Monday, 25 August 2014

Blog Tour

It's been a very busy summer! My last blog was back in June and since then I've been out and about with my new children's book. But I've been prompted to return to my blog thanks to the invitation from writer Kriss Nichol to take part in the Blog Tour. So here goes....

Q1: What are you currently working on?

I'm actually about to revise my first book West Over the Waves, The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay. The book is officially out of print but there will be lots of interest in it next year - I'm told! American best selling author Laurie Notaro is publishing a novel interweaving the story of aviator Elsie Mackay along with two other women (Ruth Elder and Mabel Boll) who were also trying to the be first female to fly the Atlantic. The book is being published by Simon and Schuster next summer and Laurie has told me she'll be pointing readers towards my non fiction book! So it needs to be available. There is also talk of a film based on Elsie Mackay, who was the actress, designer daughter of Lord Inchcape of Glenapp, and I've read a very wonderful script by screenwriter Tony Lindsay.

Q2: How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I'm not sure I have a genre! I originally trained and worked as a journalist and because of that I feel that I am a jobbing writer, willing to turn my hand to anything! I write a newspaper column, short stories, creative non fiction and children's books. I also have a stack of ideas for a novel if I ever have time. I am a huge fan of Kate Atkinson and love the way her work cannot really be catagorised to a genre.

Q3: Why do I write what I do?

It's a compulsion! Simple as that. It just happens. If I get an idea or an inspiration I just have to get it down as fast as I can. Both of my non fiction books were researched and written quite quickly because I become obsessed. Even my new children's story - due out in spring 2015 - landed in my head fully formed while I was walking the dog one day and I had to run home and write it down. I know it sounds odd but I just find that when it happens, I'm driven!

Q4: How does my writing process work?

You can probably tell from the last question that I don't really have a process. Despite having studied yoga and worked as a teacher, I am very undisciplined. I have a busy and challenging family life which I have to work round too. Having said that, when I have a project underway everything else gets swept to one side and you'll find me in archives and libraries researching and then just writing until it's done.

Q5: What's new from you? 

I had a new children's book, Big Bill's Beltie Bairns, published in May and with my publishing hat on, we have a new book due out this autumn called The Galloway Chilli by Shalla Gray. I was also appointed literary animateur for Wigtownshire in July, supporting the region's literary development officer, Carolyn Yates. With the Curly Tales and my Mary Timney book, I have a busy schedule of readings and talks over the next few months.

I'm now handing the baton to author Patricia Comb. Over to you Patricia.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Plays and Prose

Last night I travelled through to Dumfries to see the screening of footage taken of a play originally produced by the town's Guild of Players 25 years ago. A series of coincidences and conversations had led to the discovery of the video made of The Execution of Mary Timney by photographer Brian Sherman when the play was put on at the small Brigend Theatre in Dumfries. 

The play had been commissioned from poet and playwright Tom Pow by Radio Scotland and was first aired on that station. The Guild of Players took the radio play and produced it as a stage production, creating a powerful piece of work which had extra resonance because it was about a tragic episode in the history of this town in south west Scotland. 

The play highlights the case of 27 year old Mary Reid or Timney who was found guilty of the brutal murder of her neighbour and publicly hanged before a crowd of three thousand in 1862. The case inspired such horror amongst the public that it was a catalyst for a change in the law in six years later and so Mary became the last woman to die this terrible public death in Scotland. Sadly, Dumfries was also the place where the last man was executed in public, shortly before the new law was brought in. 

Tom Pow has written about both cases after seeing the death mask of Robert Smith and the broadsheet depicting Mary Timney's execution in Dumfries museum. He wrote a poem about Robert Smith and intended doing the same about Mary Timney but instead found himself being commissioned to write a radio play. 

When I began researching the story of Mary Timney for my book, published last year, Tom very kindly shared not only some of his sources but also his feelings about the case. He hadn't seen the Guild of Players production as he had been abroad at the time and at that stage he didn't know about the footage. By coincidence Tom later met and married the actress who produced, directed and took the role of Mary Timney in the production of his play. 

