Gathering in the Harvest

The field outside my house has been shorn of its golden rapeseed and the harvest sent to the local rapeseed oil producing plant. Soon we’ll be able to buy a bottle of it to use for cooking. I’ve watched the crop grow and change from green to startling yellow and then to bronze and now reduced to a field of stubble. I wonder what the farmer will grow there next.

As for my own writing harvest, articles written over the long winter days are now surfacing. The Highlander magazine in the USA, taking articles on all things historical and Scottish, has just published The First Nursery School in the World, which Robert Owen set up in New Lanark in the early years of the nineteenth century. The ideas he put into practice about the education of young children are now standard but were revolutionary in his day.cover highlander

article R owenAnd my writing buddy, Sheila Grant, also has an article in the magazine, a powerful piece on The Killing Times, the struggle the Covenanters in Ayrshire had to worship in the way they wished.

September’s Scottish Field carries my piece on Susan Ferrier, Scotland’s Own Austen, and her best-selling books published in the first half of the nineteenth century. She was a great friend of Sir Walter Scott, and although she was, in her time, more successful than him, she only has a small blue plaque on the outside of her Edinburgh home whereas the Scott Monument dominates Princes Street.book cover 2

But the most successful harvest of all must be my potatoes. Regular readers of my blog will have followed their progress from seed potatoes chitting on my window ledge through to their breaking through the soil of their beds and burgeoning in the sun. I am almost tempted to say that I have too many. Certainly friends, family and neighbours have all been presented with some and we have been manfully eating our way through them. Fortunately, YouTube enlightened me on the method of freezing them so I have bags of frozen chips and roasties ready to see us through the winter.pots

At the moment, writing articles suits me best. It gets us out and about and meeting people as I research my latest topic. This afternoon, I hope to meet up with some metal detectorists and amateur archaeologists who have been excavating the lost palace of the Setons, burned down in 1715 after the first Jacobite Rebellion. Who knows what I shall harvest from the meeting!

It’s Festival Time Again!

The sun is out, the schools are on holiday and the festivals are in full swing.fringe

The Fringe by the Sea Festival is held every year in August in the seaside town of North Berwick. Stalls and marquees are set up by the harbour, just below the Seabird Centre and a packed programme of speakers, workshops, personal development therapies, music and kids’ activities is filled with visitors from all airts and pairts, as we say hereabouts.

Parking in such a small, popular spot is difficult, so to ease the congestion, and do our bit towards saving the planet, we left the car at home and took the bus there. It was a leisurely deedle-dawdle through pretty little villages, their roadside stone cottages filled with kaleidoscopic flowers, and past fields of barley and brassicas, with stunning views towards the Firth of Forth and the Bass Rock. It took twice as long as driving but who cares? We weren’t in a hurry.

We settled ourselves into the Spiegeltent ready for our first speaker, Doug Allan. He is a film cameraman who has worked extensively with David Attenborough on series such as Blue Planet and who specialises in filming in the Arctic and Antarctic. He had many stills and film clips which had us gasping in amazement at the beauty of the Poles and appalled at the damage we are inflicting on it. Doug spoke strongly about the need to act now, not just as individuals but to force governments to do far more now otherwise, as he called it, we face climate breakdown. He gave the audience much food for thought.

Ian Rankin is one of Scotland’s most successful crime writers and his character, Inspector Rebus, now retired, refuses to do just that. Ian has recently donated 50 boxes of his manuscripts and correspondence to the National Library of Scotland, and his interviewer had picked out some of the items that were in the boxes. Rejection letters, letters from the likes of Ian Crichton Smith and Alexander McCall Smith, a certificate for reciting Burns’ verse aged 8 or 9 – all brought back memories of his early life in Cardenden, his first attempts at writing a novel and his later successes, and the problems of introducing a pet in his books. The body count can rise exponentially but whatever, happens, don’t harm the dog – or forget to mention it. Readers apparently get very upset by that. And all spoken about in his trademark casual, friendly manner.`Ian Rankin

The following week, the Edinburgh Book Festival opened in Charlotte Square. It has now grown so large and successful that it has spilled out into George Street as well. What better occupation than to wander round a tent filled with books, books and more books! I know of no greater pleasure than to spend time in among books, browsing and reading snippets of them before choosing some to buy. So much, much more satisfying than clicking on Amazon’s website and waiting for the purchase to be delivered. And as for downloading on to a kindle…. a featureless, bland experience. And after buying them (as usual, far more than I meant to) carrying them home in the special Book Festival bag, cradling them carefully on the bus until, at home, I can settle down to reading them. Bliss!books

But before that, speakers Kaite Welsh and Caroline Lea spoke about their historical thrillers set in Edinburgh and Iceland. Kaite’s book, The Unquiet Heart, was triggered by the Edinburgh 7, the first women to become medical students at the University, and who suffered many trials and tribulations in their attempts to become doctors. Kaite’s main protagonist finds herself defending her fiancé from a charge of murder while trying to study medicine.

