What Tartan Should I Wear?

June 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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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…

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…

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…