Showing posts with label historical novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical novels. Show all posts

Grown Up Love Stories - Reclaiming Romance

I've been neglecting my blog again, mainly because I've been working on a new novel, called The Posy Ring. It's a spin off novel to The Curiosity Cabinet, set on the same fictional Scottish island of Garve and since I'm some 75,000 words into it I can at least begin to talk about it!

There's a point in any new project where not only does it not seem to exist at all, but where you begin to doubt that it ever will be a living, breathing thing, as opposed to a random heap of words. I've been through that and out the other side, and although I'm still not 100% certain that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train, I have high hopes that I will emerge blinking into the daylight in a month or so.

People often ask me what kind of novels I write and they're already asking what this new novel, the first of a series, is 'about'. I've always found the question difficult to answer precisely.  I write a certain amount of well researched historical fiction, and the new novel is at least partly that. The story deals with events in the past and present, but, as in the Curiosity Cabinet, nobody goes back in time. Rather, I'm telling two parallel tales in the same fictional setting. And that setting has a profound influence on both stories.

I remember being startled a few years ago, when a colleague introduced me as a writer of 'romance'. Now I'm fond of a good romance, but the term - which used to be a very broad one - seems to have become synonymous with a certain structure of story, especially one aimed only at female readers (but sometimes written by men) and almost invariably with a happy and upbeat ending.

I often tell people these days that I write 'grown up love stories.' They are, I hope, about recognisably real men and women and they don't always end happily ever after. The Physic Garden is a good example although there, the central 'love story' mostly concerns a friendship between two men. (OK, it's a bromance!) It's also a book about an extreme betrayal which leads to tragedy. There is a happy ending of sorts, but like real life, it's equivocal and happens many years after the event.

The Jewel is about the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean Armour.  That certainly was a very grown up love story - arguably Scotland's greatest - and if we know anything about the poet's life, we know that it isn't going to end with them living happily ever after. Or not for very long.

The Curiosity Cabinet involves two distinct love stories, one past and one present. The Posy Ring is heading the same way, but there is, I find, a significant element of this new book that involves love for a house and its contents. And for an island. The quality of mystery and excitement is there. Love is there too. But it's also about a search for a sense of belonging.

Maybe though, we just need to reclaim that word 'romance' which is a perfectly good word after all. Perhaps we need to go with a much broader definition. I have many friends who write 'romances' but they all, even within the more conventional parameters of that genre, write quite differently. Looking it up, I found it described as 'a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love' and  'a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from every day life.'  These are fine as far as the mystery and excitement go, although many fine romances seem to be firmly rooted in everyday life - and none the worse for that.

Back when the Curiosity Cabinet was submitted for the literary prize for which it was eventually shortlisted, one of the readers remarked that it was a 'guilty pleasure'. Even then, I wondered what was guilty about it, and why, since he then went on to say that it was well written and involving. The only conclusion I could reach was that it is essentially a pair of parallel love stories and he felt guilty for enjoying it only because of the subject matter, whereas, presumably, he wouldn't have felt quite so guilty about reading and enjoying a novel involving the extremes of murder and mayhem.

This is not to say that everyone has to like everything, because patently they don't. I don't like too much gore in my reading, for example, but I know a lot of people who do. It's when we start to make value judgements on the basis only of subject matter that we run into trouble. I thought I didn't like 'fantasy' much till I discovered the amazing China Mieville. Perhaps we should all decide to take genre labels with a pinch of salt and be a bit more adventurous in our reading.

Perhaps we need to indulge ourselves in a bit more pleasure without any self imposed guilt.

Creative Visualisation: Being There

Been spending a lot of time with this lady!
There has been a great deal in the news recently about something called ‘aphantasia’ or the inability to conjure up images inside your head. You can read all about it on the BBC Website here.

