Many of my readers have commented about the confronting world in Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto of my contemporary protagonist, Fiona, a recovering drug addict, thief and ex-prisoner. They have been shocked or at least surprised at the content and ask how I know so much about that side of life. Where did I learn about drug use and life on the streets? How did I find out about jails and courts? Some have also admitted that they know very little about homelessness, criminal behaviour, and the justice system so I thought I’d put some time aside to explain my motivation for using such a startling setting in a novel about, of all things, a Vivaldi Concerto.
In my eighteen years as a Social Worker in Correctional Services I was faced on a daily basis with the harsh realities of many people’s lives. If there is one catch all that summarises what I learned it is that most criminals/ offenders/ perpetrators – however you want to think of them – have themselves been victims, more often that not from the day they were born. Of course there are victims who do not become offenders and there are offenders who have not been victims but they are by far and away the exception.
But victims of what? Child abuse, neglectful and emotionally absent parents, drug and alcohol abuse, an inflexible education systems (despite the best efforts of most teachers), illiteracy, experiencing and witnessing domestic violence, underfunded mental health resources, shortages of secure housing, an exhausted and overflowing child protection system, poverty, corruption within those holding positions of power. I could go on as indeed the cycle of deprivation gets passed down through the generations.
Does that make me a bleeding heart? I like to think not. I spent much of my time in Corrections working with perpetrators of DV (95% male) holding them accountable for their action in the belief that until they faced up to the realities of their actions and the harm they were doing they would not chose another course. This involved unpacking the beliefs they had about what it was to be a man and their attitudes and beliefs about women.
So how did this fit with Vivaldi for goodness sake? When I learned that Vivaldi wrote almost all of music for the abandoned girls of Venice and that he devoted his whole life to making glorious music with and for those who, in our society, are more often than not the very people who I worked with in Corrections, I could not help but be compelled to write about the “what if?” What if we treated all our children as worthy of care, safety and respect? What if we, through our government, took responsibility for ensuring all citizens had equal access to safety and resources. What if we recognised the power of music and the arts to give value and meaning to life? What would the outcome be?
I am not naive enough to suggest that there is an easy solution nor do I think 18th Century Venice was an idyllic society. But I do hope that as well as enjoying VLC as good read it has provoked some of my readers to consider the bigger questions that we face when we look below the surface of our complex world and what our role is to make a difference.
As I dip my toe into researching my next novel I couldn't go past Kate Grenville's latest novel A Room of Leaves. Although set in NSW (not SA as mine will be) it is has helped me reconnect with the mindset of the free settlers in colonial Australia. I went looking to learn how she managed the frontier wars while avoiding the temptation to write through 21st century eyes. To find out how she stepped around her white privilege while clearly and unavoidable using it. I am in awe of how she managed this and would love to hear how it sits for an Aboriginal person. Below is my review of it in Goodreads.
Kate Grenville has once again taken me into the world of colonial NSW through the totally believable voice of Elizabeth Macarthur. Like Elizabeth, Kate Grenville weaves the unspoken truth into the narration of a story that to date has been left untold. She paints the obnoxious John Macarthur as a conniving self-interested bully and the reader is on Elisabeth's side as she works out not only how to survive in the harshness of rum riddled Sydney but to find her own way to happiness. Kate's astute use of historical archives are well known but it is her knowledge of human nature and her ability to step into her character's point of view that make this another unforgettable novel. Her honest but historically appropriate expose if the Parramatta Massacre was both haunting and gut-wrenchingly simple. How easy it was for even the sympathetic Mrs Macarthur to question then blink and turn away back to her own relatively comfortable life. The words "Do not believe too quickly' should follow us all into a BLM era where so many of us must now question our privilege.
I have been reading Kate Grenville since her "Joan Makes History" demonstrated to me the power of fiction to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the truth behind the long accepted myopic historical records. I have been trying to emulate her since!
How very strange my world is a just now. I spend hours immersed in my writing world, living vicariously through my characters. I travel with them back into medieval Iceland and Scotland, survive the brutal 1830’s Clearances of the Scottish Islands and emerge into the ongoing power inequalities in a pre MeToo world.
My characters are like family. I belong to them as much as they to me. I feel their pain, their joy. I know their demons and their triumphs. I escape through them.
