Creating Characters: What Do They Want?

April 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image-20-199x300When I originally had the notion for That Summer in Cornwall, my plan was to have my heroine, arriving in late May at shabby chic Barton Hall from Wyoming, get involved in the nursery business that had saved her cousin’s family mansion from bankruptcy a decade earlier in the prequel, A Cottage by the Sea.images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ella-holding-Targhee-sheepHowever, Meredith Champlin, an emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital, is no gardener like her cousin, Blythe Barton Teague.  She was born and raised on a western sheep ranch, so I began to ruminate on what her life goals and desires might be, recalling what a wise person in the writing business once said.  “Ask what your characters want—and what would they be willing to do to get it!”

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First I had to ask myself: what elements are common both to Wyoming and Cornwall?  The latter is a place where many immigrants came  to the American West from Britain’s tin mines and fields to work in the copper and coal mines in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Montana and till the vast open stretches of land, raising animals for the nation’s food supply in the years following the pioneer days.

 

corgi_1Cattle and Sheep need herding, I thought, which meant dogs. Meredith, 35, is a pediatric nurse, so what if she had raised Corgi herding dogs as a rancher’s daughter, and also developed a pet therapy program at her hospital?url-1

Bingo! Corgis are known as “The Queen’s Dog”—so obviously they would exist in Cornwall, too, especially because a lot of sheep are raised in the beautiful fields and on the moors in the West Country.

 

 

 

 

So, I had the answer to “what does Meredith want?”  She wants to be deeply involved in the world of working dogs and would never leave her beloved Corgi, Holly, behind when life’s circumstances land her six thousand miles from her home. It was a natural fit that she could help keep Barton Hall solvent by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy on the castle grounds.

 

images-1And what about her past?  She also wants to forget an unhappy love affair with a charming, alcoholic rodeo rider and forge an entirely new life away from injured and dying children after a decade of intense, worthwhile, but exhausting service.  In other words, she wants a new beginning and a way of re-inventing herself and her life’s work.Image 12

And as it happens, in Cornwall, working dogs are also trained in the field of search and rescue, due to the type of terrain where “holiday makers” routinely fall off cliffs that skirt the dramatic coastline facing the English Channel, or get lost on the remote moors, or disappear down deserted mine shafts left over from the previous century’s tin industry.

 

article-1362275-0D710BF7000005DC-485_468x365Then one of those “Eureka!” thoughts struck.   The hero could be a veteran of a dog bomb-sniffing unit in the British Forces, late of Afghanistan, who, along with his Border Collie T-Rex, has returned to Cornwall and is now a veterinarian and a member of the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.  All he wants is to be left alone to nurse his psychic wounds that vastly predate his service in the Royal Army, though at his core, he yearns for a sense of safety, connection with kindred spirits, and “home.”

So, through the magic of asking (and answering) “What do the main characters want?” I could begin to write Chapter One of That Summer in Cornwall.

The question “What are the characters willing to do to get what they want?” is the engine that drives the plot…a subject that I will probably discuss another time for readers who speculate about such things.  It’s a subject I am certainly wondering about as I prepare to start work on That Autumn in Edinburgh..a sequel two hundred years after the conclusion of my first novel, Island of the Swans

Scotland on my Mind: Then & Now

April 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Island of the SwansNow that I have launched That Summer in Cornwall, I was astounded to realize about two months ago that I began the research for my first novel, Island of the Swans, exactly thirty years ago this summer!  It was also my first historical novel—a fictionalized retelling of the life of the amazing eighteenth century figure, Jane Maxwell (1749-1812), 4th Duchess of Gordon, about whom—I soon discovered–no full-length biography existed.

I was such a novice, it never occurred to me that merely ferreting out the details of both her public and private lives was a book in itself, let alone the task of teaching myself–a nonfiction writer  at that point–how to create a novel!7757334344_48179fa517_z

So why choose Jane Maxwell?  Well, not only did she marry the largest landowner in Scotland, though passionately in love with someone else; wed her five resulting daughters to the dukes of Manchester, Richmond, and Bedford, the Marquis of Cornwallis, and a baronet named Sir Robert Sinclair—she also served as flamboyant hostess to Prime Minister Pitt, the Younger, during the Madness Crisis of George III—AND….

