Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Trumpet Blowing

Although Hogmanay is an artificial construct, who decided when one time period should end and another begin? Other cultures, religions have different ones to this. Teaching yoga for more than ten years has taught me that we have the endless capacity to make changes to ourselves, our lives. We can choose to remain or elect to move forward. I have changed hugely in the last eighteen months, I have regained some of the confidence of my youth and some of the playfulness of being young too. I swear a lot more, not necessarily a good thing but this is a result of throwing off the hang ups instilled in me by family mores that were ruled by the fear of what other people would think. I don't care what other people think any more (unless they're reviewing one of my books, then, I care deeply). 

Having said all this, taking a moment to review one's life, to look back and peer forward is a good thing for everyone, as long as you don't get bogged down regretting things from the past and worrying about what may lie ahead. My husband has a long term degenerative disorder that will inevitably make our lives very difficult but I refuse to think about it. This isn't because I am burying my head in the sand, it's because I can only live in the now, only deal with what is happening in this moment in time. I'm not going to allow fears about the future to ruin the present. 

And the present is great. I'm fitter and healthier at 52 than I was at 25 and I'm looking forward to the 5/2 diet taking me back to a pre children weight.  I feel confident now to call myself a writer as well as a journalist. My latest book is selling well and has received some astonishingly kind reviews. I am the director of a children's book publishing company, Curly Tale Books and our second book, Big Bill the Beltie Bull was released at the beginning of December. I've just written a new Belties of CurleyWee Farm story which we hope to publish in May, a long awaited follow up to the book I did with Pauline James. Pauline and I will be working together in 2014, creating a coffee table style book about the lighthouses of the Solway Coast. I've just been asked to host a writers' retreat, I oh... that's enough blowing of my own trumpet. 

But really looking forward to the challenges and joys of 2014. Wishing everyone a very happy new year. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Short Story inspired by the research for The Road to the Gallows

While I was researching my new (non fiction) book, I was inspired to write this short story. I submitted it to the creative writing magazine Southlight and I'm delighted to say it was selected and is in the current issue. As the magazine is somewhat tricky to get hold of I thought I would feature the story in my blog. Let me know what you think. 

