Writing a Novel? The Details Count…

July 22, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

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Image 3Anyone who has not actually “gone the distance” writing a novel might imagine that authors sit home and conjure what’s on the page of their works-in-progress out of thin air.

Well, perhaps some do–and Internet search capability has certainly made fact-checking a lot easier these days–but for me, the reality of creating fiction…even contemporary fiction…demands a fair amount of legwork.9169072399_2997ef1c3d_c

Take my most recent trip to Scotland to prepare to write a contemporary sequel to my eighteenth century historical, Island of the Swans that was first published in 1989. The new novel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, takes place 250 years after the original book ends. The back-story has to do with the textile weaving industry for which Scotland is justly renowned. For me, as a former reporter for ABC TV and Radio in Los Angeles for more years than I like to admit, there is simply no way to learn about an industry other than to go there and see for myself.

9157107170_fed8b89cb4_hSo, first stop on my recent research trip was Floors Castle near Kelso to see the wonderful fabrics used in so many of the fabulously furnished rooms in this ancestral home built for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe in 1721.
Image The Flemish Gobelins tapestries came to Floors Castle via the American Heiress Mary Goelet, “Duchess May,” who married the 8th Duke of Roxburghe and literally plastered the walls with these beautiful hangings her family had imported from Belgium to Newport, Rhode Island, and then brought back to Scotland. I wanted to see for myself how these grand Scottish houses were furnished–and with what textiles.

url-1To be sure, I saw plenty of exquisite silks, satins and brocades, but where were the wonderful Scottish tartans and tweeds that so often decorated the hunting lodges and castles in Scotland? And most of all, I wanted to see the manufacturing mills.IMG_0219

Well, off to Borders Textile Towerhouse museum in Hawick I went to get an initial introduction to the world of weaving. There I gained a solid grasp of Scotland’s proud industrial past as well as learned about the process of making wool fabrics from shearing, carding, dyeing, and spinning the wool before the process of weaving or knitting is begun, and then finishing the end product–whether a kilt or cashmere sweater.

9169385717_4044b9babe_cNext stop: Johnstons of Elgin, St. Andrews, and Hawick. Since I was already in Hawick, I talked my way into a tour at the Cashmere Visitor Centre where a very informative young woman took me through the plant and explained how modern technology was being married to ancient practices to make the finest and most luxurious woolen products in the world.Image 2

In nearby Selkirk, I made an appointment to have a private tour at one of the largest mills remaining in Scotland, although the general public is welcome to sign up for “The Lochcarron Experience” when in the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh.

9171109676_36cbb654f4_cDesigner Leah Robertson gave up an entire morning to give me a thorough grounding in her world. She generously did this just a few days before she was due to fly to New York to meet with clients whose names you’d recognize and display to these buyers the beautiful fabrics made at the enormous plant in Selkirk, just up the road from Johnstons.IMG_0549_2

Leah explained the process of making tartan from the stage of either following an ancient pattern of a vintage plaid like that of the MacDonald’s, to the newest tartans, such as one designed in the late Princess Diana’s honor.

9157702606_7dbddd4daa_nThe week before, when I was in Edinburgh, I’d heard that the nearly one hundred-year-old-company had just been bought by a corporation based in South Korea. Here was a story facing so many legacy firms in Scotland unfolding right before my eyes: old-line companies being purchased by global operators–mostly from the Far East.9155456627_9559490473_n

The fear always is that eventually, entire operations in Scotland might be moved out of the country, once the foreign purchasing company learned all the “tricks of the trade.” I’d already seen labels in Italy that read “Designed in Italy”–but the items were actually made in China, Thailand, or Malaysia. So far, however, Lochcarron goods continue to be made in Scotland.

9168694437_7543cd5722_cSuddenly, I had my “back story,” which would be about a small, traditional family tartan mill in Scotland struggling to stay alive in the face of global competition and the need for modernization. A young Scottish-American designer would discover that she and the scion of an old-line Scottish textile company have some very interesting ancestors in common and…9174937043_858553e726_c

Well, you’ll just have to wait for the novel after That Summer in Cornwall to be finished later this year to find out what happens next! However, my evolving notion about the Scottish part of the story seemed an even better idea when I visited DC Dalgliesh, the last textile mill on my research list.

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Founded in 1947, D.C. Dalgliesh had recently been purchased by a Scottish entrepreneur named Dr. Nick Fiddes who has big plans for the little operation in Selkirk. His manager, Christine Payne, kindly showed us around, pointing out the treadle looms that had once been powered by foot, later electrified, and now in need of continuing maintenance.

IMG_0560_2All these small but cascading factlets are the kind an author simply cannot find merely by putting subjects in the Search box.

And when it comes to writing convincingly–whether fact or fiction–in my world, the details do matter. It’s a compact I make with my reader: If you buy my books, I’ll try my best to get the facts right.

Downton Abbey in Modern Dress?

February 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 18Authors write sequels for many reasons, but That Summer in Cornwall, just published January 31 as an e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes/iBook, (print version available in March, 2013), came about because I always wondered what happened to the Anglo-American couple, the former Blythe Barton Stowe, and the life peer, Sir Lucas Teague after they joined forces to save the slightly down-at-the-heels Barton Hall from financial ruin at the end of my bestselling A Cottage by the Sea.Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2

When a storyline “ten years later” began to percolate in my mind, I set off last October to reacquaint myself with the original “Barton Hall”—the wonderful Caerhays Castle perched on a cliff in mid-Cornwall overlooking the moody English Channel where Blythe had escaped to Painter’s Cottage to rid herself of the paparazzi chasing one of Tinseltown’s juicier scandals.  Soon, I began worrying what life would be like—now– for the almost-illegitimate child, Janet, born to Blythe’s first husband, the “cinematic genius” Christopher Stowe, and Blythe’s sister, Ellie Barton—the pair who blew Blythe’s marriage to smithereens in the first book.

