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
Well here I am on my research trip on the other side of the world. One day I was looking towards the Antarctic and within days I was at Ness on the Butt of the Isle of Lewis looking over the North Atlantic towards the Arctic. From one extreme to another you would think but I immediately felt on familiar ground. Of course, I have been vicariously living and breathing the island for twelve months or so now; walking its streets via google maps, wandering the beaches via jpg images and drone footage. I’d even walked around a Black house on Youtube. But nothing beats the reality: the smell of a peat fire, the scratch of the heather, the crash of the ocean on ancients cliff faces.
The greatest surprise has been the overwhelming kindness and interest local people have taken in my novel and my research. It started when I couldn’t access the instructions to my airbnb. The taxi driver switched off the meter, drove around where I thought it was from memory and then and called in at the local store to help ask for local knowledge. The storekeepr , also the Post Office searched her records and when I finally arrived, the hosts were out the front waving us down having seen us searching. Now that’s island hospitality!
I have already become a familiar figure at the Lews Museum where a wonderful young curator has gone out of her way to talk to me about the chess men, their history and the stories surrounding them. She has inspired me to add another chapter devoted to the skulduggery that led to the hoard being split much to the annoyance of the British Museum which was led to believe it was buying the entire find.
A volunteer at the Stornaway Historical Society has also caught my interest in his hypothesis that the flat face, high cheek bone features of many an islander can be traced back to the children of the men who went to Canada working for the Hudson Bay company and came back with First Nation wives and children.
My tour with Dave the archaeologist introduced me to the many sites associated with the chess men and also provided tales of local customs which are still underpinned by the Free Church traditions especially as they apply to any activities on the Sabbath. And on his specialist subject, the ancient monuments such as the Callanish standing stones, he is possibly the island’s expert.
I have been given the names of other local people to contact who may be able to tell me if there are living relatives of my characters on the island and of a woman who is compiling an anthology of the local folk stories and myths. When I stop people in the street to ask directions they not answer my question but go on to tell me a wee story of their own about the island. “The building was once a school before it was the old museum you know. I went there myself. It’s haunted you know.” From another “I only went to the old museum once and the first photograph I saw was of my grandmother. Apparently she was the first female JP in Scotland and I never knew!”
The best (and worst) thing that has happened is that the weather has been gloriously sunny day in day out - a rarity for the island. But it makes spending time in the library looking at newspapers and old records unthinkable, surrounded as I am by empty sandy beaches and a sea that truly sparkles.
One thing is for sure, the locals love their Chessmen and each has a theory of who found them and where. Take a look at my photos and start planning your trip to this wonderful place where kindness abounds on the other side of the world.
Second draft time! Yah! Some people hate it but I must say it is fast becoming my favourite writing activity. Planning can be fun but, for me at least, it is a rather boring but necessary evil to help me avoid the trap of “wandering into the marshes” as Fiona Macintosh puts it. Doing the first draft requires pure creativity. It takes hours of solid concentration, uninterrupted dedication and lots and lots of typing.
But second draft is where I find I can relax into making the story zing. I exchange boring words for ones that better evoke the mood, I create settings that will transport the reader to another time and place, I add another dimension to a character to make you love (or hate) them even more.
And this time round I am making myself use the “read out loud” technique. It does make a difference. For an abysmal proof reader such as myself it helps me hear what I can't see but more importantly it catches the rhythm of the scene, I hear repetitions and notice when a sentence is too long or a paragraph too convoluted. But best of all it brings joy when you hear out loud that phrase that makes the writing come to life with a phrase that is yours and yours alone.
Second draft is also the time to do some of the yet-to-do research that I flag in the first draft. But even in second draft, research can become a distraction and, unless it is vital to the plot or I can find it within ten minutes, it stays as a comment out to the side; comments such as “Check this date” “what would her hat be made of” how did they get the chess pieces from Uig to Stornaway in 1830- boat of horseback?’. I then go back and do the remaining research in a block once the second draft is completed.