The Juror

I have heard her cries many nights in my sleep, causing me to startle awake, sweating, cold. My wife tells me that at times I have been shrieking as I wake, causing her to believe I am feverish. I am quite well, but at night I sometimes fear the woman's tortured spirit is in the room with me. Once I came across one of my fellow jurors at a sale in Castle Douglas but I feared he would think me simple if I spoke to him of my nightly terrors. We talked about the price of cattle, the poor harvest, anything but the trial we had both sat through those many months before. I longed to ask if he too dreamt of the young woman, heard her plaintive sobs, her begging for mercy. I tried to look into his eyes, to see if they betrayed anything that his lips did not. He was an older man than me, a kirk elder, and in those terrible few minutes it had taken to find her guilty he had been robust in his opinion, no doubt in his mind he had said.
I had doubt, not about her guilt, the evidence as the judge had said, was clear, but I believe we should have taken more time, tried to look at her life as fifteen good Christian men. Many of my fellow jurors were older than me and tired after ten hours of evidence, witness after witness in the stand giving detail after detail of damnation. The judge's summing up had taken so long it was difficult to retain the few arguments put forward by the prisoner's advocate.
I had felt such pride when I opened the letter summoning me to serve on the jury. My dear wife had been in such a hurry to tell the ladies on her charitable committee that she had bustled out of the house not long after breakfast. It was a statement of my value in the community, she had said, my status as a man of standing. In reality it was simply because I had inherited my father's farm, a landowner in a rural area populated largely by peasantry and tenants. My wife told me it was wonderful, such a responsibility and I was an example not just to our children but to our workers and fellow members of the congregation. She was right and by the time I arrived at the court-house in Dumfries in the clothes I normally kept for the Sabbath, I was quite puffed up my own importance.
I had been alarmed by the crowds blocking Buccleuch Street, hundreds hoping to get a glimpse of the accused as she was taken from the prison opposite. I had quite forgotten that there was a very great chance I would be sitting in the jury for the most sensational case in the district for many years. It was with some difficulty that I made my way to the court house and it was only with the help of the militia, who had accompanied the judge to the building, that I gained access to the correct entrance. The court itself was smaller than I had expected, somewhat cramped really as if we were all in jeopardy of toppling one on top of the other. I saw later that several newspapers described the prisoner as cool, preserving a stolid indifference to the proceedings. She did not appear so to me. I felt that she had the appearance of someone who had little real understanding of the situation she was in, overwhelmed by the ceremony, the bewigged and black gowned, as to some extent was I. A woman who had nothing but who wished to retain some dignity as the gawking masses who crowded into the public gallery whispered and pointed at her. The prisoner had looked such a slight and sorry individual, the cheap bonnet with the shabby gum flowers too tatty even to be used on one of our tattiebogles, but it was probably the best she owned.
We heard, in the evidence, of how she had tried to borrow money or a little tea, how she and the neighbour she had bludgeoned to death had argued over wood that had come down the river in a flood. Such desperate poverty was hard to imagine though my wife told me many stories of wayward women helped by The Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country, of which she is a member. The young woman before us had clearly found no friends in the country despite living there all her life. Neighbours, the local constabulary, her stepfather and sister and then her own children had all appeared before us in the witness stand.
The sight of her young daughter moved the court greatly but the poor child was clearly terrified and torn between her duty to justice and her duty to her mother. I watched the woman's face as her child was coaxed and cajoled into condemning her by the Advocate Depute and the judge. Tears silently ran down her pale cheeks, her chest rising and falling as if she was barely holding in the emotional tumult she must have felt. Her own child.
It was for her children that she cried out when that stern judge, who I later heard called Judge Death by people in the street, donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang. Her pathetic pleading, her only thought for 'her weans.' I shudder now remembering those screams, suddenly alive to what had happened that day, perhaps only suddenly alive to what had happened three months before on that winter morning when she had gone to her neighbour's kitchen and struck the woman repeatedly with a beetle and poker.
After she was taken from the court and we fifteen good men had shuffled, cold and stiff from the hard benches and long hours, only then, I think, did it begin to occur to us what had happened, what we had done. I cannot recall who was the first to speak in the jury room as we began to struggle into our coats, to find our hats, but he was a braver man than me. First one, then another expressed our collective shock that the judge had sentenced her to be publicly hanged. Some of the older members of the jury could just recall the last execution in the town forty years before, a young man guilty of highway robbery. Although we believed her to be guilty of killing her neighbour, had any of us really considered that she could be sentenced to death, though obviously it is still the punishment in law for the crime of murder?
At night now when I hear her cries again, her pleading, her begging to be spared for the sake of her children, I ask myself if I should have done more to raise questions about the evidence. Despite my wife's objections I had attended one of the public meetings called to campaign for a reprieve to her sentence. So much information came out following the trial of the terrible childhood the woman had suffered, how she had no moral guidance from her mother, how she had endured terrible poverty but had always done her best for her four children. I heard of her husband, a man twenty years her senior. Each tale tortured me for I, in my haste, had hurried her along the road to death.
I read all the reports of the desperate efforts to get a reprieve, of her confession to the crime and I believed her claim that she had not intended to kill the woman. How could a woman, a mother of four young children, truly have meant to cause such injury I asked myself. I have increasingly come to the conclusion that it was not a diabolical deed as so many newspapers said repeatedly during the weeks before the trial, but an act of desperation, almost of defence for the lives of her starving children but it is too late. I did not attend the execution nor read the newspaper reports. I endeavoured to avoid any discussion by my church fellows. The labourers on my farm knew I would tolerate no word on the subject and I often heard their voices quieten as I approached.
I cannot silence her cries though, in my head I hear her desperate voice pleading for mercy, for a life in prison. “Let the Lord come for me,” she had screamed. I hear it yet. I have since written in support of our local member of parliament who is campaigning for a change in the law, an end to capital punishment. Surely he is right in this age of such progress and enlightenment, it is shameful that we still punish people in public with death. I have also given a charitable donation to the fund started by the minister for the Kells to provide an education for her children. I hope that my efforts will somehow placate the spirit that haunts my dreams but I am living in dread of the 29th of April, the first anniversary of her public execution. Pray God I will find some peace.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Balancing Act Between in Your Face or Nowhere

Chatting with fellow writers this week we agreed that the whole promotion, publicity thing is a nightmare. One friend, who has several strings to her bow and has already built quite a following, was saying that she was going to offer her new book to a mainstream children's publisher. She felt with her contacts and the blogs, pages and websites she has created, she should be able to interest one of the big companies in her next book. She said she wanted someone else to do all or some of the promotional side for a change. But will they? Most have seen their publicity budgets and departments slashed and from what I can gather most authors are still having to spend a considerable amount of time pushing their work. Another friend who was in the same conversation said that she hadn't even attempted to place her work with one of the 'gate keepers.' An industry professional had told her that a big publisher or agent would want her to remove all the local references from her work, the very things she feels are helping the book to sell now that she's produced it herself. She feels that not only has she kept control of her product but she's also reaping the benefits financially. None of us, well few of us, amongst my group of author friends want to become the next J K Rowling. We're quite happy to see our work in print and to sell the copies we have printed, and a second print run would be fantastic. Many of my friends use Feed-a-Read or other organisations that allow them to print a few copies at a time whilst also making it available through the usual on line book retailers.

