Showing posts with label Hebrides. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hebrides. Show all posts

Happy Saint Bride's Day - The Coming of Spring.

Today is Imbolc, St Bride or St Bridget's Day and an important day in the Celtic world, marking the beginning of spring. I was reminded of it this evening, sitting at my desk, brooding on Brexit, when I realised that not only had the day lengthened considerably, but the birds in the garden were singing and sounding distinctly spring-like. It was very cheering.

Coincidentally, I'd been rereading my own novel, the Posy Ring, and deciding that I was still very fond of these characters and really would like to revisit them and find out what happens to them next. I've been asked to chat to a local book group about this novel, among other work, so I thought I'd better refresh my memory.

I suddenly remembered that I had written about the young women of the Scottish island where the novel is set, celebrating the festival of Bride in 1588.

'In February there was a brief respite when the young women of Achadh nam Bl├áth and the nearby clachan celebrated St Bride’s day. They took a sheaf of oats from the previous year’s precious harvest, formed it into a rudimentary figure, dressed it in some scraps of wool and linen, and trimmed it with whatever decorative items they could find: a handful of glass beads from broken jewellery, small shells from the seashore, a garland of daisies, snowdrops, coltsfoot as well as hazel catkins, culled from sheltered parts of the island. The figure was supplied with a slender white wand formed from a piece of birchwood with the bark scraped off. Ishbel had made a bed of rushes covered by a baby blanket close to the house door. There, Bride was welcomed in and laid down comfortably for the night with a couple of candles burning to keep her company. 
               
‘She was the foster mother of Christ,’ explained Lilias. ‘And so we honour her in this way. But she brings the springtime with her as well. Soon, soon it will come.'

A little later on, Lilias tells the stranger about the cailleach who brings winter - no bad thing, unless she lingers too long. To everything there is a season.

‘I am always forgetting how very little you know. The cailleach is the wise old woman. She walks the fields, bringing winter in her wake. A good thing too. The land needs to sleep and we need to rest for a time, while she walks and renews, walks and renews. Only now, she’s growing weary. It’s her turn to lie down and sleep. Then the springtime will come. You can feel her clinging on. Soon, she’ll not be able to resist. She will lie down and take her rest, and the blessed Bride will come and bring the springtime with her all over again.'

If the snowdrops massed on the roadsides as I drive in and out of this village are anything to go by, Bride seems to be well on her way.




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.

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.

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



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! 

The Way It Was: A History of Gigha


Sorry for the rather long silence between posts, but there's been an awful lot going on here in the UK. Wish there wasn't. Glad I'm in Scotland.

Foxglove and fuchsia at Keill.
Anyway - my old/new book about Gigha is out now, and what a smashing cover (painted by Pam Carter) they've come up with at Birlinn. Lots of the research for this book was actually done in the little white cottage on the right of the picture, which is where we stayed for a number of summers: Ferry Croft One, very close to the beach.

This is an update on God's Islanders that was published some years ago, in hardback: a revised and updated paperback, just the right size for you to slip into your pocket and carry around the island with you. Gigha is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I've set some of my fiction on an island not a million miles from Gigha as well. I'm already planning a new project with an island setting.

Misty morning at the ferry terminal. 
This morning, Undiscovered Scotland features a lovely review of the book. Once you've read the review, perhaps you should also visit the island. We were there for a few days - not nearly long enough - in early June and I wish we were back there now: it's a gem, small, but very beautiful indeed.






Historical Fiction Three: The Curiosity Cabinet (writing in the past and present at the same time.)


Lovely cover by textile artist Alison Bell
When Alys revisits the beautiful Hebridean island of Garve after an absence of twenty five years, she  is captivated by the embroidered casket on display in her hotel. She discovers that it belongs to Donal, her childhood playmate, and soon they resume their old friendship. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on Garve against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by the cabinet and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself. But Garve has its secrets, past and present. Donal must learn to trust Alys enough to confide in her and, like Henrietta before her, Alys must earn the right to belong.

This is essentially what the Curiosity Cabinet is ‘about’: the basic story, or two stories, past and present, one interwoven with another, through the medium of a small Scottish island and a beautiful embroidered casket.

'The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.’


