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.

Creating Characters Before The Novel Is Written

June 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

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…

Creating Fictional Characters – The Magic of “Who?”

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

imageWhen starting a new project–as I am doing with That Autumn in Edinburgh, a novel that follows the previously published That Summer in Cornwall in my Four Seasons series—I fall back on twenty-five years experience as a working reporter.  I have always found asking those journalists’ questions: who, what, where, why, when to be rather magical in the way they find me the answers I need to get started.

“Where?” is obvious for this novel: Scotland, and more specifically, Edinburgh and the territory south of the city known as the Scottish Borders where the Maxwell Clan held prominence since the 1400s. (Caerlaverock Castle, here,  was one of their strongholds).

But once the setting is decided, Question #2 becomes:  Who is this novel about?Image

For me, the only way to figure this out is to start with a name,in this case “Alexander Maxwell,” and then do a “handmade” fictional genealogy chart for the protagonist that goes back at least four generations on both sides of the person: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.

Island of the SwansSince this book is a contemporary spin-off of the first novel I ever published, Island of the Swans, I had to create a genealogy chart that went back a couple of centuries!  The trickiest part has been that Swans was a biographical historical novel based on an actual  historical figure, Jane Maxwell of Monreith, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  Figuring out how my modern-day fictional hero could be related to the Duchess’ branch of Clan Maxwell 250-plus years later took some serious research, especially as I discovered that most of the various branches of the Scottish Maxwell clan and the Dukedom of Gordon died out with no male heir.Country_house_rescue_ruth_watson_Monreith_House_Scotland_Sir_Michael_Maxwell

Fortunately, there was one branch of the Maxwells descending from Jane who had made it into the 21st Century: Sir Michael Eustace Maxwell, 9th Baronet of Monreith from a region southwest of Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Sir Michael, however, at 70, remains a bachelor with a 150-year-old manor house in serious need of refurbishment—so much so that he was profiled on a “reality” program in Britain, Country House Rescue with Ruth Watson, seen here, in which the presenter’s best recommendation was for the last heir to marry a woman with some interior design talents and a considerable fortune!  If they somehow produced a male heir, so much the better.  (At last Google-ing, this had not transpired…). Sadly, various areas on the estate such as this crumbling, moss-covered lodge were near to collapsing.

165517_08e8e457

So what to do…what to do?  And then I had a stroke of what I can only consider semi-brilliance! Duchess Jean on horseback recruiting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Maxwell– seen here on her horse recruiting Highland soldiers to fight in the 78th Fraser Highlanders against the colonists in the American War of Independence– had seven children, one of whom was most assuredly not by the Duke of Gordon.

What if, in the early twentieth century, there was born to a housemaid in the employ of the Maxwells of Monreith a baby boy whose features had the unmistakable stamp of several of the Maxwell males of that pre-World War I era—but whose father always remained a mystery?

Typical of the times, the baby–who could never inherit the title nor the estate– could have been placed with a childless couple in a neighboring village to raise, and only later, upon receiving a deathbed bequest of funds from his guilty sire, does my hero’s great grandfather discover he’s a Maxwell of Monreith–even if born “on the wrong side of the blanket.”

9f008d2643a8a3ea5db8ceaa354542b8See how deviously we spinner-of-tales can work around any factual problems?

But I want my modern-day hero, the 35-year-old Alex Maxwell, to be the owner of a tartan mill in the Scottish Borders that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to unholy competition from textile manufacturers who are under-cutting his prices in the Far East by using cheap labor.

But hold on a sec!  How could the descendant of an illegitimate child of the Maxwell clan have advanced far enough in three generations to be owner of a substantial woolen manufacturing enterprise?

Ah, remember that bequest?  Well, therein lies the tale…but first I need to learn about the “what” in this who. what. where, why, & when novel-writing equation: the tartan weaving industry.

At left is a model at one of the prominent Scottish woolen firms whose good looks I find quite inspiring, so it’s off to the Scotland  I must go….IMG_4828

Scotland on my Mind: Then & Now

April 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

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.