Showing posts with label Glasgow University. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Glasgow University. Show all posts

The Physic Garden on a Kindle Daily Deal - Another Grown Up Love Story.

Today, that's 20th May, the Physic Garden is on Amazon on a Kindle Daily Deal, for one day only, so if you haven't read it and you're fond of historical fiction, you can give it a go for 99p. It was the Sunday Times's pick of historical fiction last spring and their reviewer liked it very much.

The physic garden of the title is the old medicinal herb garden of the mediaeval college of Glasgow University, back when it was in the centre of town, quite close to the cathedral. I never realised, when I named the book, how many people would read that word as psychic. But there's nothing spooky about it, although I'm not averse to writing about the paranormal! Just not in this novel.

When students studied botany back in the very early 1800s, they needed plant specimens and the physic garden was supposed to supply them. But at that time, the garden was suffering from industrial pollution from the nearby type foundry, and was dying. The lecturer in Botany, Dr Thomas Brown, asks William Lang to go out into the surrounding countryside to gather herbs for him and the two men strike up an unlikely friendship. It is on one of these expeditions that William meets weaver's daughter and bee keeper Jenny Caddas, and falls in love with her.

But there's a lot more to it than that. The story is told by William, in old age, looking back on the events of his youth. And we quickly become aware that something bad has happened. What that something is, you'll need to read the novel to find out. This is a book about a terrible betrayal, but also about a city on the cusp of the industrial revolution - a book about medical developments, about the early days of surgery, and how we treat women and their bodies. It's also a story about the painful getting of wisdom.

It's not as racy as some of my novels - Ice Dancing, for instance or Orange Blossom Love - nor as gentle as The Curiosity Cabinet. Nor does it have the big. bold, tragic central story of Bird of Passage (my current favourite!) or The Amber Heart although it's just as heartbreaking. I never seem to be able to write twice in a similar vein although I think the style is all me. But these days, when I'm asked what kind of things I write, I find myself saying 'Grown up love stories' - and that's what this is: literary fiction for sure, the voice a little dry and ironic, because of who is telling it - but essentially a love story. Who loves whom, though - well, that's the interesting part.

There's a Pinterest board too, where you can find out some more about the visual inspiration behind the novel.

The Physic Garden: How William Lang Told Me His Story.

The other day, somebody asked me THE QUESTION. It was a very nice lady, chatting to me in our local shop.
'Where do you get your ideas from?' she said.
Most writers will have encountered this question many times. Don't get me wrong. It's not irritating. Most of us love our readers and love to talk about the inspiration behind our books. But I also think most writers will  find that question - however often people ask it - very difficult to answer. Or if not difficult, then puzzling. Where DO we get our ideas from? Are we puzzled because we don't know, or is it because people who ask it are always genuinely surprised that we can make things up so easily - and it makes us wonder about it too?

The truth is that most writers have heads which are positively stuffed with ideas. We have ideas, characters, settings, stories, coming out of our ears. The problem is hardly ever the ideas. The problem is in making the time to get all those ideas written down in some form and then deciding which of them you want to live with and work with for the next year or so, which of them stay on the back burner, and which of them might as well be consigned to the dustbin. Actually, that's not strictly true either. Whenever you consign anything to the dustbin, you will invariably discover that it is exactly what you needed - but didn't realise it till now - for whatever you are working on at the moment.

I sometimes think it's a question of practice. The ideas, I mean. I remember doing a sort of 'taster' session for a lovely group of young mums, about writing. By the end of it, they had all created an imaginary character, and some of them were starting to have ideas about interesting things that those imaginary characters might do. Making stories for and with and about them. All of them seemed slightly surprised that - once they got over the hurdle of thinking there was some great mystery about 'getting ideas' - it was so easy to make something up. And so pleasurable. It's one of the reasons why writers carry on writing, in the face of troubles which include lack of cash and lack of time, but seldom lack of ideas!

Anyway, here's how it worked with my most recent project.

My first idea for The Physic Garden came years ago when I found a facsimile of an old book called The Scots Gard'ner, by John Reid, first published in 1683 by David Lindsay in Edinburgh and reprinted by Mainstream in 1988. I read it, intrigued by the poetry of it, by the beauty of the language and practicality of the advice. Later, I came across another fascinating book called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University, by A D Boney, published by Helm, also in 1988, clearly a good year for books about garden history. It was an account of the gardens of the old college, including the old botanical garden which had been polluted by the nearby type foundry. And that, in turn, sent me back to more primary sources. There were other books - a wonderful history of Scottish plant explorers called Seeds of Blood and Beauty, by Ann Lindsay, published by Polygon - which gave me some insight into the possibilities which might have enticed my characters - and another very old book, which I had to spend a somewhat traumatic afternoon in Glasgow University library examining - but if I told you all about that one, it would give my story away!