Caroline spoke about her love and knowledge of the old Icelandic sagas and the belief in the supernatural, still apparent today, among some Icelanders. Her book, The Glass Woman, begins with a hand apparently waving from the sea ice and the attempts by some men to bring it back on shore despite one of them, in particular, not wishing to do so.

Then to something completely different – afternoon tea with food writer and broadcaster, Ghillie Basan. While munching our way up the plate stand and sipping at the whisky supplied, we listened to Ghillie talk about her life experiences which had developed her love of spices and flavours and how to match whisky to various foods. Despite living as she described it, in ‘the back of the back of beyond’ in the Scottish Highlands and frequently being snowed up in winter, she still manages to produce interesting and flavourful meals, helped by her kitchen drawers packed full of spices which she obtains from her spice merchant in Istanbul. Her latest book is Spirit and Spice, where she talks of her life with food and includes many mouth-watering recipes.afternoon tea

Plenty of food for thought in all of that!

 

 

Progress – or Not?

What do the Traprain Law Treasure, Susan Ferrier, Vaclav Jicha, the first Nursery School in the world and Christian Maclagan have in common?

No idea? I’m not surprised as this random collection of topics are all subjects I’ve written articles about recently and which have all been accepted for publication in a variety of magazines here and overseas.

The Traprain Law Treasure is the largest hoard of Roman silver ever found in Europe and which was uncovered 100 years ago in East Lothian. At present, some of it is on display in Haddington. It is quite stunning and hard to believe that it spent almost 1500 years buried on a hillside.

treasure

Traprain Law Treasure

Susan Ferrier was a best-selling author in her day (the 19th century) and a good friend of Sir Walter Scott while the first nursery school in the world was set up at New Lanark, near Glasgow, by Robert Owen in the 1800s.

book cover 2

Susan Ferrier’s bestselling novel

Vaclav Jicha was a World War II flying ace killed in a plane crash near Haddington in 1945.  Jicha Street is named in his honour in the town where he is buried. Many years after the war, his Czech fianceé discovered where he was laid and visited his grave every year till her death in 2010.

Jicha-portrait1

Fl Lt Vaclav Jicha DFC AFC

And Christian Maclagan was the first Scottish female archaeologist and a feisty woman to boot! She was unable to read her papers on her research to the Society of Antiquaries or be recognised for her work on Scottish prehistory because she was a woman.

Maclagan_-_Keir_of_Gargunnock

One of Maclagan’s drawings of a broch

 

 

Circumstances mean that at the moment articles are what I am writing rather than longer pieces. I can’t commit to the long-term tunnel vision I require to write novels but I don’t want my writing muscle to atrophy so article writing suits me fine. It also means we can have days out to research and visit places associated with my topics; these so far have included the National Museum in Edinburgh, a graveyard in Haddington and a lay-by on the A1!

I have also met and corresponded with some lovely people who have helped me in a variety of ways with photos and insights and pointed me in the right direction when I wandered off topic.

But I have realised that there are many more advantages to the type of writing I’m doing at present. I send the articles to the editors of the various magazines I’m contributing to and I receive a yes or a no and that’s all I have to do. No hassling people for reviews, no checking Amazon rankings to see where I appear, no constant feeding of social media to keep me in the spotlight, no blanket flooding of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter in the hope of a few sales. All that time I would normally have to spend on such activities I can spend WRITING!

Recently when I was totting up my earnings versus expenses from my writing, I realised that I had spent more on advertising my ebooks than I had actually earned from them. I know I only have two published and that I’m not the most dedicated of self-promoters but I would need to have many more ebooks out there to make it worthwhile. For articles, I sit back and wait for the cheque to arrive when the magazine publishes my piece. Simples!

There has been a change however. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back again; apparently ebooks are losing their popularity compared with ‘real’ books and independent bookshops are making a comeback though they will never be as cheap as Amazon. However there is nothing more pleasant than browsing in a good bookshop, especially if there’s coffee to be had too, and there’s always the serendipitous chance of coming across a book that speaks to you, that you’ve never heard of, would never have thought of buying but which touches something in you. Until Amazon can give the browser an experience similar to that, then bookshops it is.

Maybe magazines are also due to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of their purported demise. There are still many out there which seem to defy all the odds and continue selling, if not as many copies as before, then enough to keep them viable. And the good old People’s Friend has just celebrated its 150th birthday and takes around 1000 feature articles each year.

I certainly hope magazines start to flourish again. I much prefer to read from a magazine or book rather than from a screen. A hard copy is there when you need it, you can flick backwards and forwards at will, and it won’t interfere with your reading pleasure by changing font size or page when you inadvertently stick a finger in the wrong place. And the batteries in a book or magazine never run out.

Sometimes, progress needs to take a step back now and again when we realise that the new ways are not as good as what we had before.

Wait and See

Two things are keeping me busy at the moment – developing my new garden and writing numerous articles.

