Showing posts with label Scottish fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scottish fiction. Show all posts

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.



 


A Bad Year for Trees and Other Stories

 


Just in time for Christmas, A Bad Year for Trees would make a good stocking filler for anyone who likes short stories. Almost all of them have been published before, anthologised by other people or even broadcast on Radio 4. 

I've been meaning to collect them together for a long time. At the moment, I have a new non-fiction book, the Last Lancer, going through the Saraband publishing process, I also have some ideas for a brand new project simmering away. Assembling this little retrospective has proved to be a pleasant distraction, especially allowing me to look back at what inspired these stories. 

I think they epitomise something I was told by an (ex) agent. 'Your work is too well written to be popular, but too popular to be really literary,' she said. My bad. 

All the same, it makes them readable! Let me know what you think. 

It's available as an eBook, and now in paperback. I've written other stories, over the years, but these are the ones that I believe have stood the test of time. 

The paperback was published with the invaluable help of Duncan Lockerbie at Lumphanan Press  

Bird of Passage: my Wuthering Heights inspired novel on special offer.

      

Cover art by Alan Lees

My novel Bird of Passage will be on special offer at 99p for the Kindle eBook version, for a whole week, from late on 14th October to the 21st October. If you haven't already read it, do grab a bargain. If you'd prefer the paperback, you'll find that here (at full price, I'm afraid, but it's a nicely produced book and a long one!) 

After all, what else can you do at this miserable time of year, with the country's economy crumbling around us, but bury yourself in a book? I plan to do the same thing, but I'll be writing something new as well.

Over all the years of my writing career, and even though I've been happily published by Saraband  for some time now, with my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, due to be published in 2023, there were two or three fairly early novels that I always thought of as the 'ones that got away'. 

Until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that a few people read and enjoyed, but 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. I should add that I can't blame my current publisher for this. There is only so much work that an individual independent publisher can deal with and had Saraband seen it earlier, they might well have taken it. But by the time they became 'my' publisher, there was more work ready to go, more work I wanted to write specifically for them. Writing careers are tricky like that. 

In the case of Bird of Passage, back when I was still sending out submissions, I suspect the kiss of death as far as agents and publishers alike were concerned, was the Wuthering Heights connection. Later, I wondered if I should have been so up-front about it. Perhaps I should never have mentioned it. But surely they would have noticed the faint parallels? Or maybe not. 

Anyway, in all my innocence, I gave the game away. And that was the rock I perished on. 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. 

I'm not alone. I know plenty of people who are similarly obsessed with Wuthering Heights. And here we are again, with a new film, Emily, in cinemas from tomorrow ... 
 
But to return to Bird of Passage. 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. Although most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband, 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. 

Like the Amber Heart, Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. I kept going back to it. Tinkering. Leaving it alone. Thinking about it. It haunted my dreams. It was as though these characters wanted desperately to tell their story. Back then, I still 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 I took the decision to combine some self publishing with my traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. That was when I tackled it in a big way, with all the benefit that so much experience of writing and editing can bring. Suddenly, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be, exactly how the story should be told. When it was finally published, one of my reviewers wrote that it is a 'reimagining' of Wuthering Heights at a different time and in a different place. It is a good way of describing it, and that is perhaps as close as it gets to Emily's masterpiece.

The cover, designed by my artist husband, is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set mostly in the Scottish countryside, 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, irreparable damage of childhood trauma.

If you love Wuthering Heights (or even if you don't) and if this sounds like your kind of novel, why not give it a try? 



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. 








New Year, New Editions


Bird of Passage is finally out in paperback. It's print on demand only, and you'll have to go to Amazon to find it, but once book events begin again, I'll have a few more copies to distribute myself. 

I've blogged about this book a few times, but you can read a longish account of its history, here, written back when we were first in lockdown. And here we are again. This is one of two or three books from my past that somehow or other, even though I've also been happily traditionally published, slipped through the net. It's also, oddly enough, one of my favourites among all the books I've written. 

The book had been edited to within an inch of its life, so I had very little trouble in publishing it as an eBook, in which format it has been available for some time. I still wanted the satisfaction of holding a paperback copy, but I knew I wasn't up to the task of doing the necessary design and formatting, even though I wanted to maintain control over it. 