And because my research trip to Lewis is now booked I am also now using the second draft to highlight in purple the research and detail that I can only get once there. Comments such as “ask at the Stornaway Library” “walk along this beach” “ what are the prevailing winds in June?”, “what does the seaweed look like?” are scattered throughout and by the time I get to Lewis in June I will have a long list of things to do. I can’t wait to begin ticking them off and getting this delicious details into the novel.
So as you see, for me second draft is great fun! What do you think fellow writers? What techniques do you use?
I want to tell you how my writing life is filled with coincidences that can only be described as spooky! In a A previous blog coincidence-or-fate-when-fiction-meets-reality.html I told how I wrote an actual distant relative of mine into the fiction. This time the coincidence came to find me on facebook.
With a research trip to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s far west now booked, I have begun the second draft of my novel in progress about the Lewis Chessmen (working title A Hebridean Mystery). Pinned to my story board are two pictures. One of a late 1800’s Scottish islander woman (see right) that I have used as a visual aid for the 1830’s character Mhairi. It was Mhairi and her husband Calum who rescued the buried chess pieces from their sandy grave. I found this photo on one of the many Scottish history websites and fb pages that I follow.
The other photo I found using a google search “dark haired women images”. I scanned through many hundreds of images before choosing that of country singer, Brandi Carlisle (see below). I have used her image to base my contemporary character Marianne on because she has I think, some of the same look about her as Mhairi and could be 3 X g-granddaughter (or maybe not- you’ll have to ready the novel!)
Both of the photos were randomly selected, and I would bet my boots that nowhere else in the world do they share a space on a story-board!
Imagine then my delighted surprise when a Scottish history fb page posted the Mhairi photo. Oh, there she is I thought- my Mhairi. This was pleasant but not totally unexpected. It was after all on the same site that I originally found her photo. But you could have knocked me down with a feather when I flicked to the very next post on my fb page and there was of Brandi Carlisle advertising her latest album.
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!
For more updates on my writing journey read second-draft-fun.html
How moveable the life a writers can be! I have gone from having one completed novel and one novel in progress to having three novels in progress! How did this happen I hear you ask.
With some trepidation I dug deep into the semi-retirement funds and sent my Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto novel off for a Manuscript Assessment. The feedback was both reassuring and unsettling. In short she felt that the tow strands – contemporary and historical were too different to appeal to the one reader. Without going into the details the feedback has led me to revamp the novel into two.
The first is carried by the contemporary story, of Fiona Sinclair, a petty criminal and recovering drug addict, on her journey of uncovering the mystery of the how she already knows the only recently discovered Concerto. Her journey is fraught with difficulties as she desperately trying to extricate herself from the shackles of her past. The mystery is unfolded for the reader, and eventually for Fiona, as the novel dips into the historical events, both real and fictionalised, that contributed to the Concerto’s public disappearance for three hundred years.
The second novel will now flesh out the lives of those two historical characters, namely Lord Robert Kerr and Paolina Giro ( sister to Vivaldi’s protégé and maybe much more!) bringing to life the romance, politics and culture of 18th century Venice and Scotland.
Having just returned home from the Conference, tired and fulfilled, I am even more in awe of those authors who go through to publication. Talking to both published and aspiring authors has reminded me why I began writing and resulted in me making many new contacts that I can share the journey with.
With so many panels and workshops it is hard to pinpoints the most significant take home messages but I'll give it a go.:
Kate Forsyth said authors are Storytellers, Teachers and Enchanters. Getting the right balance of those, especially in historical fiction where the research can get in the way of the story, is critical. In fact Barbara Gaskell Denvil said the research is for the author only.
The First Glances: First Pages Contest, where a panel of publishers analysed several short synopsis and first pages of some brave individuals, taught me that publishers need to see in those first pages at least the beginnings of what your synopsis said the story was about. It was also evident that whilst there was quite a lot of agreement, at times what one publisher loved another would discard.
