Writing Fiction: The how, the what, and the why of what works for me

It’s all about the story…

New Change of Life Cover SMALL AVATAR

Displacement Cover SMALL AVATAR    The Silver Locket Cover SMALL AVATAR

When I start writing a novel, I’m not sure where the story is going to lead. But, as an author of both adult and children’s fiction, I do at least know which audience the novel is aimed at. Other than that, once the seed is planted, I wait to see what grows.

I don’t tend to plan in great detail. I have a rough outline that develops as I go and I usually have some key points or scenes or turning points that I’m aiming for. And I don’t always have an ending in mind, preferring it to, in the words of author, Rose Tremain, ‘be earned by all that will go before it’. It’s not till the redrafting stage that I check it all out for rhythm, relevance and cohesion.

So how do I work when creating a novel? What is the process I follow? Why do I write what I write?

It usually begins with a character.

Rosie in Change of Life first presented herself to me when I was wrote a short story for a competition. The story didn’t win any prizes, but Rosie stayed with me. However, it wasn’t until the writer, Ali Smith, who was the tutor on an Arvon Foundation residential course that I attended, said that the short story had a novel in it trying to get out that I dared to take Rosie further.

Rachel in Displacement came to me when I was in the garden hanging out washing. I paused to look out over the croft and the loch beyond and there she was––not in a hallucination or anything––but in my head, in my ear telling a bit of her story.

But Caitlin in The Silver Locket wasn’t my original inspiration. She came after the setting and plot popped into my head. I was still working as a primary school teacher at the time and was on a visit to The Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre along with a class of Primary Six pupils. They’d been learning all about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie in class, hence the visit. We were out on the battlefield re-enacting, with great relish, the Jacobite charge at the Redcoat army. And the idea came to me: what if time slipped and we were suddenly transported back to 1746 and the actual battle? It was a short step from there to children’s adventure story and Caitlin and her two friends soon made themselves known.

And the characters lead me to issues.

It’s the issues the characters are facing that give the story its heart. The plot arises out of how the characters deal with the issues facing them and it’s from those issues that the themes in my novels appear.

Now, I recently did a post on the role and use of themes in fiction generally and in my own writing in particular. And in that post I explored the notion that literary fiction is driven by themes whereas commercial fiction relies more on character, plot and setting. I came to the conclusion that the divide between the two sides of fiction is often an artificial one.

I don’t write literary fiction, at least I don’t think I do, but I can’t seem to avoid themes any more than I can avoid using characters.

For example, in Change of Life the issues faced by Rosie include her having breast cancer and suspecting her husband has been unfaithful. This meant the book dealt with the themes of one’s own mortality, and of marital love and trust. In Displacement issues faced by the characters include the disorientating and devastating loss of a soldier son, the loss of one’s sense of purpose and place in the world, the end of a long career, and falling in love in later life. This led to the themes of politics, war and the displacement of people being explored, along with those of love, bereavement and the significance of home. And even in my children’s book, The Silver Locket, there were themes, those of loyalty, bravery and self-reliance.

And then there is the question of setting.

In my first novel, the setting of the city of Edinburgh and its neighbouring area of East Lothian, wasn’t crucial or significant to the action, but my characters had to live somewhere. And so I chose the place I was born and lived in for most of my life up to that point.

Setting was, however, crucial in Displacement. By the time I came to write it I’d moved north to the highlands of Scotland. The character of Rachel presented herself as a native of the Isle of Skye. Not only that though, she was also the daughter of a German Jew who’d arrived in Scotland as a child refugee just before the Second World War. I’d recently watched a TV documentary on the Kindertransport when this part of Rachel’s biography came to me. And, having Rachel’s story take place both in her island home and during her visit to Israel to explore her heritage, allowed me to explore and describe two settings I know well. They were also ideal places in which to deal with the themes of displacement, oppression and cultural destruction as they all loom large in Scottish history and of course persist in the Middle East today.