The big problem that arises for everyone is the difficulty of letting people know that your work is out there to be purchased. As a journalist I'm happy to write press releases for friends, in fact I'm happiest doing this for someone else. The difficulty most of us have is the issue of learning to blow our own trumpets, how long and how hard to blow them too. There's a balance between becoming a bore like some authors on Twitter who just tweet about their e books all the time and actually failing to mention your book at all. With both of my non fiction books I really want people to know the story of the women who are featured because no one has tried to tell their stories before so I think about any promotion in those terms rather than it being about me, me, me and my great book. But it remains a tricky path to tread. I recently sent a short article to a newsletter distributed in the area where my new book is part of the local history. As I was writing articles for several newspapers and magazines it felt only fair that I sent something to this community paper. But I had a series of emails which ended in my becoming exasperated and somewhat offended when I was accused of writing something that was advertorial (what an ugly word) and could I pay £80 for it to be used. The publication of my book is newsworthy in itself as it is the first to be written about a case of national importance (Mary Timney was the last woman to be hanged in public in Scotland). I can't help but wonder if my book had been published by a mainstream company whether they would have been accused of writing something advertorial or whether the editor would have been delighted to have been able to feature a new book on a piece of local history in their pages.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Found and Lost

There was a moment last week when, instead of working, I spent a minute searching the internet, as writer's often do. It's that or having a look at twitter or facebook maybe. Easily distracted, writers. I put in the first of two or three names, people I look for every now and then. People who were important to me once but who I've lost touch with. One is now a doctor in British Columbia, I search to see if there are any pictures of him rather than just the 'rate your doctor' listings. I then happened upon a photograph of my niece at a fancy party in London, and then her website. Finally, aware that I was wasting time, I put the final name in, the name of a friend who unfortunately shared the same name as a relatively well-known actor, comedian, director so that whenever I'd searched before there were just too many pages to plough through. If I had thought, and remembered that my friend had been in an indie band in the mid eighties that did pretty well, John Peel was a fan, I might have found him earlier, but instead I found him too late.

The search engine found him for the first time in ten years of looking. It was an obituary. An obituary written for The Guardian less than a month ago. I held my breath as I clicked on the link hoping that it was someone else with the same name but I knew it wasn't, I'd seen the reference to the band he'd been in. I lost touch with him a long time ago, almost thirty years, but I'd always expected to catch up with him sometime. I'd found other people, lots of them unexpectedly through social networking sites. In the last couple of years I've renewed contact with lots of old friends and I just thought that one day soon he'd pop up. Now I'm too late, and just too late which makes it more difficult somehow, though I have learnt from the writer of the tribute that he died unexpectedly, telling few people of his diagnosis.

My head these last few days has been full of memories, of bands we were in together, saw together, listened to on my sister's old record player. He'd asked me, out of the blue, to front a band he was putting together. We were both 17 and went to different schools but a friend of mine who went to his school suggested me. God knows why, I had no confidence, I'd only ever sung in the church choir and I seemed to be incapable of remembering the words to any song. In the few gigs that we did I had to have the lyrics written in a jotter sitting on a music stand by the microphone. This was the punk/new wave era so this rig up looked like an arty affectation rather than a necessity. The other three band members were excellent musicians so I suppose I was able to get away with it, warbling incoherently at the front was the style of the time after all.

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I will not get a chance to laugh over these early gigs with my friend, to find out how life has treated him because instead death has caught up with him first. I just have this overwhelming need to write about it, to somehow make up for this loss by conjuring him up again with words.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Next book? Fiction is Easy!

I was recently asked to write a guest post on Louise Gibney's blog misswrite. It was all a bit last minute, but as a journalist I work best when facing a deadline. I decided to write about a question I'd been asked at a reading event the previous week. I'd read from my new book, which at that point hadn't been published, but during the interval one interested reader asked what my next book would be? It seems churlish to find this a tad annnoying, after all the questioner clearly liked my work and was keen to read more, but when you're only just coming up for air from the months of writing and researching, it did mean taking a deep breath before answering. 