There is a whole spectrum of abilities, and people at one end of it can’t do it at all. I was intrigued to note that the late great Oliver Sachs was ‘face blind’ so that when shown, for example, a photograph of Oprah Winfrey, he had no idea who she was. Well, maybe not everyone does know who she is, but this was not a one off. A series of well known faces provoked a shrug and a shake of the head. There’s a whole section of the population who lead perfectly normal lives without being able to visualise things inside their heads. They know, they just can’t visually imagine.

It got me thinking, especially because I had just finished a draft of a rather complicated historical novel, so I was very much in creative writing mode. Most writers of fiction will know that alongside the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ question, (which makes a lot of sense to non-writers who are intrigued by it, but provokes a faint feeling of dismay in writers, who are generally drowning in unsolicited ideas), there’s the OTHER thing.

I used to think there was a gap but I think of it more as a yawning chasm between non-writers and writers in this respect, and now I know that the ability that creative writers tend to have in spades has a name: hyperphantasia. For most of us, it may be even more intense than that.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, call it super-hyperphantasia.

I suspect most writers of fiction are hyperphantasiacs (if that's even a word!) and if they aren’t, I’d lay bets they aren’t very good creative writers.

But the reports got me wondering if the scientists conducting this research have thought about ways in which writers and other creative people, artists for example, enter this state? To some extent you can summon it at will but I’m not entirely sure you can do it to somebody else’s specification. If you ask me to visualise pretty much anything, I will be able to see it quite clearly ‘in my mind’s eye’ – to the extent that I will be able to describe it for you. I have a strong visual imagination. Years as a playwright – where you always have to see what’s going to be happening and to whom, on stage or on film - have only reinforced it.

I once took part in an experiment in past life regression. It was intriguing, faintly disturbing, immensely vivid. I can still remember who I was, where I lived, how I was dressed, dozens of details. But I have a suspicion that the writer in me was simply inventing the character in response to a number of prompts from the person doing the regressing. Not that she gave me any of these details. She simply asked a series of questions. Where are you? How are you dressed? What are you doing? Where do you live? I knew all the answers, right down to the 'best' shoes that were almost too uncomfortable to wear. But this is exactly what I do when I'm writing.

I had a pair of shoes like this but only in my mind's eye.

I know that when the writing is going really well, it’s similarly intense and vivid. I’m truly elsewhere. I’m in the world of the book or story or play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalji called it a state of ‘flow’, and so it is. Time has no meaning. Then you suddenly come back into yourself and find that several hours have passed by and you have no remembrance of them. And that’s because your mind, your whole imagination has been somewhere else. The room may have grown dark or cold, and you’re hungry and thirsty, and often you feel quite ill and disorientated. Well, I certainly do.

You have been in the world of the book or story or play. You have been seeing it, feeling it, living it and experiencing the emotions of various characters – and for a while at least it doesn’t just feel as real as the ordinary world. It feels hyper real, a place beside which the ‘real world’ feels quite disappointing. You’ve been kind of playing God and sometimes you have the uneasy sense that we’re not really designed to do that. Which is why it takes its toll, why we feel so strange afterwards and so utterly bereft between projects.

Is it worth it? Well I think so. And if you can’t do it, you’ve no idea what you’re missing, literally, so you won’t mind. I’m not sure you can be taught how to do it, but I do think innate abilities can be honed and improved.

I’m often asked about dialogue. It’s hard to teach people how to write good dialogue. There are the usual hints and tips, such as reading it out loud, listening to what people say, how they really speak. But I think good dialogue only comes when you are in one of these states of being 'in the zone', because what you are then doing is not so much ‘making’ people say something as listening to your characters. Climbing inside their heads, overhearing them talk and writing it down – all at the same time. And it’s almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that if they can’t make that quantum leap into being there.

Somebody once said to me that the worlds inside her head were far more real, more vivid than the world outside. I’d identify with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m not at all sure it could be induced under controlled conditions. Writers of historical fiction have to do a lot of familiarising first, which is essentially what the research is for. It's like a secret agent being briefed before a mission. And then, armed with all that knowledge, you make the quantum leap into inner space.

