Category Archives: Writing

The Dangers of Dismissal

I’m not going to lie, folks; I’ve been a bit of a whinge on Twitter recently. The thing about being at the querying stage with a book is, all your resilience gets ploughed into keeping your chin up when the inevitable rejections arrive. That’s good – if you’re going to keep writing and keep submitting, you have to learn to rise above rejection, to not take it personally, and to keep on keeping on. However, the result is that your tolerance for other things, like details or phrases, might plummet a little. And of course, Twitter is always on hand for you to vent about your irritation to a nice big audience…

Yeah, sorry about that. Normal positive thinking will resume shortly. Though I do stand by every word. In this business rejection is inevitable, but there are many ways to write ‘no thanks’ and some are far better than others. Phrases like ‘I’ll pass’ are lazy, unprofessional and dismissive of a writer’s creative work. They might not be intended in that way, but that’s how they come across. The fact that apparently some quarters of the publishing industry don’t appreciate the impact that words can have is frankly more than a little ironic.

Anyway, today I thought I would also give an update on how things are progressing with my forthcoming novel, The House at Kirtlebeck End. As indicated before, I’m still at the querying stage and have a few responses from agents/publishers outstanding. In most cases the various deadlines they set themselves are fast approaching, so depending on the outcome of those I will be making a few decisions in the next few weeks about the publication of the book. So, watch this space! I hope to be able to bring you more news at the beginning of November.

Those who follow me on Facebook may also have noticed that I have recently started studying Creative Writing with the Open University. It’s early days but so far I’m enjoying it and looking forward to enhancing my writing skills over the coming months. At the same time I’m also fermenting some ideas for my next novel, and have started to do a bit of research when time allows. In short, there’s a lot going on but generally it’s all good. Onwards and upwards, as they say!

In Remote Parts

It’s been quite some time since I last blogged – far longer than I intended! I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a busy summer with plenty of fun, travels to new places, new experiences, a little bit of sun and the odd ounce of relaxation here and there. Over the past few weeks I’ve quite literally been living in remote parts, soaking up the wonders of the Scottish Western Isles and visiting some of its far-flung treasures. In short, folks, it’s been wonderful.

The Isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides

The holidays are the perfect time to catch up on some reading, and I have read some fabulous fiction over the past couple of months. As ever my reading list was eclectic, with everything from historical fiction, to crime, to horror. My favourite summer reads were Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory, Kaite Welsh’s The Unquiet Heart, Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and Campbell Hart’s The Rocking Stone.

I’ve also managed to fit in a fair amount of activity on the writing front. The House at Kirtlebeck End has been edited, polished up and sent off to agents/publishers, so now the wait begins for their replies and I will take things from there as regards my fifth novel’s journey to publication. While I wait, I’ve started researching for my next novel. I’m planning to return to historical fiction for novel no.6, with a story about a very famous and very influential Enlightenment figure, focusing on a lesser-known (and less talked about) aspect of his life. It’s early days, so that I think that’s enough said about that for now…

August 2019 also marked the first anniversary of the release of The Pendle Witch Girl. I can’t believe it’s been a year already since the third installment of my Witches of Pendle series was published. I also can’t believe, and couldn’t be more proud of the success the book has enjoyed. Indeed, the Witches of Pendle trilogy has gone from strength to strength over these past few years, exceeding any expectations I had when I hit the ‘publish’ button on The Gisburn Witch four years ago. Thank you once again to those of you who have read the books, have recommended them to friends, or have rated and/or reviewed them on Goodreads, Amazon, or anywhere else. It really does make a difference.

The Pendle Witch Girl release day advert – happy memories!

Summer is almost over, but I’m looking forward to an Autumn filled with good books, lots of research, an adventure or two, and who knows, maybe an email which will brighten my day!

A Sense of Achievement

Hello folks, happy Thursday! It’s been quite a few weeks since I last posted on my blog, so I thought I’d write a quick post to bring you up to date with what’s been going on. In short – a lot! This time of year is always hectic, with the end of the school term approaching and the kids’ shows, presentation evenings and other events really taking over the family diary for a while. In writing terms it’s also been a busy time – after more than a year of hard work, almost 110,000 words and thirty-something chapters, The House At Kirtlebeck End is complete!

Well, the first draft is complete, and the first read-through/edit is done. Now it’s time to get it sent over to my very lovely, very capable group of draft readers and nervously await their initial feedback. Then, after that, it’s a case of more editing, more reading, more editing, and so on, until I’m happy. But, whilst the book isn’t quite a finished product yet, I’m still relishing the huge sense of achievement which comes with finally having a complete, draft manuscript.

