My Late Neighbour's Rose


This has been a very good year for roses. A warm dry June helped, and this old white rose has done incredibly well this summer. It's still flowering - just. 

It reminds me of my late neighbour, Mary Mackenzie, who gave it to me from her own garden. She called it the Jacobite Rose - not the small, sweet, wild rose of Scotland, but (I think) Rosa Alba which is also known as the white rose of York. Certainly a rose that has been cultivated in Europe since ancient times. 

It had grown very leggy over the years and I pruned it back quite a bit but it seems to have had a new lease of life this year.

Mary had several of these in her garden, along with masses of daffodils in early spring - she used to give me huge bunches of them to take up to the village cemetery after my mum and dad died - and then a little later on lots of crimson tulips and poppies.

She was one of the first female graduates in accountancy from Glasgow University. She was still doing accounts well into her eighties, including ours, and I vividly remember her finding an error on the self employed tax return (back when these forms were on paper) and phoning the Revenue to tell them. 'Oh no, Mrs Mackenzie,' they said. 'That couldn't happen.' But she was right. And many forms had to be recalled. 

She was formidably intelligent and formidably intrepid. Her husband, Bill, had been on the 1953 ascent of Everest, and although he wasn't with the party that got to the summit, he did reach the camp just below the peak. As a world class ski-er, he had also been involved in helping scientists to escape Nazi occupied Norway and had run training sessions for troops in the Highlands. But no shrinking violet herself, Mary had been a spy in German occupied France, had gone on many expeditions to remote parts of the world, and had survived a plane crash by crawling several miles through inhospitable terrain with a broken leg. 

When Bill died,  Mary was determined to walk up the hill with the funeral procession, but - then in her eighties - nabbed a lift in the funeral car half way up. 'I said I'd go on with him to the end,' she said to me, mischievously, 'But this might be a bridge too far!' 

I miss her and her wisdom. When, during her own memorial service, some years later, the minister alluded to her bravery during the war, we breathed a sigh of relief, because somebody had been spreading malicious rumours that this was untrue, that she was 'just an old dear, imagining things.'

Well, she was very dear to us, but she hadn't imagined or made up her extraordinary life. It's sad that sometimes, you only find out exactly what people have been and done at their funerals. 

We are all so much more than what we become. You only need to ask. 

Blending Fact and Fiction - Writing Advice

This is one of my occasional 'how to' posts, although I don't ever presume to tell people how to write - so it's more of a 'how do I do it' kind of post. Or even 'how did I do it' because there's no guarantee that I'd do it the same way in future. Writing is always a learning process. The theme of this blog was suggested by writer friend Wendy Jones. It was originally intended as a podcast, but fell victim to various unforeseen circumstances earlier in the year. I'd already drafted out some notes in response to Wendy's questions  - so just in case they might be useful - here they are - and the podcast may still happen at some point. 

To illustrate this, I'll be considering a couple of novels published some time ago, but still available online: The Physic Garden and The Jewel.

The Physic Garden was inspired by the true story of a Scottish gardener, but it evolved into a tale of friendship and terrible betrayal, set in late 18th and early 19th century Glasgow. It's a first person narrative, told by an old man looking back on his life.  The narrator, William Lang, had a voice so strong that he simply had to tell his own story. One of my (disappearing) agents suggested that it would work better as a third person narrative and I tried it, but I just couldn't. William wasn't having it. During one of my book group sessions, after publication, a woman asked me how I could have written 'a whole book about such an unpleasant old man.' I was gobsmacked. William may be crabbit. A little tetchy from time to time. A man whom bitter experience has changed irrevocably. But this is the story of his youth, of tragic events that have made him the man he is. I loved him from start to finish. 

In the Physic Garden, (physic as in medicinal, NOT psychic as in supernatural, even though everyone thinks that's what it is!)  the garden itself is a backdrop, and the novel is inspired by a true story. Years ago, I found an old book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University and one of the chapters was about William Lang, who was made head gardener of the university physic or herb garden, at a very young age, after the death of his father. Sadly, the garden was dying because of industrial pollution from the Type Foundry that the university had permitted to be built nearby. Soon, young William was blamed for something he could do nothing about. It was clear that the real William had support from one of the university professors, Thomas Brown. I thought he was an older man who had taken William 'under his wing' but when I did some further research, I realised they were quite close in age. Close enough to become good friends in spite of the difference in their respective statuses. 

That relationship was the basis for my novel. I used fact - that original book - as a springboard. I also went to the Hunterian museum, and the Glasgow University library to look at various books that are key to the story. Then at a certain point in the tale, I gave myself permission to make things up. I didn’t know what the (fictional) great betrayal was that tore the friendship apart till quite close to the end of the story and this is not the place for spoilers, but I knew it was something horrific and unforgivable. 