Sophie Masson impressed me with not only the breadth of her writing but also her passion for sharing with others. She herself sent a poem to A.D. Hope when she was just a teenager and was rewarded with his kind and considered feedback.
Lucy Treloar talked about her life on the move and how now she is most comfortable when she is an outsider- a theme she explores so deftly in Salt Creek. She also revealed that she does not love writing but it is a chore she cannot resist.
A panel discussed the issue of The Outlander Effect - Parallel Narratives. How to get the voice right and, in response to a question of mine, how to ensure you have a consistent genre?
A common theme throughout was exploring can we avoid looking at historical event through the current day prism? How we can tune into the beliefs and cultures of the time through reading the newspapers, letters and fiction of the era. Understanding too however whose voices were not recorded. And then how can we write that story with authenticity as opposed to truth.
I loved the sessions that discussed using artefacts to help carry the story e.g. letters (either real or fictional), fabrics, pottery, etc.. (A technique that I am drawn to already in both my novels.)
All in all a smorgasbord of ideas, skill development and fun.
I am learning that the pathway to publishing is never straight! I thought I was ready but after some further feedback on my manuscript I have slightly changed the structure of Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto bringing forward the final scene so that the reader gets (I hope!) a better sense from the start of the “story problem” that ties my three characters together. Having read Beth Hills’ Editorblog http://theeditorsblog.net/2016/10/15/the-story-question-is-vital/ I realised I needed to create more buy in for my reader. K.M> Weiland also talk about framing. "Frames bookend a story with a definitive opening scene (that introduces readers to pertinent characters, settings, and themes) and a closing scene (that brings the story to a resonant full circle by mirroring or returning to the opening scene)"www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/strengthen-your-story-with-proper/?platform=hootsuite#.
Can you think of a novel that uses this technique?
Having made these changes and after much hand wringing, I am also invested in getting a manuscript assessment before approaching more publishers. As a self-funded retiree, it’s not easy to justify spending money but, then again, (can you hear the chimes of a justification about to happen?) writing is a very cheap retirement past time (not putting a dollar value on my time of course!) compared say to playing golf or horse-riding or caravanning or sailing (pursuits of other retirees that I know). So, super fund – here I come!!
Does anybody else have a story about the dilemmas of when and how to invest in your retirement past time/ hobby?
Very proud to start this blog with the amazing news that my short story The Man Who Rowed Away will be published in August in MidnightSun's anthology, Crush. It is a contemporary retelling of the selkie myth – a theme I use also in my new novel - working title A Hebridean Mystery. The anthology is being edited and published by MidnightSun Publishers a small but expanding South Australian publisher. They have also asked to read the manuscript on my completed novel Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto. Big hurrah for small local boutique publishers. midnightsunpublishing.com
A Hebridean Mystery is split into four time periods spanning eight centuries. When Hannah, the contemporary character and curator at the British Museum, begins her research into the somewhat nebulous provenance of the somewhat famous artifacts, the Lewis Chessmen she discovers that the gender bias of history has all but erased the significant roles of these women in the Chessmen’s journey from Iceland to Scotland to London’s British Museum. Amidst the controversy of where the treasure should be housed at the time of the Scottish referendum for independence Hannah reports discloses her findings to her male superiors and puts at risk not only her career but also her relationship with her colleague and lover.
I intertwine into the plot Celtic myths, such as that of the selkie - a sea-lion who takes on a human form - and Icelandic sagas, full of betrayal and revenge, to create the lives of the five female protagonists. Their courageous and clever actions in the creation, disappearance, re-discovery and preservation of the Lewis Chessmen go against the gender expectations and cultural norms of their times and lead them into deep water, sometimes literally!