So, what is The House at Kirtlebeck End about?

You might remember back in January I put forward this pitch on Twitter for the Xpo North contest:

Over the past few months I’ve also posted a few teaser excerpts on social media, just to give you all a flavour of what’s going on:

The House at Kirtlebeck End is essentially a mystery, packed with suspense and a more than healthy dose of the paranormal. When the time comes I plan to dedicate it to my kids, as for ages they kept asking me to write a ‘ghost story’, and finally I have. Having said that, it will be some years before I allow them to read it!

I’ve really enjoyed writing this book, and I’m looking forward to polishing it up ready for publication before sharing it with you in the coming months.

Ethersay – Chapter 1

Ethersay is still on sale for 99p/99c for Kindle until the end of May. To entice you all to take advantage of this great deal, today I thought I’d give you a preview of chapter one. In the first part of the story we meet Rebecca who, we quickly discover, has decided to run away from some pretty heavy personal and political trauma, with unforeseen consequences…

1

The day after the referendum, my life fell apart. It wasn’t obvious at first. Initially, I couldn’t see how bad I’d allowed things to become, how much of a mess I’d made of everything. No, at first I allowed the copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes – yes, that old habit reared its ugly head from the graveyard of my youth – to numb me, to help me feel nothing, to help me forget how much it hurt. Then I saw him and all of a sudden it hit me, like the proverbial ton of bricks. It hit me so hard that it took my breath away. I knew then that I had to run.

Of course, I realise that it wasn’t really the referendum’s fault. The referendum, or the referendum on Scottish independence, to call it by its proper name, was more the catalyst, the match which lit the touch paper I call my life. And sure as fire is fire, it ignited me, filled me with a passion I had never felt before. It was a wonderful, addictive thing, to feel so enlivened, so empowered. For months I lived on the cusp of destiny; I lapped it up, unable to satiate my thirst. If only I’d let the passion remain political, then perhaps I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in now.

“The Prime Minister assures Tory MPs that he will cut public spending in Scotland,” a monotone voice bleats forth from the radio. It is the sort of voice I’d noticed more and more over these past few months; that insidious media voice, the one with the gift for expressing opinion as fact, half-truth as perceived knowledge.

I turn it off, swiping the button angrily with my finger. I am in no mood to listen to that right now.

The tears well up in my eyes once again as I ruminate on the events of the past few hours. How could I have been so foolish? How could I not see what was right in front of me? I brush the tears away but they continue to form, blurring my view of the road ahead. I realise that I have no idea where I am. I glance at the clock on the dashboard. It is past midnight, the sky outside the colour of pitch tar. I sigh, realising autumn is here. Mere weeks ago I could still see that majestic band of blue lingering on the northern horizon. That is one thing I love about Scottish summertime; the long days, and the way that when night finally falls, the darkness is always delectably incomplete. It reminds me of how far north Scotland is. For some reason, I like the idea of being north.

I wonder how far north I would have to drive to see those tantalising blue hues, deeper than azure, brighter than navy. I feel as though they’re calling to me as I continue to drive, pushing my foot down harder and harder on the accelerator. I remember again that I don’t know where I am, or how long I have been driving. I light a cigarette, inhaling deeply as I realise that I don’t care. I don’t care about anything anymore. I don’t care where I’m headed, or what’s behind me.

Reaching down, I put on some music. Screw the radio and its triumphalist propaganda, its pro-establishment bile echoing across the airwaves, laughing at our defeat, stamping on our hopes for change, our aspirations for progress. Since we lost, the news had felt like one big ‘ha ha, we gotcha!’ and I hadn’t the stomach for it anymore. I need to block it out. I need to get away from it. I need to get away from everything.

In my more lucid moments, I had searched the internet for ways to emigrate. I’d learnt all about Australia and Canada and what I’d need to do to go there. I’d daydreamed about jumping on a plane, or indeed a boat, just like many of my Scottish ancestors had undoubtedly done, braving the rough seas in the hope of finding a new life, a better life. Unlike my ancestors, however, I know that there is no promised land, no greener grass on the other side of a vast ocean. The modern world is small, and known, and infinitely disappointing. In the end, I’d shut the lid of my laptop, listening to its short, sharp click as it dawned on me that I might not have the desire to stay, but neither did I have the will to leave.