Also, the experience is not without a few unwelcome side effects: rabid insomnia being one of them. The inner world has a habit of either invading your dreams – not so bad, because at least you’re sleeping - or prodding you awake several times a night, reminding you of its existence. Come back, it says.

And then your characters join in. 'We’re here. We have things to tell you. And no, we’re not going to shut up or go away until you give us the voices we think we deserve.'

If you want to sample a couple of my historical novels to see what happened when I made that leap into the past, you could try:
The Physic Garden
The Curiosity Cabinet
And look out for a new historical novel called The Jewel, to be published in 2016.

This post has been reblogged from Authors Electric.

Linens and Lace and Other Inspirations

The occasional old shawl like this gorgeous Cantonese shawl
For some years now, I’ve been running another business on the side, supplementing my writing income by buying and selling antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. Textiles have been pretty much a lifelong passion with me. It all started when I was a child and used to go with my mum to the saleroom – she would always be looking at pottery and porcelain while I would be gazing at linens, lace, embroideries and the occasional old shawl that was always thrown in the corner of the saleroom, because nobody bothered much about old clothes back then. Or, come to think of it, old teddies. How time have changed!

An old fabric doll, fully dressed in Polonaise style
For me, there seemed to be something quite magical about them. When I went to university in Edinburgh, I was fascinated by the emerging vintage clothes shops there, even though ‘vintage’ had not yet become a mainstream interest. My mum was a very good seamstress and she made me a long Dr Zhivago coat (well – Lara coat, really) in black wool with fur around the hem and neck. There was a maxi dress too, from one of those Vogue Paris Original patterns, a beautiful thing with a weighted hem. I still have that, along with a long white lacy skirt, originally a petticoat, very ornate and detailed, bought from a little shop down in Stockbridge with carefully saved cash. Old army greatcoats were in fashion for the boys, long skirts, Indian cotton dresses for the girls. I remember going to one party in a nightdress from Marks and Spencer, a long candy-striped garment with a high waist, straight out of Jane Austen.

'Do you know,’ said the shocked wife of one of our lecturers, ‘that some students wear nightdresses to parties?’ I’m still not 100% certain whether she guessed what I was wearing or not ...

Nowadays, with a lot of writing to do, I spend less time on the textiles, but I still browse boot sales and the local saleroom, still splash out on a box of old linen and lace and sell most of it on to other textile nuts. But all this has certainly helped to enlighten me about costume in my historical fiction. Finding out what somebody would have worn, the how and the why of it is a vital part of the research for me. And also you’ll spot the howlers, like the mediaeval underpants mentioned in a recent post about anachronisms in historical fiction by Mari Biella. 

A lady's bonnet, rather than a baby bonnet - from France.

A few years ago, a curator of textiles gave a small group of Society of Authors in Scotland members a private viewing of a few of the textiles in storage in one of the big Scottish museums and since they were for study purposes, we were even allowed to handle some of them. It was enlightening, not least because certain items were beautiful to look at but very badly stitched ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. Clearly some dresses were like theatrical costumes - the illusion was everything. She also told us that although the really poor would obviously have great trouble keeping clean, for many ordinary eighteenth and nineteenth century people - tradespeople or tenant farmers, for instance - keeping their linens clean would have been important. 

Essentially, they would not be as smelly as we think. 

Looking at inventories of possessions, you can see that people of even limited means would have several shirts, shifts, etc so that the items worn closest to their bodies would be reasonably clean. Which makes sense when you think about how uncomfortable it would be to play host to fleas and lice, the inevitable result of filth. And for country people, a great deal of linen was spun and woven at home. Elsewhere it could be bought by the yard. Pretty printed cottons were also becoming fashionable through the eighteenth century and ease of laundering was an important factor in their popularity.

