The Amber Heart - The Story of a Story - and a Valentine Freebie.


I've blogged before about my new book, The Last Lancer, the story of my grandfather's life and milieu.  It's currently with my publisher, awaiting edits, while I sit here watching developments in Ukraine with a sick sense of deja vu. 

Meanwhile, here's one I wrote earlier. The Amber Heart is set in the middle years of the 19th century, in what was then rural Eastern Poland  It's the story of Marianna and Danilo. She is a wealthy Polish landowner's daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful manor house of Lisko, while he is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two young people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the moment of their first meeting. 

Back when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I had a good London based agent. I'd just had a novel published, and she was confident that she would be able to sell this one as well. I thought so too. Our confidence couldn't have been more misplaced. 

There were a lot more publishers in the 80s, although the Great Amalgamation had already begun, in which so many good small publishers were swallowed up by big corporations, gradually reducing the options for publication and the options for writers too. At the same time, and probably no coincidence, the so called 'mid-list' was disappearing - those well written, readable books that were never going to be mega sellers, but still sold steadily over many years, if they were kept in print. Which wasn't what the big corporations wanted at all. 

Desperate times, until Amazon, the Great Disrupter, saw not just a gap but a yawning chasm in the market and went for it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. Good for them. Now, smaller independent publishers are springing up, but they have a hard row to hoe, and so do writers. A  whole publishing infrastructure was destroyed in the rush to consolidate traditional publishing houses into ever bigger entities.

My agent couldn't sell the novel,  no matter how hard she tried, but it had - as she herself said - the most fulsomely complimentary set of rejections she had ever seen. One editor said she had 'stayed up all night reading it, couldn't put it down, wept buckets.' 

The stumbling block seemed to be its Polish setting. Nobody wanted to read a novel set in Poland, they said. 

Dear reader, I filed that original manuscript away in a box, where it sat mouldering for years. I still have that copy somewhere, out of pure sentimentality. It's on old flimsy paper,  typed - as far as I remember - on an early IBM Word Processor. 

I pressed on with my radio drama career and my theatre career, and even when I went back to novels and had some success - originally with a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet that is still in print with its gorgeous Saraband cover and many glowing reviews - I occasionally thought about chucking the Amber Heart in the bin. But I would start to read it, and realise that there was something about it ... something about Poland too. I wrote a stage play about the rise of Solidarity and three radio plays with Polish settings: Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts. 

Many years later, the novel was still nagging away at me. In between projects, I got down that faded manuscript and typed it up again. It's a long book and it was a big task, since I was editing as I went. In between times, I had acquired another agent. He read this new version and liked it, but suggested deleting the last third. Later, a different agent suggested deleting the first third. It was certainly much too long. Over several years, in between other projects, I reworked it completely in the light of all that I had learned since that first draft, and did, in fact, delete quite a lot of it, but not the beginning or the end! It's still quite a big book. 

Now, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that this is the definitive final draft and I don't intend to edit it ever again. It has to get out there and take its chance. It's on Amazon as an eBook and also as a paperback, designed by the talented Lumphanan Press, so you can take your pick. 

The criticisms I have had of it over the years have mostly been from mostly male Polish historians, who thought there was 'insufficient historical detail' and wanted it to be a factual account of those times. But that wasn't what I was writing, although I think such detail as there is, is accurate. 

Let's hope they like The Last Lancer better, although it's still a saga of conflict, love and loss, albeit a true one, so extraordinary that I could never have made it up. 

Anyway, if you fancy reading the Amber Heart, you can download the eBook free on 14th February (and for the two following days as well), Valentine's day, which seems a pretty good day to offer my readers the gift of a big bold tragic love story. 

Northanger Abbey: Who Does John Thorpe Remind You Of?

I've been rereading some Jane Austen. I do it every few years, because each time, I find something else to admire in her work. The older I've grown, the more I've come to appreciate her satire. Sometimes I'm blown away by the acid that seems to drip from her pen. 

One of my favourite novels is Northanger Abbey - and I know that I'm probably in a minority here. So I'm rereading it all over again, and still finding it wonderfully scathing about women's role in the society in which she finds herself. It's all too easy for us to overlook just how revolutionary she was - especially at a time when an unmarried woman, from a less than wealthy family, was in an invidious position, the poor relation without an 'establishment' of her own. 