 

5 generations of McCullough Women copy…my great-grandmother, Elfie McCullough, who lived into her 90’s, swore  to my mother on the family Bible that our McCulloughs of Ayrshire–poet Robert Burns country–had married into the Maxwells of Monreith a generation or so before the future duchess was born, “making you, my dear, a direct descendant of a duchess!”  (I tried, but trust me, I could never prove this without a shadow of a doubt).03_Duchess_Jean

Even so, I grew up on stories that the beautiful Jane, a powerhouse of a woman like Elfie herself, was also celebrated for recruiting on horseback fellow Highlanders into her brother’s regiment that fought for the British in the American War of Independence and surrendered with their Commander, Lord Cornwallis, to George Washington at Yorktown.

02_cijiNow, I freely admit that during the 1980’s I became rather obsessed with Jane’s life, even performing some of my lectures about my heroine dressed in full court regalia.  In the course of more than six years researching and writing and selling this version of “Gone with the Wind of Scotland”– a story of Jane loving one man, a soldier reported to have died in the American Colonies, and marrying a duke, only to discover her lieutenant had not been killed as reported– my husband took to calling me his very own, little “Scot-o-Maniac.”Abbotsford-bartholomew-bust

Recently, I discovered that in the years following Jane’s death, a member of the Maxwell Clan married into a Lowland family by the name of Scott—as in the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott.  This little historical nugget immediately triggered an idea for a contemporary sequel (to be titled That Autumn in Scotland as part of my forth-coming 4 Seasons Quartet series), set two hundred years later than Swans.

 Kilted SoldierWhat if, I mused one day in early February this year, a female American relative of the “lost lieutenant” (who had eventually abandoned Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century to settle in the Mid-Atlantic Colonies), met by sheer chance a male member of the Maxwell clan on a tour of Abbotsford, the famous baronial mansion owned by Sir Walter Scott?

And what if the pair discovered during the course of that autumn that they were direct descendants of the star-crossed lovers and were driven by curiosity and a growing attraction to each other to unravel the tale of what eventually happened to Jane and the man she could never stop loving?

From such questions a hundred thousand word novel can spring…sc001a1163

…and so, after three decades, it’s back to Scotland…but this time, not the Highlands, as seen here in 1983, but rather the Scottish Lowlands, land of my own Clan McCullough forebears, even if I can’t (yet) claim a “direct” connection to my eighteenth century heroine.

 

52b1a160e2719a73fb132418aa5b15faTony and I are off in June to explore the modern Scotland of tartan mills competing with the Chinese knock-off artists, castles whose land-poor owners can barely keep their heads above water, and some cultural changes that I like to imagine my savvy Duchess Jane would somehow take in stride.

 

 

 

 

 

If These Castle Walls Could Talk…

April 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Caerhays_CastleThere are travelers who will tell you, “You’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen ‘em all,” but when I’m in the throes of constructing a novel set in Great Britain, castles  seem to me as important as “characters”  as any of the humans that populate my stories.

Each of these fortresses has its own, specific story to tell: who built them and why? What were they trying to protect?  Who was born here; who died here?  And most importantly…who loved—or hated—their fellow inhabitants here?

Call me the Ultimate Romantic, but over the years of researching my various historicals, I sometimes think that the stones imagewhisper their tales…if the traveler can just remain quiet enough to hear what they have to say.

Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2I felt that “presence” of those who had come before so vibrantly at Caerhays Castle, the turreted stone edifice that was the model for “Barton Hall” in That Summer in Cornwall. It’s round towers and views of the English Channel and the lonely lookout cottage on the property’s cliff conjured up a story that practically told itself.

Now that I’m in the midst of the preliminary research for That Autumn in Edinburgh which will focus on the descendants—one Scottish, one American—of the star-crossed lovers in my first novel, Island of the Swans,  I find myself also plotting my trip to the Scottish Border territory south of Edinburgh.