Yet leaving was exactly what I’d done. I’d jumped in my car and run away, maybe not as far away as Australia, but far enough to put a safe distance between myself and my life and all the people I love.

“I mean loved,” I say aloud. The past tense is definitely more appropriate for some of them now.

I groan as the heavy drumbeat of Muse’s Uprising begins to play. I used to love that song; now I can’t bear to hear it. I recall how he had told me that it was his favourite song. I remember how he took me back to his flat, how we put on some music and drank wine and danced. In my mind’s eye, I see him grow animated as this song begins to play, his singing touchingly out of tune as he bellows the lyrics, air guitar firmly in hand. Decisively, I press the skip button. I can’t stand to be reminded of him right now.

“London Grammar. That’s better,” I say, finding immediate respite in a more peaceful melody. Respite, but not solace. More tears fall. Why can I not stop crying? The road in front becomes a blur once again as I stub out my cigarette. It’s a terrible habit; I shouldn’t have started smoking again. Another bad choice, but it’s the least of my worries now.

I feel my eyelids begin to grow heavy. It’s late; I should find somewhere to pull over and rest. I squint as I look through my windscreen, hoping to find somewhere sensible to stop. The road ahead is winding and narrow, its surface uneven under the wheels of my little car. A country road. Great; I am in the middle of nowhere. In an effort to keep myself from falling asleep, I wind my window down, allowing the cool night air to refresh me. I breathe in deeply, thinking that I can smell the sea; its delicious fragrance fills my car, the scent of salt and seaweed surrounds me.

Metallica’s The Unforgiven. The song is painfully appropriate. I hit the skip button again, my hands shaking as I start to feel chilled by the night air. I begin to long for my warm bed, the comforting familiarity of my soft sheets inviting me into peaceful slumber.

“Rebecca, stop it,” I chastise myself. “You can’t go home. There’s nothing left for you there now.”

Talking to myself. Isn’t that the first sign of madness? I laugh bitterly, sorrowfully. I am right, though. I can’t go home. It isn’t my home anymore. The gentle rustling sound made by the full bin bags flung carelessly on the back seat is a testament to that.

My car’s engine rumbles, a low, incessant hum, like bees busy at work in a swarming hive. I fling the car faster and faster along the undulating road. Live dangerously, die smiling – someone said that to me once. I feel my face crumple once again. I don’t think I want to die. I’m just not sure I want to live, either.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see something run into the path of my speeding car. A deer? A grouse? A person? My heart pounds hard in my chest as I slam my foot on the brake. I can’t kill something, or someone, today. This cannot be how today ends. Today has been horrible enough, without this. I swerve, desperately trying to avoid whichever poor creature has found itself in front of me. There is a terrible thud, followed by a pained squeal. Beneath my hands, I feel my steering wheel become heavy, useless. My tyres screech, twisted and aimless as my car leaves the road. I close my eyes as I feel myself turning, spinning. It is a bizarre sensation, momentary weightlessness followed by crushing pain as my body is shoved against the hard surface of my car. I try to scream but no sound comes out of my mouth. I lick my lips, the metallic flavour of blood overpowering me.

Foolishly, I struggle, trying to free myself. I hit my head against the roof of the car as it crushes down above me – or below me, for in the dark I cannot tell which way round I am. I am dizzy now, the warming sensation of blood as it trickles down my face making me feel simultaneously panicked and drowsy. I begin to slip away, my injured head lulling me to sleep with fantasies of climbing between those warm, soft sheets back home.

My last thought is that he is there beside me, his arms around me as he whispers sweet sentiments in my ear. I see his face, I hear his voice; I feel the rough bristles of his beard against my skin. Then he is gone, and everything fades to black.


Ethersay is available from Amazon now.

The Problem with Time

Last week my copy of the twentieth anniversary edition of Mslexia magazine dropped through the door. Mslexia, for those who haven’t heard of it before, is a quarterly magazine for women who write. I’ve been subscribing to it for some time now after it was recommended to me by a playwright friend of mine, and always find the topical articles, industry insights and showcases of writing enjoyable and often thought-provoking to read.

This quarter’s edition features an article which really resonated with me. It’s entitled ‘The Tests of Time’, and begs an important question. ‘Most women work a double shift, of day job and caring responsibilities,’ the writer Aki Schilz states. ‘So how are we to fit in a third shift of writing?’ Yes, I thought – how, indeed.

After reading the article, I began to think about my own life and the challenges to finding the space and time to write which I experience, and how well (or otherwise) I overcome these. Like so many women who write, I have work and family responsibilities. These responsibilities are never static; instead they evolve as, for example, children grow older and jobs change, and thus my writing practices too have had to adapt.