Hunting about online,  I found a small, well reviewed Scottish business called Lumphanan Press. I can wholeheartedly recommend them. They did an excellent job of designing and formatting a PDF, at a very fair price and when a couple of sample copies of the book arrived from Amazon, I was very happy with them. The upload process on the site is pretty simple, but what was reassuring was the way - as the software went through various important checks - each box was ticked. I can only imagine the chaos if I had tried to do this formatting all by myself. Sometimes we have to know our own limitations and employ professionals! 

I could, of course, use this same PDF to have other copies printed elsewhere, but for the moment, in the middle of this second lockdown, I'm happy enough. 

Meanwhile, I'm working on a new book called The Last Lancer, hopefully for my publisher, but I'm also doing a little editing of two more novels that never saw the traditional light of day: The Amber Heart and Ice Dancing. The Amber Heart has, if anything, an even more chequered past than Bird of Passage! 

Ice Dancing, on the other hand, is an unashamedly contemporary love story, and yet it isn't really a conventional romance. It's an odd, quirky novel, about love at first sight, and inadvisable attachments and painful pasts, and about Scottish lowland village life. Those who like it seem to like it a lot. I'm not surprised. I'm still very fond of my two main characters. Another one I plan to get out in paperback this year. 

So. Lots to do. Between the state of the UK (horrible) and the US and the virus, I'm keeping myself reasonably sane here in Scotland with lots of writing writing, playing the piano and learning Spanish. Soon it will be spring and I'll be able to get into the garden again. It all feels a bit like those visits to the cinema in the olden days where you would sit down in the middle of the B movie and then stay on till you thought 'Oh - this is where we came in.' 

Our local medical centre has just flagged up that vaccines are coming. My husband will be in an earlier cohort than me. Bring it on. Can't wait. 


Not here just yet - but they soon will be!




Of Blaeberries, Midgies and a Scottish Love Story

 



At the weekend, a couple of Polish friends living in Scotland posted pictures online of a place that used to be one of my dad's favourite hill-walking destinations: the Loch Cornish walk in the Galloway hills. We went there often when I was younger, and we would especially go there when it was 'blaeberry' time. These are the small, sweet, aromatic berries that grow on our hills, our islands, our moorlands and - as my friends reported - in Poland too, where they feature in many recipes. My dad used to make blueberry pierogi, which were particularly delicious. It is just a little late in the year now to find many of them. It's a short season and the birds and small mammals make short work of them. As far as I remember, we would go in late July or early August. 


Bajka who loved blueberries. 
 This also happens to be the height of the midge season here in Scotland. The Scottish 'midgie' has a deservedly fearsome reputation. I remember one year, when I was in my teens, heading for the hills with my parents. Knowing that we would be harassed by flies and midges, my father packed three old 'net' curtains along with the picnic. Draped in these, we picked pounds of the luscious berries. The dog had learned to pick them too, seeking them out and nipping them off with her small front teeth, although since she always ate them herself, she didn't contribute much to the hoard. I remember her finding a good patch and browsing contentedly while we picked. A few other hillwalkers passed us by and - seeing three people draped in white, crouching down and engaged in what must have looked like some primitive Druidic dance - gave us a very wide berth. 

Anyway, our blueberry/blaeberry/bilberry conversation reminded me that I had always wondered why the blueberries I buy in the shops never taste remotely like the blueberries we used to pick on the hills. They are big balls of sweet nothingness, whereas the genuine blueberry has a strong aromatic flavour. My Polish friends (who know all about these things) pointed out that the balls of sweet nothing are known as 'American Blueberries' in Poland. They are vaccinium corymbosum, (the Highbush Blueberry) whereas the luscious European berries are vaccinium myrtillus, the European bilberry, blueberry or - in Scotland - the blaeberry. Corymbosum look good. Myrtillus taste good.

Which makes me wonder why some enterprising fruit farmer over here hasn't turned over some of his or her land to growing genuine native blueberries on a commercial scale. I'd buy them.

Finally - all of this reminded me of a rather sexy passage in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet in which Henrietta, exiled to the small Hebridean island of Garve, for reasons that only emerge at the end of the novel, is gathering blaeberries, and almost trips over her reluctant captor, Manus McNeill, 'lying full length on a bed of heather, staring at the sky, his arms pillowing his head.' For the first time they hold a genuine conversation about her background, and she finds herself touched by his anger on her behalf, without understanding just what lies behind it. For the first time too, they acknowledge a mutual attraction. And if you want to know more you'll have to read the book! 