There are many sources of inspiration for historical fiction. This novel began many years ago, in the 1990s, as a series of radio plays, but even before that, it was inspired by another story – the fascinating factual story of Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange. She had become an embarrassment to her husband. He wanted to get rid of her. And at a time when such things were possible, he had her kidnapped, removed to a remote Scottish island. There she stayed. Later, she was moved elsewhere, but still imprisoned in a remote place. There was no succour for her and she died in captivity.

I think the first time I came across the real Lady Grange was when I was visiting an Edinburgh museum and read about her. She had been violently seized and carried away down one of the closes in the old town of that city. She was a good deal older than the (at that time) half formed heroine of the Curiosity Cabinet and her story was quite different, but the situation in which she found herself fascinated me. I had also been working on dramatisations of Kidnapped and Catriona for BBC R4 at the time and was well aware of the cultural differences between highland and lowland societies, between Gaelic and Scots speakers. And I found myself obsessing – as fiction writers so often do – about what it would be like to be kidnapped from one society to the other, to be removed at a stroke from all that you held dear and set down in a culture where you didn’t understand the language, or the mores or the modes of being. How difficult would that be? Especially if you had left friends and family behind you. The real Lady Grange was believed to have been driven mad by her ordeal. My heroine, Henrietta, proved to be a little more fortunate.

'She saw before her a small but strongly built man, in his thirties perhaps, wearing highland dress, bare legs showing beneath the big blue plaid. He reminded her of the highlanders she had seen on the streets of Edinburgh where sometimes, dressed in their outlandish clothes, they were perceived as crude figures of fun and sometimes, bristling with weaponry and with the drink taken, as dangerous incomers. Manus was no figure of fun although she could see that he might be dangerous, a better friend than an enemy, perhaps.’

But there is more than the historical story in this novel. It is, essentially, two stories. It has been described as a time slip novel, which is not really what it is at all. Fans of Outlander might appreciate it for its setting, for the historical sections, but nobody in this novel goes back in time, nobody travels between past and present. I had a very definite intention in writing this novel, but it is one that not all readers pick up on – and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter very much whether they do, not to them and not to me. It's just good if they enjoy it!

It consists of two parallel tales, past and present. There are connections between the characters, between the people, between their situations – but I wanted all of it to be subtle, delicate, a little thread of fine lines rather than any more overt time travel experience. When I think about it now, I can see that my main source of inspiration was a small Hebridean island – one we love very much and visit often – the island of Gigha. The island of Garve in the novel is fictional, of course. It could be Gigha or Coll or any one of a number of other western islands. 

Ardminish Bay, Gigha

One of the things I love about these places is the sense of the past and present being somehow entangled, as though they are all part of some astonishing continuum – as though everything is somehow still there, and nothing is ever lost. I wanted to structure the book in that way. I wanted to write it as I would write a poem, so that there are layers and meanings over and above the obvious. At one level it’s a simple enough love story and I hope it’s an attractive one. One or two critics have said that it was a ‘guilty pleasure’ for them. You’re not really supposed to treat love stories – especially love stories written by women - as serious fiction. Well, I’ve given up apologising for writing love stories. Love is one of the most important things in all our lives. Why shouldn’t we write about it? One or two critics have also understood that this is a book not just about love but about obligation, about parenthood, and about the landscapes in which we live and how they shape us. The most gratifying review was from a US reader who said that the writing was so tight you could ‘bounce a quarter off of it’ – and that was exactly the kind of response I wanted. But I don’t really mind it being a simple pleasure either, although I still fail to see why anyone should feel guilty about it!

One thing I’m often asked is how I managed to write about past and present simultaneously. Didn’t it become confusing? Well, from a purely practical point of view, I wrote two separate books. One was the historical story of Henrietta Dalrymple and Manus McNeill and what brings Henrietta to Manus’s little island. The other was the contemporary tale of Alys and Donal on the same island in the present day. The thing that connects them is the cabinet of the title, not a real ‘curiosity cabinet’ but a Jacobean embroidered chest full of small objects which turn out to be ‘women’s things’. The embroidery depicts the story of Ruth who goes into a strange land and survives there, and this represents another theme of the book: displacement and the search for acceptance.
The inspiration behind Manus.