And of course in The Silver Locket the setting was also crucial. There would have been no story for the three young friends without the time travel that took them back to the setting of eighteenth-century Scotland. The setting allowed them to escape their everyday twenty-first century lives, escape their parents and grow in independence and confidence. It allowed them to have their adventure.

And what of the plot?

So, I take all these ingredients and I just crack on. I go to the desk and I mix and remix them till they hold together in a coherent mass. The characters, their situations and their issues all come together and I make a story.

But why?

Why do I write what I write? I can’t help myself. I write what I’ve got to write. I write about what’s important to me. I write the sort of books I want to read.

In my adult fiction, I address the lives of real, middle-aged contemporary women. I address the realities of reaching fifty or sixty years old, the realities of maintaining a long-term marriage, or of starting a new relationship or a new career, of coping with bereavement and one’s own mortality.

Yes, there’s romance in my novels, but it’s tinged with the realism of experience. Happy ever after is just a phase; the real work starts after that––and this is central to the novel I’m working on at the moment which is the sequel to Displacement. And I like to present the positive sides to being older and a bit wiser, to include the new possibilities and opportunities that go with ageing.

And I also like the stories I write (and read) to move beyond ‘the village’ of much contemporary fiction and to travel from the personal to its links with the universal. And if all that involves the big themes, borders on the literary, and makes categorising my books difficult, so be it.

Because in the end, whether the writing is for adults or children, and whether as writer or reader, all that really counts for me is, is it a good story?

 

Themes: Not Just for Literary Fiction

image via shutterstock
                            image via shutterstock

 

A Fictional Hierarchy    

There seems to be a consensus which says that literary fiction is first and foremost about themes and that commercial fiction has character, plot and setting at the forefront. There also seems to be an apparent hierarchy to the above elements of fiction which places themes above the other three. And this gives rise to a belief that literary fiction, by concentrating mainly on theme, is written by more intelligent authors for more intelligent readers.

An Artificial Divide

But I’ve never really got the divide between literary and commercial fiction. It seems artificial and rather snobbish to me. As a reader I’m looking for a good read and I’ve found great books on both the alleged sides. And, as an author of contemporary fiction, I don’t sit down to write a literary or a commercial book. I set out to write a book.

Basic Story Writing Includes Themes

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

When I was a primary school teacher, teaching my pupils how to write stories, I highlighted all four ingredients: character, plot, setting and theme. I didn’t see one of those elements as more important or requiring more intelligence to develop. And as a professional writer, I still don’t.

What became obvious with my pupils was that everyone differed in their preferred element for getting their story started. Some loved to start with a character and that was what led everything else. Others preferred setting and so on. And there were some who were just plain inspired by whatever.

But what they were all aiming for was to write a good story and to impress their teacher.

And in my own writing, the same four elements are equally crucial when I’m creating a story. I play around with them all in my novels. For me, it’s usually a character who comes first and then, as I get to know that character, the setting and plot suggest themselves and the themes just appear.

But like my pupils, my overall aim is to write a good story that will impress my readers.

 

My Themes

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However, although I don’t set out first and foremost to address a particular theme, like I said, themes do appear and they become integral to the whole.

In Change of Life, the characters must deal with the themes of marriage, family life, secrets and mortality as their stories play out. In Displacement it is bereavement, belonging and relationships, as well as the politics of war that drive the plot. And in my children’s novel, The Silver Locket, the story of the three main characters’ time travelling mission deals with friendship, bullying, the loss of a parent, and increasing independence from adults.

And in my work-in-progress, Settlement, which is the sequel to Displacement, the themes are commitment, purpose, love and the politics of peace.

And Finally

There is also, in my adult fiction, an over-riding theme, and that is – there is life after the age of 45. All the main themes of life persist into middle-age and beyond. Life is as messy, interesting, frustrating and wonderful at 60 as it is at 20.