By contrast, the Jewel is a third person narrative, the untold story of  Jean Armour, the wife of  Scottish poet Robert Burns, but with the focus, the 'experience' of the story very much told from Jean’s point of view. In this novel, I stuck to the truth as far as was humanly possible. There is a mass of information 'out there', but very little about the poet's wife. I went back to primary sources: the highly illuminating Kirk Session Minutes from Mauchline, for example, or accounts from people who had known the couple, but I did lots of online research as well. The result is that everything I wrote about in this novel either did happen (you’d be surprised by how much!) or could have happened. I even found out one or two things that aren’t in the public domain at all - for example, the fact that the whole village seemed to know that Jean was expecting the poet's twins well before they were born.

One of the keys to writing historical fiction based on fact is to realise that you can’t put everything in.  The research is just a means to an end. My advice would be to immerse yourself in the time and place as far as possible, but then write the first draft of the story without checking too many facts. You’ll soon find out what you don’t know and you can go back and fill in any gaps later, before revising and editing. You need to get inside your characters’ heads, to allow them to speak, to listen to them. 

William Lang seemed to dictate his story to me. With Jean, the poet's jewel of them all, I needed to know more about her, to explore her emotions, how she felt about her talented, mercurial, lovable and sometimes reprehensible husband and why. Fiction gave me the elbow room to do just that. 

If your book features a well known character, like Robert Burns, you will find yourself defending your point of view and sometimes your protagonist too. So many men and a few women have written about Burns. Almost all of them ignored Jean. I knew that there would be some challenges to my version of the story – and there still are!

Above all, you have to choose something that obsesses you, something you love. You are going to be living with these people and in this time and place for a very long time. (My husband swore he saw Jean in our bedroom one night, because I’d spoken of nothing else for months!)

An important point: don’t allow your characters to have thoughts and feelings they could never have in that time and place. Jean Armour was a strong and admirable woman, but she was an 18th century woman who had terrible trouble defying her parents. If I had written her as too feisty, too modern, nobody would have believed in her. I wouldn’t have believed in her. Ditto Burns, who was a man of his time and place, but one who liked women, made them laugh, charmed them. Back then, I expect I'd have fallen for him too. In the Physic Garden, William is an intelligent and imaginative man born into the wrong class at the wrong time. But he can only tell his story from the perspective of his emotions at that time, disliking the constraints, celebrating the successes, lamenting a betrayal that he still knows he himself could never have committed, but even so mourning what might have been. 'It is as though something was planned for me, some pathway I could not find, could not take,' he says. And later acknowledges that he has 'a sense of regret so profound, so bitter that it is like a physical pain in me.' 

Above all, be prepared for your research to change your mind about characters and events. Because it will. Inevitably.  That’s half the pleasure of it. We all write to find out.


Cava Sangria

Doggy, leading his best life in Sitges.

 I didn't know about Cava Sangria until we went to Barcelona last year, and a friend we were lunching with, on a very hot and beautiful day in Sitges, suggested that Cava Sangria might be a good idea.

I love Cava. Like it better than Prosecco, if the truth be told. It always seems drier, but also gentle, floral, slightly citrussy - and very much itself. I could happily drink too much of it, although I try not to!

Anyway, that happy day in Sitges, we had a very big jug of Cava Sangria. We may even have had two, to go with our excellent Paella. 

Last summer, back home in Scotland, I tried my hand at making it. A couple of weekends ago, I made it again for a big group of friends, and it went down very well indeed. If you're having a BBQ this weekend, you might like to try it. It's easy to make and all too easy to drink.

You will need:

Good chilled orange juice to taste - half a litre is enough to go with two or three bottles of Cava but you can make up your own mind and use less if you like.

Chopped summer fruit. I cannot tell a lie, I had a pack of frozen chopped fruit I had bought earlier in Aldi or Lidl, but it's easy enough to chop up fruits of your choice. In fact you can make and keep some in your freezer, because the frozen pieces will keep your Sangria nice and cold. There could be apples, oranges, peaches or nectarines and - at this time of year - strawberries. Strawberries are best used fresh, though, because they go mushy when frozen. Pineapple is nice too. There are no hard and fast rules.

A glass of brandy - Spanish if you have it.

A couple of tablespoons of any orange liqueur if available - although in my opinion it tastes just as good without.

Two or three bottles of Cava Brut. Aldi and Lidl usually have decent Cava at reasonable prices. I think I got the one below in Morrison's because I liked the bottle! I'll stick a candle in it, once it's empty, and use it outside for the summer. You can use Cava Rosado if you like as well. 

About an hour before you want to drink your sangria, marinade your iced or, at the very least, chilled fruits in a bowl with the orange juice, brandy, and liqueur. Keep this in the fridge if possible.

About five minutes before your first visitor arrives, add two or three bottles of dry thoroughly chilled Cava. If your bowl is too small, you can add the third bottle later on. Or you could use less orange juice and one bottle of Cava, if you're expecting a small number of guests. Although be warned - it can disappear very quickly.

Not for drivers, of course, although you could make something very nice with a non-alcoholic fizz such as Nozecco, leaving out the brandy, but including all the fruit. 


The gorgeous Can Laury in Sitges

Wouldn't it be Great?