So, I wrote two separate books, I printed them out and then I did a literal cut and paste job on my study floor, shuffling them together, sometimes cutting a page in half. It was infinitely easier than trying to do it on a computer. I could see and feel the weight of each section, the length of it, the way it might fit in with another section and where the story was taking me. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work just as well as an eBook, because it does. It’s just that I, as a writer, needed to get the balance between the two parts of the novel right.

Having done that, I keyed all the changes into the word document and then worked on it for a while, weaving it all together so that the joins became smooth and with no gaping holes in the plot. It was a very enjoyable exercise and it seems to have worked. The Curiosity Cabinet is probably the most popular of all my novels. The paperback version is long out of print. I’ve published it under my own Wordarts imprint as an eBook. There’s an excellent audio version available via Oakhill publishing (you can get it on Audible) – and I’m planning a print on demand version in paperback later this year or early next. Meanwhile, the eBook is on special offer today and for another six days, from Amazon's Kindle store in the UK and the USA 




The Curiosity Cabinet - On Special Offer Now!

Cover image by textile artist Alison Bell.
I wrote The Curiosity Cabinet a long time ago - in fact as I've already said elsewhere on this blog, it began life as a trilogy of radio plays inspired by the real historical story of Lady Grange (but very different from her story) and set on a small Scottish island a bit like my favourite Hebridean Island of Gigha. The plays involved two intertwined parallel love stories, one modern, one historical. But when I decided that I wasn't very happy with the modern day story in the plays, I started all over again with the novel. It was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and it was subsequently published by Polygon. Lorraine Kelly read it and sent me a lovely note about it which I still treasure. Later, when it was out of print, I published it on Kindle myself, where it has been sellling very well ever since. It has had some fabulous reviews from readers here in the UK and in the US as well. My very favourite review was from a US reader who said that the writing was so tight you could 'bounce a quarter off of it.'

You know, as a poet and playwright as well as a novelist - not to mention as a reader too - I've never really subscribed to the notion that a book has to be over complicated and inaccessible in order to be good. I suppose what I'm always aiming for is an accessible and readable book which is nevertheless thought provoking. Some of my favourite writers - especially short story writers like William Trevor and Bernard MacLaverty - are clear and readable - but their work stays in your mind afterwards and works away like yeast, changing the way you think! That's always what I'm aiming for - but I know I don't always achieve it. And if you can read any of my books and say that you've enjoyed them, then that's good enough for me.

The landscapes of the Curiosity Cabinet were inspired by the wonderful little island of Gigha which I've been visiting for years. Even the ferry in the novel is very like the Gigha ferry.

As for the historical story - well, as far as I know, there is no Manus McNeill, sadly, though there were and still are lots of McNeills in the Western Isles and some of them may have been called Manus and may even have been a little like my lovely, irascible but honourable hero. But there is an ancient grave in the old ruined kirk at Kilchattan on Gigha and somehow, in my mind, I always associate it with my fictional Manus although I know that it's much older than the hero of my novel and even though it's nothing like the grave described in the book.

All the same, every single  time I visit the island, I go to the old kirk and leave a little posy of wild flowers on his grave. I can't explain why I feel the need to do this, but I do.



The Curiosity Cabinet is on special offer on Kindle now and for the next five days. You'll find it for 99p here on Amazon UK and also at a reduced price on Amazon.com in the US.


Bird of Passage, Free on Kindle to Mark the Start of Spring.

Cover art by Matt Zanetti
My novel Bird of Passage will be free to download on Kindle from 4th - 6th April. It's another 'island-set' novel. I seemed to go through a period of setting my novels and plays on islands, until I exhausted that particular piece of inspiration, but it still nips away at me from time to time. So the rewritten version of an old novel, The Golden Apple, due for publication next month, is set on a completely different kind of island: a much warmer place altogether, La Gomera in the Canaries. And even The Physic Garden, set fair and square in early nineteenth century Glasgow, has a trip to the Isle of Arran as a central and very important scene.

Bird of Passage, though, is set on a fictional and unnamed Scottish Hebridean island, which could be just about anywhere, from Gigha, which I know well, to the Isle of Skye, or Mull or Islay, or some amalgam of all of them. Oddly enough, the perception of where it is seems to depend on the reader's own experience and that's fine by me. I love that process which seems to go on, whereby the reader recreates the world of the novel within his or her own mind.