Whether this insight in particular, or my use of theme in general in my writing makes me a literary type author, I’ve no idea and doesn’t particularly concern me. But I hope I do produce a good read.

What themes do you most like to read or write about? And do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction? Please do leave your comments below.

Maintaining Focus as a Writer

shutterstock_165698114
image via shutterstock

A question that’s been concerning me of late: should I, as a writer, take the wide landscape view when deciding what to work on, or should I zoom in and maintain a tight, close-up focus?

Yes, the above sentence is a metaphor. Hey, I’m a writer. What do you expect?

But seriously, the wide view or the close focus question is something I’ve been thinking about recently as regards my writing.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m currently working on my next novel, the sequel to Displacement. However I haven’t added a word to it for about a month. It’s not that I haven’t been at the desk and it’s not the case that I’ve done no writing in that time.

And to be fair to me, during this monthly hiatus, one of the weeks was taken up with having the family, including young grandchildren, to stay over Easter, which was lovely but quite rightly precluded getting anywhere near my desk. And there was also the weekend away at the Scottish Writers annual conference – another lovely and worthwhile time away from the keyboard.

But the rest of the month I was at my desk. I just wasn’t working on the novel. No, I was working on entries for writing competitions, writing blog posts, writing book reviews and doing all the apparently necessary online networking that writers have to do nowadays. I was spread rather thinly, spinning many plates, pick your own metaphor…

I was also procrastinating as far as the novel is concerned. I’ve hit the metaphorical wall (okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors now). The novel has stalled and having lots of other writing, and writing related, tasks to do gave me the perfect excuse to put it to one side.

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However, I’ve now got a grip and regained some focus.

This is partly down to me giving myself a talking to – a talking to that involves reiterating that procrastination is for wimps and requires to be worked through and overcome. And it’s partly down to something the keynote speaker, crime novelist, Caro Ramsay, said in a workshop she gave at the aforementioned Scottish Writers’ Conference.

I realised, just as in any other job, I needed to prioritise. I needed to remind myself why I write – answer I love it – and what it is I most enjoy – I most enjoy being immersed in my characters’ lives. I also needed to remind myself that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to take early retirement from my teaching job in order to have more time to write. But that time waits for no-one and it’s fairly galloping along.

And Caro Ramsay’s words also came back to me and helped me sort out my priorities. She’d asked those of us attending her writing workshop why we went in for competitions, why if we were novel writers did we not just get on and write our novels?

She pointed out that she had no pieces of writing ‘in a drawer’. Everything she writes is for publication and gets published. This wasn’t said in order to boast about her publishing success, but rather to emphasise the point that all her writing has one purpose, i.e. to produce and publish a novel. She was urging focus and commitment. And this is someone who works fulltime as an osteopath and who writes in her ‘spare’ time AND who has published many novels with major publishers, Penguin.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing competitions per se. I’ve entered many in my time with varying levels of success. Something I find very useful about them is the deadlines they provide and in some cases the feedback that is given. However, they’re mostly short stories and I’ve now come to accept that writing shorts is not my forte. And I must admit I’d recently got sidetracked by the whole competitions thing.

And I accept that social media networking, reading and reviewing the work of others, and writing my blog are all not just a vital way of connecting with readers and other writers, they’re also enjoyable in their own right.

image via shutterstock

BUT novel writing is my thing. It’s my strength, my first love and my passion. And so I must get back to prioritising what I love the most. Like Caro Ramsay, I want all my writing published. So I’m going to focus on what’s got a chance of being worthy of publication and that’s definitely the novels. I also have a sense of loyalty to my readers. I promised them a sequel and a sequel that shall have.

Therefore I’ve put a moratorium on competition entries for the foreseeable, and I’ve made diary commitments to when and to how much time I’ll give to the different aspects of my writing life each week with the novel getting the biggest share. No excuses, no procrastinating. I show up and even if I write drivel, I get on with the damn book, I move it forward.