Being able to see this play thanks to the digital conversion of the video tape, was an extraordinary experience. As Tom said in his introduction, his play would now be described as verbatim play as he lifted many of the lines and statements direct from the original court records and newspaper articles. Of course I had also used these sources, along with others, and many of the words also appear in my book. 

Hearing these words being said by the actors, who all gave such outstanding performances that it was difficult to remember that this was and remains an amateur theatre company, was deeply moving and more than once I felt the hairs lifting on the back of my neck. Julie Smith's central performance as Mary Timney was heart rending, capturing the person that had emerged, for me, from the dusty lines of Victorian newsprint or the scrolled handwritten legal documents from the trail and precognition process. 

The play powerfully conveys the difficult life of this young woman struggling to raise her four children in poverty with her neighbour quibbling over details like who owned the wood that had been washed down the river and left in the meadow opposite their cottages in the remote glen in north Kirkcudbrighshire. 

The film is now available on DVD from Brian Sherman in Dumfries and I hope many schools use it as a resource as part of modules examining the issues of capital punishment. 

Brian Sherman

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Plugging My New Book's it

Apologies but I'm just going to mention my new book - Big Bill's Beltie Bairns illustrated by the extraordinary Shalla Gray. She's extraordinary because not only does she run a busy post office and village shop, organise four children (the youngest is just eight) and write and illustrate books BUT today she told me that 'in her spare time' (that is during the periods she's waiting for me to make decisions on pictures and stuff) she's created another book of her own. And not just a kind of rough sketch on some jotter paper, she's done the story and created the most amazing illustrations for it! But more of that in about four months time.

Anyway, enough about Shalla (the wonder woman) and back to me (the wondering woman). So, Big Bill's Beltie Bairns was inspired by my first children's book, The Belties of Curleywee Farm which was illustrated by the multi talented Pauline James (God aren't these woman annoying, I mean inspirational) who went on to launch her own independent publishing company (Second Sands Publications). Since then I've been working with Shalla so it made sense to link my new book to her very successful title 'Big Bill the Beltie Bull.' Hence, Big Bill's Beltie Bairns. 

We're launching on Sunday at the Whisky, Words and Wisdom Spring Festival in Wigtown, Scotland's National Booktown, with a fun event filled with readings and activities (all available for other festivals too at a very reasonable rate). The book is in an A5 format (ideal for little hands) and is a bargain at just £5. Ask your local independent bookshop to order it or you can go direct to our website or use the usual online book retailers. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Writer or Performing Monkey!

A few years ago I was reviewing events at the Wigtown Book Festival for the local newspaper and I wrote one article commenting on how much of a writer's life was now taken up with performing at festivals. This was before I wrote my first book and at that point I had no notion I would end up in this position myself. It was painfully obvious that many writers were wonderful at their craft but hated being dragged into the spotlight. They spoke too quietly, were awkward or  trembling wrecks or just delivered lecture, their heads buried in a pile of papers, and who could blame them? They had chosen to be writers not performers and just wanted to be left alone to get on with it. 

The ability to present your work, to talk about it, and if you're a children's writer then keep a crowd of youngsters happy for an hour, is increasingly part of an author's life. I'm involved in the children's committee for a festival and the decree from the director is that anyone selected for an invitation to appear should be able to present an 'experience' not just a reading of their work. This is a tall order and pretty unreasonable. By this criteria many excellent writers would be left on the shelf. 

When I wrote my first children's book I was invited to appear at a book festival. My event attracted a large audience and luckily the illustrator agreed to appear with me. We had never done an event before, let alone before a large crowd of young children, but I thought we did pretty well. We both talked to the kids, I read the story and Pauline explained how she'd done the illustrations. We then played a game and we had some colouring sheets to do. Everyone seemed happy apart from the publisher who claimed we'd lost sales as some children had drifted away. (Friends who were at the event later told me that one child had been taken to the toilet but that was it).

I have since become more experienced at public speaking to adults and reading stories to wee ones and looking back I know that our first event was pretty good for a pair of novices. I've seen some real stinkers from authors who just want to read the book and go home. I don't blame them but there is the expectation now that children should be entertained. One popular author performs a series of spectacular magic tricks at his events (and leaves quite a mess!), another runs around so much he must lose a stone! 