'The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have already been set forth ... I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.' 

No wonder her (presumably male) bookseller sat on this book for ten years without publishing it! 

One of the reasons why I love Northanger so much is that I know the Gothic novels she's satirising rather well. If you haven't read  - for example - the Mysteries of Udolpho (which I dramatised for radio) or the Castle of Otranto, it may be hard to see how amusing poor Catherine's situation really is. A bit like trying to appreciate Cold Comfort Farm if you've never come across all those novels depicting rural passions for an urban audience. 

This time, though, something else occurred to me. Here is our heroine encountering the odious John Thorpe. 

'Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, not to know how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were ... not in the habit of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next. She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous. ... 

'Little as Catherine was in the habit of judging for herself, and unfixed as were her general notions of what men ought to be, she could not entirely repress a doubt, while she bore with the effusions of his endless conceit, of his being altogether agreeable.' 

I was irresistibly reminded of our Prime Minister. Is Boris Johnson a rattle? 

New Short Story Collection


I've always been fond of short fiction, both as a reader and as a writer, although I must admit that nowadays when I'm writing I tend to want the elbow room of a novel or at the very least a novella. Over the years I've had various stories published in all kinds of magazines, literary and popular. 

In the small hiatus between completing a draft of the current project, The Last Lancer, and thinking 'what next?' I decided to put a small collection of stories together, editing one or two of them. Here it is: a dozen short stories of all kinds from the reasonably literary to a couple of scary ghost stories that turned out to be very popular when first published. 

It's cheap although not always cheerful. But it might entertain you on a train journey or a flight, where you need something that you can pick up and put down as your journey dictates. 

The decision to edit or not to edit past work is an interesting one. On the whole, if something has already been published, it may be better not to change it. As I was working my way through these, I realised that the stories that had been published didn't need polishing. But there were a couple that hadn't found a home, and I took the opportunity to edit them, mainly because with the passage of time, I could see much more clearly what I had wanted to say. Could, in fact, see the wood for the trees. 

You'll find them here - A Bad Year for Trees - and I hope you enjoy them. 

Twenty Five Years of Work in One Small Box


One small box
In the above picture, you're looking at twenty five years of my radio drama, packed into one small box. I sorted them all out when I was decluttering my office recently and these were on their way to the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs a radio archive, as well as being an expert in apples and a fine musician too. My chief feeling when I looked at them was one of exhaustion bordering on depression. So much work, and so little trace of it left.

This isn't strictly true, of course. Some of them still exist in CD form, and some of them crop up on Radio 4 Extra from time to time - my dramatisation of Ben Hur for instance was repeated quite recently, and I enjoyed listening to it again. 

The cassettes are a mixture of original drama, dramatisations, mostly for the old Classic Serial slot, and one or two abridgments, but that wasn't really my thing. I had completely forgotten about some of them, which is hardly surprising, since I started writing for radio when I was in my very early 20s. 

Drama made in Scotland
My first two plays were The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness: two slightly weird half hour plays, made with the late Gordon Emslie, who died much too young. They were broadcast only in Scotland. Those were the days when Scotland actually had its own radio drama budget and could make decisions about what it produced, without - as now - filtering everything through a London editor. Revolutionary idea, eh?

O Flower of Scotland won a UK-wide best original play of its year and Bonnie Blue Hen won a Scottish radio industries club award. I remember going to London to pick up my award for Flower and being hissed at by the young woman waiting to usher me onto the platform to 'be quick, we're running out of time'. Even then, radio was the poor relation. No acceptance speeches for me. 

Maydays, the Butterfly Bowl, Sardine Burial, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring, Madame Butterfly, Tam o' Shanter  - there they all were, bringing so many happy memories with them, especially of the radio drama department in the welcoming warren of a building on Queen Street. It was originally in the old BBC building at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, but most of my work was made in Edinburgh. In all the years I worked on productions there, I never could find my way around it without help - but I loved the place. And I certainly remember the ultra strong coffee and hot scones that kept us going during long hours in the studio.