I know that sometimes my focus will falter, sometimes real life will get in the way of the imaginary one, but that’s fine and I’ll attempt always to pay back any novel writing time lost. I might fall, but I’ll get right back on the horse – sorry – metaphor crept in there!

So here’s to getting Settlement finished and out by the end of the year. And yes doing this post was in the diary for today.

What sidetracks you and how do you stay focussed on what matters most?

Book Marketing and Being Mentored

Writing a Book is the Easy Part

Writing a book can sometimes seem like the easy part when it comes to establishing yourself as a writer. Building a readership is much more difficult. It is a hard but necessary slog. For all published writers, the marketing of their work is crucial in getting their books in front of potential readers. Of course it is. We write to be read.

I don’t feel any sense of entitlement to fame and fortune just because I’ve written some books. I have no problem with the idea that an author, like any other seller, has to work to get their product not just out there,  but visible to prospective readers.  But what I have struggled with over the last five years, since my first novel was published, is how best to do this. How, does an indie author author, with a limited budget, effectively advertise their books? Read More »

Displacement: The Novel’s Emotional Turmoil

From the upheaval of loss to insight, acceptance and love

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

This is the second of two posts where I share a bit about why I chose the theme of displacement for my novel of the same name. In the first post I talked about physical displacement – displacement from home and country. In this post I’m going to look at the emotional aspects explored in the novel.

Rachel, one of the two main characters, is a fifty-something woman. She lives alone on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off Scotland’s west coast. Her home is on a small farm, or croft as it’s called in the Scottish highlands. And as well as looking after her sheep, she also works as a children’s book illustrator and writer. Rachel has been through a lot of upheaval in her life––divorce, grief after the loss of her soldier son, killed in Afghanistan, and then as the story begins, the loss of her mother who she’s been living with and caring for.

And the other main character, is newly retired Edinburgh police detective, Jack. He’s coming to terms with his retirement, has just had heart surgery, and is feeling stuck in a relationship that has run its course. Like Rachel he is divorced. At the start of the novel he has just bought a rundown cottage in the (fictional) Skye village of Halladale. He plans to do it up and to use it as a holiday home.

Both Rachel and Jack have lost their way emotionally. Both of them need to come to terms with the changes in their lives and to find a new way of living. During the course of the novel both of them explore new ways of life.

Rachel goes to Israel-Palestine, where her brother lives. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage and to see if she too can settle and make a new life in the Middle East. And the people she meets there certainly open her mind to new ways of living and new possibilities. There’s Hana, a Palestinian woman who owns a guest house on the West Bank where Rachel spends a few days. The conversations Rachel has with Hana are life-changing. And then there’s Eitan, an artist, and best friend of Rachel’s brother. Eitan reawakens in Rachel what it is to be a woman and a person in her own right––not just a mother, daughter or ex-wife.

Jack meanwhile finds working on his cottage to be therapeutic. He also finds walking in and photographing the stunning Skye landscape provides him with time and space to decide what’s next now he’s retired.

And then there’s the relationship between Rachel and Jack. They establish a strong friendship before Rachel leaves for Israel and it’s a friendship that benefits both of them emotionally. But there’s also a complication––an undercurrent that both of them sense but neither acknowledge––they are strongly attracted to each other. Beginning a new relationship isn’t something either of them wants and it’s this emotional complication that drives the narrative of Displacement forward.

At its heart Displacement has the question of whether Jack and Rachel can become new anchoring points in each other’s previously turbulent lives.

Displacement: From the Hebrides to the Middle East and back

The reasons behind the plot and settings of my second novel

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

When I wrote Displacement, I wanted to explore what knocks people’s lives off course, what pushes them out of their normal place and space. I also wanted to examine the consequences of both physical and emotional displacement. In other words i wanted to look at what happens when people are forced by circumstances to change their location – both external and internal.