I've been asked the same question several times now in the last three weeks since my book was launched, and I remember having the same conversation with people after my first book four years ago. BUT I have to say that the conversation I had yesterday really took the biscuit. In a lull in the conversation one of my in laws asked how my new book was selling but this was closely followed by the 'and what's your next book going to be question'. (Screaming inside  but trying to smile) I replied that I have to make sure this one sells first. Whilst still trying to stop the smile from turning into a snarl, it was then suggested to me that I just write a fictional book, after all, that didn't take much work as it all comes out of your head. I could rattle off one of those novels in no time couldn't I? I believe I deserve a medal for the patience I showed as I, not too calmly I confess, explained the difficulties of writing books, fiction and non fiction. It was all I could do not to start ranting.  

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A Small Part of Something Big

Things are happening in Dumfries and Galloway and it's great to be a part of is, even in a small way. When I moved here twenty one years ago, first to Dumfries and then to Wigtownshire, it felt as if I was moving to the wild west. I'd always lived in small towns near cities, Leeds and Bradford, Hull, Nottingham and Edinburgh among them, so moving to a very small village more than two hours (by car or ferry) from the nearest city came as something of a culture shock. Perhaps just a shock, never mind culture. 

But being part of a small community has given me space and opportunities that I probably would never have had in an urban environment. I'm delighted to be a member of a writing group that has become a real force in Wigtownshire. In the last three years Book Town Writers has established itself as a group providing support for anyone wishing to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) for the first time whilst also arranging workshops with leading authors and creating a respected short story competition. I joined the group with little confidence about my writing despite being the author of a non fiction book. I have recently published a new non fiction title whilst also developing my creative writing with work published in Southlight magazine, The Fankle, Running Out of Ink and guest slots in other blogs.

Wagtongues, a new initiative founded by a writers' collective in the east of the region, was launched with a pop up bookshop at Wigtown Book Festival last weekend. The group plan to provide further pop up shops in order to support and celebrate the growing number of excellent writers living in Dumfries and Galloway. With the imminent launch of a new monthly writers' salon at Reading Lasses cafe bookshop, creative types will be able to meet up over a lovely meal and chat, network and bond. It's all good and it's great to be a small part. 




Thursday, 26 September 2013

Ok let's go...

So on Monday I get an email from our local printing company who have been producing my new book and the message is that the book's ready. It's fantastic after months of research, writing and putting the whole thing together to actually hold the book in my hands. And here's the front cover featuring a fantastic pen and ink drawing by illustrator Shalla Gray. It would be good now just to sit back and look at this finished product but this is not possible. Several writer friends felt that I should have offered the book to agents and major publishers but I decided to publish the book under my friend Julia MacDonald's imprint, Clayhole Publishing as it was Julia who first told me about Mary Timney. Julia believes she may be descended from one of Mary's four daughters. It seemed right, somehow, that this book, which aims to present a fairer picture of The Glenkens or Carsphad Murder, should be published by Julia. All I have to do now is sell it. Want to buy one, only £7.95 a copy? 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Coming Up for Air

Last night I sent through the final instructions for my new book. Of course that sentence does not convey the frenzy and stress of the past few weeks. All self imposed. I set my own deadline, but then I had to. If I hadn't I would have tinkered with the book, changing a word here, a phrase there, forever. It will never be perfect and I'm sure when I hold the book in my hand I'll find something I'm not happy with within seconds. And as all writers know, some smart Alec will spot the mistake immediately, ignoring the months or years of research and the hours of sweating over words that has gone into creating a book. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Two Approaches to a Murder: A Chat with Tom Pow

On April 29th just over 150 years ago, a young mother of four was taken, screaming, to the gallows in Dumfries. She had lived a poor, quiet, life in a hill community in Kirkcudbrightshire, struggling each day to keep body and soul together. Her trial and death brought her a fleeting, unwanted fame and a mention in the history books as the last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland.

I am currently researching a book about Mary Timney but her case was the subject of a play written by Dumfries poet and playwright Tom Pow for Radio Scotland back in the late 1980s. Tom met with me recently to discuss the case. We quickly discovered that our research differed because of the way we each approached the story. As a journalist I'm looking for facts, but Tom was looking for information that would tell the story. I'm getting ahead of myself, firstly, I wanted to know how Tom had come across the tale of Mary Timney.

Tom explained that he had been living opposite to the Dumfries Museum and often visited. 'I was initially interested by the death mask of Robert Smith, the last man to be publicly hanged in Scotland. I wrote a sequence of poems about that case. On display behind the mask, was a broad sheet about the last woman to be hanged in Scotland and at first I thought I would write another pair of poems. The more I read about the case, the more I thought that it would make a play, Mary tried to blame her own mother for the murder and her young daughter testified against her.'

The Archivist at Dumfries tipped Tom off about the existence of trial papers which he found in Edinburgh.