It was one of my first published novels. I've gone on to use the same island setting in a couple more novels, but I find that I have a genuine lingering fondness for the people in this one - especially Henrietta and Manus who are not really a conventional hero and heroine. Looking at the many nice reviews, a number of other people think so too. 




On 21st July 1796, Robert Burns Died in Dumfries.




Very early on the morning of 21st July, she had been dozing in a chair, so far advanced in her pregnancy that she could not comfortably fall asleep. The child was kicking and tumbling inside her, as it did whenever she rested. Jessie had come in with his medicine and tried to hold the cup to his chapped lips, tried to rouse him a little, but he pushed it away. His face was so thin now that he looked all unlike himself. Even his nose seemed to have become finer, sharper.
     Jean got up, steadying herself on the arm of the chair, and took the cup from Jessie. 'Rab, my dear, you need to take your medicine. It'll do you some good, ease the pain, if you can only try to swallow it.'
    She sat on the edge of the bed, stroked his forehead gently, stroked the dark hair shot through with grey. Suddenly she had the strangest feeling, as though this was all unreal, as though there might be some magical place where she could turn back time, make it all different, if only she could get to it, if only she could reach it. There, he would be as she had known him at first: her strong, young lover, her husband, her man.
    He woke at the sound of her voice, or perhaps her familiar touch, gazed at her, raised his head and drank a mouthful of the cordial, coughing at the bitter taste of it. He tried to say her name, recognition in his eyes for an instant, reached out his arms to her and then fell back on the bed.
    'Oh Jeany,' said Jessie Lewars. 'Oh dear Jeany, I think he's gone.'
    She was right.




On this day, 21st July, in 1796, Robert Burns died, probably from acute endocarditis, of which he had all the symptoms. 

You can read more about Rab and his dear Jean in my novel The Jewel of which the above is an extract. 

Don't Come To The Highlands - Read This Instead!

Dun Beag Broch, Skye

My spooky little novella, Rewilding, is currently free on Amazon Kindle, and will be till the end of the week, so download it now, even if you don't want to read it till later.

I wrote this late last year, after a trip to visit friends who live on the beautiful Isle of Skye. We've been talking on the phone now, lamenting the fact that we won't see each other for a little while.

The cover picture is of the amazing Dun Beag Broch on that island, although that isn't where this particular story is set - but it was certainly one of the things that inspired it. The other was this extraordinary song by Julie Fowlis - not just beautiful, but very unusual because it is sung from the point of view of the 'water horse', (not the kelpie who is a little more benign) pining for the woman who has deserted him, when this creature is usually portrayed as one of the most dangerous of supernatural creatures.

This long short story that I called Rewilding, hardly long enough to be called a novella, but certainly too long for a short story - seemed to arrive all of a piece, the way things sometimes do. I could see it so vividly in my mind's eye that it was almost like taking dictation. It's a theme I may well go back to later - something that intrigues me. After all, I have a Masters degree in Folklore, and every now and then my fascination with these things rears its head all over again.

Some years ago, when we were driving back from the Isle of Gigha, on one of those sunny, cloudy, gorgeous days that you so often get in this part of the world, we were heading down the side of Loch Fyne. As anyone who has driven along this stretch of road knows, there's a range of high hills on the opposite side of the loch, treeless and smooth. As we rounded one of the many bends, we were more or less facing these hills, where intermittent cloud shadows and sunshine chased each other.
And then ...
'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?' I asked my husband, who was driving.
''Yes,' he said. 'And I can't stop anywhere.'
He couldn't of course, and he had to keep his eyes on the road. So there are no pictures.
But briefly, straight ahead of us, the cloud shadows had formed a clear image, like a sharp projection on the hillside, of two huge horses, rearing up, black horses, manes flying in an unseen wind.
It was uncanny. I have never seen anything like it before or since. And it faded as quickly as it had come.

I think that experience too fed into the writing of this story. In my head, there's a sequel. Maybe I'll write it.

Meanwhile - please, please, please don't go to rural areas, thinking to 'escape the virus'. All you do is endanger those of us who live here. But you could escape into a story instead!




Like a Puck to the Head: Ice Hockey Memories - and Ice Dancing

Village in the Snow,
by Alan Lees
I've just edited, polished and republished a new edition of a novel called Ice Dancing for Kindle - and there will be a paperback available before too long.