Part of a christening cape, embroidered with flowers.
At the same time, I acquired an embroidered 'christening cape' - I have it still - and I was told that it probably dated from the early 1800s, which is about the same time that this old cottage where I live and work was built. There seemed to be some correspondence in my mind between the beautifully embroidered flowers on the silk of this cape and the flower specimens which the gardeners were asked to provide for the botanical lectures. And that too fed into the story. Like so many of my novels, this one began life as a play, but it felt unsatisfactory. I didn't yet have the elbow room I needed. I wrote and rewrote but still it felt like a series of scenes from something much longer.

And then William Lang, the narrator, walked into my head and started to tell me his story. 'In his own words' as they used to say in school. 'Tell it in your own words.' Except that these were his words, not mine. Or that was what it felt like. That's still what it feels like. And it is a very Scottish story, with a handful of very Scottish words. I even thought about putting a little glossary at the back of the book, but finally decided that readers could probably guess what they meant easily enough. I plan to blog about it later though!

Some of the characters are very loosely based on people who actually existed, back in the early 1800s, or what little we know about them. But the book doesn't pretend to be true. Not even that curious hybrid called 'faction'. It's undoubtedly fiction. I made almost all of it up, although I hope the setting is authentic enough. William lived with me day and night for a spell, and told me his story as clearly as though he had been speaking into a recorder. I was reminded  of those slightly sinister tales of 'thought forms' that become so vivid that they assume a strange kind of life beyond the mind of the thinker. Except that with William, it wouldn't have been sinister at all, because he is such a lovely, honourable elderly man, looking back on his young self with wisdom and understanding. And that, in a way, makes it even worse. You see this is a tale of a terrible betrayal that permeates the novel, events that have influenced (although not ruined) William's whole life.

Where do such ideas come from? I suppose the answer is all kinds of sources and none, real life events and make believe. It would be nice to know what other people think. How does it work for you?

New Novel For A New Year - The Physic Garden

I'm deep into final revisions of a new historical novel called The Physic Garden. So far, only two other people have read it - well, three, if you count the young intern who read it for my last-but-one agent and dismissed it as 'just an old man, telling his story.' It was about that time that the agent in question gave me the push, having decided that she had bigger and more lucrative fish to fry. This was clearly true and I can't really complain about her decision. I was never going to come up with the instant blockbuster hit. But it's still a shock when somebody whom you have thought of as a supporter decides that they don't want you any more. Especially when, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I had actually been given the chance to leave her for other representation, but had elected to follow her to her new company just a year previously. Silly me.
The daft thing is the intern was right. It is an old man telling his story. His name is William Lang, he's a bookseller who used to be a gardener in the Old College of Glasgow University and he is looking back over a long life, well lived, telling a tale of youthful friendship and appalling betrayal from the perspective of old age. In the course of the story he reaches some surprising and moving conclusions. That first reader clearly didn't get it at all. And for a little while I set it to one side, disillusioned. Although why the crass opinion of a single person who I suspect only read a chapter or two should have meant anything at all to me, I don't know. But we are easily knocked off our perches, especially when a book is very dear to us. After a while, I saw that this novel was and remains very dear to me. And that it isn't 'just' anything. But it certainly is an old man telling his story and none the worse for that.
Of the two other people who have read it so far, one tells me she loves it and one finds it so harrowing, so desperately sad, that she can't 'like' it in the conventional sense, but that's OK. Because she 'gets' it too. She understands it.
It is a sad and challenging book, for sure. Even now, when I read through it, the sense of an inevitable tragedy runs through and through it, bring a lump to my throat. The narrator seems very real to me, a strong character who insisted on telling his story in his own voice.  It felt a little as though I were channelling somebody. An odd and uncanny sensation. The novel rushes headlong towards some unbearable denouement which I could do nothing at all to avert. No more could he. And yet, and yet, there is some kind of resolution and we are well aware that this is a fine man who has lived a good and fulfilling life.
My only reservation may be that some of my lovely, supportive readers who appreciate my other, contemporary novels may find this one ... quite different. I hope they bear with me - and William - enough to give it a try. We'll see. I have a feeling it might be a bit like Marmite. You'll either love it or loathe it. It's scheduled for publication some time in mid February. But in the run up to publication day, I'll try to tell you a little more about everything that inspired it, and the historical background to the story.