When I started writing my first novel, The Gisburn Witch, back in late 2013, my children were younger and I worked only at the weekends. This meant that on weekday evenings the children would be in bed by 7pm, leaving me a full evening to write. I wrote a lot in the evenings back then, and thinking back my routine was very fixed and predictable. I also had time in the day when my children were napping or at nursery to grab an hour or two to write. This routine is now a thing of the past: evenings are trickier as my kids go to bed later, often they have evening activities, and indeed I now have a different job with more varied hours and it’s not uncommon for me to be out at work in the evenings as well as during the day.

These days my writing routine has to be more fluid (I’m going to use that word as it sounds better than ‘erratic’). So, what impact does this have on my writing? Well, for one thing, it’s got progressively slower. Those who follow my blog regularly will know that I’m currently working on my forthcoming novel The House at Kirtlebeck End; it’s almost a year since I wrote the first chapter in that story and I’ve still got about another 40,000 words to write. Usually I aim to write a novel in around nine months – this is something I managed to do with A Woman Named Sellers and Ethersay, but in recent times it’s become apparent that this is no longer a realistic target.

I also find that having to be creative about carving out time makes getting into the right frame of mind for writing very hit or miss. There are days when I write a lot, when I feel good about what I’ve put down on the page and when I feel a sense of achievement. And there are other days when after everything else is done and I sit down to write, I either hate what comes out or, more often, I have to accept that it just isn’t happening, that I’m drained and I’ve nothing left with which to create. That’s frustrating and it’s hard because I feel then like I’m the barrier to my own work.

Of course, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Learning to be adaptable means that I’m very good now at writing anywhere. I don’t have to be in my own home or my own room to write, but I can comfortably take my laptop into a busy cafe or noisy soft play and just get on with it. When I’m in the right frame of mind for writing, I’m also better at using the time I do have to write, at getting myself immediately focused on the task of putting words on the page. Tiredness might be a problem, but procrastination isn’t.

On reflection, I think the key for me is to recognise that there are constraints and pressures on my writing time, and that those are things I cannot change, although those constraints themselves will evolve over time. What I can do, however, is value the time I do get, put it to best use, and focus on what I do manage to do, rather than fretting over what I didn’t do. And, on that note, I’m off to do some writing.

An Accidental Week

Happy Saturday! For me at least, it’s been something of a long week, but by no means an uneventful one. It’s also been a bit unlucky. Over the last seven days I’ve managed to hit myself in the face with an I pad resulting in a bit of a colourful right cheekbone (thank goodness for make up), and I’ve got yet another cold which has caused laryngitis. Yesterday evening I lost my voice completely; thankfully my voice seems to be coming back now but squeaking at my family is far from ideal!

Fortunately, my bad luck hasn’t affected my writing, which has been progressing well. This week I hit 65,000 words in my first draft of The House at Kirtlebeck End. I shared this teaser extract on social media:

I hope this has you intrigued! I’m really excited about this book and the more I write, the more I can’t wait to share it with you. I aim to have the first draft finished in the next couple of months.

I also took some time to catch up on how my other books are doing, and noticed that The Gisburn Witch has a new review on Amazon UK. It was lovely to see that a reader has given it five stars and left some really positive comments about the book. It’s no exaggeration to say that good reviews really do make my day.

The Pendle Witch Trials have been getting quite a lot of attention again, generated by big new releases in the literary world such as Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, and television shows such as Channel 5 (UK)’s Digging Up Britain’s Past. I have finally found some time to catch up with this series and watch the episode about the Pendle witches. The episode focused on an archaeological dig to try to locate the remains of the lost Malkin Tower, home of the Device family. I won’t spoil it by telling you if they were successful or not, but it is good to see that after hundreds of years this tragic tale is still attracting interest and attention. If you want to find out more about the TV show, check out the review on the Radio Times website.

I hope you all have a lovely weekend – I’m off to try and get The House at Kirtlebeck End up to 70,000 words before Sunday night! It’s all about setting goals…!

