Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching and Writing Historical Fiction - Ten Tips to Get You Started

The Cottar's Saturday Night
Last week, I was asked to give a talk to the excellent Ayr Writers' Club about researching and writing historical fiction. It strikes me that quite a lot of other people might be interested in this too, whether they want to write novels, short stories or even plays with historical settings and themes. So I've tried to boil it all down into ten points: something to get you started while the year is still reasonably new.

1 Do your research. 
This is the key but just how much you need to do varies with the genre in which you're writing. You can do so much of it online now, that the risk is always that the research will take over, because let’s face it, it’s fascinating, and you can get engrossed in it, following one idea after another down the world wide rabbit warren. It’s important to try to immerse yourself in your chosen time and place, although this doesn’t necessarily mean reading dry academic histories. Think about social and domestic history, how people lived and worked, how they dressed and ate. Read letters too if you can find them. Don't dismiss the novels of the period. When I was writing The Jewel, one of my most useful finds was an early novel by John Galt called The Annals of The Parish, an accurate and at times hilarious account of life in a rural Ayrshire parish at just the right time for my novel. This kind of research will also help you to avoid howlers and anachronisms which will throw your reader right out of the world of the story.

2 Know when to stop. (For a bit) 
Research is its own reward and if you're that way inclined (and I am) you can easily get sidetracked by its endless fascination. Sometimes you have to take a conscious decision to stop researching and start writing.The trick is to do enough research so that you can ‘be’ in the time and place of your novel or story as you are writing it but also to recognise that ...

3 You can't know everything. 
Whatever you don’t know will become obvious as you write. Once you have a first draft under your belt, you will be able to check things, find things out, answer your own questions later on. You don’t know exactly what you don’t know until you realise you don’t know it. And that's fine.

4 Use your imagination. 
The questions writers have to ask themselves are: who, what, when, where, how and why. And what happened next, of course. But the question ‘what did that feel like?’ is the preserve of writers of fiction, mostly. Even biographers tend to be wary of venturing on that one, but novelists can go where angels fear to tread. And historical novelists – especially when they’ve done a lot of research – really have to give themselves permission to tackle the ‘what did that feel like’ aspect of the story, because it’s the biggest thing that will stop the factual research taking over and slowing the novel down. You have to try to treat your research lightly. It's the seasoning, rather than the big indigestible hunk of fat in the soup -  and wondering about feelings is one way of making sure that the story is deliciously readable and recognisable.

5 Allow yourself to make things up. 
When the historical record isn’t clear, you can make good guesses from the evidence before you, and since you’re writing fiction, you’re allowed to make things up. Within the bounds of possibility. You have a lot more freedom than a historian. But you should remember that even when you are making things up about known characters, you must consider what might conceivably have happened. If something seems incredible, then it probably is. And if it seems incredible to the reader it will throw him or her right out of the world of the story.

6 Make timelines and check dates. 
Especially when you’re writing from fact, timelines are invaluable. Find out not just what was going on in the wider world, but in detail. Find out what time of the year something happened. What was the weather like? (There are websites that will tell you this and sites that will tell you what day of the week a certain date fell on.) Knowing when something happened in relation to something else will often tell you a whole lot about the why and the how. If you're writing about real people, consider their ages. Often the extreme youth of certain characters tells you a lot about their behaviour or their relationships. In The Physic Garden, Thomas and William are based on real characters about whom we don't know very much except that there was some connection between them. I started out by thinking that an older professor had taken a very young gardener under his wing, as a professional man will sometimes mentor a younger man. Then I found out that they were of very similar ages, and my whole perception changed. They were friends. And the betrayal of that friendship gave me my story.

7 Choose a point of view. 
Are you telling the story as a first person narrative (as in The Physic Garden) or third person (as in The Jewel) - and if in the third person, are you still in the mind and point of view of one character in particular (The Jewel, Jean) or are you omniscient, the all seeing eye, and do you know how hard this can be to handle? If you are going for omniscient third person – you, as the author, seeing everything - you are going to have to be very careful about when and where you switch points of view. If you do it too abruptly, it disorientates the reader. Whole articles have been written about this and there's plenty of advice online, but it needn't be as complicated as it seems. The story itself will often dictate the persona in which it is told. Consistency is the key. 

