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.

The Queen Honors an Author

July 4, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

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IMG_0519We’d heard the rumors. On June 17th, when we had an “advance peek” of Sir Walter Scott‘s fantastical creation, Abbotsford, in the Scottish Borders south of Edinburgh, word was that “a member of the Royal Family” would be honoring the reopening of the castle built in the early 19th century and which was inhabited by members of his family until 2004._68532656_hi018537072

And sure enough, the rumors were correct. None other than Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II appeared today, July 4th, at the celebration of an 11.5 million pound renovation that took hundreds of skilled workers and is the culmination of seven years of planning, fundraising and restoration, along with the opening last year of a modern visitor center and an excellent museum about Scott’s life and literary works.

501px-Sir_Walter_Scott_-_RaeburnConsidered a key figure in the development of the modern historical novel, Scott and his life were of particular interest to me, thanks to the connection of the heroine of my first historical novel Island of the Swans –Jane Maxwell (1749-1812) who eventually became the 4th Duchess of Gordon–and her link to Scott’s family, whose last member to live in the house was Dame Jean Maxwell-Scott.IMG_0365

Now that I am embarked on a contemporary sequel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, that will reveal, 250 years after the fact, what eventually happened to Jane Maxwell and the great love of her life (not the Duke of Gordon!) known as the “Lost Lieutenant,” I needed to interview Jason Dyer, Managing Director of Abbotsford, who headed up this major renovation of Scott’s home and gardens and is an expert in all aspects of Sir Walter’s amazing life.

IMG_0522Despite his crushing schedule, Dyer spent a morning providing me with a personal tour of both the house and the extraordinarly beautiful grounds (Scott had acquired nearly a thousand acres over the years), to say nothing of glimpses of knights in shining armor and magnificent examples of heraldry throughout the house.IMG_0524

It was a great privilege to be given a private tour of Scott’s inner sanctum two weeks prior to the Queen’s visit when workers were still madly painting, positioning artifacts in their rightful places after having been cleaned and restored, and generally racing to meet the deadline of today’s grand opening July 4th.

IMG_0523On June 17th, we were shown Scott’s library/office containing some nine thousand volumes and where he wrote poetry, short story collections, and some two dozen novels. Scott’s best known works are Ivanhoe, Waverly, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, The Bride of Lammermore, and The Heart of Midlothian. The icing on the cake, however, was our rare opportunity to see his private living quarters (on that day still in mid-restoration) where a fire protection safety meeting was in progress among the staff! Ab-Weddings309

Abbotsford, which has been called a fairy palace (one can even get married there, now), is definitely worth a detour as it says in the Guide Michelin. A great architectural marvel that started life as a humble farmhouse called “Cartleyhole” in 1811, the name was changed to commemorate the monks of nearby Melrose Abbey who once owned the land and use to cross (“ford”) the river adjacent to the property. It was Sir Walter Scott who spearheaded the search for the Scottish crown jewels, hidden by Cromwell and eventually found by Scott’s team of sleuths in the bowels of Edinburgh Castle. A grateful Prince Regent (later George IV) bestowed on Scott a baronetcy and invited him to “stage-manage” his visit to Scotland with only three weeks’ notice!

_67965788_george_kilt_royal_collScott even managed to get his patron into a kilt–an object of clothing that had been banned as seditious by George IV’s forebears after the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Stuart) to regain the throne in 1745. All was forgiven after the Royal Visit, and the wearing of one’s family tartan has since been adopted by the Scottish diaspora wherever they might live around the globe._68531957_hi018537081

Today’s visit by Queen Elizabeth undoubtedly pleased Her Royal Highness, given her fondness for lovely landscapes and Scotland itself where the family spends a portion of each year at Balmoral. Queen Elizabeth’s ancestress, Queen Victoria, reputedly used Abbotsford as inspiration for the romantic castle she built there.

imgresPerhaps the opening of Abbotsford in its refurbished grandeur will remind the world just why Sir Walter Scott deserves such a lasting legacy. The Scots themselves have continued to revere this literary giant. After all, he’s the only writer I know of who is memorialized on paper money. His image is on every single bill of Scottish currency…

Adding to the Novelist’s “Idea Bank”

June 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 2Writers are constantly asked the perfectly sensible question: “Where do your ideas come from?” I certainly heard that often enough whenever I speculated aloud that I might do a new novel, That Summer in Cornwall, as a spin-off from an earlier book, A Cottage by the Sea. People would exclaim, “You’re going to do two novels in the same place with some of the same characters? Haven’t you run out of ideas by now?”

For me, the notion for a new book to which I’m willing to commit months–if not years–to bring to fruition usually comes from my garden-variety curiosity and from my previous life as a working reporter. Back in the day, whenever in my travels around town or around the world, I’d encounter something that set off an “Oh, what a good story!” mini-explosion in my brain, I would jot it down to tell my editor or the news director. Now I jot it down under “Ciji’s Book Idea Bank.”IMG_4676

Take this trip we’re on right now: first to Talloires, a tiny (pop. 500) village in the French Alpes where my husband is attending a board meeting for the MacJannet Foundation, a modest educational non-profit that awards prizes each year for “Global Citizenship” and grants college students scholarships to learn the language at the Tufts University European Center, housed in Talloires’ eleventh century priory.

IMG_4912Visitors arrive at this lovely spot on Lake Annecy, often by bateau at the charming landing dock you see on your left and enjoy the Michelin starred restaurants in the immediate region that are well-known to Foodies throughout the world.France June 2006 130

What is less well-known to most Americans, at least, is that little Talloires and the jagged mountains behind the village were a hotbed of the French Resistance in World War II. Those opposed to the Vichy “collaborators” and to Hitler’s invading armies holed up in the rugged back country and were deeply involved in the ultimate liberation of France in August of 1944, a mere three-and-a-half months after the landings at Normandy Beach.

Musée_Départemental_de_la_Résistance_Haut-Savoyarde_à_Thônes,_Haute-SavoieDuring the many trips we’ve made to Talloires over the years, we have always said, “We must visit the Resistance Museum this time,” and somehow competing events always cropped up relating to our primary purpose–to wit, the MacJannet Foundation meetings–and we never have seemed to get there…until this time.thones-war-memorial

Sunday, May 8th is the day celebrated in France each year marking the end of WW II in Europe and the moment when local French in and around Talloires and Lake Annecy were finally able to begin rebuilding their lives. Visiting the graves there of those who fought in the French Resistance and, among other heroic acts, helped ferry downed British and American flyers back to safe territory, prompted a number of ideas to swirl in my head. There were women who served in this effort, which intrigues me, and also disputes that fester still in these villages about local families that supported the Nazi occupation (or at least refused to join the Resistance) and some who even betrayed the resistance fighters, and the families that risked all to free themselves from the occupiers.

Hmmmm….the imagination boggles over the possibilities. Once I finish my Four Seasons Quartet series, I could–

And that, dear readers, is one way an author gets her ideas: get out and see the world!

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…

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

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