And when the writing is finished, I raise my head satisfied with my work and grateful to be back in my own life. But now in this new strange world I am startled anew each time to find that I am returning to a world that has changed, a world in which I am stranger. I look around and see that I am amongst others, familiar but changed. My old world, the one that I had controlled, has gone. It is missing.
How odd then that my novel is titled Missing Pieces It is about the exquisite 11th Century ivory antiquities – the Lewis Chessmen – that went missing, found buried in a Scottish sand hill after 700 years. But there are 50 pieces missing. Where are they? Why have they not been found?
The main characters, five strong women who overcome harsh times, all have pieces missing in their lives. What do they need to do to take back control? How will they find fulfillment?
So many pieces are missing in this strange world of ours where we have all lost so much control. What do I miss the most? The answer is easy. Touch. It was not until it was taken from me that I realised how much I rely on it: to show sympathy, to express surprise, to calm anxieties. To demonstrate love. Now I gently, reluctantly, guide my grandchildren back to a distance safe for them and me, I smile at my adult children rather than greeting them with a hug, I video call my friends and then wave goodbye not knowing when I will see them face to face again.
So tell me - what do you miss the most in this time of Covid19?
"Lewis Chessman found in drawer expected to raise £1m at Sotheby’s auction"
Imagine my dismay when these headlines broke. What are the odds! Just as I was wrapping up the first draft of “Missing Pieces”, my second novel about the 50 (now 49!!) missing Lewis Chessmen, this cheeky little character turned up in a drawer in Edinburgh. It is the only piece to be found since the original 1831 discovery in the sandhills of the beautiful and magical Isle of Lewis, Scotland.
The exquisitely craved ivory chess piece actually fetched £1.6 million for the fortunate owner. So how much was paid in 1831 to Sprot Macleod the crofter who found the original hoard? Very likely nothing, for just a few years later he and his family were homeless as a result t of the barbaric Scottish Clearances.
Intrigued? Well here’s an excerpt that will give you a taste of how I have interlaced fact with fiction to bring to life the untold story behind the history of the Missing Pieces of the Lewis Chessmen. Told in the voice of Sprot's courageous wife Mhairi, it pick up the story as she is facing the Church Elders.
Putting my hands behind my back I crossed my fingers, for my next sentence would be a another lie. A lie not even Calum knew of. ‘Four score and some more there were in all including one buckle.’
As the words tumbled from my mouth, I forced myself not to think about the small bag of treasures I had set aside, in it some forty or so of the smaller pieces. I tried hard not to hear my mother’s words to me as a child. “You’re a sly one Catherine Mhairi.” Sly or not I had no intention of giving over all the treasure. Not yet.
The men at the table watched me, waiting on me, like greedy children hankering for a piece of fudge. I uncrossed my fingers. The lie had passed. I continued.
‘They’s all made from the tusk of the walrus I believe. This here is just one of them.’
I dug into my pocket and retrieved the piece I’d chosen as a display; a queen, Reverend Munro had told me. I felt the mood shift as they passed it around. Exchanging a knowing look with Munro, I watched with pride as their staunch, cynical faces changed to astonishment and wonder. One by one they turned the queen over in their hands. I watched as they examined the delicacy of her fingers as she, this noble queen, held her face in what? Fear? Awe? I had not been able to decide. I saw too how they noted the skillfully carved robes that enfolded her and then gasp as they turned the regal piece over to see the unquestionable craftsmanship of her ancient throne.
I heard them mutter to each other. ‘Four score, she says’ and ‘Yes, walrus ivory, I am sure.’ When all had seen the piece, I held my hand out and took it back, slipping it into my pocket. Reverend Munro nodded for me to proceed. We’d rehearsed this next bit many times. I folded my hands before me and pulled myself to my full height. In the voice I used to instruct my children to leave their play and get ready for dinner, I laid out my demand.
Let me know if you would like to be kept informed about the novel's upcoming journey into the world.
When Fiona Mcintosh https://www.fionamcintosh.com/books/encouraged me three years ago to come to her Masterclass the tipping point for me was that she would provide aftercare. In fact she she wrote “I have your back and will keep opening doors”.
Never were truer words said!
