doesn't mind those either. I suppose the clue is in the name 'Himalayan.' These are old, tough varieties, and they seem to like the climate in Scotland and the North of England as well as anywhere.

Rampant, robust and extremely rewarding.

Working for Free: Factoring in the Fun

One of my most enjoyable events of last year - Grantown.
This is a topic that crops up with great regularity on social media and various other forums when writers and artists discuss the ways in which they are asked to work professionally for nothing except exposure.

And we all know that you can die of exposure.

It's not an all or nothing issue though, which is where the difficulty lies. Recently, I decided to post some information about events on my website. (Have a look at the News and Events page and you'll see what I mean.)

It certainly made me think about what kind of freebies I will and won't do, and for whom and why.

Because I write plays and am still occasionally involved with theatre, I'm on a few message boards for theatre professionals. I am also a member of various social media groups for writers of fiction and non-fiction. Whenever anyone posts a message to the theatre professionals about some unpaid project, the theatrical people voice their objections in the strongest possible terms. The justification is always that 'there's no money in the budget' which implies that there is, in fact, a budget. Just that they thought you would do it for nothing.

Now I don't mean that nobody ever works for nothing in theatre because obviously they do. Amateur, semi professional and community groups abound. Excellent profit share projects abound too, where nobody is making any fortunes but everyone is valued. But where a project has significant funding but those in charge have assumed that actors and writers don't need to be paid, there is a general - and completely justified - outcry.

On the other hand, a recent request on a writing group for people to come and give talks within a setting where everyone else was getting paid, elicited a heap of enthusiastic responses. Why yes, people said in droves. We'll be delighted to travel many miles to your venue and speak about writing. Just tell us where and when.

The contrast between the two groups of people was marked.

The second thing to prompt these thoughts involved a couple of direct requests to me to speak for free. One was from a delightful group, not too far from where I live, and with very specific interests that coincide with mine. Plenty of notice, and a lovely invitation. I said yes immediately. Mostly because I really want to do it. It's an evening event, a short drive away, and I'll enjoy it when I get there. I do a number of these kind of events on a first come first served basis, and they're usually a pleasure.

The other, however, was an invitation to travel three hours there and three hours back to an unpaid event where I would spend a few minutes actually 'on stage'. So that's six hours away from my desk, six hours when I'm not writing, and not even promoting recent work. In professional terms, that means I'm actually losing money. I said no to that one. This is not to denigrate the event, which will be lovely. If I lived in the immediate vicinity, I may well have gone, but the six unpaid hours on the road - even with travel expenses - was the clincher. Some years ago, I attended a literary event with a friend who had been asked to read as part of the programme. I paid my entry fee but - astonishingly - so did she!

Last year, with the publication of my new novel, The Jewel, I did a string of book events and enjoyed them enormously. It was a tiring but rewarding year. Many events were paid but a few weren't, or only involved travel and/or accommodation expenses. But since almost all of them were directed at promoting my book, and since even the unpaid events (or most of them) involved generous hospitality, they were well worthwhile. Between us, we sold a lot of books and I met a lot of wonderful people.

So because it's complicated, I've been trying to hammer out some ground rules for myself.

There are the professional organisations, festivals, groups who ask me to speak for a fee - the one recommended by Live Literature Scotland - and that's great. (I should add here that Scottish book festivals have a nice egalitarian ethos with everyone being paid the same from the most starry bestseller to the first time novelist.)

Then there are the small, charitable organisations and book groups who don't offer a fee but offer a great many fringe benefits: lovely audiences, excellent hospitality, good book promotion and sales. That's fine too, even if the events are quite small. I've had some of my most enjoyable evenings ever in the company of interesting people at not-for-profit events of this kind and from time to time, I've sold an astonishing number of books.

But there are also, sadly, events where you turn up and there has been little publicity and an unbelievably casual attitude to the speakers. Sometimes you arrive to find locked doors and have to wait outside for somebody to open up. Tea, coffee, biscuits: these are surely non-negotiable but they aren't always offered. Proper directions to the venue. Somebody to meet and greet and do the introductions. Predictably, these poorly organised events are almost always events where there has also been 'no money in the budget' etc.

What's the solution? There's no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you elect to do no unpaid events at all, you might miss the gems such as I experienced last year. If you do too many, you'll eat into good writing time to no purpose. And as a self employed person, remember that time away from your desk isn't just free time in the way that it might be free time for a salaried individual. It's unpaid time away from your business.

So I've reached the conclusion that the fun factor is vital. If you're pondering an enthusiastic invitation and you reckon it'll be a lot of fun, whether or not the potential exposure is good, then go for it. If you're pondering an invitation that sounds so casual that your heart sinks whenever you think about it, think again. Essentially, they have to want you and your work! Not just any old writer!

Above all, learn from experience. As a beginner, you might find yourself saying yes to just about everything on offer. We've all done it. It might be right for you. Or it might not. You have to decide.

Paid gigs are good. Even when they're bad, they're good, because there's money in the bank at the end of them. Often unpaid gigs can be very good too so don't automatically turn something down. It may be that nobody is getting paid, but they'll buy a ton of books and tell their friends too. That's where the fun factor comes in. If the event looks like fun and you really want to do it, then go for it.

But a lack of organisation, a lack of specifics at the invitation stage, tends to mean that the event will be poorly organised and publicised. Just remember that unpaid gigs where you feel you 'ought' to do something, but where you're unappreciated, will leave you thinking, as you drive the long miles home through the sleety night, while the organisers put their feet up with a nice cup of tea, that you'd have been much better off doing the same thing.