 

IMG_6526It was so wonderful to be back along the coast of Cornwall, which stretches as far as the eye can see some one hundred miles across the water from the French coast of Brittany. This region is actually the land of my own Ware forebears, so there was an added incentive to return to the territory I’d visited several times in the last fifteen years when researching A Cottage by the Sea.IMG_6352

For the new novel, I was now able to “book in” at Caerhays Castle in the wonderful Bottom Lodge, the gatekeeper’s cottage across from Portluney Beach, a smugglers favorite landing spot in days of yore.  I was also there to research the remarkable world of volunteer search and rescue teams in Cornwall, including the amazing “air-scenting” dogs who find people who plunge off cliffs, down deserted mine shafts, or get lost on the moors.

The surprise more than a decade later was to see how beautifully the model for the fictional Barton Hall depicted in both novels had been cared for since my last visit, now that “paying guests” helped keep the coffers filled at this eight-hundred acre estate whose village church is some seven hundred years old!IMG_6478

Faced with the same problems confronting Julian Fellowes’ characters in Downton Abbey, the owners of Caerhays grappled with the notion of offering members of the public the opportunity to come to shoot pheasant in autumn, see the glorious Rhododendron gardens in spring, and pause for a nice “cuppa” in the castle courtyard when the weather is fine.  The owners appear to have made a wonderful transition from “To the Manor Born” to “Open for Business”—and I wish them every success as they, like the Crawleys of Downton, seek–and find–new ways to make these enormous houses “sustainable.”IMG_6404

“YOU’RE A FINALIST!”

August 14, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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Every once in a while during my twenty-five years slogging away as a novelist, there are surprises that land on my doorstep–or in this case, via my InBox.

Today, the president of Women Writing the West, Suzanne Lyon (a novelist herself, of course) sent me word that my historical A RACE TO SPLENDOR was one of three finalists in the coveted (at least in my world) category of Historical Fiction for the 2012 WILLA Literary Awards, presented in October of this year for works published in 2011.

As I said today to several friends, “Being a finalist in the book world is a little like living in Hollywood until they hand out the Academy Awards. One finds oneself often saying:  ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’ “–and in this case, that is absolutely a true statement!

Willa Cather, as anyone knows who had eighth grade English with Mr. Pritchard at Sunset School, was the Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels chronicling frontier life on the Great Plains in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark.

I was one of the first wave of writers to join the then fledgling WWW.  A majority of New York editors in the early 1990s (and some currently) found any stories set west of the Hudson River and before WW II as “unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.”  SPLENDOR certainly was a novel that fell under that rubric.

In 2000, shortly after my husband and I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I had begun to research a novel about the real life figure, Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California, restoring the devastated Fairmont Hotel in the wake of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  My (then) agent clucked and nodded discouragingly when I submitted the book proposal.  My (then) editor was totally unenthusiastic about such a project. And when I went ahead and wrote the book anyway, my (then) publisher turned it down, flat.

This was, as all writers of fiction will recall, just about the time the publishing industry was seriously starting to implode in response to the Digital Revolution.  No New York publisher was likely to take a chance on anything other than another Harry Potter book, or perhaps allowing John Grisham to write a nice children’s story.

As is so often the case with books that ultimately find an audience, I had become one of those authors completely beguiled by her characters, the setting, and the drama of creating for a modern audience stirring events from the past. Writing with my hair on fire, I was literally unable to let go of an idea I believed deserved to see the light of day.  I would, by turns, hang out in the opulent lobby of the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, or dig into the archives to find pictures of the devastation that Julia Morgan faced, only 34 years old and fresh out of architecture school.

Looking back at this painful period, I suspect I did six or seven complete rewrites as different “publishing professionals” gave me their worldly-wise input. Finally, after a few more rejections, I put the book in a drawer and returned to my Day Job, writing nonfiction (as in Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most, Hachette/Springboard Press, 2007).

Rightsizing Your LifeThis was, of course, a career move that helped me pay the light bill, and I am forever grateful to the wonderful editors Jill Cohen and Karen Murgulo who published that tome, and to the Wall Street Journal that dubbed it “One of the Top 5 Books on Retirement” the year it came out.

But meanwhile, my heart was yearning to return to writing historical fiction and my new agent, the fearless Celeste Fine, now of Sterling Lord Literistic, gathered all my rights from  the sadly-out-of-print Ware Oeuvre and pitched five historicals to the redoubtable Deb Werksman who, along with the amazing CEO at Sourcebooks, Dominique Riccah, were founding the historical imprint, Landmark. Deb knew my work, made a package deal to bring out reprints with some well-planned revisions and totally wonderful covers, and then asked the fateful question:  “Has she written anything new?”

“New?” Not exactly, but I searched my electronic files for the version of the newly-titled A RACE TO SPLENDOR I felt was truest to my original vision, and we emailed it directly to her, saying “It’s a draft, mind you, and needs some work.”

They bought the book!  And yes, thanks to some sage and insightful suggestions from the very experienced and tactful Ms. Werksman, I  did a 20% rewrite/tweak and the book was published with its fabulous cover in April, 2011 (the 105th anniversary of the 1906 cataclysm), given a spectacular publication party in the penthouse of the Fairmont — and received wonderful reviews, I’m happy to note.

And now it’s one of three finalists for the prestigious WILLA Literary Awards in the Historical Fiction category.

If that doesn’t give poor, benighted writers a sense of hope, I don’t know what will…    It took more than a decade from the conception of the idea to craft the fictional telling of the amazing early California women architects –until today’s announcement.

So on this particular novel, for sure, it is an honor “merely” to be nominated…and to have one’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Willa Cather.