At the emotional level, I wanted to explore the displacement caused by grief, betrayal, illness and ageing and I’ll share more of the background to this in a subsequent post. But I also wanted to explore the long term consequences of physical displacement, of what happens when people are forced to abandon their home and culture in order to stay alive – and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.

When I came to write Displacement, three examples of the forced movement of people were in my mind – two from the relatively recent past, and one that has existed since the 1940s and continues to the present day. The first was the forced eviction of people from their land in the north of Scotland. The evidence of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries is still visible today. And this, combined with the earlier punitive measures put in place by the victorious Hanoverian side following the Battle of Culloden, meant that Gaelic culture came close to being eliminated. The wearing of tartan was outlawed as was speaking Gaelic. The organisation of Highland society by the clan system came to an end and thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.

The second example of the forced displacement of people that I had in mind was the much deadlier clearance of a whole culture that was wrought in Nazi Germany. I saw an item on Scottish television marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport that took place just before the second world war. This happened when Great Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria. The children were taken in by British families and most never saw their parents again as they died in the Holocaust. Some survivors of the Kindertransport were interviewed about their experiences of arriving in and growing up in Scotland in their adoptive families. Their stories of stoicism and survival made quite an impression on me.

And the third example is that of the plight of the Palestinian people displaced from their homes by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 following on from the end of the Second World War.

I brought the three together in Displacement by making the late mother of the main female character, Rachel, a Kindertransport survivor who was taken in by a family in Glasgow and who later married a native of the Isle of Skye (in the Scottish highlands) and settled there. Rachel lives on Skye, but her brother has followed his Jewish heritage and emigrated to Israel-Palestine.

And because of the significant emotional upheavals in Rachel’s life, she decides to visit her brother in his adopted homeland and see if she too can find a renewed sense of home by being there.

Hence the action in the novel moves between these two very different places and addresses many layers and levels of displacement as Rachel tries to decide where in the world her future lies.

And I was able to describe both settings from experience.

I’m a Scot and I live in the Scottish Hebrides so I’m steeped in that environment and its history. The wild and often challenging landscape, the resilience and resourcefulness needed to survive here, and the still visible evidence of whole townships abandoned and left to crumble when the inhabitants were forced off their land – all lend themselves to the exploration of the themes of upheaval and displacement .

I’ve also been to Israel-Palestine several times. It’s a country that fascinates me and it’s certainly no stranger to upheaval.

My link with the Middle East dates back to when I was fourteen and to my high school days in Edinburgh. A new girl joined the class and I was the one who volunteered to look after her. The new girl was Revital and she was an Israeli. Her father was doing a PhD at Edinburgh university and had brought his family with him for the duration. Revital and I quickly became friends. So much so that after she and her family returned home we kept in touch and in 1975 during my long summer holidays from university I travelled to Israel to visit her. As she was doing her national service at the time we could only meet up at certain times, so I worked on a kibbutz for a bit and did a bit of travelling. The kibbutz was on the Golan Heights – something I didn’t tell my mother who was worried enough about me visiting what she saw as a very dangerous country. I wasn’t worried though; I had the invincibility of youth. And I was smitten by the place – its beauty, its ancient landscape and its vitality.

I’ve revisited since then. One trip was in 1993 and coincided with the optimism which followed the signing of the Oslo Accord. The Palestinian flag flew from balconies, houses and cars – something that would have been illegal before the Accord. The atmosphere was relaxed, peace seemed to have been established. Revital and her husband were activists for the peace settlement and knew there was still a lot of work to be done, but were hopeful that they could now live and bring up their children in a new, constructive and co-operative society with all their neighbours regardless of background, religion, or race. Fast forward to my most recent visit in 2012 and the situation had deteriorated to worse than before 1993. All optimism for a peaceful and fair settlement was gone. Revital and her husband continued to work for a peaceful solution, trying to raise awareness amongst their Israeli friends of the true plight of the Palestinians. Her husband, an academic has written several books on the subject and speaks on it all over the world. You can view one of his many talks here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qblO4u0pF9M And Revital is part of Machsom Watch – who in their own words are

a volunteer organization of Israeli women who are peace activists from all sectors of society. We oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank, we oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian human rights.  We support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life.