At a recent workshop about becoming a children's writer, Debbie Williams, course leader at the University of Central Lancashire, said that you are far more likely to be taken on by a publisher if you've been a teacher or can show that you know children, and can engage with them. In fact you have to be able to engage with people. 

As I left the building after the talk I passed an author (the event was for writers) who had been at the same (small) event, and I smiled warmly. He looked through me as if he'd never seen me before in his puff! That's not the way to do it, I thought. 


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Wooden Beetle or Mallet, Tattie Basher or Murder Weapon?

In early April 1862 Mary Reid or Timney faced trial for murder at Dumfries in South West Scotland. The weapon alleged to have been used in the attack on her neighbour, 40 year old Ann Hannah, was crucial to the case. It was a wooden mallet or beetle commonly used in Victorian kitchens, or in Mary's case her one room cottage, for washing clothes and also bashing neeps and tatties. The mallet produced in evidence was said to belonged to the 27 year old mother of four who was known to have a fiery temperament and an equally volatile relationship with the older woman who was her nearest neighbour - her family owned the farm and the cottage north of St John's Town of Dalry in the Glenkens where the Timneys lived. 

Following Ann's death on the evening of the attack, the local police officer, John Robson from New Galloway, searched the Timney's cottage before arresting Mary for the murder. He discovered the mallet behind a meal barrel but replaced it not realising that it would be vital to the case. There was no reason for him to realise the importance of the mallet as two weapons had been discovered next to the dying woman, a butcher's knife and a poker. They were both covered in blood and had clearly been involved in the incident. 

It was only when the post mortem revealed that neither of these items could have caused the serious head injuries suffered by the poor woman, that the officer remembered the mallet. When the cottage was searched again in daylight by John Johnstone, the Chief Constable for the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and two further officers drafted in from Dalbeattie and Carsphairn, they discovered the beetle again and, casting further suspicion on Mary, there had clearly been an attempt to hide it as it was discovered underneath a dresser. 

Mary strenuously denied that the implement was hers, and in a statement her husband Frank also claimed that the item shown to him did not belong to the family. Frank was not called to give evidence during the trial and his statement was not produced either. After being found guilty, as Mary was awaiting her execution, which was to be the last public hanging in Scotland, she confessed that she had been the cause of her neighbour's death but as the result of a fight between the two women. She continued to insist that the beetle belonged to Ann Hannah and the woman had first attacked her with before dropping it on the floor. Mary claimed she had then picked it up and in a blind fury carried out a series of blows that would lead to the woman's death. Mary's eldest children, two little girls who were compelled to give evidence during the trial despite being aged only nine and seven, had, however, stated that they believed it belonged to their mother. 

The judge, Lord Deas, was clear in his mind that the weapon belonged to Mary and that she had carried it with her on that January morning, meaning that she had gone with intent to kill. Although there was controversy about this and Dumfries MP William Ewart, a trained barrister himself, would later argue that Lord Deas had misled the jury as there was no evidence that Mary had taken the mallet with intent to murder, an appeal to the Queen failed. 

In my book, Mary Timney, The Road to the Gallows, I deliberately chose not to include a picture of a wooden beetle or mallet. Although the implement was produced in court it has since gone missing and as it was such a common item no one thought to give a detailed description of it during the precognition process or even in the newspaper reports. Such washing or bashing tools varied a great deal in size and shape and I didn't want to mislead the reader by showing an example that may be nothing like the one used in the crime. The only clue as to its size and shape came from the statements of Susan and Maggie, they said that they had used the beetle as a doll. It is horrific to think that this mallet, used as a simple toy by these young children who were living in poverty, should be the cause of a brutal and bloody death to the woman who lived fifty yards along the road. 