The Masterclass in itself was worth me stretching my (figuratively) short Scottish arms into my deep pockets but in terms of opening doors never could I have imagined the opportunities last weekend’s Masterclass National Conference would offer me.
Held at the spectacular O’leary Walker winery https://www.clarevalley.com.au/directory/oleary-walker-wines-restaurant-clare-valley 130 of us spent three days talking, sharing, laughing and pitching to 5 reps from the top publishing houses, two major book sellers, an expert in self-publishing and a social media guru.
Then when my dinner companions included acclaimed international best seller Michael Rowbotham http://www.michaelrobotham.com/index.asp?pagename=Books&site=1&siteid=9494
and our own local superstars Tricia Stringer https://www.triciastringer.com.au/books/and Meredith Appleyard https://meredithappleyard.com.au/ I thought I would lose my mind!
So what did I get out of it?
Lets start with Fiona’s reminder: “No One Cares.” Brutal but true. As a writer we have to do much more that just write to be successful.
Writers need to write with such dedication and brilliance that we make publishers and then readers care about our characters and their plight. We need to get readers to be curious enough about us and our books, through every means at hand, to get them away from Netflix and social media to go to their bookstore or on-line book seller to find my books. We need to be generous with our support of other writers, especially other debut writers, so that they care about our careers too. We need to care enough about ourselves to protect our writing time, even from those we love, and nurture our creative souls reading the wonderful words of those who have gone before us down the road of establishing themselves as an author.
What’s next ?
Polish, polish, polish my “Missing Pieces” (formerly Missing: A Hebridean Mystery) manuscript to take advantage of the amazing offer from two publishers to jump out of the massive whole of house slush pile into their (very busy) emails.
Get on the road with “Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto”. I have two library visits -with 4 other amazing writers - locked in already. (I’ll send details to you closer to the time.) And I’m planning a 2020 Scottish launch and road show.)
Take up an opportunity to podcast with the delightful Claudine Tinellis at Talking Aussie Books https://www.claudinetinellis.com/podcast-1.
Work out how to better use my social media with a coffee catch up with the Lisa from award winning PR company Commshake.
Plus plus plus.
Anybody with any ideas about where and how I can connect with you and your community and tribes please let me know via comments the section or at email@example.com
I could not have been more pleased with how the launch of Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto went. Nearly 60 people turned up and the atmosphere turned quickly from reserved curiosity to enthusiastic interest as the wonderful musicians, Kellie and Cahn, played the second movement of Il Gran Mogul, the music that features as almost another character in the novel.
Responding to my good friend Lynnie’s well thought out questions was easy and fun as we discussed what the novel was about and my writing journey.
As people queued to buy a copy, I got the chance to catch up with most of the attendees. There were friends from singing, yoga, book club, writing group, girls weekends, work, neighbours and of course family. So enthusiastic were they that I sold out of books!
A video slideshow of many of the resources that I used to create characters and settings played on loop while Team Launch got on with selling books, pouring champagne, laying out the food, taking photos and looking after the IT. I could not have done it without them!
I hope the book lives up to expectation. I have certainly had some good feedback already and look forward to reading reviews which I encourage everyone to do because it is the activity of reviews that helps books come to the attention of other potential readers worldwide.
Its in stock at Shakespeare’s Books Blackwood. http://www.shakespearesbooks.com.au
Or online. Try these links or go to your favourite online book supplier.
Barnes and Noble https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/vivaldis-lost-concerto-jennifer-mackenzie-dunbar/1131654469?ean=9780648504313
Thanks again for everyone’s support!
Launch day looms. The invites are out, the registrations are in and the champagne is on ice and I begin to allow myself to really think about just what I have done.
I haven’t written the next Orange Prize novel nor am I likely to bump anyone off Amazon’s best seller list. But I have finished what I set out to do seven years ago. (I always remember the date because the idea for it began forming at about the same time as I found out I was to be a grandmother for the first time.)
I have developed my skills, committed my time, buried myself in research and, finally, I have produced something. Something that will be sitting on a dusty on shelf (or on-line catalogue- much less intriguing) long after I am gone. Something that some great grandchild might pick up with curiosity as she or he wonders who this Jennifer woman was, just as I did with my great-great-grandfather’s book.