It's a story about Scottish village life. It's a very grown up love story with a heroine who is almost ten years older than the man she loves. (Why is that so unusual?) There's a dark side to it. But it's also a story about the beauty and skill and poetry of a sport that I've loved for a very long time.

There's a Canadian hockey song that talks about love being like a 'frozen puck to the head.' If you've never seen a hockey game, and never felt the size, weight and speed of a frozen ice hockey puck, that won't mean much to you. But once felt, never forgotten. Even when the puck occasionally flies over the protective plexi glass and connects with a spectator, it can be painful, and people are advised to keep their eye on it at all times. So not a bad way of describing the kind of love that comes out of nowhere and strikes like a bolt of lightning.

My own love affair with ice hockey began many years ago when I was a young woman teaching English to adults in Tampere, in Finland. I spent two very happy years there, and one of the first things we learned was that if you wanted to get the young engineers and other techies talking - which was our job, after all - you had only to ask them about ice hockey. We would have long conversations about the rules of the game and the state of play of the local teams. It was hard not to become involved, especially when these 'students' - who were essentially the same age as we were - invited us out to hockey games so that we could see just what they were talking about!

Cue forward some years and the UK saw a renaissance of interest in professional ice hockey, with the setting up of the so-called Superleague, involving several high calibre teams. This was a bit controversial in that these teams employed many ‘imported’, particularly Canadian, players, but it undeniably raised the standards of play for the spectators who had the privilege of watching some world class hockey on home ice. Plus the standard of coaching for young, aspiring British players, my own son included, was excellent and inspirational.

Although there are still teams throughout the UK, playing excellent, entertaining hockey, the Superleague lasted only from 1995 to 2003, after which it was disbanded and replaced with the Elite Hockey League. My own seasons spent as a ‘UK hockey mom’ inspired at least some of the background to the novel, a time I remember with a great deal of affection, not least because of the off-ice chat and laughter. Hockey was and remains a very inclusive sport. 

When I was writing Ice Dancing, though, it was another occasion I remembered. I had taken my son and his friend to a public skating session at our local ice arena, when a young man, casually dressed in jeans and a fleece, started moving gently over the ice in time to the music. Except that it was like no dancing on ice I had ever seen before. I never found out who he was, but I remember thinking that he might have been a hockey player, because most of them have the same grace as ice dancers and there was something about his movements that suggested hockey. Of course I wrote it as fiction.

'In the control box, someone had put on Too Lost In You, and lowered the lights just a little. It was strange. Other people were still skating, but he made them look clumsy. He skated gently and deftly around them and among them, not bothering them at all, making patterns on the ice in time to the music. He skated like a dream. He was showing off now. I knew fine he was showing off for me and everyone else, unable to resist the temptation of that music and those sexy words. After a while, people went to the side, just so they could watch him. The stewards stood with their arms folded, defensive and a bit jealous. Players didn’t usually do this. They normally kept themselves to themselves. But here was Joe, putting on a display for free. It wasn’t done.

And what Joe was doing, it wasn’t exactly dancing, but it was rhythmic and fluid and sometimes it was acrobatic. A man sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now you know why they call him Sky Napier. Good, isn’t he?’ And I nodded but he was more than good. He was utterly and completely beautiful out there on the ice. The music was part of the magic, sensual and insistent. He seemed like nothing but movement. I could have watched him all day. A creature of ice and fire. Bright and enticing.'

Ice Dancing is entirely fictional, but there is a darker side of the sport - of all sports  - that is a part of the fabric of the novel. And on another topic, the wartime internment of Italians who had made their homes in Scotland for many years is a matter of shameful fact. Given the more recent experiences of the Windrush generation, it is one that has by no means been consigned to history.

All the same - this is mainly a book about an unexpected physical and mental attraction, the sheer, overwhelming joy of falling unwisely in love - and the sheer joy of ice hockey too! 


Picture by Skeeze on Pixabay





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.




Immortal Memories: Robert Burns and Ellisland


When I wrote a stage play called Burns on the Solway, some years ago, I found myself as interested in the poet's wife as I was in him. Perhaps more so. Which probably explains why I eventually decided that I had to find out more about her. A lot more. And then I wrote a whole novel about her, called The Jewel, which was published by .Saraband, in 2016.