As always the research for the novel and the ongoing development and nurturing of my writing skills have consumed much of my writing time. In fact, recently I have been to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, The University of Virginia, and an Edinburgh archaeology meeting. No, I haven’t won the lottery; I have simply accessed the wonderful www. For example: I’ve listened to a lecture on the how works of historiographic meta-fiction, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, reveal a theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs. We all knew that right? : I “attended” a presentation by Elizabeth Kostova, author of my current book club book, The Historian, and heard how she used Bram Stoker’s myth of Dracula (itself based loosely on the real life Vlad the Impaler) as a jumping off point to fictionalise the possible political and human stories behind the terrifying never-dead blood sucking character. I listened to a lecture by Geraldine Brooks on her research and writing choices for The Year of Wonder and her use of the Historical Thesauraus. (Did you know that at the time of the plague a fetus used to be referred to as a shapeling. What a lovely word!) I read a 1831 Edinburgh Archaeological Society report in the Caledonian Mercury and explored the history of Scottish whisky.
All this for free from the comfort of my writing room!
Here are some links to some of the sites I have used. let me know what you find.
Have you ever felt your world has just been given a big nudge, resulting in you seeing everything slightly differently? My last minute, can I afford it? do I need this? decision to attend the 2016 Spring Masterclass. with Fiona McIntosh, South Australian author of, among others, The Lavender Keeper, French Promise, The Perfumer’s Secret.
Held in the beautiful Adelaide Botanic Gardens 19 budding writers gathered as strangers and left five days later inspired, committed and so much wiser. Writing is a lonely business and although I love, indeed, at times, crave, my time alone at the keyboard, meeting others who are dedicated to their craft is a very nurturing experience.
Fiona’s energy and passion for writing and for supporting others through to publication, left no room for slouchers. I learned how to write an engaging opening, to keep building the story in each chapter,to create realistic characters with a signature quirk. I honed my synopsis ready for pitching to a publisher and developed a non-negotiable writing schedule. But curiously the biggest take home message for me was the sad but painfully true fact that no-one really cares about my novel: my job is to make them care through my writing.
Meeting the publisher, from Allen and Unwin no less, and getting a chance to do a three minute pitch to her was a nerve wracking but wonderful opportunity. The process forced me to really hone in on what my novel is actually about and why someone would want to start and keep reading it. I am now making small but significant changes to the plot to ensure I stay true to the story (not “wander into the marshland” as Fiona, quoting Bryce Courtney,
Will I get published? Who knows? It is a competitive and it seems unpredictable industry but at least now I will have given it my very best shot.
Love to hear from you via the Comments section. Tell me about your experiences of course, writing or otherwise. What has worked best for you? What helped you sustain what you learned?
I heard Liane Moriarty (author of, amongst many others, the soon to be filmed Big Little Lies) interviewed this week and she talked of the realisation she had as a young girl that authors are just ordinary people and I ask myself - could I possibly become one of those just ordinary published author people? Of course there are authors that were never just ordinary. Virginia Woolf was born a genius and James Joyce an aberration of humankind but if we bring it down a notch to authors who lots of peoples still love reading (sorry Virginia and James but its true!) I guess the Kates - Grenville, Forsyth and Morton were just ordinary person once. They cooked and cleaned and procrastinated writing blogs (well maybe not the last one!) Not that I'm comparing my writing with any of these giants but you get my point.
Anyway back to reality. My journey towards publication continues. With no take up from any agents yet I have relooked at the opening of my synopsis with a greater focus on the mystery of the music and I’m even considering revamping the novel’s title from The Unknown Concerto to Vivaldi’s Lost Concerto to better capture attention. What do you think? I’ve also applied to enrol in a Pitch Conference with SA Writers and was lucky enough to score a late backfill into Fiona McIntosh’s September Masterclass. At both of these events I’ll come face to face with some real life publishers. Very Exciting Times but with that comes the realisation that I can’t hide behind the “I only write for a hobby” cover or use the “I only write part time” excuse. This is real author business for a just an ordinary person.
Wish me luck and let me know in the Comments if you have any thoughts on the just ordinary people notion.
Jennifer is a writer of short stories, novels and a family history.