Here I’ve set up an interview with the man who has spearheaded the mulit-milion dollar refurbishment of  Sir Walter Scott’s Abbottsford where I’ve recently discovered the novelist’s family were intermarried with descendants  of Jane Maxwell, 4th Duchess of Gordon, the heroine of Island of the Swans whose clan once  inhabited this ominous turreted fortress on the right.image

imageAnd then there’s Ayton Castle, the forerunner of the now-destroyed Ayton House where Jane received a letter a month following her arranged marriage to the Duke that the great love of her life had not died in an American Indian skirmish outside Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh, and was coming home thinking to claim her as his own.

Knowing this story, how would a modern Maxwell male descendant, struggling to keep a traditional tartan mill afloat–along with a Fraser, visiting from America in an attempt to recover from a tragic loss of her own– feel as they walked the banks of the River Eye on the exact spot where Jane learned of her lover’s survival, far too late for her to find lasting happiness with Lieutenant Thomas Fraser?

Asking a simple question like that…and listening intently to the standing stones and rustling wind might easily spark a writer’s imagination…

To Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day: Bake a Scone!

March 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Ciji in Polruan, across from Fowey, Cornwall - Version 2These past months working on the now-published That Summer in Cornwall and starting the research for That Autumn in Edinburgh–which will be published next fall—has stirred up so many memories of my own family history.

This week, as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I thought a lot about my own Scots-Irish-Cornish heritage and it got me longing to make a fresh batch of “Elfie McCullough” scones. (That’s her in the b&W photo)5 generations of McCullough Women copySO!  Here, below, is my Great Grandmother, Elfie McCullough’s recipe handed down by my Great Aunt Marge and adapted by me over the years. (This is Aunt Marge in white with my McCullough clan at one of my book-signings in New Orleans fifteen years ago). sc00043e55

My father’s family–the Wares– originated on the border of Devon and Cornwall in England, and migrated in 1642 to Massachusetts and eventually to the mid-West, where my father was born.

Cornish countryside facing Channel

 

 

 

 

My mother’s family–the McCulloughs–were Scottish who left Ayrshire to work as estate factors in Northern Ireland and eventually landed in the Tidewater region of America in the late 18th century.  They made their way to Missouri where they raised Hereford cattle and were fabulous cooks! I was 15 when Elfie died and a grown woman when Aunt Marge passed away, in her nineties.

Marge wouldn’t share this recipe unless I promised to use “real butter.”IMG_0739

 

 

 

So, here’s to St. Patrick’s Day with a Scottish-Irish-Cornish “hybridized”  scone recipe–from the United Kingdom via America!  (If you can’t cut-and-paste this off your screen, email me via the Contact page and I’ll send you the file).

 

 

CIJI’S SCOTS-IRISH-CORNISH FAMILY SCONE RECIPE  

Preheat oven 425 degrees. This recipe makes about 6 to 8 scones, depending on how small you make them.

                1 cup                    Self Rising Flour (be sure it is fresh)

                ½ cube                 Butter (either salted or unsalted is fine)

               ¼ cup                   Sugar

                ¼ cup                  Heavy cream (or milk)

                1 egg yolk beaten with a little milk

 

Sift or mix the flour and sugar together in a medium-size bowl. 

 

Hand cut butter into flour and sugar with a pastry cutter, until crumbly–but do not over work.

 

Add enough milk (I use cream if feeling naughty) to make the dough ball come together (this will vary according to your level of humidity, but don’t use too much or the scones won’t rise much; I use a wooden spoon to mix together, then my clean hands to make the dough come together).

 

Turn dough out on floured surface and pat into a round or square shape with your hands, ½ inch to 1 inch thick, depending on hall high you want your scones. (I like 1 inch tall dough).

 

I use a round cylinder, 2 inches in diameter, to cut the scones, or you can just use a knife and make triangles.  Your choice.  Put on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet, non greased.  Brush the tops of the scones with the egg yolk/milk mixture.

 

Bake for 12 minutes until lightly brown.   When cool, split the scones if you made the high ones.  Serve with a dab of whipped cream, clotted cream, or crème fraiche and a dollop of your favorite jam.