 

A healthy dose of motivation

A few weeks ago, I entered a tweet your pitch competition on Twitter, under the hashtag #XpoNorth. Authors based in Scotland were asked to pitch their work, even if it was incomplete, and told that agents and publishers would be watching. I’m not on Twitter all that often, and this particular contest would have escaped my notice entirely if it hadn’t been for a cursory flick through my news feed and seeing a pitch by a fellow author. Since my current work in progress, The House at Kirtlebeck End, isn’t complete and I’m not at the pitching stage as yet, I had to give a lot of thought as to what to say about my book in so few words! In the end I made two attempts at it, one of which was this:

I tweeted, added my hashtag and promptly forgot all about it, if I’m honest. It was a Friday, the weekend was looming, the kids were home and family life beckoned. Then, a few days later, I logged on to Twitter again and saw this:

I’m not going to lie, readers; my heart sang just a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting carried away. After all a pitch is just an advert, a hook, and not a full manuscript. Heck, I don’t even have a completed manuscript yet. But nonetheless this was interest from the publishing industry. As an author who has been through the ‘submit, wait, hope, silence’ process a good few times, this represents progress.

Above all, it gave me the kick I needed to make me throw everything I’ve got into getting this book finished.

I have, of course, sent a query to the publisher – not an easy task for a book which isn’t written yet, by the way! I’ve yet to hear anything, and I might not hear anything, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. This interest was exactly what I needed to motivate me to get this book written, and if this reply to my tweet ultimately serves no greater purpose than that, I’ll still be happy.

Getting off to a good start…

Happy new year! After a lovely festive break I have finally persuaded myself back into the writing room to get on with some writing, and some blogging. At the end of last year I promised you a post on my 2019 goals, and as this is the first post of the new year, setting out my targets for the months ahead seems like a good place to start.

So, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Goal 1 – Finish writing The House at Kirtlebeck End: I’ve mentioned previously on my blog that progress on my new contemporary novel has been a wee bit slow. However, I ended 2018 with it roughly half-written and have made completing it my top priority for 2019.

Goal 2 – Submit The House at Kirtlebeck End to agents/publishers: Well, what have I got to lose? Having been through the querying process before with a couple of my other books, I know that this can take some time. Nonetheless, I believe in this book and its ability to have a broad appeal, and so I owe it to myself and my work to give it the best possible chance of success. And, if it doesn’t get picked up, I can of course publish it myself.

Goal 3 – Research my next historical novel: I’m in the early stages of doing this, having tentatively decided to try my hand at writing about Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of the nineteenth century Scottish novelist and historian Thomas Carlyle. It’s early days but I would like to have completed my research by the end of the year so that I can begin writing in 2020. Besides, research will keep me busy while I patiently await replies for Goal 2…

Goal 4 – Keep writing and submitting to magazines/journals: I’m keen to build on last year’s successes here, and so will keep writing shorter pieces whenever the mood takes me.

And there you have it. 2019’s goals are, I believe, perfectly achievable but even so, writing and researching is time-consuming and therefore I am going to need to stay focused. With this in mind, I have decided not to set myself a marketing-related goal this year. The past few years have taught me that marketing and book promotion, whilst useful, can be a real draw on an author’s time and energies, and I simply don’t have time to do everything. That’s not to say I won’t still be blogging or posting on social media, but inevitably there will be less promo activity from me. So please, in 2019 more than ever before, if you enjoy one of my books then tell a friend, write a review, share a post, retweet me! Organic reach and good old fashioned recommendations will be more vital for me than ever 😉

In 2018 I did pretty well with my goals, achieving most and getting them all at least underway. Hopefully I can do the same in 2019. Now, back to the writing den I go – The House at Kirtlebeck End isn’t going to write itself…

The Year in Review

Back in January, I set myself five writing goals for 2018 and posted them up on my blog. I decided at the time not to call these resolutions; my logic being that in doing so I would be setting myself up for a fall, that it would be better to aim to do certain things rather than solemnly swear that I would do so.

I suppose you could call that letting myself off the hook in advance! Nonetheless, let’s see how I did, shall we?

Goal 1: Finish the third book in my Witches of Pendle series

Success! As regular readers of my blog will know, not only did I finish writing it, but I published the third instalment The Pendle Witch Girl back in the summer.

Goal 2: Get working on my next contemporary novel

I’m pleased to report that I made some progress on this particular goal during 2018. Currently I have written about 40,000 words for my contemporary story, The House at Kirtlebeck End. Progress has been slower than I would have liked; however, the story is really starting to take shape and work will continue into 2019. So, watch this space…

Goal 3: Start researching for my next historical novel

Ah. I haven’t made much headway with this one, if I’m honest.  This is mainly because my focus this year has been very much on goals 1 and 2, but also because I have struggled a little to decide which historical fiction project to concentrate on. I’m still reading around a couple of potential subjects so at the moment I’m just seeing where the research leads me. I suspect that once I have finished writing The House at Kirtlebeck End I’ll make a choice about which story I want to write next. Whatever happens, I’m ready to get my teeth into something historical for my next book and I feel very excited about a number of different options I have swirling around my brain right now.