This photograph shows a wooden beetle or mallet belonging to a friend, it's been in her family for generations and it is easy to imagine how two little girls in 1862 could have used something similar as a doll. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

A Cocktail of Clutter

When the sun shines, which it doesn't seem to have done for a very long time, I notice the dust, and the dirty windows and the clutter. I am something of a hoarder, though nothing like as bad as the people you see now featured in television programmes. I can actually move around my house. I hate the clutter but have to own up that I am largely responsible for it. My parents grew up during the 1930s ( I was a late baby I'd like to point out) and times were hard. This was followed by war time rationing and austerity and I think they never really got over that. That waste not want not attitude was drummed into me. My mum and dad never had a lot, they were very frugal. The problem is that I'm a bit of a bargain hunter combined with having a bit more to spend than they did so mix in the idea that everything should be made useful, nothing should be thrown away and add to that my own green beliefs. It has led to a terrible cocktail of clutter. 

I cannot just throw stuff away, I have to try and recycle it which means piles of things waiting to go somewhere or have something done to them or be transformed in some way into something else that is useful. Now I have returned to my career (combined with still teaching a yoga class or two) means that I have less time to perform these sewing, knitting, rag rugging upcycling tricks so instead we're just left with piles of stuff sitting like disgruntled pensioners in a surgery. They sit alongside bags of things waiting to go to charity shops, to friends, to the dump. It would help if I was a decisive person, but I'm always trying to do what's best for others, and that includes the whole planet. 

What would be best for me would be to place a skip in the garden and put most of the house in it, or buy a new house and leave everything in the old one. All of this clutter gets in the way of my writing. Instead of writing up all these short story ideas, or preparing my first book for a new edition or getting on with a new project, I dither over whether or not I'll every wear this skirt again, or perhaps I could find someone to fix this lamp that hasn't worked for years. 

Getting rid of the rubbish would help me get on with my writing. I could do with that woman who used to do a tv programme where she put the contents of people's houses on their front lawn and made them deal with it. My friend's house is wonderfully clutter free, but that's because her marriage ended and she decided to leave not just the husband but everything, and start again. Bit drastic really, I think I'll just make a trip to the charity shop instead. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Gender Studies

So, here's the thing that I have been pondering, in terms of equality, are things any better for our daughters than they were for us?

Lilly Allen evidently said recently something on the lines of we don't need feminism any more because we're all equal. Clearly, to start with, this was a very Western view of what's going on in society, things are far from equal in the vast majority of the world. But let's stick to the UK and my own experience. 

When I was at university I was in several 'women's' groups, some aligned to the Left, some just about gender politics. There was a feeling then (in the early Eighties) that equality meant being like a man, there was a rejection of all things that up until then had been regarded as women's work. I remember one woman talking warmly about having inherited a sewing machine from her grandmother only for her to be rounded on by several group members who urged her to smash it up. I was a keen knitter and loved alternative fashion so I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully things have moved on and we have realised that by rejecting these skills we were denigrating our own mothers and grandmothers and falling into the trap of believing that the things that women had traditionally done were of no worth. We thought that to be equal with men we had to embrace the Protestant work ethic, wear suits, be authoritative and heartless - look at how successful Margaret Thatcher was. 

I hope we have reached a period of time where our daughters do have greater choices and greater opportunities. I hope we don't put them under pressure to get married and produce children. That certainly was a constant pressure even for my generation and it's important to resist that voice from the past that whilst praising a woman's career still sadly adds, but she still isn't married, as if this means she is still failing somehow. 

And whilst I am delighted we have all now rediscovered some of the amazing skills that our mothers may have had, sewing, cooking, recycling and being generally creative, I do despair that we still haven't shrugged off our gender stereotypes. I was prompted to write this blog because I bought a little sewing kit for my god daughter for her birthday (I normally buy books but saw this and liked it) but was appalled this morning when I saw it bore a little hint saying 'make this with mum'. So we've still got some way to go, even in the UK, until we reach a point when we either have no such message on things or a message that says 'make with this your parent.'  

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

What Your Books Say About You

An article in last Saturday's Telegraph reported that property guru Sarah Beeny has issued a warning about bookshelves. It's not that they should be securely attached to the wall to prevent unsuspecting house viewers from being crushed to death under your Readers Digest collection. Instead, it seems that prospective buyers take a peek at your books and make sweeping judgements about you based on your stored reading material.