 And amongst other things they, ‘conduct daily observations of Israel Defense Force checkpoints in the West Bank and the hamlets in the Jordan Valley.’ (taken from the Machsom website at http://www.machsomwatch.org/en/about-us)

When I visited in 2012 I accompanied Revital on one of these checkpoint observations. It was a bit scary – I’ve not been that close to a soldier on active duty before or to an automatic weapon – but it was an interesting and enlightening experience. Palestinians, including the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant are given a lot of hassle while just trying to go about their ordinary daily business such as visiting family or attending hospital appointments.

So all of the above was in my head as I wrote the novel and I incorporated some of my own experiences into the story – from Rachel’s life as a crofter to the realities of life in the Middle East.

Footnote re current refugees:

I’m not a historian, a politician or an activist, so I wrote simply as a human being reflecting on the plight of other human beings and on the injustices of enforced displacement inflicted by some of us on those we perceive as ‘other’.

But, as I mentioned above, I’m only too aware of the plight of refugees from Syria right now as they try to get Europe. I’ve donated to charities and written to my MP – as I’m sure many of you will have – and I will continue to do whatever else I can to help, albeit in a small way. I’m particularly proud that my relatively small and remote community is, as I write this, collecting desperately needed items for those refugees and as soon as there’s enough to fill the articulated lorry that is on standby, these items will be driven to Greece for delivery to those who need them.

So by way of acknowledging displacement as an ever-present and often devastating fact in human life, I thought I’d end by including the cartoon below. It has been shared a lot on social media recently in relation to the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and to the refugee crisis in general. (The cartoon is actually from 2014 and was created Australian cartoonist and fellow wordpress blogger Simon Kneebone, in response to the time when boatloads of people were trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.)

Refugees-pic-edited

 

In The Chair 42

Source: In The Chair 42

I’m interviewed over at Jan Ruth’s blog today. It was fun to do and I hope you enjoy reading it. You can, amongst other things, find out which character I fell in love with whilst writing him and can you guess my favourite word?

Thanks Jan for having me.

The Silver Locket: – 21st century schoolgirl meets Bonnie Prince Charlie and he needs her help.

The Silver Locket

Out now paperback and e-book. Online and in bookshops
Out now paperback and e-book. Online and in bookshops. Published by Rowan Russell Books

The Anne you know from this blog had a previous life. Oh yes, I’ve not always been Anne Stormont, old bat and writer. I had an earlier incarnation, pre-wifehood, as Anne McAlpine.

So it seemed fitting, when I was looking for an author name to go by when writing for children, that I resurrect my younger self. And guess what? She’s only gone and written her first novel for children.

Cue fanfare and skirl of bagpipes-

‘Bagpipes? Why Bagpipes?’ you say. Well that’s because I guess you could describe the novel as a sort of modern day Alice in Outlander Land – only it’s Caitlin not Alice and it’s suitable for children and––oh, anyway you get my drift––or you will if you read on.

Yes, The Silver Locket is published and available for sale in paperback and as an e-Book.

I wrote it mainly for nine to twelve-year-olds, however, I hope anyone who likes a story with a bit of history, danger and time-travel in it will enjoy it.

It’s set in Scotland and tells the story of three twelve-year-old friends from the 21st century who travel back in time to 1746 and the Battle of Culloden.

Battle of Culloden monument
Battle of Culloden monument

Blurb alert – try reading it in the voice of that bloke who voices the film trailers––it’ll get you in the mood and you’ll not be able to resist the urge to read the book––

The Battle of Culloden, 1746, and Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite cause are defeated. Can three young friends from the 21st century ensure he escapes and that history stays on track?