There were original series: The Peggers and the Creelers, Running Before the Wind and The Curiosity Cabinet that later became a successful novel. (Usually it works the other way round, but not this time!) 
Looking back, I still think my titles were intriguing. 

There was a trio of Polish themed plays directed by Marilyn Imrie, with whom I worked for years - Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts, of which I liked Noon Ghosts best. This was the last performance of distinguished Scottish actor Callum Mill, with the equally wonderful Harry Stamper. The BBC wanted to repeat it but found that they had deleted it and nobody had a copy that was good enough to broadcast. 

Then came a series of big dramatisations: Kidnapped and Catriona. Ten hours of radio. Such luxury is practically unheard of nowadays. The Bride of Lammermoor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, the Mysteries of Udolpho and good old Ben Hur with a starry cast that included Samuel West, Jamie Glover and Michael Gambon. 

Sound effects and serials
When I started out, the tapestry of sound effects had to be done in the studio, simultaneously with the recording, rather than added after. Some technical wizard would run between record decks, fading sounds in and out - a lark in a clear sky, a bumble bee buzzing past. It involved an awesome amount of skill and a real commitment to the script. 

'Spot effects' were, and probably remain, good fun. Actors standing on chairs shaking bunches of keys sound remarkably like men on horseback, with the jingling of harness, but the swords in Kidnapped were real enough. They belonged to my husband, and still have the notches to prove it. 

There were Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre that I dramatised with Brian Sibley - each of us allowed to choose favourite stories. A wholly enjoyable experience that one, with the brilliant Hamish Wilson producing - so brilliant in fact that the Beeb did its usual trick of suddenly making this international prizewinning producer redundant only a few years later. I doubt if he ever got over it. I certainly didn't.  

There were a few random post-Woman's Hour serials, for a slot that no longer exists, because - you know - current affairs. Hilary Spurling's brilliant and bizarre La Grande Therese was by far the best and most enjoyable of these, but my own original Voices from Vindolanda worked well too, and one of these days I may do something else with that material. The last serial I did was something called Feelings Under Siege by Bridie Canning, with an excellent producer who had wanted to work with me, but by then the BBC had decided to borrow the role of script editor from television and impose it on a system that was already working well. This one stuck an unwelcome oar into the relationship between producer/director and writer, and I think the result was unsatisfactory for all concerned. 

After that, my last radio play was The Price of a Fish Supper. I suspect that was only because my stage play had received such glowing reviews, and went on to have another life as a successful touring production, that they couldn't quite bring themselves to turn it down.

After that, silence. My name became the kiss of death on any submission. For a while, I had young producers who wanted to work with me but I had to tell them that there was little point in it. Like Hamish, a few years earlier, my face just didn't fit any more. Once or twice, Marilyn Imrie, with whom I had had a long and productive working relationship and friendship until her death eighteen months ago, would suggest an idea with my name on it, but it would always fall at the first hurdle. 

Was I sad about it? Well, at first I was. My first intimation of trouble ahead was when a big commission was summarily cancelled just before the contract was due to be finalised. That had been money that I was counting on as a significant part of our household budget, so there was a certain amount of panic. But of course freelance work is always uncertain and until the cash is in your account, nothing is ever sure. 

Moving on
In the long run, it was very good for me, forcing me out of my comfort zone.  I wrote a few well reviewed stage plays but, more importantly, I turned to fiction, and found that I loved it. Some nine novels later, although radio paid a whole lot better, I would never now go back to it. Besides, it isn't what it was, perhaps because budgets hardly ever allow for the 'elbow room' of a big bold production like Ben Hur. Radio drama has been subject to a slow process of attrition with slots disappearing all over the place. It's wonderful to see new writers coming forward, but the BBC allowed experience, especially technical experience, to leach away, getting rid of the old before they had time to train the new in the nuts and bolts of how to make a good radio drama. 

I'll tell you what I do miss though. I miss the collaboration. I miss the good working relationship with an excellent producer/director. I miss the script readings with fine actors, and the technical expertise, and the sheer pleasure of that experience. I miss the way I used to write in the knowledge that I would go on to work with a group of talented people to create something that was faithful to my vision, but better - alive, engrossing, a thing apart. Novel writing is a solitary business by comparison. 