But it is not posterity that has motivated me but the need to create. An urge to build worlds and form characters; to get lost in the “other”. That is where the joy lies.
It is not however the creative process I want to write about today but one of the unexpected consequences of my endeavours - the community of writers I have met and joined along the way.
We come in many forms – from the serious young women and men who have forgone, or at least de-prioiritised another career to devote themselves to their writing, to the (almost) retired, like myself, who have been lucky enough to have paid off the mortgage and saved just enough to keep paying the bills. We may live in the same neighbourhood or on the opposite side of the world. I have a new writer friend in Edinburgh who writes about remote (and haunted) places I have lived near and just this week had contact from an American author- an expert on all things Icelandic - whose book , Ivory Kings, inspired my second novel. Take a peak here: https://www.nasw.org/users/nmb/books.html
I have had email encouragement from the young man, now living in Portugal, who in 2010, discovered Vivaldi's lost concerto in the archives of Newbattle Abbey, and met a young woman recently arrived in the city from country SA (just as I did all those years ago) forging her way in her new environment.
You see the writer community is not just a collection of people but a true community working towards shared goals. We celebrate each other’s wins and are around to soften the blow when times are tough. We help each other sort out the good writing from the not so good and are always ready to give each other the time to discuss a messy plot point or a character inconsistency. We understand the need to cut off from the world occasionally and even provide each other with the physical space to do that. We are there with encouraging words when the reject letters come in and genuinely rejoice when a publication offer is made or the self-published book arrives in the post.
I teach my Social Work students that communities came in many different forms. Some are geographical but in these days of the global village many are not. So tell me, what and where is your community?
Hello. Great news. Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto should be available for you in February 2019!
Give yourself a treat and listen to the concerto that inspired the novel while you read on. www.youtube.com/watch?v=3g6kK1Iq8us
After much deliberation and encouraging conversations with friends who have already gone over to the dark side, I have decided to bite the bullet and self-publish my first novel, Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto. The decision has led me into a labyrinth of choices to be made. If you are at all interested in the writing life of a novice self-publisher keep reading to learn about some of my decisions. (non-writers please feel free to ignore the links – they are aimed at author friends who may be lost in the same labyrinth)
I’m using IngramSpark http://www.ingramspark.com as my publishing platform. I will produce pre-printed, print-on-demand and e-book options to accommodate the various purchasing and reading styles of my potential readers. The print-on-demand eliminates the age-old problem of a self-publisher ending up with a hundreds of yet to be sold (aka unsold!) copies in the garage. Lucky, because I don’t have a garage!
Because I have already paid for a manuscript assessment and also had it read by several beta readers I decided not to pay for an editor. But I have sent it to a proof-reader, a fellow Masterclasser from my Fiona McIntosh group. She is a local South Australian woman with good credentials.
Next came the decision about the cover. In the traditional publishing world different genre’s demand different styles and those styles change regularly. Even though I have already had a go at designing my own cover using Canva http://www.canva.com , and come up with two covers that I am pretty happy with, I will use the services of Open Book Howden, OBH, http://www.openbookhowden.com.au to get graphic designer input. Once I have settled on two or three possible covers I will hold a “Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto Cover Competition” ^. The participants will be eligible to win a free copy of Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto.
Without a doubt the part of the process that has freaked me out the most has been reading the instructions on how to prepare or design the manuscript to be loaded on the IngramSpark platform. As soon as I see words like “type-set”, “gutters”, “bleed” and “convert to press quality PDF” I break out into a sweat. So, I was overjoyed when OBH said that, even though I am not using them to print the book (because they don’t do print on demand), they can help me with all that for a competitive fee. Phew!!!
While all that is happening, I am also getting up to speed on perhaps the most important skill I will need – marketing. I am planning to do an online course with either Creative Penn http://www.thecreativepenn.com or Self Publishing Formula https://selfpublishingformula.com to help me access and extend my contacts in the online marketplace. One of the first steps is to create an email following, hence the invitation to join my mailing list on the Home page of my website. Please register. I promise not to flood your emails and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.
Along the way I have learned that there are plenty of people out there with little or no credentials wanting to take my money, Vanity publishers aka co-contributive publishing, is alive and aggressive and should be treated with great caution. Some hybrid publishers e.g. She Writes Press https://shewritespress.com/about-swp have a good name and are worth considering but may have a long lead time. I may use them next time around.
