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…

Can Readers Love a “Flawed” Hero?

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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When I was first conjuring the characters in Wicked Company and mulling over how I would weave both fictional and historical figures into the story of an 18th c.  woman playwright fighting to get her works written and performed at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I thought about some of the men of that era whose lives clearly could be fodder for a novelist’s imagination and well as an historian’s.

Take the 18th c. poet Robert Burns, for example, who figured in my first historical novel, Island of the Swans.  He was an astonishingly good-looking man, from all accounts and surviving pictorial representations.  He also had a reputation for loving the ladies–some of whom were not his wife–and according to the research, there was much gossip surrounding his relationship with my heroine, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

However, my reading of the facts was that the duchess supported his artistic endeavors, helping to get his first book of poems published in Edinburgh, but held him at arm’s length.  Thus, he was not the “hero” in the novel and  so I avoided the issue of whether readers can appreciate a lead character who actually lived on this planet, and yet could not be described as a “man of moral character.”

It is part of the territory when writing historical fiction that there is constant tension between creating a compelling story and balancing the historical facts as best we are able to determine them. Readers of novels tend to want their heroes “heroic”–unless they are lovable “anti-heroes,” which can sometimes work but is very tricky to pull off.  For me, I enjoy working through the flaws as the story’s arc shows the characters growing and changing while the novel unfolds.

However, sometimes a character is fascinating, but simply not “hero” material to my way of thinking.  For instance, in Wicked Company, Richard Sheridan of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame was a contemporary of my composite heroine, Sophie McGann, a female character drawn from the biographies of several working women playwrights of the day.  However, Sheridan had a character flaw that I couldn’t stomach.  Yes, he was a compelling gent, not too bad looking as you see here, and of course, a prodigious talent , but in my research I concluded that he basically “borrowed”–with no credit–the famous Mrs. Malaprop character in The Rivals from one his own mother had originally created in a play that failed to pass the censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office!  Interesting, yes.  A hero in my book, NO!

In the end, I created a fictional hero, Hunter Robertson, to go with my fictional heroine, but he, too, is noted for his lapses.  Most notable among them is a fair amount of emotional baggage carried over from his youth that prevents him, early in the novel, from seeing what is obvious to the reader:  that he and Sophie are destined for each other–a state of affairs he ultimately begins to comprehend when they both become involved in the theater in the beautiful spa city of Bath where, believe it or not, in the 18th c. there were co-ed bathing facilities! (Note the lady holding on to her hat in the upper right of the image).

But to a writer, those flaws Hunter possessed were what kept the writing interesting for me, especially when they’re rooted in conflicts and tragedies going back to a period of his childhood he wanted to forget:  a time when his mother chose which of her children to give the meager supply of food during “the starving” in the Highlands of Scotland that came in the wake of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.

I love Hunter Robertson–flaws and all–and I think readers will too, knowing on some level that he will eventually come to terms with his difficult past, recognize Sophie for the valiant, gifted woman she is, and fall madly in love with her.  Until that happens, his role is to save her from herself (and her hot temper), as well as find his own path as a creative talent in the boisterous, turbulent London theater world.

For me, heroes are more interesting if they’re not perfect and totally “heroic,” straight out of the gate.  Perhaps this is what keeps readers interested in the mystery of how in the world Hunter and Sophie are  going to overcome the obstacles facing a “two-career couple” in the eighteenth century!

Truly, nothing much changes, despite our claim to modernity.

The Idea for a Novel Comes From…

July 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I was originally drawn to the real life character of Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon (seen with her son in a painting hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) , because my aforementioned great- grandmother, Elfie McCullough–who lived to be 96–claimed that our McCulloughs from the Lowlands of Scotland were related to the Maxwells of Monreith through marriage a few generations before Jane Maxwell was born.  Later I came across an article about her life as the “Match-making Duchess” and was very intrigued that I might be related to such a fascinating historical figure. Sadly, after five years of research, I was never able to prove I was her direct descendant, but the odd thing is, we look rather alike: dark hair, hazel eyes, and a similar bone structure! Read more