Since then, she has never quite left me, and at this time of the year in particular (25th January is the anniversary of the poet's birth) I'm often asked to speak about her or the poet, or their relationship.

This weekend, I'll be heading down to Dumfriesshire, to the farm called Ellisland, which is a particularly special place to be talking about the poet and his wife. I'll be giving the toast to the 'immortal memory' of the poet - and what better building to do it in than the house that Robert Burns built?

Well, mostly he supervised the building and worked on the farm. He had finally formalised his marriage to Jean in spring 1788 and had taken the tenancy of this farm on the bank of the beautiful River Nith, but there was no proper house on the site. So the poet took lodgings with an elderly couple in a smoky, chilly cottage while his house was being built. His landlord had given him money to fund it. Only he kept riding back over the hills to see Jean in Mauchine. He called it The Honeymoon and if the poems he wrote then are anything to go by, he was very much in love with her. It was a happy time for both of them.This meant that the building went slowly, and eventually he rented a draughty, but more civilised house somewhere nearby, so that he could move his little family to Dumfriesshire: Jean, his little son, Robbie, (the only surviving child of two sets of twins) his cousins whom he was planning to employ as farm servants, and a young maidservant. I'm sure Jean couldn't wait to get there, and neither can I!






My Fictional Island of Garve: Here It Is!

I thought I'd take this opportunity to show you the excellent map, drawn by cartographer Joe de Pass of my fictional island of Garve. Although Garve features in the Curiosity Cabinet, the Posy Ring, out now, is the first novel in a planned series - the Annals of Flowerfield. I'm working on the next book, The Marigold Child, even as I write this! You don't have to read the Curiosity Cabinet to understand The Posy Ring, and all the novels will, to some extent, stand alone. But you will meet a few of the modern day characters from that first book all over again in The Posy Ring. They are no longer central to the story but if you want to know what happens to Donal and Alys and Ben, you can find out now!

That first novel is also, like Joe's map, a nice introduction to the world of the book, so although it isn't essential, you could do worse than seek out The Curiosity Cabinet and read it first.

The Posy Ring: Coming Soon.

The Posy Ring, the first novel in a planned series called The Annals of Flowerfield, is due for publication by Saraband on 12th April. 

Here's what it's all about! 

When antiques seller Daisy Graham inherits an ancient house called Auchenblae, or Flowerfield, on the Hebridean island of Garve, she's daunted by its size and isolation. But the building, its jumble of contents, its wilderness of a garden and the island itself prove themselves so fascinating that she's soon captivated. She's also attracted to Cal Galbraith, who is showing an evident interest in the house and its new owner, yet she's suspicious of his motives – with good reason, it seems.

In parallel with their story runs that of sixteenth-century cousins Mateo and Francisco, survivors from the ill-fated Spanish Armada who find safe passage to the island.


There, one of them falls in love with the laird's daughter, Lilias. The precious gold posy (poesy) ring he gives her is found centuries later. Are its haunting engraved mottoes, un temps viendra and vous et nul autre, somehow significant now for Daisy and Cal?

Well, are they? You'll have to read the book to find out. And if I can get my head down and get out of my usual winter malaise, there will be another one in due course.

I've been dealing in antique and vintage textiles for some years now. It's my other day job alongside the writing. I've always collected textiles, always loved finding out their various histories, and they often find their way into my fiction. But when I realised that my collection was getting a bit too large for comfort, I started dealing in them as well. I've done antique markets and boot sales as a buyer and as a seller, and still go along to browse and buy.  As soon as online selling became possible, I set up a dedicated eBay shop, specialising in textiles with the occasional foray into vintage clothes, teddy bears and costume jewellery, although I'm about to transfer my 'niche' shop to another site called Love Antiques. 

The fictional Isle of Garve
I've known for some time that I wanted to write a novel about this world, and I've always thought how wonderful it might be to find a house full of 'stuff'. but I've also known how horribly challenging it would be. How on earth to sort out the rubbish from the treasures? It's difficult enough when you buy a large quantity of boxes of old linens and lace at auction. I've hauled things about, (textiles are incredibly heavy especially when linen is involved!) and spent hours deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to recycle back into the saleroom or charity shop. I've observed too - I am a writer, first and foremost - watching the hierarchies in the salerooms and among the dealers, watching the quirks of various auctioneers, watching how the whole business works. 