Goal 4: Get some short stories into print/online publications

This goal was probably the hardest to achieve because unlike the others, it was out of my control and very much in the hands of the editors of the many magazines and journals out there. As I mentioned when I set this goal for myself, in 2017 I had written a lot of short stories and tried to get them published without much success. I’m pleased to say that 2018 was far more successful in this regard, with 3 of my short stories being published online and one also finding its way into an anthology of dark literature. Check out my other work page for the links to these stories.

Goal 5: Keep talking about my work

Almost 12 months ago I included this goal on my list so that I would be conscious of it, as I recognised that ‘talking up’ my work isn’t exactly a strength of mine. In 2018 I tried hard with this, maintaining an active blog and social media channels, running a successful marketing campaign for the release of The Pendle Witch Girl and participating in a couple of author interviews. Overall, I think I didn’t do too badly with this.

So, in terms of writing goals, I’d say 2018 has been a pretty successful year. Like any occupation, sometimes being a writer can feel like an uphill struggle, and it is easy to focus on the negatives, the things which you haven’t achieved, the rejections and so forth. It is good, therefore, to take stock, to think about what you did manage to do and how far you’ve come in a year. And I have to say, I feel fairly cheerful after writing this! In January I’ll be back with my list of goals for 2019.

 

 

Noughts and Crosses

This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Throughout 2018 there have been events, marches, exhibitions, plays and books to mark this significant anniversary when some, but not all women, finally got the vote. As the year draws to a close, no doubt many of us will pause to reflect on the celebrations, but also the discussions about equality, opportunity, and the ongoing challenges faced by  today’s women, which this anniversary has provoked.

As a historian and a writer, I have always been drawn to consider the position of women throughout the centuries, to examine their lot in life as mothers, daughters, lovers, witches and warriors. As the centenary dawned almost twelve months ago, I found myself drawn once again to the suffragettes. I decided to write a short story which reflects upon their struggle and their legacy, upon the power of the pen and the significance of the simple but hard-won act of making your mark at the ballot box. The piece, entitled Noughts and Crosses, is written as diary extracts from two women living in Edinburgh but almost a hundred years apart; an early twentieth century suffragist, and an early twenty-first century student faced with voting for the first time. I chose this format because as well as commenting on the political, I wanted to convey the empowerment which comes from personal writing and reflection. Noughts and Crosses is a celebration of women’s achievements, but it also reflects that in a time plagued increasingly by cynicism, turmoil and fatigue as established political systems creak and groan against the strain of twenty-first century challenges, the act of voting in itself nonetheless endures as a form of protest.

Noughts and Crosses was my entry for this year’s Costa short story award. A few days ago I found out that it had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful in making the shortlist. (The shortlisted entries can be found here. Please do consider reading them and voting for your favourite in the public poll – you’ll potentially make a writer somewhere very happy!) I felt it was a shame, given the story’s topical nature, for it to gather dust in a drawer forever more, so to speak, so instead, I have decided to publish it here. I really hope that you all enjoy it and I would ask, if you do, please share it on social media and maybe tag a friend who you think would like it too.

Noughts and Crosses

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 16th February 1909:

Yesterday evening was so exhilarating that I can barely keep the smile from creeping on to my lips. I know I must suppress it; H is at home today, locked in the drawing room with his papers and his cigars but nonetheless capable of spotting my unexplained glee from a mile away. He thinks we were at the theatre, Bess and I. No doubt he imagines that I enjoyed an evening of frivolity, a casual spectator at a performance of the latest production to travel north from London. If indeed, he imagines anything at all.

You see, last night confirmed something to me, something that I have long suspected, and now I feel certain is true. Men like H don’t see us, not really. They admire us, they choose us, they marry us. But they don’t see us – not like they see each other. We are the fair sex, the delicate sex. But we are not the serious sex. We are not the sex that is capable of making important decisions, even about matters which affect us first and foremost.

Last night I heard these arguments rebutted, one by one. I admit that I was captivated by the strength with which the case for our suffrage was made. The room was filled to the brim with such inspiring women, all arguing with the force of sheer logic why women such as I should be allowed the vote. Many of the speakers grew very animated, advocating strong action to achieve our aims – chaining ourselves to railings, breaking windows and so forth. I must admit that the mere thought of such disobedience makes my blood run cold. Can you imagine what H would say? 