Oh, and I miss the tarry coffee and the hot scones as well. 

Bird of Passage - A New Cover for an Old Book

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a draft of my new book, The Last Lancer, to my publisher, Saraband. I can't say final draft because it isn't. And I can't say first draft either, because it's about the fifth draft so far. It's an in between draft. As good as I can make it for now, but there will probably be more work to be done. It's a piece of non-fiction about the Polish side of my family, more specifically about my grandfather, a man I never knew but always missed. 

But more of that in due course. 

When you've spent two years and more focusing almost exclusively on one project, everything seems very empty. I have a new project in mind but I'm not quite ready to start it yet. My wee office had Quentin Crisp levels of dust and monumental levels of clutter. It took me four days to sort it out and it's a small room. It's still cluttered, but it's clean, and everything is where it should be. 

Then I went back to the various projects I'd neglected while I focused on the new book. 

When I shared a stall with my artist husband at a pre-Christmas fair, I noticed that my novel Bird of Passage attracted far less attention than any of my other books, traditional or independently published. People DO judge a book by its cover. Now I've remedied that, with the help of my husband, Alan Lees, who provided the cover art, and Lumphanan Press, who made a great job of the original formatting, and then redesigned the cover for me. It already looks a lot more attractive. And much more suitable for a novel set mostly on a small Scottish island. 

One or two friends have commented how much they love this novel, and I've thought 'me too'.  But until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike the Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen.

In this case, I suspect the kiss of death was the Wuthering Heights connection. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading.

Top Withens

Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband. But I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are  published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. 

Back then, I had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

 All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind so when, some years ago, I took the decision to combine self publishing with traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. It has done well as an eBook, but the new paperback copies arrived yesterday. The cover is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set in Scotland, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible damage of childhood trauma, all set within a landscape that is almost a character in itself. 

If this sounds like your kind of novel, give it a try. 

Plotters and Pantsers - which one are you?


A friend inspired this post and I'm grateful to her. She observed that she had been taken by surprise by the ending of one of my novels called Ice Dancing and my immediate thought was 'so was I!' I honestly had no idea how it was going to end until I started writing the last couple of chapters, and suddenly saw what should have been staring me in the face at the same time as the narrator herself discovered it. The odd thing was that it didn't involve any manipulation of the story. When I looked back, the clues were all there. I didn't have to plant them at all. 

Which in turn led me to think about a couple of other novels where the ending had taken me by surprise. Without any spoilers, in Bird of Passage, I discovered the trauma that the 'hero' (if he can be called that) Finn was trying to remember at about the same time that he realised it himself. Until that moment, I knew there was something, but didn't know what it was. I literally woke up in the middle of the night saying 'So that was what happened!'

Similarly, in The Physic Garden, I knew that the ending involved a shocking betrayal - because that's how it begins. With the narrator mentioning it, without explaining it. Again, I realised the nature of that betrayal and its consequence only when I got to that part of the story. 

I am what I believe is known as a 'pantser' in creative writing circles. I write by the seat of my pants. Although that isn't how I'd ever describe it myself. I write to find out. I always know the beginning, and I sometimes have a very vague idea of the ending, sometimes as little as the last few lines - but I never know how to get there. And if I did, I would get so bored that I would never finish writing the book.  

Outlines were always anathema to me, because I could write them (with difficulty) while knowing full well that the finished book would be nothing like the outline. How could it be when I just didn't know? Plotters do seem to know. They plan everything out, including detailed character sketches. I never do that either, because I've only just met these people. It doesn't feel precarious. It feels uncannily as though the story is already there, waiting to be uncovered. 

All the same, for many writers, plotting works extremely well. I don't write crime fiction or the kind of thrillers that depend upon intricate plots that must fit together but I suspect they do need to be pretty well plotted in advance. Otherwise you might find yourself desperately trying to tie up too many loose ends in the last chapter. Or in the last episode, as happened with a recent, deeply annoying TV series. But it would be interesting to hear from crime writer friends if this is indeed the case, or if there's a sort of half way house where you have a broad outline that you flesh out as you're writing. 

There is, of course, no right or wrong way - only the way that works well for you. The trick, as with so much writing, is to find out what suits you best. And the only way to do that is to carry on writing.