8 Choose the language and dialect. 
This is closely related to (7) above. In the Jewel, I decided quite early on that it had to be a third person 'he said/she said' tale, but we are pretty much always with Jean in that novel – so it can be her story, but without too many of the challenges of trying to tackle a first person narrative for a genuine Ayrshire lass. Jean's voice was an 18th century Mauchline voice. In my novel, she uses the words and - largely - the patterns of speech you would expect. But the narrative, the storytelling, helps to make Jean accessible to a 21st century reader. As a writer you want to communicate, and you are always juggling marketability, the wants and needs of your readership, with what you want and need to do to make the characters authentic.   

9 Forge on. 
Get that first draft down, come hell or high water. Do Nanowrimo if you want or invent your own. You may find that - eventually - you can stop to polish along the way, but with a first novel in particular, it's important to get to the end, so that you have something to work on. When you are working, day to day, don't stop at the end of a chapter. Stop at a point where you really want to go on.  That way you'll want to start the next day. Once you have a first draft, however clumsy and unsatisfactory, however bad you think it is, let it lie fallow for a while, do some more research if you have to, and then go back to it and begin the real work of editing, rewriting, polishing. It's always easier to do this on an 'entity' - a whole novel - than on a small part of an unwritten whole. Printing out often helps at that stage. I write onto a PC but I often revise on paper.

10 Use Pinterest. 
I sometimes forget about this when I'm doing talks, but it really is an invaluable resource for writers, just because it contains so many wonderful images of costume, fashions, people, places, things - and often with links back to amazingly informative blog and websites. You can also set up secret boards that only you can see - mood boards for your particular project - where you can gather all sorts of images, add to them, go back to them time and again for inspiration, and eventually make them public if you want. Or delete them if you don't. A great resource. 

Not Making a Crisis Out of a Drama: Why I No Longer Call Myself a Playwright.

Quartz with Liam Brennan
I used to be a playwright.

Over the past decade or so, however, I've slowly but surely moved from writing plays to writing fiction, mostly historical fiction, with the odd feature article or contribution to an online magazine such as the Scottish Review. 

Now, if asked, I think I would call myself a novelist.

This wasn't so much a conscious decision, or not at first, anyway, although latterly, circumstances and inclination did force me to make some hard choices. I'm still occasionally asked to speak about drama to writing groups. I always enjoy the variety of people and their interesting questions. But recently, I've realised that I shouldn't be speaking about drama at all and have taken a conscious decision to stop doing it. (Although I'm delighted to speak about fiction instead!) Why? Well, you need a certain enthusiasm for your topic, coupled with a certain amount of up-to-date knowledge about the practicalities.

I can do this with fiction. I'm happily published by an excellent small independent publisher, Saraband but I know about self publishing too. I know about learning the craft, and what the current market is like, the difficulties, the potential avenues. I know what might sell and what might not, about whether or not you need an agent, about supportive professional organisations. I know all about research and writing historical fiction in particular.

But I don't think I can do this kind of thing any more with drama. And what's worse, I don't think any advice I might have to offer to people just starting out will do them very much good at all.

Let's face it, drama writing was always a hard row to hoe. But back when I started out, a certain amount of enthusiasm and application might get you some way along the road to success. Now, I just don't know what to tell people any more. Years ago, if you wanted (as I did, then) to work in radio drama, you could listen to a lot of radio, find a producer whose work you liked, submit a piece of work to them, and receive encouragement. Moreover, if a producer was willing to work with you, and you were willing to put in the hard graft, you were pretty much guaranteed a production at the end of the process. My first couple of short half hour radio plays were produced here in Scotland. I cut my teeth on those before moving onto anything more ambitious, and the late Gordon Emslie taught me so much about writing for radio.

Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood 

With theatre, I again submitted work - an early draft of a stage play about Chernobyl, called Wormwood - to the excellent Ella Wildridge who was then Literary Manager at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. That play went through a long development process, including workshopping with professional actors before eventually being given a full professional production to glowing reviews. None of this was easy and the money was woeful, but it was hugely rewarding in so many other ways. Wormwood was followed by Quartz, and then later on, I had three shorter plays produced at Glasgow's Oran Mor. I did some television and a lot more radio.

And then, it all dried up.

Partly, this was my own fault. Sometimes you just grind to a halt with a particular medium. But I had ideas. I was proposing them - often I was even writing them - and nothing happened. After a while, it struck me that I couldn't in all conscience advise people to send work here, there and everywhere, knowing that I myself, with a decent track record and contacts in the business, could send work out to be met with complete silence, without even the courtesy of a rejection half the time.

In many ways this was something of a blessing. I started again and this time I concentrated on fiction, with all the knowledge of dialogue and structure that I had learned by writing plays. Nothing is ever really lost where writing is concerned. And some years later, fiction has been good to me. I love what I do and so far, fingers crossed and touch wood and all that, I've had a certain amount of success.