Susan Price, reviewing the novel for An Awfully Big Blog Adventure describes how she realized that there was a connection with a much more famous classic novel:
'I was three-quarters of the way through this book – or even more – before it dawned on me that it was Wuthering Heights in modern dress. I was tipped off by a couple of sly and amusing references to twigs tapping on windows and ghosts, and by the hero disappearing for twenty years and then returning a rich man.
It’s not a re-telling, though – it’s a re-imagining. A dialogue with the older book, if you like. It asks, would the same story, the same deathless love, be possible in the modern age, and if so, how?
'
Link to the rest of the review here.

A very young me, in Wuthering Heights mode!
Susan is right. I wasn't attempting a retelling. I wouldn't dare. But Wuthering Heights has always been my all time favourite novel. I was born in Yorkshire and was trundled over the moors to Top Withins when I was still in my pushchair, or so I'm told. Bird of Passage is a book I was desperate to write, partly because of my own obsession with Wuthering Heights, but I spent years hunting for the right story, the right setting, the right set of characters.

Reviewing the novel for the Indie eBook review, Gilly Fraser writes:
There are no pat answers in this story and no neatly contrived solutions. Endings are jagged, situations remain unresolved. Yet at the end of the book there is a feeling of satisfaction that things did work out as they should – at least to some extent. I think that makes the story and its characters all the more realistic and credible. It’s hard to pigeonhole this book to a specific genre. It’s a love story, yet sometimes defies the label. It’s contemporary, yet dwells quite a bit in the past. As to its audience – I think this would appeal to readers who don’t need to be led by the hand and who enjoy
challenging relationships. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Read the rest of her review here

One of the nice things about reviews - especially when they are positive but quite analytical - is that they give you as a writer a new perspective on a novel. It's odd how often you're not entirely sure what you've written, or what you might have achieved, even though you've been in the thick of it, even though you may have had all kinds of intentions for the book. 

I'm often asked to describe the kind of books I write. It's a question I find genuinely difficult to answer, and reviews like Susan's and Gilly's help me to find some answers. My books aren't really romances in the conventional sense because they don't always have the traditional happy ending or even the traditional structure. They have a resolution of sorts, and I hope they give the reader a sense of satisfaction, but the characters don't generally walk off into the sunset. Or not often. One reviewer who loved this novel still found it heartbreaking, and people who have read The Physic Garden, even while they tell me they couldn't put it down, still tell me that they simply couldn't bear what happens in the end. I know what they mean because I couldn't bear it either, and I wrote it! 

Whenever I finish a novel, I try to work out what kind of book I've written. I know that may sound a bit daft. But when you're in the middle of a piece of work, you're so buried in the time and place, so deep into the minds of your characters, that you really can't see the wood for the trees. So it can be very helpful to stand back and try to analyse exactly what kind of novel you've produced. At first, I despaired of finding any common denominators within my fiction. Everything I write seems to be quite different: some are historical, some contemporary, some are more literary than others, some quiet, some complex.

Quite a while ago, an agent told me (and I'm paraphrasing here) that my work was too well written to be popular but too accessible to be really literary. She saw it as a fault. The more I speak to my readers though, the more I see that a lot of people out there are looking for stories which are well written and grown up, but accessible too. And I think that's what I write. Mainly because that's the kind of book I like to read. Lots of them are love stories. But I suppose they are 'grown up' love stories. I wish Amazon had a category like that, but they don't yet - and 'adult' has quite a different connotation! Even the Physic Garden, which isn't really a love story at all, but a story about male friendship and betrayal, is a grown up tale.

Bird of Passage is a very grown up love story -  about past damage and the obsessive attachment that is the result. And of course it is, unashamedly, a homage to my much loved Wuthering Heights. If this sounds like something you might enjoy reading, it's free to download for the next three days, here in the UK and here in the USA.