'The excitement... this guy in white gloves brings you this box and I got the feeling that the contents had not been opened since they were placed in there. Everything was tied with ribbon and folded so that you had to hold the documents open or they would snap back into place. Everything was covered in dust. This was the evidence.'

Tom decided to use Scots for Mary and her neighbours but faced the difficulty of making the story clear to those who may not understand the language. His answer came in the form of the local minister who written down the testimonies of the witnesses in the initial police enquiry. Tom decided he would not have spoken Scots so at various points in the play the minister translates the words back to the witnesses.

From these papers Tom was able to flesh out the characters of the play and, at times, the evidence statements form the basis for the dialogue. But this is where Tom and I part company in our approaches to the subject. Tom, coming to the story as a creative writer is able to portray his characters as he decides, interpreting the information but using his imagination and creativity. Coming from a background as a journalist I need to present Mary and her story based solely on the facts and information that I find. Tom was able to write a wonderful and powerful play based on his research but I need to make sure I have exhausted every avenue and followed up every lead before I start putting the book together.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Writing (and Reading) as Therapy

For as long as I can remember writing,and reading have been a vital part of my life. One of my earliest memories is of my Dad reading my favourite book to me, sadly I can't remember the name of it but it was about a small cottage that slowly becomes surrounded by skyscrapers. (As the youngest of four much older siblings the symbolism is something for the psychiatrist's chair).  I'm sure it had a happy ending but cannot think what it might have been; presumably it was somehow lifted by a crane and transported back to the countryside. This book was repeatedly borrowed from the library, I was later told, the family finances presumably didn't run to my being bought the book. 
Then I started writing myself, poems reflecting my inner thoughts, stories about my ambitions to be an international showjumper and then later a diary. Recently the author Matt Haig has written about how writing helped to save his life ( http://www.booktrust.org.uk/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/509 ). For me, writing was certainly a conduit for stress, a confidante and company for a lonely child, and a means of understanding the world. Reading was at first an escape, I was a huge fan of Tolkien and Hardy, and then a way of exploring beyond the small Yorkshire town that I lived in and beyond a family life dominated by Christian ideology and the Daily Express. 
Working as a journalist I dropped any thought of writing creative fiction (despite the popular view of reporters) and then, as an at home mum, I lost confidence in my ability to write anything. This loss of self belief wasn't helped by a spell in intensive care when I tried to combine working as a deputy editor and bring up two children, one with disabilities. My need and wish to write was handicapped by a fear of what other people would think of it, concern that I would be criticised, the stifling legacy of being told not to get beyond yourself, the fear of failure. But I continued to keep a diary and this allowed me some form of expression although I only realise now that it was a lifeline, a link to words, a creative space and a key to sanity. 
I began my journey out of the doldrums of self doubt when I studied yoga and became a teacher. You couldn't be self conscious standing in front of a class demonstrating yoga postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Four years ago I came across the untold story of early aviator Elsie Mackay which led to my first book, at first self published but people liked it. For the first time in more than 20 years I allowed myself to think that maybe I could do this writing thing after all.   But it wasn't until last year that I decided to focus completely on my writing again. I joined a writers' group, BookTown Writers,  which has been hugely supportive and I'm taking my first steps into fiction, with some success. 
I now have the confidence to call myself a writer and I'm working on a non-fiction book, some children's stories and supporting other writers. I feel more comfortable in my skin than I have at any previous point in my life, the writing hat sits well and suits me. I understand that writing is for me, if other people like it that's a bonus and if they don't well, never mind. I blog, I tweet, I research and write and, of course, I still keep a diary. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Whispers of  Auld Lang Synes long since sung echoed through our home last night as we added another round, surrounded by ghosts from past Hogmanays. Our home was once a hall that held dances during the war and meetings for local groups like The British Legion, the Plymouth Brethren and the Band of Hope. How many lost voices joined our rendition of Burns' immortal words? Would some of those po faced Presbyterians have cast aside their disapproval for a moment at our whisky fuelled revelry, seeing my children and my husband cast aside their disabilities and debilitating health issues to link arms and jump as they sang. I remember my father, in his mid eighties and diagnosed with inoperable cancer, fighting back the tears as he sang with us several years ago, all too aware that this was probably his last new year. He relished every word and savoured every moment and the memory of it remains.  

The New Year may be an artificial construct but it is good to pause, to capture a moment in time for future memories, to shed old demons and welcome change. With the help of a counsellor from CRUSE I have shed a skin and left it in 2012. The new shiny me finally feels ready, after fifty years of faffing about, to face the future. Bring it on.