The bare bones of the garden are now in place and I can see what it will be like – hopefully – in a couple of years. But there are still plenty of empty stretches which will take some time to fill. However I’m enjoying seeing my new shrubs putting out their first blossoms and the apple trees, all two feet of them, coming into leaf.IMG_20190429_100824

And I have seed potatoes chitting on my window ledge in my writing room. Another week or so and I will be able to plant them into one of the new raised beds all ready and waiting. I have plans too, to sow vegetables in the other beds so by summer, I should be able to harvest some fresh, organic produce, that is, if the slugs and other tiny predators allow me and they haven’t fattened themselves up on my labours.raised bed

Article writing, for me, follows much the same process if, again hopefully, a good bit faster. I research my subject first, amassing piles of paper and books scribbled and marked in pencil and adorned with colourful sticky bits. Then I work on a framework, putting down bits and pieces of the most important information that I want to include; the bare bones of the subject. Next, I peruse my notes to fill out the various aspects I have identified in my framework, one topic at a time. I find that my mounds of research materials can be off-putting and I get on better if I can reduce it to manageable bits. It’s not quite so daunting that way!IMG_20190429_100942

Eventually, I have an article that is beginning to meet the demands of the editor or magazine I am writing for. Then to proof-reading and checking the odd fact (some of them very odd!) and a final once over before attaching the article to an email, sending it off and waiting for the response. That’s the worst bit, the waiting. Sometimes you never hear at all. My quickest response (and I’m not saying if it was a rejection or an acceptance) was 40 minutes. Scarcely time for the recipient to read it!

Once the potatoes are planted, it’s a waiting game too. Will they flourish or will some pesky pest make the most of the generous bounty planted especially for them? It’s a case of wait and see. Fingers crossed.IMG_20190429_100930

The Edinburgh 7 Awarded Degrees After 150 Years

My article on the Edinburgh 7 was published recently in the Highlander magazine as The Edinburgh 7 and Their Fight to Become Doctors. It told how, in 1869, seven women applied to study medicine at Edinburgh University. They were accepted but with various restrictions and were the first women to register for a degree at any university in the UK.

cover highlander

After many difficulties, including a riot when they tried to sit an anatomy exam and male students pelted them with mud and shouted obscenities,  they completed four years study but were prevented from taking their exams. This meant that they could not graduate and they were forced to complete their degrees abroad. However, their leader, Sophia Jex-Blake, qualified in Dublin and returned to Edinburgh in 1878 where she was the first female doctor in the city.

article edinburgh 7

Now Edinburgh University has decided to right a wrong and on Saturday July 6th 2019, 150 years after they matriculated, it will award them posthumous MBChB degrees.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-47814747

plaque

The Plaque at Surgeon’s Hall

Scottish Association of Writers 2019

The Scottish Association of Writers were celebrating their 50th conference this year and they did it in some style with cake and balloons and a Bookiversity quiz and a play written and performed by a bunch of crime writers and yes, it was criminal!

And of course, there were competitions, speakers and workshops galore!

Here are some of my photos from the event;

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The Gala Dinner

trophy winners

The Trophy Winners from Ayr Writers’ Club

play

‘Carry on Sleuthing’ with Caro Ramsay, Pat Young, Michael J. Malone and Douglas Skelton hamming it up.

sheila and me

Me and ma pal catching up on a year’s gossip.

Expect the Unexpected

2000px-Curveball

Credit: silver spoon

We were dealt a curve ball recently. Out of the blue it came, shocking us out of our complacency. We were halted in our tracks as we tried to make sense of what it meant, how our lives had to change and what exactly we could do about it.

To thoroughly tangle up the metaphors, the ripples spread outward to involve family members, friends and acquaintances and those we had yet to meet. And there were going to be quite a lot of them.

But the writer in me realised the potential of such an unexpected event. Looking at my WIP (work in progress) I realised that a curve ball, a googly, was exactly what my characters needed. Something to shake them up, stir them into action and have them deal with it.

The romance is going too well, the crime is almost solved, the goody is about to defeat the baddy, so throw your characters a curve ball and muddy the waters. (It’s a day for mixing metaphors, I see). How do they react? Are they stunned into immobility? Do they dissolve into hysterics? Do they explode with an uncontrollable rage? Are they numb? Pragmatic? Depressed? Do they rise above themselves, find hidden talents and strengths? Act in ways they thought were beyond them?

What emotions are they experiencing? Fear? Grief? Resentment? Jealousy? Anxiety? Shock? Hurt? How can you show this for after all, every good writer knows that you show and don’t tell?

Whatever you do, don’t have the cavalry appearing over the brow of the hill. This is your character’s problem. Force them to deal with it. They’ll have difficulties and setbacks along the way but in the end, they’ll cope and feel all the more capable and confident for doing so. And you’ll have the opportunity of bringing out facets of your character’s character that even you didn’t know they possessed.

And us? We’ll pick ourselves up and carry on. Like we all do when the curve ball comes our way.