Nonetheless, I’m already planning my ruse to attend next month’s meeting. I’ll tell H that we’re going to the theatre again. He will think me an enthusiast; he will laugh and tap me under the chin affectionately, just like he always does when he is amused. I don’t like having to lie; sometimes I envy Bess her freedom to do as she pleases, although of course I would not wish to be a widow. But I must lie; better that I am regarded as a supporter of the arts than a supporter of votes for women. Better I keep my face composed and my thoughts to myself. At least I can write it down and this diary, this paper and this ink can testify to what I dare not utter aloud: I believe that a woman should be allowed the vote in all elections, if she is of equivocal status to a man who is already allowed the vote according to the law of this land. I don’t think that is particularly radical. And yet, I know in my heart that H would disagree.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 24th April 2010:

Don’t even know how I’ve got the energy to write anything in here right now. So exhausted. Last night was braw though. Sinead and Mhairi had it all planned out by the time I got to Mhairi’s – into town, drinks then a club then more drinks! All good fun and no boys to complicate things, either. Managed not to run into Callum which was a bonus. Been doing my head in since we split.

Turning 18 is the best! Although today I’m feeling it. Head is pounding. Back to bed for me soon, I think, before I go out for a family dinner. Bit quieter than last night but it’ll be good – Mum says Gran is coming too, which is nice. Gran always has a good story or two about when she was my age. Mum says I should make the most of her, that she’s getting on a bit now and her memory isn’t what it was. Glad I’m only 18, not 80. Better keep those sorts of comments to myself though, or Mum will be once again reminding me that I’m an adult now. Seriously, I’ve been 18 for less than 48 hours and I’ve already lost count of how many times she has said that to me. The best one was yesterday afternoon, when she decided to dump a load of election leaflets in my room. Came through the door, apparently. You can vote now, she tells me, as if I didn’t already know. Next election is in May – well, okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that. Why would I? Not like any of it means anything to me. I dunno. Maybe I’ll have a read later. After I’ve slept some more. So tired.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh,10th October 1909:

The day of the march started well, but ended terribly badly. I am so shaken that I can hardly manage to hold my pen to write this. Nor can I stop the tears tumbling down my cheeks, spilling on to the page and making the ink run, forming messy black pools as deep as my despair. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be surprised; I must have known that this day would come. Indeed, it is a miracle that I managed to keep this secret for so long. Yesterday, however, I took one step too far from the shadows, exposing my involvement for all to see. And H has his spies everywhere, of course, just as any successful man with a care for his reputation should. How foolish of me to think that I would not be seen! How dreadfully foolish.

The day which greeted us was still, sunny and bright; unusual for this time of year but wholly welcome. Bess and I joined the march at Princes Street, slipping through the crowds which had gathered and taking our places behind an enormous, beautifully embroidered banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. As I walked I felt such pride at being part of something so important, to be making my stand for the right of women to vote on the same basis as men. I still believe that this cannot be too much to ask, that it cannot be so scandalous a notion! And yet it must, for when I returned home later a voice greeted me, one so grave that I thought for a moment that there must have been a death in the family. That evening there was a death, of sorts; the death of my spirit as it was crushed by the authority bestowed upon my husband’s sex. I was reminded at once of what it means to have no rights, no rights at all.

Today I am confined to my room like a reprimanded child. Bess is prohibited from visiting, H having satisfied himself that I have been led astray by a wicked widow whose lack of a husband has caused her descent into wild fanaticism. So I sit here, pressing my pen down hard as I write these words, my tears evaporating into anger at being robbed of those things that I hold dear: my cause, and my friend. The worst of it all is that I am punished so harshly for doing so little. I was a coward who went to a few meetings and walked in a procession. I broke no laws, smashed no property, set no fires. Now I sit and I wish that I had done, that I had given my all. Instead, yesterday was my final, feeble act; I dare not do anything else for our good cause ever again.

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 1st May 2010:

Not managed to scribble down a single thought this week. College work is just immense; two assessments and an essay to complete and no end in sight. At least it’s Saturday.

Mum is doing my head in about this voting thing! Keeps asking if I’ve read the leaflets yet, have I got any questions, do I want to chat about it…total nightmare! She even got Gran joining in at my birthday dinner last week. I think when she was younger my gran must have been a feminist – she came out with all this stuff about the fight for equality and women’s rights. Reckon that’s where Mum gets a lot of her ideas from, too. Honestly, I had both of them on my case. Women fought and died for your right to vote, Gran says to me, like I didn’t know, like I never went to school and learnt these things. So I told her, nicely of course because she’s my gran, that surely if they died for my right to vote, they died for my right not to vote, as well? Surely it’s the choice that matters? That shut them both up. Honestly, absolute nightmare.