It’s the last week of the school holidays and twelve year old Caitlin Cameron is bored. But when her new childminder turns out to be the eccentric Bella Blawearie, otherwise known as Scary Lady, everything changes.

Scary Lady lives up to her name. She seems able to read Caitlin’s mind. She sees visions in a snow globe and tells the time from a patchwork clock.

And things get even weirder when Caitlin and her two best friends, Lynette and Edward, accidentally open a time portal in an old tree and are hurled back through time to the eighteenth century.

They find themselves caught up in the blood-soaked aftermath of the Jacobite defeat at the battle of Culloden, and discover they’re there for a reason. A reason Scary Lady knows all about.

But all the friends have is questions. What is the significance of the silver locket passed to Caitlin by her grandmother? Can the locket help them ensure Bonnie Prince Charlie makes the right decision about his future?

And if they fail, will Scotland’s history books rewrite themselves, meaning  Caitlin and her friends will not even be born?

Join them in their 18th century adventure as they make new friends, encounter great danger and strive to carry out their mission.

Now before you dash off to your local bookshop to buy it, or fire up your tablet to get it online, just wait a minute and I’ll give you a bit of the background to how I came to write it.

First of all of course, as for many of my fellow Scots, the chapter of  Scottish history headed The Jacobites, sub-heading Bonnie Prince Charlie, is one of my favourites. What’s not to like?  A stirring cause, a handsome prince, gruesome and bloody battles, a stunning and dramatic backdrop… Need I go on?

Culloden Visitor Centre, Inverness, Scotland
Culloden Visitor Centre, Inverness, Scotland

Then  a couple of years ago, when I was still a teacher, I went with a class of Primary 6 children to the amazing Culloden Visitor Centre  in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a wonderful museum built at the site of the battle – do visit it if you get the chance. It also has an excellent education unit. There, me and the  children got to dress up as Jacobites and Redcoats, and we re-enacted parts of this important battle on the actual battlefield. And inspiration struck. I had one of those ‘what if’ moments and I thought, ‘what if we were all suddenly transported back to the time of the real battle?’ And that was it.

Yes, the rest truly is history.

 

The Silver Locket by Anne McAlpine is available from your local bookshop – just ask them to order it if it’s not in stock. It’s also available online from Amazon (click on image of book above to be taken to it in the Amazon UK store), both as a paperback and as an e-book. It is published by Rowan Russell Books.

 

 

 

 

Writers as Travellers in Time

Marking Time

image via shutterstock
image via shutterstock

Writers as travellers in time.

How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?

As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or  it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.

Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.

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image via shutterstock

 

Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.

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image via shutterstock

 

On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.

But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.

In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet.  And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.

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image via shutterstock

 

I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.

I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.

This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.

So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.

Time for some lateral thinking.

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image via shutterstock

 

We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.

Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.

The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.

Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally  out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .

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image via shutterstock

 

I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.

I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.

I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.

I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.

I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.

 

 

 

 

Door Closes on the Open Book

 

The End of A Chapter and the Start of Another

interior of the 'Open Book'
interior of the ‘Open Book’

We’ve been home now for four days. Our stint as booksellers-in-residence at the Open Book second hand bookshop is now over for the husband and me. It was a great adventure. We hope we’ve left the Open Book slightly tidier and the stock a bit better organised – having built on  the hard work of our predecessors in the project. Now it’s over to our successors-in-residence to continue the process.

You’ll have seen from my earlier posts on our time in Wigtown that we met all sorts of interesting and lovely people – both local and visitors to the town. We did a bit of exploring of this corner of Scotland and liked what we saw. It was good to visit the other bookshops in Wigtown as well. How wonderful to have them all, and to have people who are so committed to selling real books in real independent shops and who are prepared to work so hard to do so. It was an eye-opener as to how much goes into running a successful bookshop and it’s definitely a labour of love. More power to all independent bookshops!