Inspirations for The Curiosity Cabinet: The Isle of Gigha

Whins - with an overpowering scent of coconut.
My fictional island of Garve, in The Curiosity Cabinet and also the unnamed island in my later novel, Bird of Passage were certainly inspired by the little isle of Gigha, which lies just to the west of the Kintyre Peninsula and is the most southerly of the true Hebridean  Islands. It's pronounced Gi-ah, with a hard 'g', in case you were wondering!
My husband, Alan, first introduced me to this island which was to become such a significant and inspirational place for me. Years before we met, he had been fishing for clams off Gigha with his brother-in-law when the boat's engine had broken down. Some of the island fishermen had come out to rescue them, given them generous hospitality and one Willie McSporran had managed to repair the engine with spare parts retrieved - precariously - from the little island 'tip' at the north of the island. After that, and over many years, Alan would return to Gigha whenever he could. He exchanged fishing for work as a charter skipper on a series of yachts and whenever they rounded the somewhat perilous Mull of Kintyre, Gigha was the place where they stopped off.
I still hadn't visited the island myself, although I had heard a lot about it over the years.
Then, when our son was three or four, we had a summer holiday there, staying in the B & B at the island post office and shop, which was then run by Margaret and Seamus McSporran, the famous 'man of fourteen jobs' - and also Willie's brother.
It was bliss. A perfect place for a holiday with a small child. Safe, friendly, beautiful. We walked, we picnicked, we paddled, we fished. My memories of that time involve digging furiously for lugworms on the beach. Or sitting on the rocks in the sun - the climate is very mild here and quite often the rain leaps right over the island to fall on the mainland beyond.

Ardminish Bay, on Gigha

Since that first visit we have been back countless times, with friends, with our son, or just on our own to visit Willie and his wife. Every time we go, we seem to find something new to see and explore, which is strange, because this is a small island - only seven miles by one and a half wide. But it has some twenty five miles of coastline, so there is a lot to see. And because it was strategically very important, placed between the territory of the Lords of the Isles and the mainland, it has a complex and fascinating history.
At some point, it was also the subject of a brave community buyout. You can read all about it on the island's own website here. I've written my own big factual book about the history of Gigha - called God's Islanders, it was published by Birlinn in 2006. It was a labour of love and if you want to know all about the 'real' Gigha, then you could do worse than read it.  Largely thanks to lovely Willie McSporran who sat with me over vast quantities of tea and pineapple cake, and patiently told me all about the island history for many, many hours, it is as authentic as I could make it.
But Gigha was in my head. Which is why I found myself setting two of my novels on a small Scottish island that bore a strong resemblance to this one. In The Curiosity Cabinet, Garve is very like Gigha.
'The island reminds her of those magic painting books. The shop here used to sell them. You would dip your brush in water and pale, clear colours would emerge from the page, as this green and blue landscape is emerging from the mist.' 


In Bird of Passage, a more harrowing tale altogether, a Scottish set homage to Wuthering Heights, Finn comes to an unnamed island which - again - bears some resemblance to Gigha. It proves to be his salvation and his tragedy.

All the characters in both novels are, of course, entirely fictional in every way but one.
In The Curiosity Cabinet, Alys revisits the island after an absence of twenty five years and is captivated by the embroidered casket on display in her hotel. She discovers that it belongs to Donal, her childhood playmate, and soon they resume their old friendship. Interwoven with the story of their growing love, is the darker tale of Henrietta Dalrymple, kidnapped by the formidable Manus McNeill and held on the island against her will. With three hundred years separating them, the women are linked by the cabinet and its contents, by the tug of motherhood and by the magic of the island itself. But the island has its secrets, past and present, and the people of these islands can - so an old historian observes in the prologue to the novel - keep a secret for a thousand years.
That, I'm sure, is the absolute truth!

The Curiosity Cabinet - Where Did The Ideas Come From?

Ardminish Bay on the Isle of Gigha
The Curiosity Cabinet (free on Kindle today and every day till Saturday) began as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. They were broadcast in the Afternoon Theatre slot, although I can't remember when that was: late 1990s perhaps? I know that the novel was originally published by Polygon in 2005 so it must have been a few years earlier, because I sat on the story for a while, thinking about what I needed to do to it to turn it into a novel.
The production (by Hamish Wilson) was excellent, as were the performances, and the plays were well received. But all the same, I knew I needed to make some changes and it was a long time before I realised exactly what they were.

