A Novelist in Edinburgh Then and Now

June 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Edinburgh_in_the_17thC_(detail)_by_Wenceslas_Hollar_(1670)It’s been more than fifteen years since I was last in the city of Edinburgh where the historical figure (and heroine) of Island of the Swans, Jane Maxwell, rode pigs down the High Street of Edinburgh in 1760, the year King George III ascended the throne and Scotland’s independence as a separate nation was well and truly gone.IMG_9464

And it’s been even longer since my husband, my son Jamie—now a father himself—and I rented a house (with a boat) in Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands near where the Frasers of Struy once lived some 270 years ago. Jane and “the Lost Lieutenant” Fraser were star-crossed lovers in my first novel, a biographical historical based on a true tale, and even back then, I was treating the research as I would any “story” that I chased down in those days when I was also an on-air reporter for the ABC radio and TV affiliate in Los Angeles—-only the Maxwell-Fraser saga had taken place nearly three centuries earlier!

IMG_9466Seeking the facts of their lives, however, required the same reportorial skills and the same tenacity as any other assignment…only this was one I’d assigned myself with no guarantee I’d ever find what I was looking for, or ever see this first novel published.

Ah, the freelance writer’s life…IMG_9457

But before you feel too sorry for the plight of an unproven novelist, you need to know that back in the 1980s, I was determined that Jamie and I would also use these research trips to seek the roots of our own Scottish heritage, given my Great-Grandmother Elfie McCullough’s claim that our branch were direct descendants of the McCulloughs of Gatehouse of Fleet who had married into the Maxwell of Monreith clan several generations before Jane Maxwell was born.sc001a7be8

So on one of those early trips to Scotland, down to the Lowlands we went to the “Land of the McCulloughs” where, at the clan castle, the keeper announced as I signed the guestbook ‘Ciji McCullough Ware,’ “By sweet Saint Ninian! So yer a McCulloch, are ye? The worst of the lot! They wouldn’t jus’ pour boilin’ oil on ye…they’d invite ye into the inner courtyard and then pour boilin’ oil on ye!”

So much for our notions of romantic Scotland “back in the day…” It was a good first lesson.IMG_9430

On that original trip, when friends as well as family shared renting that house in the back-of-the-beyond Scottish Highlands, I dragged our group all over the territories inhabited by our Scottish antecedents so many generations before. Jamie then, as he is now, was a tremendously good sport, even submitting to being dressed in a kilt in the years that followed.

Jamie-Teal engagement party 2009_0002In fact, when Jamie and his bride got engaged in 2009, we knew he’d picked the right woman when Teal endorsed our idea of making the announcement party a “ceilidh”—the Gaelic word for a celebration with music, food, storytelling, and a great deal of laughter.IMG_9463

I’m a “few” years older, now, than I was during those early trips to Scotland, and this research effort for my next novel will be focused on modern-day Scotland and how the city of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside are coping with globalization and the threat to the ancient ways and traditions. On this journey, we will head for the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh, to the land of Sir Walter Scott (in the nineteenth century, the Maxwell clan intermarried with the Scotts, by the way) and visit today’s woolen mills to see tartan fabrics and cashmere manufactured, and visit castles and mansions whose owners can barely afford to keep these estates in their families…and then, I will see where the story takes me as I begin to conjur That Autumn in Edinburgh—a contemporary sequel to Island of the Swans and the next novel in the Four Seasons Quartet series after my recently published That Summer in Cornwall.

IMG_9455Before we left on this trip, I had been telling my friends with a laugh that I’m on a mission called “Dateline: 270 years later…”

When I look at the pictures of myself and that little boy standing in front of Prestonfield House in the heart of Edinburgh, I do feel a bit older–but whatever age I am now, it’s wonderful to be back in Scotland again!