I've also lived in a two hundred year old house for almost forty years, so I know all about the challenges of old buildings as well. Taking on an old house when you're rich is still, I think, challenging. (Not that I've ever been rich enough to experience it.) Doing it without enough money to tackle it properly can be an ongoing nightmare. 

But this isn't all that the book is about. Because in parallel with the modern day story, there's the story of the house and the island at other times, layers of events, people, relationships, like the layers built up in the agates I sometimes find on our nearby beaches. Nobody goes back in time in the Posy Ring. It isn't that sort of novel. But the past always, in some sense, influences the present, and various artefacts discovered in the present day still have something of their past clinging inexorably to them. 

As nice Paul in the BBC antiques programme called Flog It is so fond of saying - 'That's what it's all about.'

Meanwhile, I've never yet found a posy - or 'poesy' - ring. But I sure wish I could! 

Young Woman in Yellow - my inspiration for Lilias.

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.

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! 

Voices and Stories


I'm reblogging this from my March post for Authors Electric, with whom I've been blogging for some years now. Sadly, it'll be my last-but-one post for them. I've loved my time blogging with the group, and will remain in touch with everyone, but pressure of work has caught up with me and one or two commitments have to be pruned so I'm taking a sabbatical from AE. I'm hoping that it'll give me a bit more time to devote to this blog which I've been neglecting lately. I'm aiming to write a few more posts each month especially since this is shaping up to be an exciting year for me, with the publication of my new novel in May, and the paperback reprint of my history of the Isle of Gigha (now titled The Way It Was) in June, so do check in here from time to time.

But this post, all about voices and stories, seems well worth reblogging since it's something so many writers find problematic. And if writers have problems, then so do readers!

Having published The Physic Garden, a first person narration historical novel (although not my first historical novel) a couple of years ago, I then found myself contemplating the challenge of writing a new historical novel, more or less set in the same period, late 18th and early 19th century Scotland, for the same publisher.

But I knew almost immediately that this wouldn’t be a first person narration – although it could have been. I’m generally comfortable with first person narration because – wearing my other hat as a playwright – I’ve written a number of dramatic monologues: vivid first person narratives, with a strong voice and a strongly visual element too. In fact I think the key to writing a successful monologue is to cast the whole audience as another character, so that the actor is telling his or her story to the audience. I don’t mean audience participation, which can be at best surprising and at worst embarrassing. But for the audience to be engaged, they have to feel that the character is engaging with them, personally. I always liken it to the role of the wedding guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in a play called The Price of a Fish Supper, I made a direct reference to the poem, with my fisherman narrator ironically aware of the poem from his schooldays and of the parallels with his own situation, his own personal albatross.

Experience of writing plays is useful for writing first person narrative fiction, since you inevitably find yourself casting the reader, whoever he or she might be, in the role of audience/listener/participant in the story of the novel, and this gives the narration an immediacy and intimacy it might otherwise lack. I think it worked well enough in The Physic Garden since by the time he was narrating the story, William Lang was an educated and experienced man – one who had become scholarly, but who was able to look back on his raw, youthful self with a measure of wisdom and understanding. The whole book was ‘about’ how he got there, the story of the harrowing events, the betrayals in his life that conspired to make him the man he turned out to be.

My new novel, The Jewel, however, is about the life and times of Jean Armour, the long-suffering wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and I was aware even before I began researching the subject that she had been somewhat neglected by the critical establishment, especially the Victorians, but even by those commentators who ought to have known better. In her 1930 biographical novel about the poet, Catherine Carswell was content to dismiss Jean as an illiterate and unfeeling ‘young heifer.’

I briefly considered telling the tale in Jean’s voice. Although I was born in Yorkshire, I’ve lived in Ayrshire long enough to be well aware of the vibrant language of this place, although like so many people nowadays, the poet himself seemed to find it remarkably easy to switch between Scots and what reads very much like standard English – and we’ve no reason to suppose that, with a good ear and a ready wit, he wasn’t able to do the same thing in speech, if he thought the situation and company warranted it. Jean was a different matter. Her father was a prosperous stonemason in the busy town of Mauchline: busier in the 18th century than it is today. She would have spoken – especially as a young woman – an Ayrshire version of Scots, although like William Lang, time and experience would probably have changed it somewhat. But much of the ‘meat’ of the story involves the complicated courtship of the couple, with all its ups and downs. She had a level of education, was literate but not literary. She had a fund of old songs, and knew all their melodies, passed on to her from her mother and grandmother. It was one of the things that seems to have attracted the poet. She was never foolish and emerges as a kindly, sensible, down to earth woman whose sincere affection for her frequently errant lover, later husband, is never really in any doubt. She loved him although there were clearly times when she found it hard to like him much.