The historical story was fine, but the contemporary tale was only 'alright'. Half there. It involved a divorced woman, her small son, and an old islandman. But there seemed to be something lacking.  It took a few years of mulling it over, going back to it and rewriting it before I realised that the modern love story should in some way run parallel to the historical love story - not that they should ever intersect. This isn't a genuine 'time slip' novel. Nobody travels back in time. But all the same, there was a sense in which I wanted the problems and tribulations of the past to be - somehow - worked out, resolved, in the present. And in order for me to be able to do that, I would have to find some way of the present reflecting the past, a fragile web of connections. But I knew it also had to be very subtle. Anything too obvious, anything too 'clunky' and the whole delicate structure would come tumbling down around my ears.

There were a couple of other things that inspired the story though. One was the true tale of Lady Grange who was kidnapped and spirited away at the behest of her husband (she was becoming something of an embarrassment to him in all kinds of ways!) and held on St Kilda for many years. Lady Grange was much older than Henrietta in the Curiosity Cabinet, Henrietta is a widow - and Lady Grange's story has no chance of a happy ending. But what fascinated me was the clash of cultures, the struggle which a lowlander would have to adapt and adjust to living on a small island where nobody even spoke her language. Something that could, and did, drive a prisoner to madness.

Some island flowers.

Years before, I had also dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) for BBC Radio in ten hour-long episodes. Ten hours of radio. Can you imagine it? I don't think it would happen now! I loved both novels, still do - and both of them are, among so much else, an exploration of that clash of Highland and Lowland cultures. There is a scene, late in Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Breck return to the House of Shaws to bring wicked old Ebenezer Balfour to book for his crimes. It always stuck in my mind for the little frisson it gave me when Alan Breck tells Ebenezer Balfour that David is his prisoner, and asks him whether he wishes him to keep or kill him. It is, of course, all a ruse, to get Ebenezer to admit his culpability (which he does!) But it struck me even then, how relatively easy it would be for somebody to disappear for ever into the wilderness of the Highlands and Islands.

Which is - in a way - what happens to poor little Henrietta, in The Curiosity Cabinet, kidnapped to the fictional island of Garve. There is a Garve in Scotland. There are several Garves, since the name means 'rough' and there are plenty of rough islands. My fictional Garve is a little like the Isle of Coll, but it's also like the Isle of Gigha, which I know well.  It may be rough in winter, but in spring and summer the island is full of flowers.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit more about Gigha, and how the island landscape helped to inspire both The Curiosity Cabinet and a subsequent novel, Bird of Passage.





The Curiosity Cabinet: Where Did I Get My Ideas From?

Cover image by Alison Bell
A few days ago, just as I was thinking of writing this piece about The Curiosity Cabinet, I had an email  from friend and fellow writer Shirley Mitchell, who wondered if the 'cabinet' of the novel just might have been inspired by one of her children's stories, published some years ago, in which there was a 'curiosity cabinet'. As it happens, it wasn't, or not to my knowledge - but it very easily might have been and it would have been very nice if it was.

It's one of the most commonly asked questions when writers are giving talks and readings: 'where do you get your ideas from?'

You're always tempted to say things like  'Ideas R Us' or 'That big Scandinavian shop called Idea - they come in flat packs with free tea lights.'  But actually, it's a good question. The fact is that inspiration comes from a million different sources and it can be very hard in retrospect to figure out how the ideas all came together to make a novel.

With the Curiosity Cabinet, there were three very definite strands of inspiration, all of which collided in my head - and in the resulting novel. Four if you count the fact that I wrote it first as a trilogy of plays which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Rachel Chiesley, the unfortunate Lady Grange

The idea began when I was in Edinburgh - probably when I was working on yet another radio play. The drama studios were in Edinburgh at that time. I went to an exhibition and learned about poor Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange, who was 'kidnapped' from her home in the city in the early 18th century, and carried away to St Kilda, where she spent many desperate years in horrible isolation. There has since been an excellent book written about these events, The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley but at the time, I found myself piecing the sad story of Lady Grange together from various sources. What fascinated me about the story was the way in which the two cultures of Scotland, Highland and Lowland, were so very different, a difference which I had already found myself exploring in some detail when I dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona for Radio 4. I found myself thinking 'what if' - which is perhaps how all novels start. What if the person kidnapped was a young woman. What if she (and the readers) had absolutely no idea why she had been spirited away from everything she held dear? What if she had left a child behind? (I had a young son myself at the time.) Could she ever begin to adjust to her changed circumstances, to her changed surroundings? Could she ever change her perceptions of what seemed to her to be a savage place?