Evidently you should consider packing away the majority until the house is sold, not because they're regarded as clutter, but because some titles might put your maybe purchaser off. Self help titles, books on taxidermy and, of course, a large erotica section are the ones to put away it seems. Instead she suggests leaving out the classics like Dickens and Jane Austen or a selection of cookery or gardening books might do the trick. I would imagine it would be advisable to lock away the DIY manuals too.  

Of course I went to look at my bookshelves to see what they said about my family. I'm sorry to say my main conclusion was that they provide strong evidence towards how disorganised we are and how little I like housework. I discovered several light bulbs sitting on the edges of shelves (no idea if they work or not) and more than one abandoned duster!

In terms of books, there is a entire bookcase given over to my husbands wildlife, trees, birds and all forms of flora and fauna, collection, another filled with the RAF and aviation books I inherited from my father (alongside books from my own research into early aviation for West Over the Waves), one filled with (my) fiction favourites and books I read to the children that I'm saving for future generations.

In my bedroom is another bookcase full of yoga titles from my training as a yoga teacher 12 years ago and by my bed there is a teetering pile of books currently waiting to be read (far too many).

What's on your bookshelves? Do they accurately reflect your interests or like me, do you need to give them a good sort through?

Monday, 24 February 2014

Self Publish and be Damned

"I think you'll find that most people who self publish do so because they've been rejected by proper publishers."

This was a statement made at a meeting I was at recently, well perhaps not the exact words, it may have been 'because they can't get a contract with' or something like that. I'm afraid I understood the gist of what this person was saying and began to throw a hissy fit along with several other people at the table. To be honest I thought that kind of dismissive attitude was now in the past given the extraordinary changes that have happened in the publishing industry with the rise of ebooks and small independent publishers. 

I decided to self publish my second non fiction book because I had not enjoyed the experience of 'being published' with my first, and felt I could do just as good a job on my own. I have to admit that the publisher was a small independent and I cannot comment on the service given by more mainstream houses. I also have yet to get to grips with the structure of the industry, the levels of distribution etc but for someone like me who just wants to get their story out there self publishing is ideal. 

I also chose to start my own small business, Curly Tale Books, with my friend writer and illustrator Shalla Gray because we have no ambition to be famous, again we simply want to make our work available locally. Having said that, one of the first orders we received for our latest book Big Bill the Beltie Bull, came from Australia due to the magic of Ebay. 


But this remark about self publishing being second choice for mainstream rejects just doesn't stand up when you look at the evidence. The website is full of fascinating charts showing that in terms of daily unit sales the self published account for 39 per cent, more than the big five houses put together. According to Amazon's figures 25 per cent of their top 100 list is made up of self published authors. Many people now choose to self publish as their first option, not because it's their only option. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

To sign, not to sign, or what to sign

When I was a child I went to brownies and every year the local church, to which our pack was affiliated, held a Gang Show. This was an entertainment filled with songs and sketches and all the brownies, guides, cubs and scouts took part. I remember being slathered in garish make up and having a lot of fun. I was once a 'diddy man' when someone sang a Ken Dodd song and another time I had to dress as a, what we now call, Native American, but I've no idea why. After one Gang Show I remember my Uncle Bill asking me for my autograph. I had no idea what that was and said so, I was only about eight. He asked me to write my name on the programme and said I should practise signing things for when I was famous in the future. I know he was joking but it made me feel very special (for half an hour) and this was great as I was the youngest of four children so didn't often feel special. (I'm not looking for sympathy, put the violins away.)