Why I Love Edinburgh

June 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imgresOn Tuesday night, June 11, just before midnight at London’s Euston Sation, my husband and I are boarding the ScotRail sleeper train to Edinburgh. “The Night Train to Edinburgh.” Just typing those words sounds like the title to a novel, but in this case, I’m off to research a new book that follows That Summer in Cornwalland it’s set—guess where?–in one of my favorite cities: the historic capital of Scotland built on a volcanic outcropping that protected its residents from invading enemies for some eight hundred years.Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper On one end of the Royal Mile that skims along the top of that up-thrust is the Palace of Holyroodhouse where Mary, Queen of Scots most likely witnessed the murder of her most trusted secretary; on the other end, the spectacular Castle Rock, occupied since around 1,000 B.C.–which makes sense, given a lookout can see all the way to the Firth of Forth. 180px-Anchor-closeIn between these huge buildings are narrow streets and wynds –or alleys—where the city’s inhabitants lived in tenements, some of them twenty stories high.  Jane Maxwell of Monreith—later the 4th Duchess of Gordon and the heroine in my first novel, Island of the Swans —lived in the mid-eighteenth century in Hynford Close, a crowded narrow cobbled street in the heart of this bustling city.imageGen Following in the footsteps of historical figures such as the poet Robert Burns (seen here in a painting with a seated Duchess Jane who supported the first professional printing of his work), the writer James Boswell, and the novelist, Sir Walter Scott is one of the great joys of visiting a place where sections of Edinburgh remain as they were more than two hundred years ago. anta-200x150_12982But on this trip in June, I will be learning about modern Scotland in preparation for writing That Autumn in Edinburgh.  I’ll be visiting interior home design shops selling cashmere throws and tartan pillows, and checking out the Old Weaving Company where tourists ogle special order tartans made for everyone from Scottish-Americans tracing their roots to Chinese corporations seeking to brand themselves in the West.468675019_ab7534ab14_m I haven’t been to Scotland in over a decade, and I can’t wait to note the changes…and rejoice in the things that look the same.  Edinburgh, remember, is where the BBC goes to film when they want to recreate London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thank heavens they still can…

Creating Fictional Characters – The Magic of “Who?”

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageWhen starting a new project–as I am doing with That Autumn in Edinburgh, a novel that follows the previously published That Summer in Cornwall in my Four Seasons series—I fall back on twenty-five years experience as a working reporter.  I have always found asking those journalists’ questions: who, what, where, why, when to be rather magical in the way they find me the answers I need to get started.

“Where?” is obvious for this novel: Scotland, and more specifically, Edinburgh and the territory south of the city known as the Scottish Borders where the Maxwell Clan held prominence since the 1400s. (Caerlaverock Castle, here,  was one of their strongholds).

But once the setting is decided, Question #2 becomes:  Who is this novel about?Image

For me, the only way to figure this out is to start with a name,in this case “Alexander Maxwell,” and then do a “handmade” fictional genealogy chart for the protagonist that goes back at least four generations on both sides of the person: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.

Island of the SwansSince this book is a contemporary spin-off of the first novel I ever published, Island of the Swans, I had to create a genealogy chart that went back a couple of centuries!  The trickiest part has been that Swans was a biographical historical novel based on an actual  historical figure, Jane Maxwell of Monreith, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  Figuring out how my modern-day fictional hero could be related to the Duchess’ branch of Clan Maxwell 250-plus years later took some serious research, especially as I discovered that most of the various branches of the Scottish Maxwell clan and the Dukedom of Gordon died out with no male heir.Country_house_rescue_ruth_watson_Monreith_House_Scotland_Sir_Michael_Maxwell

Fortunately, there was one branch of the Maxwells descending from Jane who had made it into the 21st Century: Sir Michael Eustace Maxwell, 9th Baronet of Monreith from a region southwest of Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Sir Michael, however, at 70, remains a bachelor with a 150-year-old manor house in serious need of refurbishment—so much so that he was profiled on a “reality” program in Britain, Country House Rescue with Ruth Watson, seen here, in which the presenter’s best recommendation was for the last heir to marry a woman with some interior design talents and a considerable fortune!  If they somehow produced a male heir, so much the better.  (At last Google-ing, this had not transpired…). Sadly, various areas on the estate such as this crumbling, moss-covered lodge were near to collapsing.