At the same time, though, another idea was fermenting away in my mind. I found myself visiting Glasgow's Burrell Collection on various occasions and it was invariably the needlework that drew me. I've loved antique and vintage textiles for as long as I can remember. My mum used to go to the saleroom and I used to go with her, but although she was mad about pottery and porcelain, I was fascinated by the textiles: the embroideries, the linens and lace. Still am.

When I visited the Burrell, therefore, I particularly loved the embroidered 'raised work' cabinets with their wonderful little scenes of all kinds: the figures and flowers, the birds and beasts and houses. I always found myself daydreaming about what it might be like to possess something like this, but also about the women who might have made them - and the objects they might have kept in them. The needlework pictures so often seemed to tell stories, to symbolise things which were important to the women who had so lovingly embroidered them. Not only that, but the very act of stitching seemed to me to imbue the resulting work with the emotion of the maker, quite as much as a painting or sculpture. Of course, these were not really 'curiosity cabinets'. Cabinets of Curiosities were usually masculine affairs, collections of rare and wonderful specimens of all kinds, shells, fossils, bones and the like. But the embroidered casket of my imagination was a very different kind of Cabinet of Curiosities. I saw it vividly in my mind's eye, full of a collection of fascinating objects: shells and feathers for sure, but also a number of personal possessions, stored away there for three hundred years. And in my imagination, I saw too that they were all women's things. In order to write the novel, I had to find out who those women were, and what was the story of the casket, The Curiosity Cabinet of the title. 


My third strand of inspiration was the Isle of Gigha. My husband first introduced me to this magical place. Many years previously, long before we met and married, Alan had been diving for clams off Gigha and the boat's engine had broken down. He and his brother-in-law, working together, had been 'rescued' by the islanders, who had offered them hospitality and engineering expertise in about equal measure. After we were married, and especially after our son was born, we went there often. It's still one of my favourite places in all the world. I even wrote a big history of the place called God's Islanders, very much a labour of love, published a few years ago by Birlinn.







So when I was thinking about a setting for The Curiosity Cabinet, and although the island in the novel is fictional, and could be any one of a number of small Hebridean islands, it was the Isle of Gigha with its white sands, its honeysuckle and foxgloves, its dazzling coconut scented whins that was always in my mind's eye.






Although the historical story in the trilogy of radio plays - the tale of Henrietta Dalrymple and Manus McNeill - is more or less the same, the present day tale is very different. I was never satisfied with that aspect of the radio trilogy and when I came to write the novel, it took off in quite different directions. I decided that I wanted to write two parallel love stories - one set in the past and one in the present. This was never going to be a conventional 'time slip' novel and although there are suggestions of the supernatural in it they are very subtle indeed and never overt. I suppose what I was aiming for was a suggestion that sometimes the past might just possibly influence, or might be worked out in the present. Or then again not! Without imbuing the whole thing with some kind of spurious Celtic twilight - I still wanted to illustrate the feeling you occasionally get on these Hebridean Islands, the vague sense that you are in a 'thin' place where the boundaries between this world and another are so fine that sometimes you can see through them. But all the same, I wanted it to be real. And in order to make it and keep it real, I had to pare it down as far as I possibly could, but still keep it involving and sensuous. 


When an American reviewer, Lorissa K Evans, wrote of the US Kindle editionthat 'the writing ,,, is so tight you could bounce a quarter off of it' I was delighted.

I submitted the final draft of the novel for the Dundee Book Prize. It turned out to be one of three books shortlisted that year, and was published by Polygon in Edinburgh. Feedback and reviews were excellent. A lot of people seemed to enjoy it and the edition sold out. Eventually, the rights reverted to me and since I was seriously considering indie-publishing by that stage in my career, it was one of my first ventures on Amazon Kindle where it seems to have had a whole new lease of publishing life. My friend, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell, gave me the new eBook cover image as a very beautiful gift.

You can download it here in the UK and here in the USA. One of the nicest and most perceptive reviews so far has been by Hilary Ely, on Vulpes Libris It's so lovely when a reader completely understands what you were trying to say in a novel and why you were telling the story in the way you did. There's no feeling quite like it!

