Writing a Novel? The Details Count…

July 22, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Pin It

Image 3Anyone who has not actually “gone the distance” writing a novel might imagine that authors sit home and conjure what’s on the page of their works-in-progress out of thin air.

Well, perhaps some do–and Internet search capability has certainly made fact-checking a lot easier these days–but for me, the reality of creating fiction…even contemporary fiction…demands a fair amount of legwork.9169072399_2997ef1c3d_c

Take my most recent trip to Scotland to prepare to write a contemporary sequel to my eighteenth century historical, Island of the Swans that was first published in 1989. The new novel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, takes place 250 years after the original book ends. The back-story has to do with the textile weaving industry for which Scotland is justly renowned. For me, as a former reporter for ABC TV and Radio in Los Angeles for more years than I like to admit, there is simply no way to learn about an industry other than to go there and see for myself.

9157107170_fed8b89cb4_hSo, first stop on my recent research trip was Floors Castle near Kelso to see the wonderful fabrics used in so many of the fabulously furnished rooms in this ancestral home built for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe in 1721.
Image The Flemish Gobelins tapestries came to Floors Castle via the American Heiress Mary Goelet, “Duchess May,” who married the 8th Duke of Roxburghe and literally plastered the walls with these beautiful hangings her family had imported from Belgium to Newport, Rhode Island, and then brought back to Scotland. I wanted to see for myself how these grand Scottish houses were furnished–and with what textiles.

url-1To be sure, I saw plenty of exquisite silks, satins and brocades, but where were the wonderful Scottish tartans and tweeds that so often decorated the hunting lodges and castles in Scotland? And most of all, I wanted to see the manufacturing mills.IMG_0219

Well, off to Borders Textile Towerhouse museum in Hawick I went to get an initial introduction to the world of weaving. There I gained a solid grasp of Scotland’s proud industrial past as well as learned about the process of making wool fabrics from shearing, carding, dyeing, and spinning the wool before the process of weaving or knitting is begun, and then finishing the end product–whether a kilt or cashmere sweater.

9169385717_4044b9babe_cNext stop: Johnstons of Elgin, St. Andrews, and Hawick. Since I was already in Hawick, I talked my way into a tour at the Cashmere Visitor Centre where a very informative young woman took me through the plant and explained how modern technology was being married to ancient practices to make the finest and most luxurious woolen products in the world.Image 2

In nearby Selkirk, I made an appointment to have a private tour at one of the largest mills remaining in Scotland, although the general public is welcome to sign up for “The Lochcarron Experience” when in the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh.

9171109676_36cbb654f4_cDesigner Leah Robertson gave up an entire morning to give me a thorough grounding in her world. She generously did this just a few days before she was due to fly to New York to meet with clients whose names you’d recognize and display to these buyers the beautiful fabrics made at the enormous plant in Selkirk, just up the road from Johnstons.IMG_0549_2

Leah explained the process of making tartan from the stage of either following an ancient pattern of a vintage plaid like that of the MacDonald’s, to the newest tartans, such as one designed in the late Princess Diana’s honor.

9157702606_7dbddd4daa_nThe week before, when I was in Edinburgh, I’d heard that the nearly one hundred-year-old-company had just been bought by a corporation based in South Korea. Here was a story facing so many legacy firms in Scotland unfolding right before my eyes: old-line companies being purchased by global operators–mostly from the Far East.9155456627_9559490473_n

The fear always is that eventually, entire operations in Scotland might be moved out of the country, once the foreign purchasing company learned all the “tricks of the trade.” I’d already seen labels in Italy that read “Designed in Italy”–but the items were actually made in China, Thailand, or Malaysia. So far, however, Lochcarron goods continue to be made in Scotland.

9168694437_7543cd5722_cSuddenly, I had my “back story,” which would be about a small, traditional family tartan mill in Scotland struggling to stay alive in the face of global competition and the need for modernization. A young Scottish-American designer would discover that she and the scion of an old-line Scottish textile company have some very interesting ancestors in common and…9174937043_858553e726_c

Well, you’ll just have to wait for the novel after That Summer in Cornwall to be finished later this year to find out what happens next! However, my evolving notion about the Scottish part of the story seemed an even better idea when I visited DC Dalgliesh, the last textile mill on my research list.