If you think about how seldom even today we dry clean a winter coat, for instance – perhaps only once a year, unless we’ve been out in the mud – you can see how little we've changed in this respect although I don't think a daily bath was an option or even thought desirable. But then nor was it the norm back in the fifties, and I don't remember that the world felt particularly grubby, even then.  

The embroidery that inspired The Physic Garden
This interest in clothes has been very important to me in several of my novels. In The Curiosity Cabinet, not only is an embroidery central to the plot, but the clothes of a dead woman, gifted to another woman in desperate straits, provide a turning point in the story. In my nineteenth century Polish historical epic, The Amber Heart  what the heroine wears became a sort of indicator of her character, all the way through - and certainly it mattered to me in terms of how I perceived her relationship with the hero (or possibly anti-hero) of the novel. And in The Physic Garden, an authentic embroidered garment looms very large in the story. 

Perhaps most of all, though, it has been important to my work in progress, the Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife Jean Armour. The daughter of a master stonemason, she was not hugely wealthy but still cared very much about her appearance as a young woman of some consequence in the small town of Mauchline. This perception of her ran contrary to many subsequent accounts of her as a plain countrywoman, not quite 'worthy' of her famous husband. I never really believed that. The six ‘Mauchline Belles’ of which Jean was one - I always see them as eighteenth century cheerleaders - are described by Rab as being keen on fashion too. ‘Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, In London or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.’ So even in Mauchline in 18th century Ayrshire, the lassies were happy to imitate London or Paris fashions if they could. 

Jean's silk shawl? Maybe. But not from Rab!
Later on, it becomes obvious that Rab liked his wife to dress as well as possible on their limited budget. He spent money on the finest ‘lutestring silk’ for her gowns, and the latest fashion in printed shawls. His own stylish mode of dressing was one of the things that her family so disapproved of during their courtship– and also one of the things that made Jean fall for him. She continued to appreciate nice things and pretty clothes throughout her long life.

Finally, the single sexiest garment the textile curator showed us on that museum visit, was a linen shirt. I’ve found these kind of things in boxes of old linen, but never something just as wonderful, as old, as well preserved, as that late eighteenth or early nineteenth century linen shirt, a man’s garment, with flowing sleeves, lots of fabric and a smooth, cool texture under the hand: a bit like the ones you see Ross Poldark or the musketeers wearing on the recent television dramas. 

But the really interesting thing is that such shirts were deemed to be very intimate. They were undergarments. So if a young lady actually saw a man in his shirt, like Mr Darcy on that TV adaptation, it would have been very shocking indeed, even for somebody as forthright and brave as Lizzie Bennet! 

I'm hoping that the new novel will be published in 2016. Meanwhile, if you're another textile nut (or even if you're not) you could check out The Curiosity Cabinet in particular. I only wish I possessed an embroidered cabinet like the box of the title - but unfortunately, I don't.

The Curse of Presentism - today's eBook Festival post.

Cover by textile artist Alison Bell

All this week, I'm resident on this year's Edinburgh eBook Festival where I'm blogging about historical fiction. Here's an extract from today's post - but do visit the festival site here, to read the rest of this post. There are four more to follow about aspects of historical fiction -  and a great many good things besides for the whole month of August, including free books and insights from an excellent cross section of writers.

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this residency. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past

A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. 

We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to elucidate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

You can read the rest of today's post on the Edinburgh eBook Festival site.

For this week as well, there will be a couple of special offers on two of my own historical novels: The Amber Heart, set in mid nineteenth century Poland, and Bird of Passage, in which the story spans the years from the 1950s to the present day. Does this qualify as historical? I think so, since some of the issues explored in the book have a very definite historical dimension. Do feel free to argue with me if you disagree - and if you download the novels, you can decide whether or not I follow my own advice! 

Needlework, Wise Women and Kindles

Ayrshire Whitework in magical detail.