I would never say never with plays and in fact there are possible plans afoot for a new production of one of my Oran Mor plays next year. And I'd be absolutely delighted if one of my historical novels was made into a film or television production. (Rights are available!) We'll see. But I don't much want to teach people about plays any more.

If somebody asks me what I do, I tell them I'm a novelist. And extremely happy with that title.

Beautiful Scotland

Ballantrae Beach
There are days when I realise just how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful country - even in the middle of winter. There was one such day just before new year. Our son had been home for Christmas and we went for a walk along the beach at Ballantrae, It was a fine, sunny, chilly day.

This bit of South Ayrshire coastline is wonderful at any time, but on a bright winter's day, it is stunningly inspirational. No wonder so much of my fiction is set in Scotland, a trend that looks likely to continue for me in 2017! Of which more in due course!

A Room With A View

Ayrshire sunrise
We have had some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I've ever seen, this year. It does your heart good to see them. Which is perhaps just as well, since the news elsewhere is so very depressing. But who wouldn't be slightly cheered by the sheer beauty of this view - one that I'm lucky enough to have from the room where I work.

I know writers who prefer to work in a room with no view at all. They tell me it's too distracting. Perhaps because so much of what I write has a rural setting, I don't feel the same. I love to gaze out of the window, between chapters, watching the slow change of the seasons. Even today, in early January, it's quite green out there and the garden seems to be full of birds. Yesterday, I spent an hour outside, sweeping up leaves, adding a little compost to some of my tubs and pots where those same birds had been rummaging and had dug up a few of my springtime bulbs.

It felt like spring. Of course, it won't last, but I much prefer January and February to November. It seems like the right side of the year, somehow, and quite soon, it will be obvious that the days are growing longer!

One Way To Write A Novel - Other Ways Are Available.

Writers who are just starting out sometimes ask me about the process of writing. There are so many advice blogs and books and websites out there that you don't really need another one. But just occasionally, I post something about my own experience. And that's the whole point: this is only my experience. Somebody else might have a totally different point of view, and that's fine. Do whatever works best for you.

The other day, a friend asked about writing software, on behalf of another (writer) friend. I can only say that I don't use anything but Word. I had a look at Scrivener, and decided it wasn't for me, but I also have a number of writer friends who swear by it, so the best advice I can give is to try it and see what you think - and you can try before you buy. I can imagine it would be very useful for complicated non-fiction in particular. It just doesn't suit my style. And I learned quite a while ago to discard anything that gets in the way of what suits me.

Which leads me to that question about process. How do I write? More particularly - how do I write a novel?

For what it's worth, here's what I do, especially with my historical novels.

I do plenty of research. Even when I'm already familiar with the time and place and period of the novel, I want to know more. The Physic Garden and the Jewel, although their stories were very different, were set at similar times, and both in lowland Scotland. The point of all this research isn't to show off your knowledge. It's to immerse yourself in a time and place so fully, that you can imagine what it was like to be there, to feel it, all while wearing your knowledge as lightly as possible. I always think that one of the big differences between fiction and non-fiction, even when the fiction involves real historical people, is that the novelist is always asking herself  'what did that feel like?'

The problem with research, though, is that it is potentially open ended and always fascinating. So you have to give yourself permission to stop. Or even force yourself to stop. And write the novel.

I do a very short plan or synopsis. A few pages at most. Often, I know the beginning and the end, but not how to get there. I write to find out. If I know too much detail before I begin, I get bored.

I begin at the beginning, and keep going till I reach the end, dividing into chapters as I go, feeling the weight of the words: one long document. This is a draft that nobody will see but me. I don't stop to revise. I don't stop for anything except sleeping and eating.

I let that first draft lie fallow for a while. The length of time depends on deadlines, but it should ideally be a few weeks at least. Meanwhile, because I've now discovered everything I didn't know, I permit myself to do some more research, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

And then, after that, I spend a long time rewriting and restructuring, polishing and editing. I can never predict exactly how long this will take, but if I am working to a deadline - and I quite like deadlines - I will just work more intensively. I love this phase. Not everybody does.

Two things will also happen during that time.

Firstly, I will let somebody else - editor, publisher, agent when I had one (I haven't had an agent for a while) see what I think is a reasonable draft. Their response will be instructive. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a bunch of questions that hone in on exactly the parts of the book that I've been feeling most uneasy about. (The best editors don't rewrite, they query!) In answering the questions, I find out what needs changing and why.