I could ‘hear’ her voice in my head, just as I can hear Ayrshire Scots spoken every time I go down the street or into the nearby town for my shopping. But would it be right to attempt to reproduce it on the page? I soon decided that it would be better all round if the novel was written in the third person, but very much from Jean’s perspective. We are with Jean throughout the whole novel, but the slight remove of a third person narration allows us to see through her eyes, to feel through her feelings and to hear her voice, without introducing the undeniable hurdle for many readers of fixing the whole narrative in 18th century Scots.

I wanted and needed a wider audience. I wanted and needed to convey the story in an authentic but accessible way.

So, I was listening for cadences of speech, for the shape of conversations, and for expressions that are – to a great extent – almost as commonplace now as they were then. People still call their children ‘weans’ here rather than ‘bairns.’ Still say that they are ‘black affronted’ by something. Still tell people that their coats are hanging on a ‘shoogly peg’ when they are overstepping the mark in some way. I have heard a woman call her husband a ‘knotless threid’ – a knotless thread who might slip away at time of need. It seemed to me enough to introduce words and phrases and the shape of certain conversations to fix the novel in the particular time, but just as vitally in the place of its setting. And to attempt to avoid anachronisms as far as I could, of course. But all while making the story as comprehensible as possible to the casual, non Scottish reader. And yes, there is a small glossary, even though I’d hope everything makes sense from its context!

Incidentally, anachronisms are not always what we think them. I remember an editor questioning the phrase 'ghostly gear' in The Curiosity Cabinet. She thought it was modern. But it isn't. It's a very old word for your 'stuff'.

The other vital element in all this, though, seems to me to be story. However authentic a voice, however firmly embedded in a time and place, if that voice does not have an absorbing story to tell, then the novel – or play, or short story – will fail. It doesn’t have to have a complex plot. There doesn’t have to be a twist in the tail. But there has to be a story for those voices, for those people to tell, something that carries us forward, that makes us want to find out what happens next, that satisfies the reader’s desire for illumination, for the perception that the book is perhaps about more than the sum of its parts – but that each of those parts really matters. The love of story is one of the things that makes us human. This is true for the writer, quite as much as for the reader. Whether successfully or not, we write to find out. Or at least I know I do.

What do you think?






An Island that Inspired a Novel: Gigha and The Curiosity Cabinet

Beautiful cover art by Alison Bell

This is the time of year in Scotland, still more or less spring, but with summer fast approaching, that I invariably find myself thinking about the beautiful Isle of Gigha. We didn't visit last year, and I reckon that was the first time in many years that we didn't manage to go, even if only for a few days. Our son paddled in its turquoise seas when he was a little lad. We visited with friends (sometimes with a lot of friends!) and sometimes it was just the three of us and then just the two of us when Charlie grew up. I think all the young people who spent time there have happy memories of the place.

The island is bathed in golden light.
We are planning to try to get there later in the year, perhaps in September or October when the place is full of luscious brambles (blackberries if you're not reading this in Scotland!) and the whole island seems often to be bathed in golden light. But my favourite time of year there is still May with its oceans of primroses, violets and then bluebells, or June and early July when the place seems to be awash with wild flowers of all kinds, armies of foxgloves, buttery honeysuckle. As Manus, one of my characters in The Curiosity Cabinet says to Henrietta Dalrymple, when she asks him for plants and bulbs to make a garden, 'Henrietta, the whole island is a flower garden.' And of course it is.

The whole island is a flower garden.
Two of my novels have been inspired by Gigha: The Curiosity Cabinet and (rather more loosely, but still recognisable) Bird of Passage. Both stories are fictional, and so are all the characters, but the landscape is a different matter. And of course I've also written a big non-fiction book about Gigha, a gallop through the prehistory and history of the people of the island: God's Islanders. I can't quite leave it alone!


Ardminish Bay
My husband, artist Alan Lees, feels much the same - and he has painted it on more than one occasion: the picture on the left is Ardminish Bay with the boathouse restaurant in the background and yes - the sea really can be that colour. The air is so clean and there are days when the colours seem to be impossibly vivid.