Last night, I went to a neighbouring village to give a talk to a group of ladies from the church 'Guild'. They were all what you might call older ladies, the kind of people easily dismissed by the young and cool. The meeting - in a warm, light church hall - began with a hymn and a prayer and ended with a hymn and a prayer. I've done this talk often before. I take my collection of examples of Ayrshire embroidery - along with a few other bits and pieces of interesting old needlework - some of it dating from 1840, one or two other pieces from 1800 or even earlier, and talk about the history of this magical embroidery, where it came from, how it was made, who did it and why. Even mixed groups of men and women seem to enjoy handling this work. It is, it has to be said, so beautiful, so microscopically fine, that you do find yourself wondering, as this audience so clearly did, just how women working by candlelight or oil lamps in dark little cottages, in the early 1800s, could possibly have created something so amazing. They would gather in a single cottage to share expensive candles, or work outside, sitting on turf or straw covered stones, to take advantage of natural light. Their health suffered, eyes and lungs in particular. The work - as so much 'women's work' - was undervalued. And remains rather undervalued even to this day, locally, although collectors in America will pay high prices for fine examples. Embroidery is on my mind at the moment, because one of the characters in my new novel, The Physic Garden, is a talented needlewoman, and her needlework figures largely in the story.

The ladies of the Guild were, as they always are on these occasions, interested, kind, positive, cheerful and hospitable. They could give lessons in how to treat a visitor to some other groups I've spoken to. The 'Rural' are the same. I always come home feeling inexplicably happy, although slightly worried at the average age of these groups, wondering who will come along to take their places. Mind you, the Rural, in farming areas like this one, seems to have no shortage of new, younger members.

At the end of the evening, when we were chatting over the tea and biscuits, one of the ladies reminded me about a trilogy of radio plays I wrote some years ago. It was called The Peggers and The Creelers and it was set here in the West of Scotland, a series of plays about the fishing families of the coast, the inland boot and shoe makers, and the traditional tensions between these two groups of people. I had done some of the research for my Masters degree and then written a series of plays about it. There was a certain amount of mistrust between the two communities and it fascinated me. When the plays were broadcast, people would stop me in our nearby town, to talk about them. One farmer told me how he had been listening in the cab of his tractor, and realised that he was in the very field where the characters were standing.

Last night, the lady told me she still had the plays on tape and listened to them from time to time, because she had enjoyed them so much. Last year, when I was sorting through all my old manuscripts, I found a big box of flimsy typescript. It was The Peggers and The Creelers, written as a trilogy of novels. I had forgotten all about them. Back then, I still did daft things like that. Thousands and thousands of words, just for love. And I remembered that my agent at the time - we're talking many years ago - hadn't even read them because, so she remarked, 'nobody wants historical fiction at the moment.' Last night I found myself talking about all this with enthusiasm. 'I'd love to read them,' my questioner told me. Oddly enough, she isn't the only person to have reminded me about those plays, those stories, over the past few months. And although back then, I could see that this might have been a niche project and something no traditional publisher would want, I can also see now that with the advent of Kindle, and Print On Demand, things might be different. Because the diaspora of people with Ayrshire roots is a large one.

So, when The Physic Garden is finished, and a few other projects are under way, I may well dig out that box of flimsy typescript and - in the second half of this year - see what I can do with the Peggers and the Creelers as a series of eBooks, for Amazon's Kindle, in the first instance. As I packed up my lovely whitework, last night, and got ready to leave, the lady who liked my radio plays said 'I hope you do publish them as novels. I'll look forward to it.'

Thinking, in that company, that I might well be among people who favoured paper books over eBooks (the smell, the feel, the permanence) I said 'Well, they'll be on Kindle first and maybe as paperbacks after that. )
'Oh no, dear,' she said.'I have a Kindle now. Wouldn't be without it.'