Catherine Czerkawska
www.wordarts.co.uk

If you're curious about the story, interested in Scotland, especially small Hebridean islands and fancy some holiday reading with a difference, The Curiosity Cabinet will be free to download on Amazon Kindle for three days,17th, 18th and 19th of July. 


The original Manus McNeill?






The Curiosity Cabinet on Kindle - Sources of Inspiration




With the blessing of my agent, Edwin Hawkes at Makepeace Towle, and with the encouragement and very practical help of a number of friends who have gone before (Linda Gillard, Chris Longmuir and Bill Kirton, especially) I’ve now uploaded the Curiosity Cabinet to Kindle. It’s for sale at the bargain price of £1.94 and – right after the steep learning curve that is Kindle - I’m embarking on another exciting venture: publicising it. People keep asking me questions about all this, just as I kept asking other people for advice, and I want to blog about the experience as much to pass on some of the generous help that I received, as anything else.

But first things first. The book. Let me tell you a bit about it. Because it’s no coincidence that TCC is my first Kindle novel. When you write a novel, you have to fall in love with it. Not just with the characters, but with the idea of the book in your head. It’s hard to describe this process to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It isn’t anything like the white heat of inspiration that new writers seem to think has to strike before they can write. So much of writing is perspiration rather than inspiration. But I’ve blogged about this feeling before. It probably applies to all creative ventures. The idea of it must excite you as much at the end of the work as it does at the beginning. Most writers have far more ideas than time to write them and we all keep ideas folders or notebooks, or similar . But the ideas we pick up and run with are those which excite us most, ideas which carry on exciting us from start to finish, no matter how many edits we have to do. Twenty or more drafts is not out of the ordinary. It can be exhausting, it can be irritating, it can even be superficially boring. It is always hard work, but all the same, you never quite lose the feeling in the pit of your stomach that here is a world you love to be in, with people you need to know more about. And that means that you are able to live with an idea for a very long time, even while you are working on all kinds of other creative projects. Which is what I did with this novel.

So - I first had the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet more years ago than I care to remember. I had read a little piece – I forget where now, but suspect it was in an Edinburgh museum – about Lady Grange who was kidnapped to St Kilda on the instigation of her husband. Incidentally, there is an excellent new book about Lady Grange,  The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley, whom I met recently on Gigha. I can recommend this wry, beautifully written and immensely readable slice of history. The Curiosity Cabinet is, of course, nothing like this story, or only insofar as it involves a woman, in early 18th Century Edinburgh, being kidnapped to a remote Scottish Island, for reasons which are not revealed till the end of the novel. At the same time, I had been working on a truly mammoth dramatisation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, for BBC R4, in ten episodes. Gradually, these things fermented away in my imagination and eventually resulted in a radio trilogy produced and directed by Hamish Wilson.

But still the story gnawed away at me, as though there was more to be told. I hadn’t got it quite right. And that was when I embarked on the novel which is markedly different from the plays. It seemed to me that I was trying to tell a passionate love story, but one in which, in some strange, almost supernatural sense – (and without being in any way an overt ghost story) - the tragedies of the past stood a chance of being resolved in the present. I spent a great deal of time on the Isle of Gigha while I was writing the novel, and eventually wrote a factual history of that island and its people called God’s Islanders (Birlinn 2006). But the island inspired the story of The Curiosity Cabinet, as much as anything else – the sense of a small world, with many layers. The sense, as Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean calls it, of a ‘thin place’ where the boundaries between this world and whatever lies beyond can be very slight indeed.


The novel was eventually submitted for The Dundee Book Prize, was one of three shortlisted, and was published in 2005 by Polygon. That edition sold out. People liked it. My hero, John Burnside, liked it. Lorraine Kelly liked it. Although for some it was seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Why? Because it’s unashamedly a love story of course. Well, I make no apologies for that. It is indeed a love story spanning three centuries. Of which more, later, in future posts.

For this new edition, there’s a brand new cover, beautifully made by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell, who interpreted her response to the book as follows: ‘The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island’s presence is constant, as a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind’s eye as each chapter unfolds.’

And of course, she’s right. As an ‘island person’ herself, she can see all too well that the island’s presence is central to the book. So if you like love stories, but also if you love Scotland, and Scottish history – and small Hebridean islands too – this may well be the book for you.