Secondly, I will print a draft out, see and read  it on paper, and make more changes. Sometimes I will even do a literal cut and paste job, and then type up the changes. (This process is a lot faster than you might think.)

At that point, a copy editor will go through it looking for typos, infelicities and all the other little things that creep in, including favourite words that are overused. (One of mine is in fact 'little'. I have to go through manuscripts deleting it.)

This kind of editing should be done using 'track changes' so that you can see what's been done, agree with it, disagree with it, make changes of your own, and have productive 'conversations' with your editor until you've hammered out a good draft. I once had an editor who made extensive and not very useful changes without tracking any of them. It was a horrible experience, but it was, fortunately, a great many years ago - and such lack of professionalism is very rare.

And that's about it. When you're working with a publisher, and the proofs come along, even with two pairs of eyes or more checking the manuscript, there will always be the odd typo. If you write something and have the luxury (or misery) of leaving it for a number of years, you yourself will probably make quite big changes when you go back to it - but whether this will actually make it better or not is debatable.

You have to hammer out your own way of working. Advice is - you know - advisory. Nothing is set in stone. Find out what suits you best. We're all different. There are no hard and fast rules. The only two things I can say with absolute certainty are that in order to write, you should read a lot and write a lot. You might be surprised by how many people say they want to 'be a writer' but don't actually do much writing. Or reading.

And that's it, really. If you have questions, ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.

A Yorkshire Childhood Word

My nana, Mr Tubby Bear, myself and Frisky the cat.
Today, I found myself reading a piece in the Guardian about a somewhat curmudgeonly bookseller in North Yorkshire, who charges people to browse in his shop. Oddly enough, it made me think of my grandfather. 

My nana and grandad lived in central Leeds. Next to their tall, narrow old house, they had a sweet and tobacconist's shop and my grandad had his own fishing tackle shop alongside it. Neither of these were what you might call large enterprises, but they kept the wolf from the door. I used to sit with grandad in there, watching him work, and no doubt distracting him, although he never once complained. We were a mutual admiration society of two. I loved him to bits and could wrap him around my little finger.

My Polish immigrant dad was working in a mill as a textile presser and studying at night school so that he could go on to get his degree, so the three of us, my parents and I, lived in a tiny two roomed flat above the shops. Money was very tight, although I can't say I ever noticed it, never went hungry, never went without anything I really needed. 

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, my aunt, who lived with them and, of course, my mum, who worked in the sweet shop.

But the thing that struck me most, reading about the Yorkshire bookseller, was that my dear grandad would have been perfectly capable of behaving in that way, because he could be - as we would have called it at the time - maungy. 

Until that moment, I'd forgotten all about the word and it astonishes me because it was used quite frequently in my little world. 'Don't be maungy!' or 'She's maungy. She must be tired.' Along with the term 'past herself'. 'She's all maungy. She's past herself.' 

It means stroppy, moody, generally fed up. When you're past yourself you're tired out and consequently quite likely to be maungy. Most children are. 

Grandad Joe, much as I adored him, could be maungy on his own behalf. I never saw it. He was never maungy with me, which was - so I was told, many years later - a source of great wonder to his own children, who had occasionally seen the maungy side of him. 

Somewhere, there's a picture of him. I've been hunting for it, but I can't find it. When I do, I'll post another piece about him. Meanwhile, there's me and my nana up at the top - and my dad, my mum and me below. These pictures look so 'historical' that they make me feel a wee bit old! Nice to remember though. 

Twelfth Night Thoughts

Here's a last look at the Christmas decorations before they are taken down. It has to be before Twelfth Night because it's unlucky to leave them up any longer. We always have a real tree, always leave the decorations up for as long as possible because I love Christmas so much. I wished somebody a Happy New Year today and she said 'You'll be glad it's all over!'

Er ... no. I'm quite sad really. This Christmas was lovely: just the right balance between entertaining and relaxing.

Lots of good friends came round on Christmas Eve as they have been doing for a while now. We used to celebrate a traditional Polish Christmas Eve when my mum and dad were alive, with Polish food and carols. Our own Christmas Eve get together is, I suppose, the remnants of it, or the replacement for it, or what you will. This year, our son Charlie and I walked along to the old village kirk for the well attended and friendly midnight service - many young people come back for Christmas here, so there's always a small reunion of old school friends. After the carols and blessings, the minister waited outside to wish us all a 'happy Christmas' and then we walked home before Santa came.