The Amber Heart and Bird of Passage - the Novels I Feared No-One Would Ever Read

If you just happen to be reading this post on Wednesday 13th or Thursday 14th June 2012, you'll find that you can go to Amazon's Kindle Store and download my two newest novels for nothing. If you've missed the giveaway then you can still download them for the price of a couple of lattes - or a latte and a half, depending upon your cafe of choice. (I'm a Cafe Nero addict, here in the UK - an Italian style chain with cool, stylish interiors, friendly staff, good coffee and good music - and no, they aren't paying me to say as much!)

If you fancy an epic love story in the Dr Zhivago mode (I'm thinking of the movie, rather than the book)  - or a sort of Polish Gone With The Wind - you'll find it here if you're in the UK and here if you're in the USA.

One thing I've learned from the various reviews of this book over the past few weeks, as well as direct messages from readers, is that they have sometimes been uncertain as to whether they'll like the Polish historical background.

One enthusiastic reader remarked honestly that she thought it might be out of her comfort zone, but then got thoroughly swept up in the story and setting, found that she loved it and wanted to tell other people about it. Another calls it a 'rollercoaster of events and emotions' and I hope it's all of that. It's certainly what I intended it to be when I was writing it. And it's certainly what I myself felt about it as a story.

However, I can completely understand why readers might be a bit reluctant. For many of us here in the west, we have a vision of the Poland of the cold war years firmly lodged in our brains - part of that great unknown empire beyond the 'iron curtain.' When I was a little girl, growing up in post-war Leeds with my lovely Polish father and Irish mother, I used to hear them talking about the iron curtain and imagine it as a real barrier, a huge hanging made of shining metal, sweeping across the countryside.

But for me, there was another Poland and that was the one my father told me about, as magical and unattainable as a place in a fairytale.

I was quite a sickly child, with severe asthma, and dad would sit beside my bed and patiently weave his own lost past into fabulous stories for me, describing his family, most of whom had died in the war or in the various skirmishes that preceded it, especially in the east.

But he also told me tales of a time long before that: the superstitions and beliefs, the songs and poems, the eighteenth and nineteenth century history which he had absorbed when he was just a little boy himself.

His tales were full of that long-lost world of the Austro Hungarian Empire, where privileged people drank tea out of silver samovars, ate preserves from porcelain dishes with tiny silver spoons, and sometimes visited Vienna where they would eat cake ... and dance.

Of course it wasn't all like that. This was in so many ways a savagely dangerous world. Human life was cheap  and as well as the cake and the dancing, there was abject poverty and prejudice, bloodshed, misery and disease. All of these things have found their way into The Amber Heart, as well as an equivocal but attractive hero in Piotro, a heroine whose faults match her virtues in Maryanna, and a setting which I still find myself revisiting in my mind's eye from time to time - the big, beautiful, pancake yellow house of Lisko.

Give it a try. You might find yourself swept along too!

The only thing I ask is that if you do download this and enjoy it, you'll snatch a few moments from your busy day to tell other people what you liked about the book - and maybe tell me too. (Even if it's only the Viennese chocolate cakes and pastries, which I certainly had a lot of fun writing about...)

At the same time, you can download my contemporary novel, Bird of Passage. Here in the UK and here in the USA. Although the settings for these two novels are quite different, there are some similarities between them. Both owe something to my passion for Wuthering Heights, although of the two, Bird of Passage is by far the more intentional homage to that book. Even there, the references are quite subtle.

There are other similarities between The Amber Heart and Bird of Passage which I only noticed after I had finished writing and revising both novels. Both are love stories, both are big books in the sense that they are reasonably long and span a great many years.

I realised quite quickly  that I needed the elbow room to tell the whole story in each case.

Bird of Passage, which begins and ends in the present, has something of the 'family saga' about it. Mainly though, it's a haunting tale of obsessive love, betrayal, loss and institutionalised cruelty, set in Ireland and Scotland. I found some parts of this very distressing to write. It took me a long time to realise what had made Finn, my central character, into the person he was. I resisted exploring it. The book felt stuck and stupid for a while. But once I found out what had happened to Finn - and that's exactly what it felt like - finding it out - everything came together for me, even though exploring it was still a painful process. By then, I cared for Finn quite as much as Kirsty in the novel.