 

Enjoy! And by the way, Great Grandmother Elfie McCullough and Aunt Marge send their regards….

 

Researching a Novel The Old Fashioned Way

March 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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 Ciji at ABC RadioI spent more than twenty years as a working reporter (mostly at the ABC television and radio affiliate in Los Angeles) and as a magazine journalist—and my first instinct when I get an idea for an historical or contemporary novel is to go where the book is set.Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

With That Summer in Cornwall—a stand-alone contemporary sequel to my “time-slip” novel A Cottage by the Seathe action takes place a good decade after the ending of the contemporary part of the novel.  In my mind, there was no choice:  I had to return to the area because the premise of the new book was: “What ever happened to that babe in arms in the first book…and what’s Cornwall, England like some ten years, plus, later?”

IMG_6786 - Version 2Once I determined I was, in fact, going to do a sequel to the original novel set in Cornwall, I immediately called up my good writing pal, romance novelist Cynthia Wright with whom I’d made my first trip to Britain’s West Country to research the original book (and she, a couple of her own) and said, “Wanna go back to Gorran Haven and Mevagissey with me and see what trouble we can get into again?”  Her answer? “Absolutely, if we can also go to that seaside village, Polperro and Lansallos, where all the eighteenth century pirates hung out. I’m thinking of doing a couple of books that deal with smuggling…”IMG_6743

So off we went in October of 2012, retracing some of the same areas we’d visited in the late 1990s and heading off into new territory as well.  We still managed the six-mile “Hall Walk” a second time, and paused at the bridge at Pont Pill where we’d rented a Lime Kiln Cottage from the National Trust on the first trip.  For the research jaunt last autumn, we decided to rent a suite at Caerhays Castle near Gorran Haven, the model for “Barton Hall,”  an important element in both books set in Cornwall.

Image 2This contemporary novel centers on the story of Meredith Champlin—a cousin of Lady Blythe Barton-Teague who is the mistress of Barton Hall and the heroine in CottageMeredith wakes up one morning in her home state of Wyoming to discover she is the official guardian of an unruly “Beverly Hills brat” whom she’s never met and hasn’t a clue how to serve as the unhappy child’s surrogate mother. Her elegant cousin Blythe, now the mother of two thanks to her second marriage to the wonderful Sir Lucas Teague, urges Meredith to come to their shabby-chic castle on a remote cliff in Cornwall for the summer to see if they can’t transform this angry, difficult child (whose mother is Blythe’s estranged sister and has died in a private plane crash) into “a decent human being.”  For me, returning to actually reside within the castle walls allowed me to capture the unique atmosphere of the place local novelist Daphne du Maurier called “Enchanted.”Image 8

Not only did I call on my reportorial skills to capture the local color and feel of this special part of the world, but I also conducted a number of interviews about the amazing volunteer search-and-rescue work in Cornwall performed by highly trained dogs and their handlers who find “holiday makers” known for falling off cliffs, down abandoned tin and copper mine shafts, along with “despondents” who have wandered up on the moors to commit suicide.  The enigmatic hero, Sebastian Pryce, a British Army veteran of the Afghan War who served as a K9 specialist in a dog bomb-sniffing squad, persuades Meredith to co-found a dog obedience academy, with many unexpected consequences flowing from their decision to work together—including, of course, their falling in love.

Image 11I even managed to wangle an interview with the chief Dog Unit Manager for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (ie the police), Anthony Jordan, who walked me through police operations that coordinate the volunteer corps, Coast Guard, Royal Air Force, and other organizations that make up the network of the search and rescue community.

Their work was amazing and thrilling in so many ways, and I hope that my use of reportorial skills to capture the authenticity of their various activities shines through That Summer in Cornwall–while also telling a ripping good story!  Image-20-199x300

And if any readers are of a mind, a nice review posted on your favorite e-retailer site would be most appreciated.  You cannot image how hugely helpful reader reviews are to get out the word when a book is launched.  The print version will be available sometime later in March.

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