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.

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!

Creating Characters Before The Novel Is Written

June 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 46In an previous blog I talked about the task facing authors beginning a new work to figure out what was going to happen to keep readers turning the pages of one of those novels sitting in the library or on your bookshelf.

The central question a writer must ask before typing page one is: “What do your characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”That Summer in Cornwall

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in That Summer in Cornwall Meredith Champlin, the heroine in blue jeans and Wellington boots, basically wants to re-boot her life. With her service dog, Holly, trotting at her side, she escapes a dead-end relationship with a charming but alcoholic rodeo rider, along with her grueling job as a pediatric emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital in Wyoming to spend a few months at the “Money Pit” belonging to her cousin who has married an impecunious British landowner with a castle and an estate that is reeling from the current economic crisis.

Caerhays_CastleSo what is she willing to do –in other words—what are the actions she’s willing to take to affect these changes in her life? The actions–whatever they may turn out to be–constitute the plot of the novel, and in Meredith’s case she A) takes a leave-of-absence from her nursing job in Wyoming; B) prompted by being unexpectedly awarded the guardianship of her deceased cousin’s young daughter, she and her ward get on a plane to spend the summer in Cornwall with another cousin; and C) she co-founds a dog obedience school on the grounds of the Barton Hall estate with a British veteran from the Royal Army’s Canine Bomb Squad–and he quickly becomes the other protagonist in the story.images

So now, on the eve of my research trip to Scotland for the next novel in the Four Seasons Quartet series, I am faced with those same questions in That Autumn in Edinburgh: what do the principle characters want and what are they willing to do to get it? An obvious “want” for heroine Fiona Fraser (an American with Scottish roots who is a home furnishings designer for a well-known firm based in New York) and hero Alexander Maxwell (a Scot struggling to keep the family woolen mill out of bankruptcy due to the unholy competition from manufacturers in the Far East) is to succeed in their difficult chosen professions…and they must fight to do that against a number of serious obstacles.

cottage_at_dornie_lochalsh_scotland-1920x1080Along with these material wants, each also yearns for a feeling of “home” in their respective lives due to certain aspects of their past that are revealed as the story goes along. That quest to find an emotional center in their lives, as well as the discovery early on that they descend from a pair of star-crossed lovers in the eighteenth century, fuel their journey in the Scottish Borders region south of Edinburgh to uncover “the rest of the story” regarding their mutual Scottish connections.images

The plot of the new book will be driven by the actions that these two main characters are willing to take to get what they want. For instance, what steps will Alex employ, in the wake of Scottish mills like his that are struggling to stay afloat, to triumph over his Chinese competitors who are selling tartan fabrics for 75% less than he can make fabric on his traditional looms? What chances will Fiona take at the risk of losing her job to fight for the quality of products she wants in the design company’s “Scottish Home Collection” that she’s been sent to Scotland to research by a boss who increasingly only cares about his bottom line?

Given the protagonists’ previous shaky relationships with “significant others” and the fact that they were born in two different cultures with the Atlantic ocean separating them, how far will they hazard their hearts or make a permanent commitment as they are drawn inexorably closer by the tragic story of their ancestors–the “lost” Lieutenant Thomas Fraser and Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon–whom readers met in the first novel I published, Island of the Swans.

1087_33_8_webFrankly, I do not yet know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping that my upcoming trip to the land of my own maternal ancestors will yield some exciting clues! Off I go…

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…

Researching a Novel–Honestly!

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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envelope IMG_6338In less than a month I’ll be heading off on what, to an outsider, probably looks like a lark.

Researching a work of fiction might sound like an oxymoron, but as a reporter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the world of “fact checking,” I’ve discovered after seven novels that getting the details right about the real world aspects of a story is just as important in a piece of “make-believe”  as it is with “breaking news.”  If a novelist screws up the data, believe me, you hear from your readers.

And that’s just as it should be.IMG_4903

In That Summer in Cornwall, the first in the 4 Seasons Quartet series, I’d been to Cornwall several times previously as my English cousin, Gay North, has hosted me in the West Country several times over the years, and especially during the research for an earlier novel, A Cottage by the Sea.  

Image 7However, as I embarked on That Summer in Cornwall, I knew virtually nothing about the world of search and rescue, nor about the amazing canines trained to find visitors who fall off the cliffs skirting the English Channel or down abandoned shafts that dot the beautiful countryside. So my trip to Cornwall last October was fun and exciting, to be sure, but it was also spent interviewing the Dog Unit Manager of the Devon and Cornwall Police, to say nothing of tramping up moors, along fast-running rivers, and peering down dark, forbidding mine shafts clinging to remote parts of the local landscape.Ciji in Chinatown

Whatever the setting of a novel—even one that took place in my own backyard of San Francisco–as with A Race to Splendor about the rebuilding of the legendary Fairmont Hotel atop Nob hill after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm–the reportorial skills of “who, what, when, where, and why” are essential to getting the facts right so the world that a novelist creates for the reader rings true.

Jamie, Helen Mirren-Taylor-Tony-Ciji-Scotland wedding

 

 

 

 

That Autumn in Edinburgh will be the third book I’ve set in Scotland—Wicked Company being the second and Island of the Swans (the prequel to my next project there) the first. And each research trip to the land of my mother’s ancestors has been a joy–but also involved some rather arduous work as well.

Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper

However, this time, the action is set not only in the spectacular city of Edinburgh, which I know well, but also in the Scottish Border country between the capital and the often-contested area of land where England officially begins.

glen_affric

 

 

On my upcoming research adventures, I’ll be learning about present-day factories producing ancient tartans; about cashmere manufacture and the struggle to stay afloat in a global economy where operations in the Far East have been allowed to pay their workers $37 a month—and where conditions are so unsafe, entire buildings collapse, killing a thousand women in their wake.

Ciji Jamie McCullough Castle

Oh yes…given my experience on trips past, I expect to have a wonderful time visiting a part of Scotland I’ve never seen, but, to me, this story I have percolating in my brain night and day right now is also serious business—and I’ll do my best to get the facts straight.

 

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