Another Inspirational Visit to the Isle of Gigha

Jura from Gigha

One of the most inspirational places for my fiction and non fiction throughout my writing life has been and remains the tiny Isle of Gigha, off the Kintyre Peninsula - the most southerly of the true Hebridean islands.

Recently, we were there to celebrate a friend's sixtieth birthday, a nice mixture of old friends, relatives and grown-up children. Our son remarked that it was both a happy and a sad time, in a nostalgic kind of way, since this group of friends and their kids had been visiting the island on and off since they were small, and loved to paddle or dig for bait or fish for crabs from the catwalk in Ardminish Bay. Not that they don't still enjoy doing these things but there is something about the unalloyed pleasure you feel as a child that you can never quite recapture.

You can see what I mean from the picture on the left of myself in the big nineties specs, with the redoubtable Willie McSporran, and a very young and very blonde son.

At the bottom of this post, there's the same son, 6ft 4 inches and still dwarfed by the Gunnera plants in Achamore Gardens!

My novel The Curiosity Cabinet is set on a fictional island called Garve, a bit like Gigha. Actually, in my imagination, it's bigger than Gigha, but smaller than Islay and situated about where Jura lies! But it has a similar landscape and history: a smallish place with miles of rocky coastline and a fascinating history, softer than some places, an island full of flowers, with its fair share of trees, and gorgeous white sandy beaches. 

'The island crouches long and hilly on her horizon, like some mysterious hump-backed animal. Already she can smell it, the scent that is somewhere between land and sea and has something of both in it. The island is full of flowers. Ashore, Alys knows that honeysuckle will clutter the hedgerows like clotted cream, weaving a dense tapestry with marching lines of purple foxgloves.' 

When we were there, though, a week ago, the honeysuckle and foxgloves were not yet in bloom. It was all flag irises and bluebells and drifts of pink campion - the flowers of late spring that I love so much.

The gardens at Achamore House were also stunningly beautiful, but I think that's a subject for another post, one for the gardeners among my readers.

In case you're wondering why all this is relevant, it's because I'm deep into a new novel called The Posy Ring - and it's a kind of spin-off novel to The Curiosity Cabinet. It's not a sequel, because I didn't think a sequel would work. But it has a similar fictional island setting, a similar structure with past and present day parallel stories (although nobody actually goes back in time) and we meet some of the characters from that first novel all over again.

That was another reason why the visit to Gigha proved to be even more inspirational than it usually is. You'll have to watch this space for more news of The Posy Ring. I still have quite a lot of work to do!

Son amid the Gunnera

Cottage Garden Favourites: Canary Island Broom

When I'm not writing, at the moment, I'm spending a lot of time in the garden. Still, the weeds are growing too fast for me to keep up to them, the ground elder in particular, which was seemingly introduced by the Romans (drat them) and is said to be edible. I haven't tried it, but it certainly smells lovely and I'll admit that I often leave bits of it to flower, because the blossoms are very pretty. I'm saying 'leave' but in reality, because it runs along under the ground, it's almost impossible to get rid of  it without resorting to weed killers, and I don't like them.

Anyway, in a cottage garden like mine, it doesn't seem to matter too much if there's a certain untidiness and wildness. Lots of shelter for the birds!

One of my favourite shrubs is this one, pictured above. Everyone thinks it's a forsythia, but it isn't. It's a Canary Island broom. I can't remember where I bought it, but it was a very small, thin plant and like everything else in this ancient garden it has grown into this robust monster! It seems to like it here. It flowers quite late in Ayrshire. This is it in full bright bloom, more or less at the same time as the dazzling 'whins' or gorse bushes, and the may blossoms, in all the country round about.

By the way, the old saying 'ne'er cast a clout till may be out' refers to the may or hawthorn blossoms and not the month. I'll post some pictures of them soon, when they're at their best. We have a big hawthorn in the hedge at the bottom of the garden.

I grew up knowing with absolute certainty that you should never bring these blossoms into your house. I suspect this belief came from my Irish nana, Honora Flynn. It was deemed to be unlucky. The reason for this may have been as prosaic as the fact that the heady scent attracts insects, but I think it much more likely that - as a tree often dedicated to the fairies, or 'good people' - you meddle with it at your peril. So you should admire, but don't chop. That's what my nana thought, anyway.

Meanwhile, the may is just coming into beautiful scented bloom here, so you can take off your winter woollies. Allegedly.

My Scottish Cottage Garden - An Old Apple Tree

Right at the bottom of our cottage garden, here in the Scottish lowlands, is a very old apple tree, that a friend identified as Golden Noble - a very old variety of apple that is somewhere between a cooking and an eating apple. The fruits turn steadily more  - well - golden as they grow riper. It's a large sweet apple with just the right hint of tartness. Our tree is so old and venerable that it's on a two year cycle - but from the amount of blossom, this is going to be an apple year. In between times, we only get a little fruit while the tree has a rest.

The other thing I notice about this tree is that the blossom is always late. We often have late frosts after a warm spell, in this part of the world, so you plant out tender plants at your (or their) peril. But this old apple tree always waits, and waits.

With age comes wisdom, obviously!

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!

Our Cottage Garden - The Pound Shop 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.

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! 

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.


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.

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!