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

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…