 My business partner, Shalla Gray has a great signature. Being the daughter of a famous comic book writer, Alan Grant, she'd also been advised, as a child, to create a great signature. As an artist as well as a children's writer, Shalla's signature is a lovely thing, neat, attractive and well designed. Mine is still a sprawl. I never really expected to need to produce an autograph or signature so I didn't prepare one. I was taken aback when I was asked to sign my first book, "what? You want me to scribble my name over this lovely book?" Despite having now signed a number of books, I don't find it any easier. My signature looks pretty awful and I'm always incredibly unimaginative with the dedication. I usually just put 'best wishes' or if it's a children's book, 'happy reading.' I'm not the only one to find this difficult. American novelist and humourist Laurie Notaro had the same dilemma when her books were first published. In her hilarious book 'We thought you would be prettier' she writes about the suggestions she received from her family. When she was criticised for simply signing her name Laurie suggested "Well, I guess I could add 'Stay Sweet' or '2 Good " Be 4 Got 10' or 'Have a bitchin' summer dude,'" Her Dad thought she should sign it 'Thank your for being a fan.' 

I have a particular difficulty with my new book. It's impossible to write, or even say, 'I hope you enjoy this book' given that it's subject matter is the execution of a young mother of four, the last woman to be publicly hanged in Scotland. Of course I want people to feel it was well researched and compellingly written, but 'enjoy' what is such a gruesome subject? One reader told me that although she'd been reading Road to the Gallows in the evening, when she reached the description of the execution she had to wait and read it in daylight. It was just too harrowing for bed time reading. So I'm back to just signing this book, best wishes. Not very imaginative I'm afraid, but it will have to do. I'm open to suggestions, but not 'Thank you for being a fan.' 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

What's in a Name?

When you sit down to write full of inspiration and eager to get your thoughts on the page you can often be pulled up short by names. And then, just to get the words down before you forget that great phrase or plot twist you thought of while walking the dog, you pluck a name out of the air. Which is fine, as long as when you've got that brilliant bit written down, you think carefully about the names you've chosen. Many writers don't. Or if they do, they're just using names that are handy, usually names in the family or in a desperate attempt not to use names in the family, a random name. But in my brief experience as a writer (and reader) choosing names for characters is as vital as understanding their motivations, backstories etc. Too often I read stories that are ruined simply because the writer has chosen names that conjure up the wrong image in my head every time I read it. Or it creates a character in my imagination that turns out to be completely wrong when another bit of information is dropped into the narrative later on. 

I was involved in shortlisting a short story competition last summer and one of my fellow judges could be pretty ruthless. We did have almost 150 entries to sift through so you can imagine that each of us soon had our own strict criteria for making decisions. The names used in the stories became one criteria common to all three of us after my fellow judge said that she wasn't prepared to read past the first few paragraphs of one entry because the name they'd used hadn't been applied to anyone for sixty years and this story was about a young woman now.  She was right. Some names very distinctly tie a person to a period whilst others seem to continue through the ages. There's been a revival in 'old fashioned' names in recent years, Ruby, Elsie, Maisie, but others like Gladys remain linked to someone who would now be very elderly. If you introduce a character called Gladys, Irene or Eileen you're immediately suggesting to the reader that they are at least seventy. I read a book of short stories recently and the names chosen by the writer ruined my enjoyment of several. It's almost impossible to suspend your disbelief long enough to think that a young pregnant woman in a contemporary setting could be called Edith. In one story I read the lead character had a name that made you think this person was really past retirement, which was fine until two thirds of the way through you discover something that means she's actually in her mid forties. It then means, if you have the patience, that you have to reassess the whole story bringing in this new information.

Of course, it works the other way too. Attempts to bring a real up to date feel by calling someone by a current name can back fire too. Just as with the older names, the fashions in names change so quickly that what seemed contemporary will just appear crass in ten years time when a collection may still be around - if you're lucky. Kylie was very popular at one point, and would still be fine if the character was born in the Eighties, but isn't in their eighties. You can't cater for everyone's imaginations, that would be impossible. A name is always going to have associations in people's minds, the obvious one is Adolf! For me, Olivia was a name I had difficulty with for many years because it conjured up a really mean girl for junior school. It's a beautiful name but for a long time it was associated in my head with someone who was a bully.

I recently had to take my husband for an hospital appointment and I kept my notebook handy. Sitting in the waiting room listening to the people being called for their appointments was a great opportunity to note down some names, observing their owners and their approximate ages. Observations like these can help our stories be real with names that can give the reader a short cut to what we're trying to say, not send them down the wrong road.