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So what to do…what to do?  And then I had a stroke of what I can only consider semi-brilliance! Duchess Jean on horseback recruiting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Maxwell– seen here on her horse recruiting Highland soldiers to fight in the 78th Fraser Highlanders against the colonists in the American War of Independence– had seven children, one of whom was most assuredly not by the Duke of Gordon.

What if, in the early twentieth century, there was born to a housemaid in the employ of the Maxwells of Monreith a baby boy whose features had the unmistakable stamp of several of the Maxwell males of that pre-World War I era—but whose father always remained a mystery?

Typical of the times, the baby–who could never inherit the title nor the estate– could have been placed with a childless couple in a neighboring village to raise, and only later, upon receiving a deathbed bequest of funds from his guilty sire, does my hero’s great grandfather discover he’s a Maxwell of Monreith–even if born “on the wrong side of the blanket.”

9f008d2643a8a3ea5db8ceaa354542b8See how deviously we spinner-of-tales can work around any factual problems?

But I want my modern-day hero, the 35-year-old Alex Maxwell, to be the owner of a tartan mill in the Scottish Borders that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to unholy competition from textile manufacturers who are under-cutting his prices in the Far East by using cheap labor.

But hold on a sec!  How could the descendant of an illegitimate child of the Maxwell clan have advanced far enough in three generations to be owner of a substantial woolen manufacturing enterprise?

Ah, remember that bequest?  Well, therein lies the tale…but first I need to learn about the “what” in this who. what. where, why, & when novel-writing equation: the tartan weaving industry.

At left is a model at one of the prominent Scottish woolen firms whose good looks I find quite inspiring, so it’s off to the Scotland  I must go….IMG_4828

Scotland on my Mind: Then & Now

April 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Island of the SwansNow that I have launched That Summer in Cornwall, I was astounded to realize about two months ago that I began the research for my first novel, Island of the Swans, exactly thirty years ago this summer!  It was also my first historical novel—a fictionalized retelling of the life of the amazing eighteenth century figure, Jane Maxwell (1749-1812), 4th Duchess of Gordon, about whom—I soon discovered–no full-length biography existed.

I was such a novice, it never occurred to me that merely ferreting out the details of both her public and private lives was a book in itself, let alone the task of teaching myself–a nonfiction writer  at that point–how to create a novel!7757334344_48179fa517_z

So why choose Jane Maxwell?  Well, not only did she marry the largest landowner in Scotland, though passionately in love with someone else; wed her five resulting daughters to the dukes of Manchester, Richmond, and Bedford, the Marquis of Cornwallis, and a baronet named Sir Robert Sinclair—she also served as flamboyant hostess to Prime Minister Pitt, the Younger, during the Madness Crisis of George III—AND….

 

5 generations of McCullough Women copy…my great-grandmother, Elfie McCullough, who lived into her 90’s, swore  to my mother on the family Bible that our McCulloughs of Ayrshire–poet Robert Burns country–had married into the Maxwells of Monreith a generation or so before the future duchess was born, “making you, my dear, a direct descendant of a duchess!”  (I tried, but trust me, I could never prove this without a shadow of a doubt).03_Duchess_Jean

Even so, I grew up on stories that the beautiful Jane, a powerhouse of a woman like Elfie herself, was also celebrated for recruiting on horseback fellow Highlanders into her brother’s regiment that fought for the British in the American War of Independence and surrendered with their Commander, Lord Cornwallis, to George Washington at Yorktown.