So if all goes to plan Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto should be available for you to buy in February 2019.
One of the most striking things about my research trip to the Isle of Lewis, (other than the people I met – see my previous blog familiarity-and-kindness-on-the-other-side-of-the-world.html was to get a sense of how the island, Stornaway and Uig areas in particular, functions as a community. I wanted to find out how people - both past and present -interacted with each other. I learned that family and place are defining features. Whenever people talked to me about someone else from the island they referred these two aspect e.g. “Malcom Macleod, from Cross, near Ness, Jimmy and Isabel’s eldest.’ In doing this they acknowledged a person’s heritage and belonging.
It has had me thinking about if and how we do this in urban communities in both Australia and the UK and how this might have impacted on my contemporary protagonist who was born and bred in London. Did she feel as if she was missing this strong sense of place and continuity? Or did she feel inhibited when she went to Lewis and have a sense of being watched and scrutinised? Whilst I have already included some aspects of this in my novel actually seeing and hearing how this is done on Lewis will, I hope, bring greater authenticity to the characters .
I went into a restored blackhouse and got a real sense of how it must have felt to be protected from the weather by those solid walls. I wondered too, as that night I snuggled in to my pillow top mattress and multiple pillows, how on earth they actually ever slept; crunched into the short cupboard beds that they shared with at least two others. What skills and values must they have had to manage this lack of privacy? How did it impact on relationships? It also brought home even more starkly the devastation of the Clearances as people where driven out of their solid walls to seek temporary shelter on the far north of the island, often doubling the number of people per house there, and families were split between those who stayed and those who left on the ships to the unknown of the New World.
One of the most chilling items I came across (and bought) was the 1851 diary of John Munro Mackenzie, the Chamberlain of Lews” He was employed by the then owner of Lewis, Matheson, to oversee rent collection and the removal of those families unable to pay. It gave no recognition to the fact that they had been previously forced off the good grazing and cropping land onto rocky seaside crofts. Nor to the recent potato crop failure. Even though I had already read many second hand and academic analysis of the Clearances and also some first-hand accounts from the victims via the Napier Commission http://napier-outerhebrides.blogspot.com/, this cold hearted diary written daily by the very person issuing the instructions to remove families came as a shock. It takes the reader directly into the catastrophic meetings where lives were destroyed. This is one excerpt I found particularly brutal:
“ they are not willing to confess that they will be short of food before the next crop for fear of being sent to America- I told all who did not accept the offer now made to them (i.e. emigration) need not expect assistance of any kind either in food or seed and that they must wholly depend on their own resources which will be a good answer to make to beggars in the future. I then went to dinner at the Castle…”
He then goes on to list, croft by croft, the number of people to be removed. As the lovely 80 year old Anna McKinnon said to me “those that claim the Clearance did not happen need look no further than this diary as proof.” The Chamberlain clearly failed to see the brutal irony of going for a free and sumptuous dinner at the Castle after casting the lives of hundreds into chaos and probable death.
So what were the “or worse” aspects of my research trip? My hope of resolving the contentious issue regarding where the chess men were found, was not met. Three of my most treasured research resources disagree. Dave the Archaeologist says Mealasta and Anna the holder of local wisdom and Gemma an Historian and curator at the Lews Museum say Adroil. Although these sites are only about five miles apart I know now that this will be a significant issue for any Lewis people reading my novel. For a couple of days this dilemma thwarted my writing until I decided to write a caveat that allows me, as a writer of fiction, to choose between these two.
The other ongoing research niggle is an elusive letter allegedly written by the chess pieces finder Calum Macleod. It was mentioned in 1830’s records then disappeared. I had read about it and Dave talked of it, as it influenced his find location decision. But despite several days spent trying to re-find a reference I cannot find it referred to anywhere. So do I simply accept Dave’s account - he is an Archaeologist after all - or do I suspend writing until I find it? Well clearly the latter is not an option but it will be a research shadow that I may one day need to eliminate.
Take a look at my Research page to see photos of the inside of a blackhouse. People were still living in these in the early 1900’s.Blackhouses