Fly-on the-Wall Novel Research

June 21, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageOne of the goals of my research trip to Scotland for That Autumn in Edinburgh was to understand the trials and perils of having inherited a family woolen textile business and an historic home in the modern age. To understand the latter, I set out for Traquair House, the seat of the Maxwell Stuart family and the oldest, continuously inhabited home in Scotland.image

As I drove through the spectacular gates of the grounds nestled in the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh, the “sunny intervals” were smiling on this impressive structure surrounded by acres of beautiful countryside and 5 separate farms belonging to the estate. The 21st Lady of Traquair is distantly related to Jane Maxwell of Monreith, who became the celebrated 4th Duchess of Gordon–and the heroine of my biographical historical novel, Island of the Swans from which I will spin a modern tale set some 200 years later!

imageThe house–whose owners, like so many in possession of these massive family homes–now offers accommodation to the public…and in stunningly grand style. But what is it like, I wondered, to have strangers sleeping in your beds and wandering about the front and back yards? In the case of Traquair, visitors could easily be swallowed up by the huge maze that takes up nearly an acre at the back of the house.image But what of the burdens for the modern-day titled person who inherited these piles of stones–perhaps without sufficient capital to sustain them? They still must keep the hedges trimmed, the linen washed every day to be ready for the arrival of the next visitors, and have breakfast cooked each morning for their discerning and not-so-discerning houseguests.

imageHow does the lady of the house cope with the weight of all that family history on her shoulders? Just how crushing are the death duties that come due when the older generation dies off and the next is faced with decisions about whether to keep the place going, give it to the government to look after, create a non-profit trust or museum property, or turn it into a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise?

And what about family members who, by an accident of birth, are not in line to inherit, but love a family home and its surroundings nevertheless, and often are envious and “unhelpful” when difficult decisions are made about the place where they grew up?

imageFor me, a former reporter for twenty-odd years for ABC radio and TV in Los Angeles, I find I simply can’t write about a place unless I see it for myself. Over the years I have trained myself to be “a fly on the wall” and observe the scene around me and allow the facts and the stories people tell me on these trips to take the plot wherever that newly-acquired information leads.image

When I start out conjuring a new novel, I usually have some vague idea of the characters and the nubbin of a plot, but what actually happens in the story tends to spring forth organically, based on what I discover on these journeys. How did the people live in the past; how do they live now? What are the social and economic forces at work in the modern era, as opposed to when life was very different for the wealthy and plain, ordinary folk?

imageI am always amazed and very grateful for the “kindness of strangers” willing to meet with me and talk to me about these subjects. A typical example was this week’s adventure when the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stewart, graciously agreed to meet me in the breakfast room for an interview about her mother’s and her decision to carry on at Traquair House after her father died. This beautiful place now not only provides her family a living through house tours, overnight visitors, and various events like weddings and fairs held on the grounds, but also creates employment in an area that has seen the woolen trade devastated by global competition from the Far East in factories where workers earn a fraction of what the Scots were formerly paid.image

As I begin to grasp the lay-of-the-land and understand the way current circumstances are impacting those living in the Scottish Border country, which is both beautiful and challenging, ideas are bubbling forth for the Scottish descendants of Jane Maxwell and the American descendants of the “lost” Lieutenant Thomas Fraser of Struy–and I can finally reveal what really happened, in the end, to these star-crossed lovers.

I’ve had the time of my life on this trip, but now I can’t wait to get home to start writing…

[]: http://cijiware.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/image.jpg

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!

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!

Fascinating Fascinators: The View From the UK

June 9, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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kate-middleton-2-435In the first novel in the Four Seasons Quartet, That Summer in Cornwall, the typical attire that clothed my characters consisted of blue jeans, cable knit sweaters, and green, rubber Wellington boots. Nothing nearly as glamorous as one of the frothy headpieces Kate Middleton has put on the map.

Ah…but in the new book, all that will change! That Autumn in Edinburgh involves the world of design, and those in that world tend to be snappy dressers, which means while I’m in the UK on my reserch trip, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for what is fashionable, and what is not.

Like most Americans, I first became truly aware of those minuscule,feathery, sometimes veil-swathed confections women wear on their heads called “fascinators” during the courtship and Royal Wedding of Prince William and the stylish graduate of the University of St Andrews.220px-Kate_in_Ottawa_for_Canada_Day_2011_croped

The newly-minted Duchess of Cambrdige wears these poofs stunningly well and undoubtedly has done the millinery business a world of economic good both in the UK and on our shores—especially given American women practically gave up wearing hats, except for festivites at the Kentucky Derby each year.Beatrice-Eugenie

However, the realm of fascinating headgear definitely suffered a set-back when Prince William’s cousins, Beatrice and Eugenie, turned up at his wedding in the most outlandish concoctions. Down right mesmerizing they were, opined the fashionistas, “and not in a good way.”

images-1My sources in Britain tell me that originally the term “fascinator”referred to a fine, lacy head covering—a sort of abbreviated mantilla. But with Kate’s savvy style sense, the addition of judiciously-selected feathers and exotic trimming, along with her jaunty air when donning the chic models she wears, today’s toffs beyond the royal palace find them a welcome alternative to full blown hats when attending weddings, garden parties and the like.720130505181329001_t607

To be sure, there were a few fascinators to be seen at this year’s Kentucky Derby, though the over-the-top Big Hat models far surpassed the stiff-ribboned variety of postage stamps sur-la-tete. This woman appears a bit bemused by the explosion going on over her head, and this red number certainly didn’t provide any shade or SPF protection! But then, given there was rain on race day, I guess that wasn’t a factor.

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Nevertheless, floppy, outsized roses, wide-brimmed beauties overlaid with layers of flowers, and even a pink flamingo or two stole the spotlight and attracted the cameras in Louisville last May.Julia Morgan Dinner (7)

I have been known to sport a fascinator of late and find it a great, packable item to tuck into a suitcase if there is any chance of a formal event enroute. So far on our research trip to the UK for That Autumn in Edinburgh, I’ve not had a chance to whip one out and dazzle my English cousins (whose names happen to be “Cousins!”) but I haven’t given up hope.IMG_6985

And the good thing, these little bits of fluff and feathers don’t take up much room. Even so, I imagine that when I return home, I will return to my Big Hat ways–seen here at the very proper (for Americans, at least) Lovejoy’s Tea Room in San Francisco…

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…

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