Anyway, I did have a look at those leaflets. Can’t say that any of them were very inspiring. Even if I did want to vote, I’ve no idea who I would vote for. Still think my first instinct was correct – waste of time, so don’t bother.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 12th August 1914

It has been some time since I have written down my thoughts. In truth I have become very good at avoiding the practice of thinking as much as possible, letting life glide past me while I watch, a passive observer at the back of the crowd. It seemed easier that way; easier for H, easier for me.

Last week, however, everything changed. Britain is going to war, and it looks like H is going, too. He has to do his bit, so he tells me. He says that with so many men going away, it is likely that women will also have to help, that I must be prepared for some of the servants choosing to leave and taking whatever wartime work presents itself. Life will change, he keeps telling me, but it will only be for a little while. Everyone expects that the war will be over by Christmas.

I hope it is over quickly. I can’t bear the thought of being left alone in this house, especially with a baby on the way. I haven’t told H yet. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I know he’ll be so happy with me, and I can’t bear his delight when I feel so unhappy with myself. I will tell him before he leaves.

The news of war has affected the cause, too. There will be no more marches, no more action; it has all ground to a halt. Part of me is relieved, I think. The reports over the last few months have been so upsetting, with more and more women finding themselves arrested and charged with increasingly dangerous acts. This summer one woman even tried to interrupt the King and Queen’s visit to Perth by running towards the royal car! They say that once in prison those women who refuse to eat are force-fed, and that Perth prison is one of the worst places for this practice. The very thought makes my stomach churn. At least this war has put an end to that, but on the other hand, where does this leave the cause? I hope it is not forgotten forever.  

 

Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 6th May 2010:

Well, I went and I did it. Still can’t believe it. Until yesterday I was sure I wasn’t going to bother to vote. Must have read those leaflets hundreds of times – even went on the internet to try to decide who to vote for, and came away even more confused. Why can’t politics just be straightforward? Seems like riddles to me. Riddles and promises which aren’t kept.

Something about what my gran said kept bothering me, though. Kept hearing her voice going round and round in my head, talking about the suffragettes and everything. That made me think that not going at all seemed like a bit of a waste. So, I voted – well, sort of. I made my mark at least. Several marks, actually. I still didn’t know who to vote for, so I went to the polling station and I put a zero in each of the boxes – a series of noughts all in a column down the page. Then I put my paper in the ballot box and left. I know it doesn’t count as a vote, but I’ve been and I’ve had my say anyway. That’s what women fought for, after all – the right to a voice, not to say any particular thing with it.

Mum’s just glad I went and voted. I haven’t told her the full story, of course. Keep thinking about the power of the pen now. Started off thinking that my noughts were just symbols of my cluelessness but now they feel like a protest – my protest against how rubbish I think it all is, carved out in ink. Weird thought. Still not telling Mum though.

 

Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 14th December 1918

Tonight my heart is so full of joy that I think it might burst. Even the sorrows and horrors of the last four years cannot dampen my happiness. All that hard work and strife, all that bravery and determination; it was all worth it.

I voted today. Such wonderful words! I voted. I went with Bess; we’re both on our own now, reunited since she returned from her Land Army work. She has changed a great deal; she is so worldly-wise, and so strong! But she is still such a dear friend. Little Edith came too, wrapped up warm as she skipped along to the polling place. I showed her what to do, how to put a cross against your chosen candidate and how to put your paper in the ballot box. She didn’t really understand, despite my efforts to explain how important it was. But she will understand one day. She will understand what I, what all of us did for our daughters, how significant that little mark made in ink actually is.

On my way home I thought about H, just as I do every day. It’s hard, knowing that he will never come home, that he will never see Edith grow up. I know that he was never in favour of votes for women, but I like to think that he was watching as I voted, that he was proud of me. I thought too about all the women who weren’t able to vote today. There is still more to do in that regard, especially since all men now have the vote. All men – I wonder what H would say about that! It’s strange how this war threw everything up into the air and we are still grappling around, trying to gather the pieces. H was right; life did change, and I feel certain that it will keep changing. Perhaps by the time Edith votes, all women will be voting alongside her! I can’t think of anything more wonderful.