Both of these books have something else in common and I'll own up to it here. It was almost impossible for me to find a conventional publisher for these two novels  although I and my agent(s) spent long and frustrating years searching. I'll let you into a secret. One of the many editors who said of Bird of Passage that she 'loved it but didn't think she could sell it' told me that it was 'too well written to be popular but not experimental enough to be literary'. Even back then, when eBooks were just beginning to loom on the horizon, I despaired at the judgement and thought it was a serious indictment of the way in which conventional publishing views its potential readers. The books I loved to read myself were accessible, well written stories that drew me into a world created by the writer. That was what I wanted to write. I couldn't imagine (and I can imagine a lot of things - it's what I do after all!) that I was alone in this.

I don't think I was.
I don't think I am.

The Scottish island setting of Bird of Passage

But really, this is not a complaint. I used to have a few chips on my shoulder, I'll admit. I had too many years of agents and editors raving about work which they could neither sell nor publish. Even the sympathy of friends was unbearable. But now, thanks to Amazon, and Kindle, I'm as happy in my work as I have ever been in my life. And I have more stories to tell, more novels to finish and new books to start. So watch this space.

For those who are still not quite sure about eBooks, or just don't like the medium, I'll definitely be getting both of these out as Print On Demand paperbacks, early next year. Sooner, if I can manage my time just a little more efficiently.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about me, visit my website at and if you want to know a bit more about the Polish background to the Amber Heart, visit my other blog at

The Physic Garden - Just An Old Man's Story

There have been some very interesting blog posts and Facebook comments recently about the problems facing older writers when they try to sell novels which are not about the dilemmas of twenty somethings - especially this excellent and heartfelt post by Linda Gillard on the Do Authors Dream of Electric Books blog. I found myself identifying with this very strongly, and not just from a female point of view.

A few years ago, when I had finished a draft of a new novel called The Physic Garden, I sent it to my agent who sent it out to a young 'reader'.  The book - I'm planning to finish rewrites and publish it to Kindle some time in 2012 - is a historical novel, related in the mid 1800s, in the 'voice' of an old man called William Lang, who was once, many years before, employed as gardener in the physic garden of the old college of Glasgow University. The book is essentially about his relationship with one of the young professors, and is a tale of male friendship, class differences and extreme betrayal. I love this period, and I fell in love with my story - sometimes it seemed as though I was channelling William, rather than inventing - an uncanny experience, since there was a real William Lang, who was indeed a college gardener. I found out some things about him, but made most of it up. It could have happened that way.

But when my then agent, a young woman herself, gave the book to one of the agency's readers, another young woman, the only response was that it was 'just an old man's story' and a marked lack of enthusiasm. At the time, it hit home. And here, I find myself wondering all over again, just why even experienced writers such as myself, are so thoroughly lacking in confidence in our own abilities. Anyway, when I changed agents, soon afterwards, I also started trying to change The Physic Garden into a third person narrative, so that I could get away from that 'old man's voice.'

I was an idiot, and it was a complete nightmare. I  would lie awake, fretting about it. And in several months, I managed to change only a tiny bit of the book. It was like wading through treacle. William simply demanded to be heard and he wasn't having any of the changes. He was outraged by them.

Eventually, of course, I woke up to the folly of it. The novel is William's story and although there are plenty of other characters, and I do need to do rewrites so that they become more intensely themselves - still, the narrator is William and we are seeing things from his perspective, even if we, as readers, may not always agree with his judgement. But I'm left with the uneasy feeling that the real hurdle here was that very young reader's perception that nobody would ever be interested in anyone over the age of about twenty five. Linda is all too right when she asks 'What is this obsession with youth?'