02_cijiNow, I freely admit that during the 1980’s I became rather obsessed with Jane’s life, even performing some of my lectures about my heroine dressed in full court regalia.  In the course of more than six years researching and writing and selling this version of “Gone with the Wind of Scotland”– a story of Jane loving one man, a soldier reported to have died in the American Colonies, and marrying a duke, only to discover her lieutenant had not been killed as reported– my husband took to calling me his very own, little “Scot-o-Maniac.”Abbotsford-bartholomew-bust

Recently, I discovered that in the years following Jane’s death, a member of the Maxwell Clan married into a Lowland family by the name of Scott—as in the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott.  This little historical nugget immediately triggered an idea for a contemporary sequel (to be titled That Autumn in Scotland as part of my forth-coming 4 Seasons Quartet series), set two hundred years later than Swans.

 Kilted SoldierWhat if, I mused one day in early February this year, a female American relative of the “lost lieutenant” (who had eventually abandoned Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century to settle in the Mid-Atlantic Colonies), met by sheer chance a male member of the Maxwell clan on a tour of Abbotsford, the famous baronial mansion owned by Sir Walter Scott?

And what if the pair discovered during the course of that autumn that they were direct descendants of the star-crossed lovers and were driven by curiosity and a growing attraction to each other to unravel the tale of what eventually happened to Jane and the man she could never stop loving?

From such questions a hundred thousand word novel can spring…sc001a1163

…and so, after three decades, it’s back to Scotland…but this time, not the Highlands, as seen here in 1983, but rather the Scottish Lowlands, land of my own Clan McCullough forebears, even if I can’t (yet) claim a “direct” connection to my eighteenth century heroine.

 

52b1a160e2719a73fb132418aa5b15faTony and I are off in June to explore the modern Scotland of tartan mills competing with the Chinese knock-off artists, castles whose land-poor owners can barely keep their heads above water, and some cultural changes that I like to imagine my savvy Duchess Jane would somehow take in stride.

 

 

 

 

 

If These Castle Walls Could Talk…

April 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Caerhays_CastleThere are travelers who will tell you, “You’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen ‘em all,” but when I’m in the throes of constructing a novel set in Great Britain, castles  seem to me as important as “characters”  as any of the humans that populate my stories.

Each of these fortresses has its own, specific story to tell: who built them and why? What were they trying to protect?  Who was born here; who died here?  And most importantly…who loved—or hated—their fellow inhabitants here?

Call me the Ultimate Romantic, but over the years of researching my various historicals, I sometimes think that the stones imagewhisper their tales…if the traveler can just remain quiet enough to hear what they have to say.

Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2I felt that “presence” of those who had come before so vibrantly at Caerhays Castle, the turreted stone edifice that was the model for “Barton Hall” in That Summer in Cornwall. It’s round towers and views of the English Channel and the lonely lookout cottage on the property’s cliff conjured up a story that practically told itself.

Now that I’m in the midst of the preliminary research for That Autumn in Edinburgh which will focus on the descendants—one Scottish, one American—of the star-crossed lovers in my first novel, Island of the Swans,  I find myself also plotting my trip to the Scottish Border territory south of Edinburgh.

Here I’ve set up an interview with the man who has spearheaded the mulit-milion dollar refurbishment of  Sir Walter Scott’s Abbottsford where I’ve recently discovered the novelist’s family were intermarried with descendants  of Jane Maxwell, 4th Duchess of Gordon, the heroine of Island of the Swans whose clan once  inhabited this ominous turreted fortress on the right.image

imageAnd then there’s Ayton Castle, the forerunner of the now-destroyed Ayton House where Jane received a letter a month following her arranged marriage to the Duke that the great love of her life had not died in an American Indian skirmish outside Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh, and was coming home thinking to claim her as his own.

Knowing this story, how would a modern Maxwell male descendant, struggling to keep a traditional tartan mill afloat–along with a Fraser, visiting from America in an attempt to recover from a tragic loss of her own– feel as they walked the banks of the River Eye on the exact spot where Jane learned of her lover’s survival, far too late for her to find lasting happiness with Lieutenant Thomas Fraser?

Asking a simple question like that…and listening intently to the standing stones and rustling wind might easily spark a writer’s imagination…