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…

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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…

Scotland by the Yard

May 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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glen_affricThe first thing a person learns about Scottish woolen manufacturing—an industry which will figure in the background of the next novel after That Summer in Cornwall in my forthcoming Four Seasons Quartet series—is that the vibrantly patterned cloth for which Scotland is so renowned may be called “plaid” by the uninitiated, but in the region of Scotland where much of it is made, you’d be well-advised to call it “tartan”—as in “family tartan.”url-4

In the novel I’m currently researching, That Autumn in Edinburgh, an American home furnishings designer named Fiona Fraser determines to rely on her Scottish-American heritage to create an entirely new Home Collection for the legendary fashion and lifestyle tycoon she works for. I spent a great day recently cruising around the Worldwide Web, peering into the stately homes north of England and searching the pages of shelter magazines that offer the kind of inspiration that fires my heroine Fiona’s imagination as she travels around Scotland.

18th c. Reproduction Furniture Display RoomIn the process, she battles to rescue her brother’s failing furniture company in North Carolina, as well as a tartan mill in Scotland (where, of course, we meet our hero, Alex Maxwell) that’s on the brink of bankruptcy due to Far East competition stealing traditional designs and making cheaper versions with labor that’s paid less than forty dollars a month.Image

In the process of preparing for my upcoming trip to the Scottish Borders region to steep myself in the Scottish woolen and cashmere trade, I encountered a website called “The Tartans Authority” — and what a world it opened up to me!  This non-profit organization created the “Tartan Ferret” –a little critter who attempts to match the name you type into the search box with the correct color version of “your” family tartan.

1489bell_of_the_borders_name_Instead of immediately delving into the tasks I’d assigned myself, I couldn’t resist looking up the various tartans that are linked with the plethora of Scottish surnames I have on both sides of my and my husband’s family.   My initial foray into exploring officially-recognized designs was made rather easy since both Tony and I have the names “Bell” and “Alexander/McAlister” in our  family tree.  I typed in “Bell” and bingo! There it was in all its rather muted glory.Cook family portrait2 12-63

One of the great moments of our marriage was when Tony’s late father, seen here with his five children, was visiting from New York and corrected my husband’s belief that the Cook family was pure English on both sides, a notion reinforced by living with his proper, tea-pouring English maternal grandmother as a tiny boy when his dad was fighting in the Pacific theater in World War II.

3910mccook_cook_name_“Oh, no, Tony! “ Howard Cook exclaimed.  “Our name was originally MacCook, but some ancestor wanted the family to sound more American than Scottish and so lopped off the ‘Mac.’”  I typed in those names for the Tartan Ferret to seek, and Hoot Mon, the right version came up on the screen in a nano-second!3646_10151617821981882_982607433_n

 

 

 

 

 

You never know what you’ll learn when you begin looking into all this ancestor business. Tony’s mother’s name was “Pattison”  (with an “i”…not an “er”) and his grandfather, Lee Pattison, was a celebrated half of a concertizing dual piano team, Maier & Pattison.   For some reason I thought his name might be Scandinavian, as in Peterson, but lo and behold, I put “Pattison” into the Tartan Authority search box and up came a tiny swatch of the Lowland family’s very own named tartan.

1801aberdeen_1819_district_So, my heroine, Fiona, clearly has her work cut out for her as she explores the country of her forbears and begins to understand Scotland by the yard…

And that goes for yours truly, as well.  I can’t wait to see what the MacCook tartan looks like in the flesh.  Don’t you think a waistcoat made out of that fabric would make a great Christmas present?  Shhhh….don’t spoil the surprise….