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!

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.