The Curiosity Cabinet has been available worldwide as an eBook on Kindle for some years now and I've just uploaded it all over again - not with any real changes, but with a few tiny edits and with a sample chapter of Bird of Passage at the end.

I'm in two minds about these 'bonus chapters' myself because I know how frustrating it is to think that you have another chapter to go in a book and to suddenly find that it has ended, and what you thought was more of the novel is actually an extract from another book altogether! But I hope readers will forgive me, because it doesn't seem quite so bothersome in an eBook and besides, Bird of Passage is another novel set in a similar island landscape and I have a feeling that if you enjoy The Curiosity Cabinet you might well enjoy Bird of Passage too. It's a bigger, sadder and more disturbing novel altogether than the rather gentle tale that is The Curiosity Cabinet but the island landscape plays a big part.

I've also published both these novels to various other platforms including Apple, so you should be able to find them pretty much anywhere you want. The Curiosity Cabinet was published in paperback some years ago, but sold out and consequently went out of print quite quickly. Second hand copies do crop up for those who prefer paper, but I'm planning a Print on Demand version as soon as I can find the time to do it. I have a draft of a new novel to finish first!

Still, I'm hoping that paperback versions of  The Curiosity Cabinet and Bird of Passage too will be available before the end of the year.

Manus McNeill? 
The Curiosity Cabinet consists of two interwoven love stories, past and present. Nobody goes back in time - although the problems of the past may be continued and perhaps worked out in the present. It's also a story about the way in which small and rather magical islands such as this one can feel as though they hold the whole history of the place, layers of it, one on top of another. 'Thin places' where the boundaries between past and present seem to be somehow blurred.

So - if I've whetted your appetite a bit, here's a little extract from the present day story. After an absence of twenty five years, Alys has returned to the island where she used to come on holiday. And in her hotel, she has come across the 'curiosity cabinet' of the title - not really a curiosity cabinet at all, but an old, very valuable and very beautiful casket, embroidered with traditional raised work.

'Presently she takes her drink and finds the residents’ lounge again. It is still empty, so she moves about the room examining pictures. They are large oil paintings, grim death rather than still life: birds, their feathers tumbled and bloody, hunks of meat, overflowing platters of fruit and vegetables. There is the inevitable stag, on a heathery hill. There is a grimly handsome highlander, staring pensively into the distance. There are a few portraits of bald-headed, pot-bellied, self-satisfied old men, so dark as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

And then she comes upon a display case of mahogany and glass. There are objects, neatly arranged on three shelves. But the casket is central. The casket has raised, heavily embroidered panels on a wooden base and little gilded feet. The scenes are biblical. A woman stands breast high amid the growing corn. She is Ruth. ‘Whither thou goest I will go … thy people shall be my people,’ thinks Alys, surprised by her own knowledge, remembering the words from some long-ago reading, a school service perhaps. She hasn’t been to church in years. There are birds and flowers too: long-necked swans and plump seagulls, honeysuckle, wild roses with their centres formed of tiny seed pearls, drooping foxgloves.

The embroidery has faded over time but only a little. The two front doors are open to reveal five drawers, two wide and three narrow, also embroidered with flowers and birds and beasts. There is a tall house in grey silk, with fragments of mica for windows.

She can still hear the child pattering about, giggling.

Other objects, presumably the contents of the cabinet, are spread out on the shelves above and below it. Here is a miniature shuttle, prettily inlaid with gold, and with a few discoloured threads still attached. Here is a needlelace collar, very fine and floral. Here is a tiny pincushion, a painted silk fan and a coral teether. On another shelf is a hand mirror, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers: forget-me-nots and pansies. Alongside these precious keepsakes, she is puzzled to see a little collection of pebbles and shells and swansdown. Finally there is a scrap of yellowed paper, with a few words of incomprehensible writing: a letter? A poem? Alys is enchanted by these things and suddenly possessed by the need to know more about them. 

Slowly but surely, Alys finds out more about them: who made the casket and why, who owned it and its contents, what became of it, and what is the connection with her childhood playmate, island fisherman, Donal. And perhaps most important of all, who was the mysterious chieftain of the island, Manus McNeill, who had some great treasure which he lost, and who took to himself a bride from the sea? 

But the islanders are people who can 'keep a secret for a thousand years' and it's only when you belong that you can understand the truth of that hidden past.