Christmas Day was slow and casual. Three of us eating a good Christmas dinner followed by a visit to more friends just along the road, drinks, conversation, generations mixing happily together. And then after a few days of walks along the beach and several hilarious games of Scrabble, son departed to celebrate Hogmanay in the city, and we went off to a New Year's Eve party in the village.

Tomorrow, the decorations will be put away, including a few precious glass ornaments that once belonged to my parents, and may well have belonged to my grandparents before that.

And then it's back to work with a vengeance. Which is fine by me. Lots to write. It's not always easy. Sometimes it's weary, frustrating, intensive work. But it's all good and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

The Jewel and Jean

And here they are, side by side, all ready for some Burns Night inspiration, especially those 'replies from the lassies' that some of us have to do from time to time.

Actually, this year, I'm doing a couple of talks at Jean Armour Suppers instead - which I'm very much looking forward to - and I've just volunteered to do the Immortal Memory at a small local Burns Supper as well, as long as I can do it from Jean's point of view. Well, it's about time she had her say!

For Jean, coming soon.

When I was researching and writing The Jewel, my new novel about Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burns, I soon realised that there were a number of poems and songs that seem to have been either written for Jean, or at least with Jean in mind - and that nobody seemed to have collected them together in one place before.

Until now.

Once or twice the poet even changed the name in the poem when he was feeling particularly hard done by, but it's clear from the rhyme and context that the words were intended for Jean.

Later this month, (just in time for Burns Night) Saraband will be publishing my little paperback selection of the poems, songs and letters written for or about Jean as a sort of companion volume to the Jewel. There are 31 poems, some illustrations and a series of fascinating extracts from the poet's letters telling the dramatic tale of his on/off relationship with his future wife. There are also a handful of letters written directly to Jean - extraordinarily loving and domestic. It seems clear to me that there may have been more of these personal letters that did not survive. Most of Burns's correspondents treasured their letters from the Bard, since he had become such a celebrity. For Jean, these were intimate little notes from her husband and she either didn't keep them or just possibly disposed of them before her death.

Wilkie's Penny Wedding
This is a small volume - only 90 pages long - but there is a glossary for each of the poems, as well as my explanatory notes about them and about how they fit into this most fascinating of love stories.

If you were wondering about the red roses on this blog, for January, it's because I'm firmly of the opinion that Red Red Rose was written for Jean. It's not just that it's a song about passionate and enduring love. There's something about young Jean herself - a striking brunette with vivid colouring - that may have reminded the poet of this most beautiful of blooms. And the 'till a' the seas gang dry, my dear' affirmation of love in Red Red Rose echoes lines he wrote earlier, very specifically for Jean, during what he calls 'the honeymoon'.

This is one of my all time favourite lyrics: 'O Were I on Parnassus Hill.' (Listen to it here, in a beautiful version by Ceolbeg)

'Tho I were doomed to wander on
Beyond the sea, beyond the sun,
Till my last weary sand was run,
Till then - and then I love thee.'

What woman wouldn't like to have such lines written for her?

Happy New Year (still thinking about resolutions!)

New Year's Day, here in this little village, dawned clear and cold and sunny. Not that I saw the actual dawn, because we joined a group of friends young and old, just along the road, to celebrate Hogmanay and to welcome 2017. This morning, after we'd watched the splendid New Year's Day concert from Vienna (another ritual and one that always reminds me of my late mum and dad, who spent a couple of years living in that wonderful city) I took a brisk walk round the village to see a few signs of spring already and remind myself what a truly beautiful place we live in.

Once we've cleared away the Christmas decorations - always a sad task - and dealt with the inevitable dust, I like to 'bring spring into the house' in the shape of hyacinths and other spring flowers. So that's what I'll be doing later in the week. The 'Christmas cactus' defeats me every year by flowering madly in late January, but so does the large indoor jasmine - already bearing lots of buds.

I have only a few resolutions for this year. One - the most important for this blog - is to challenge myself to post something on here every day for the next 31 days. They won't all be big, important posts. A few of them might be 'how to' posts for writers. One or two might be longer and more reflective pieces about researching and writing historical fiction. But most of them will be short bits and pieces about the place where I live and work, the objects that inspire me, and what it's like to live in a 200 year old cottage in lowland Scotland.

My other resolutions are to spend a lot less time on Social Media. I love it, but boy is it (a) a time suck and (b) depressing. And that leads me to my third and final resolution: to write lots more fiction and a bit of non-fiction too. I have a couple of very specific projects in mind, and I'll be blogging about them in due course. At the moment, one is well under way but needs some more dedicated time, while the other is only at the planning stage.

You never know. This time next year, we might be millionaires!