The picture is only there because I like it a lot, my husband Alan Lees painted it, it reminds me of some very happy winters spent working in the Canaries - and it's also going to be used as the cover image for one of a pair of novels, coming soon. Watch this space! 

Meanwhile, back in the real world ...

Many writer friends seem to be in the process of trying to secure the services of an agent, a process that involves sending out the dreaded 'query letters'. Dozens of them. It's a hideous process that involves browsing agency websites and how-to posts, trying to draft out the right letter, sending it out in whatever form the agency demands, keeping records and waiting. It's demoralising not least because, although it's a bit like job hunting, getting an agent doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a publishing deal, and getting a publishing deal doesn't necessarily mean you'll make any money ...

I've posted quite a lot about the hunt for an agent already on this blog, especially in 2021, with a post titled Disappearing Agents, and a follow up post here, a week later. 

A quick Google of that term 'query letters' throws up - I kid you not - 87 million results. That's a lot more than the entire population of the UK. Vast numbers of people are busy telling other people how to write query letters. On the other hand, a search for 'how to be a good literary agent' results in 23 million results, and of those, the vast majority are still about how to get an agent, or where to find an agent, with the rest focusing on simply 'becoming' an agent.

Anyway, in contrary mood, I thought, wouldn't it be great to find pieces online with titles such as:

You're claiming to be an agent? Why is your website such a mess?

How to design an agency website that wows your potential clients.

Five essential elements of a good agency.

How to be a darn good literary agent.

The essential traits of agents that work.

What not to do as a literary agent.

Five things that make a competent agent.

Ten marks of a poor agency.

Highly effective agencies and how they do it.

How to become the perfect literary agent. 

and in view of my own past experiences

Agents: how not to disappear. 

Well, we can but dream, can't we? 


Medicus by Ruth Downie

I used to review professionally for various magazines and newspapers, but I seldom do it now, unless I've fallen in love with a book so completely that I just have to tell people. Which is what happened with Medicus by Ruth Downie. 

I wouldn't have known about this book at all if it hadn't been recommended by a member of our village book group. She suggested that she had enjoyed the whole series. I went home, downloaded it onto my Kindle where I read almost all my fiction these days, started it that night, and loved it so much that I could hardly bear to go to sleep. I finished it quite quickly, moved on to the next in the series (I'm on Book Four right now) and at some point, went back and read Medicus again, this time wearing my writer's hat, just to see how she had done it.

Why am I enjoying the books so much?

Partly, it's because Downie has created a pair of thoroughly (and instantly) engaging central characters. Gaius Petreius Ruso is an experienced army doctor posted to Britannia. Tilla (Darlughdacha, but he finds the name difficult) is the British girl he rescues from a fate worse than death. Somewhat reluctantly, he treats her broken arm. Also reluctantly because he's strapped for cash, he buys her from the rogue who is ill-treating her. We see the world mostly through these two believable characters. The last time I was so invested in the central character of a novel was when I read Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg novels, during the pandemic. Now, I love Ruso. Nothing more attractive than a man who makes you laugh. And I love the subtlety of the growing and occasionally problematic attachment between him and Tilla, more credible than so much manufactured 'sexual tension' in other fiction. 

I can hardly do better than quote from a New York Times review. 'With a gift for comic timing and historic detail, Ruth Downie has conjured an ancient world as raucous and real as our own.'

It is. It's realistic, but never anachronistic. Years ago, I wrote a drama series for BBC R4 called Voices from Vindolanda, and did a hefty chunk of research about Roman Britain, as well as visiting Hadrian's Wall and Vindolanda itself But even before that, I'd been interested in the time and place. My first degree was in Mediaeval Studies, but I'd always been fascinated by the centuries before, and by the interaction between the incoming Romans and the native British culture, as well as what came after. 

I remember being fascinated by a poem called The Ruin by an Anglo Saxon poet, contemplating the ruins of the 'works of giants' - aka the Roman city of Bath. Downie has extensive knowledge of the time and place, but she wears it lightly and handles it perfectly. Some  historical writers seem to feel the need to cram every last bit of research into their books. This is far more subtle, more immersive, more true to life - and far more funny than that. 

Ruso manages to be both hilarious and sexy, which is quite an achievement. Tilla is clever, brave, enterprising and passionate. Downie explores the tensions between two races and cultures occupying the same space, one dominant, the other mutinous, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. She is fully aware of the the cultural differences, the reluctant or self interested accommodations that must be made, the mistaken assumptions  - all of these are part of the rich mosaic of each book, but she never loses her deft, storytelling touch. 

I loved it. 

Try it and see what you think. In the UK at least, you'll probably have to get it on Amazon. A friend here in Scotland asked for it in Waterstones and was told it was unavailable, even to order. A quick glance at their website shows that to be the case. I don't know the full history of this novel or its excellent British author, but I suspect it and at least some others in the series may have been traditionally published at first, (to rave reviews). Subsequently, Downie seems to have republished under her own imprint. If so, I'm very glad she did. Bookstores don't know what they're missing, but thank goodness for Amazon!