9170004397_7eaab8e9f8_c

Founded in 1947, D.C. Dalgliesh had recently been purchased by a Scottish entrepreneur named Dr. Nick Fiddes who has big plans for the little operation in Selkirk. His manager, Christine Payne, kindly showed us around, pointing out the treadle looms that had once been powered by foot, later electrified, and now in need of continuing maintenance.

IMG_0560_2All these small but cascading factlets are the kind an author simply cannot find merely by putting subjects in the Search box.

And when it comes to writing convincingly–whether fact or fiction–in my world, the details do matter. It’s a compact I make with my reader: If you buy my books, I’ll try my best to get the facts right.

What Tartan Should I Wear?

June 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

imageOne of the joys of this particular trip to Europe is that I could combine research for That Autumn in Edinburgh (the follow-on novel to That Summer in Cornwall ) with a search for some of my husband and my families’ more obscure tartan patterns. In our joint two clans, we have the Scottish names McCullough, McVicker, McAllister/Alexander, McGann, Hunter, Pattison, Harris, Brown, Gibbs, Forester, and Bell.260px-Maxwell_tartan_(Vestiarium_Scoticum)

My husband Tony’s surname is “Cook,” and he always assumed it was of solid, English origin.

“Oh, indeed not,” his late father, Howard Cook, declared emphatically a number of years ago. “We were the MacCooks, but they lopped off the Mac to make us sound more American.”

I speedily went online and did a search for tartan names and found it–voila–as “Cook/MacCook.”

And then, long after we were married, we discovered that we both had the name “Bell” in our family lines. Turns out on this trip that that we learned there are a number of Bell regional tartans, but the most colorful one both Cook and Ware family members have been emailing me about has prompted them to ask if we all could coordinate and make a single, combined order for yardage? (I imagine there may be a number of sofas and upholstered arm chairs dotting California’s interior landscape soon…)image

The answer was given me: yes we can make a special order, and so can many tartan-loving souls by contacting D.C. Dalgliesh, one of the last traditional mills remaining in operation that are willing to do custom orders for the lesser known patterns–and will do a “run” for fewer than 30 meters, when most mills won’t bother with a set-up for less than that amount of yardage–and prices vary widely from mill to mill.

imageThe sad truth, we discovered as we made our ways through the stunning Tweed Valley where the textile trade once thrived, is that many of the mills that had manufactured tartans and other woolens for some two centuries have fallen to the onslaught of cheap, often inferior goods manufactured in the Far East. Other companies have, themselves, sold out to overseas manufacturers who apparently desire the cachet of a “Made in Scotland” label to further their global reach.image

Just recently, E-Land of South Korea bought Lochcarron weavers and the sister-company, Peter Scott, a cashmere operation based in the Scottish Borders region. So far, everything made in these factories appears to be of the highest quality, though some of the goods are already being designed with the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean markets and sensibilities in mind.

imageInterestingly, some indigenous Scottish textile companies that are managing to survive and even thrive, such as Johnstons of Elgin (and Hawick, south of Edinburgh and having last week earned the Royal Warrant), tend to be the ones catering to the high-end, luxury market that demands top quality merchandise–and can recognize it when they see it. With price usually no object, these buyers want items made in Scotland by the Scottish! One other very noteworthy development is a company called ScotWeb that offers many varieties of Scottish goods for online purchase.image

Behind a modest wood stairway in Edinburgh leading up to a large warehouse, Dr. Nick Fiddes is sourcing genuine Scottish goods to customers based all over the globe. He is also a tech wizard offering his expertise to a quasi governmental agency, the Scottish Register of Tartans, to create a giant database of known tartans (and the “recipes” to make them on existing looms) to help the diaspora of Scots living in the far corners of the globe to track down their family tartans or buy goods with obvious Scottish origins. This was the same database where I found the unusual version of the Bell tartan.

imageScotweb recently purchased the old-school weaving company, DC Dalgliesh, that owns perhaps the largest library of tartan patterns in the world and will also help a customer design a brand new tartan for a family or business entity desiring one of their very own.image

A big push, thanks–rather ironically, it seems to me–to Bronx-born garment and home furnishing designer Ralph Lauren is the use of tartans in American home furnishings. On this trip I discovered that the RL label even plays big in the stately homes and manors here in Scotland.

But more on that fascinating story in a future blog post…