During the fortnight, although there wasn’t a lot of spare time to write, I did get to do a bit of thinking and planning in connection with my writing. And I met several local authors and  we shared experiences, thoughts and ideas – this in itself was such a valuable opportunity.

The Martyrs' Stone, Wigtown
The Martyrs’ Stone, Wigtown

So thanks to the Wigtown Book Festival Company and all those behind this unique project, especially to project manager, Anne for the chance to be part of the Open Book. Thanks, too, to Joyce from the Old Bookshop, to the owners of the Glaisnock Cafe, (yummy),  to Jayne and to Sarah from the writers’ group, and to  everyone else  who made us so welcome.

And most of all thanks to the Open Book shop. It was fun getting to know the best wee bookshop in the world.

END OF CHAPTER

Kelvin Walkway, Glasgow
Kelvin Walkway, Glasgow

It’s a long drive from Scotland’s National Book Town to our home in the Hebrides, so we broke our journey north on Saturday with an overnight stay in Glasgow. We stayed at a hotel in the city’s vibrant west end and so were able to enjoy a walk in the Botanical gardens and along the River Kelvin walkway, as well as a lovely dinner out at a nearby Italian restaurant.

Then on Sunday we drove the rest of the way home. And what a drive home it was. It was a beautiful day and  the west of Scotland was looking stunning. Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Kintail, to name just a few of the places, were all showing off their full glory – Scotland was at its most jaw-dropping and glorious best.

Scorrybreac, Skye
Scorrybreac, Skye

It’s nice to be home. The weather has continued to be good and I’ve already had the chance to enjoy one of my favourite local walks.

NEW CHAPTER

Since getting back,  I’ve also been catching up on all my own writing jobs and looking to further the plans I finalised while I was away.

There are two deadlines tomorrow.

One is for my contribution to Words with Jam, the online writers magazine that I’ve been on the staff of since its inception around four years ago. The theme of April’s issue is History and I got two pieces off to the editor yesterday.

The other deadline is for an  application to be included in an opportunity being offered to writers by XPONorth. Below is an edited extract from the organisation’s publicity for the opportunity.

XPONorth (Writing & Publishing) is delighted to offer seven independent, self-publishing authors living in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the chance to sell and promote their work at the Indie Author Fair 2015. The Fair takes place at Foyles Bookshop, London, on Saturday 17th April 2015.

The Fair is part of the London Book Fair Indie Author Fringe Festival, run by The Alliance of Independent Authors/Indie ReCon, and Triskele Books are hosting the 2nd Indie Author Fair at Foyles Bookshop.

Authors selected for the showcase will be offered support and mentoring in developing their marketing and promotional materials and platforms in readiness for the Fair.

Indie authors living the Highlands and Islands can apply to participate in this showcase either to be present in person with their books at the Fair (books, plus promotional materials), or to have their books available on the XPONorth display forsale and with promotional materials.

Whether for readers, writers, publishers or observers of the publishing scene, this will be an unmissable event – an opportunity to say hello to the best indie authors in the business, meet suppliers, talk to experts, buy/sell some books. The event will be FREE to the general public.

( XPONorth Wrtiting and Publishing is delivered by Emergents Creatives CIC Ltd, and the programme is funded by European Regional Development Fund and HIE.)

My application is away. I’m not planning to attend in person, but it would be good to have my books promoted and on offer there, so fingers are crossed.

A week from today I’ll be off back down to Glasgow. I’m attending the annual, weekend conference of the Scottish Association of Writers. So I’ve got travel arrangements to finalise and promotional materials to gather. This is a great opportunity to meet other writers, to catch up with my fellow members from the Edinburgh Writers’ Club, to network, attend workshops and to see if I’ve had any success in the Association’s conference competitions. I’ve entries in a few categories so maybe, just maybe…

Then, after I get home, it will be all systems go for the April publication of my first children’s novel. More of that in a later post.