Category Archives: Writing

Shifting Sands

I’m aware that it’s already February and I haven’t actually posted anything on here so far this year. To say it’s been a rough time would be a bit of an understatement, with the most recent twists and turns of the Covid situation affecting the deadlines I’d set and plans I’d made with regards to my writing. I find myself often comparing these circumstances to shifting sands; after eleven months I am pretty disorientated by it all and without a doubt this has an impact upon my creativity and my output. However, perhaps the less said about that, the better.

I am still writing whenever time and other commitments allow, and making some slow but steady progress on this novel. I’m now writing the final third, which is probably my favourite part as all the seeds scattered and left to grow in the first two thirds bloom beautifully as everything comes together. Or at least, that’s the general idea! I am very much looking forward to introducing you to my characters, of whom I’ve become very fond, as they sleuth their way around Auld Reekie in spring 1803, during that brief reprieve between the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars. Hopefully you won’t have too long to wait.

As all my available writing time is focused on my novel, I haven’t been able to write the short pieces for submission to magazines and other publications that I would normally produce. However, I do have quite a back catalogue of work now, and one of my intentions after finishing this novel is to review it all, potentially with a view to producing a short story collection. This will depend on how this year progresses, but it is something I am giving some thought to.

So, just a short update from me to say that I am still here and I’m still writing! Hopefully I will have more news in the coming weeks, but if I am quiet it’s because I’m still in the thick of early nineteenth century Edinburgh, trying to solve a mystery.

Spotlight Part 5: The House at Kirtlebeck End

And so, readers, we have reached the final book spotlight. The House at Kirtlebeck End is my most recent novel, published in 2019.

Cover for The House at Kirtlebeck End

The House at Kirtlebeck End is a dual narrative story which moves between the 1970s and present day as a young woman, Harry, and her grandmother, Eleanor, tell their respective stories. At the centre of the tale is an old house, filled with secrets and a murky family history which begs to be uncovered. In terms of genre, the book is undoubtedly a paranormal mystery and a ghost story, and is probably the spookiest thing I have written to date!

Weaving a story across two different timelines and from two different characters’ point of view was quite a challenge. I began by writing both narratives in turn, following the structure of the book. However, about a third of the way in, I found it more productive to focus on one character’s story at a time, completing one before returning to the other. I wrote Eleanor’s story, set in 1972, first; this made most sense to me as this timeline was the pivot upon which Harry’s various discoveries hung while she tried to solve her family’s mysteries. Nonetheless it was tricky to ensure that things came together, that the pacing was correct and that the chapters fell into the right order. A large part of the editing was a painstaking process of ensuring that it made sense, and that nothing was discovered by Harry before being revealed to the reader by Eleanor.

Promotional poster

The story itself was inspired by a Christmas holiday spent in southern Scotland a few years ago. We stayed in a big old Victorian house in a tiny village in the countryside. It was a truly beautiful place, not at all forbidding like the house at Kirtlebeck End. Nonetheless, it was full of interesting features, from the sweeping wooden staircase, to the antique iron towel rail in the bathroom. It got me thinking about the things that the house would have seen over the years, and the stories it held within its walls. I found myself wondering what the house might tell me, if it could speak. The idea stayed with me, and developed eventually into this ghostly tale which takes place in an old house, sitting alone at the end of a fictional village I named Kirtlebeck. Given my love of the Gothic, it’s little wonder things ended up this way!

Spotlight Part 4: The Pendle Witch Girl

In today’s spotlight is my fourth book, and the last instalment in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, The Pendle Witch Girl. This book is also my only novella to date, and was published in 2018.

The Pendle Witch Girl cover

In the spotlight post I did for A Woman Named Sellers, I mentioned that originally I wanted that book to cover Jennet Device/Sellers’ whole life, but found early on that to do so would have made the book far too cumbersome. So, after publishing that book I decided that I would write one final story, covering Jennet’s childhood and her pivotal (and tragic) role in the 1612 trials. Of all my Witches of Pendle books, this one draws closest to events leading up to and during the trials in Lancaster in 1612. Whereas The Gisburn Witch operates on the periphery of the Lancashire aspect of the story, The Pendle Witch Girl concerns the character who was at the centre of it.

Release day promotional poster

It was quite a challenge to tackle such an infamous story, particularly in trying to understand some of the accusations of witchcraft which arose and their context, and to represent those convincingly in fiction. I also had to bear in mind that the key primary source for the trial, The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster written by court clerk Thomas Potts, contains its own biases, as it approaches events from the authorities’ point of view. Therefore, a good deal of reading between the lines was required.

When writing, I worked hard to avoid falling into the trap of ‘explaining away’ the superstitions and alleged magical events, or of putting too much of a modern slant upon them. Instead, I tried to get into the minds of my characters, to see the world through their eyes and to do justice to their stories. It’s important to remember, I think, that the accused and their accusers believed in witchcraft just as fervently as the authorities, and therefore saw events and the actions of neighbours, friends and even family through this lens. I also had to remember that I was writing from the point of view of a child, whose view of the world was not only steeped in superstition but also her immaturity and her own family dynamic. That dynamic, I felt, was key to understanding why she did what she did, and why events unfolded so dreadfully in the summer of 1612.

More information about The Pendle Witch Girl can be found here.

Spotlight Part 3: Ethersay

In today’s spotlight is my third novel, and first contemporary story, Ethersay, which was published in 2017. For me this novel marked a real shift in my creativity, as I went from re-imagining times and people long past, to crafting a story about modern characters who were entirely my own invention.

In 2016, around the time I was finishing A Woman Named Sellers, I had a really strange dream about a woman waking up on a beach with no recollection of what happened or how she got there. This, it turned out, was the seed of an idea which became Ethersay. After a lot of thought, I decided to set part of the narrative during the independence referendum here in Scotland in 2014 – a momentous, exciting time which provided my protagonist with just the right amount of upheaval and drama to propel her story along.

Of all my books, Ethersay is probably the hardest to describe or place in any sort of category. On one level it is about political activism, but that really isn’t the whole story – it’s also a mystery, with some strange twists and turns, and with plenty of suspense. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I’d say that ultimately it’s about a young woman having to face up to her past and its consequences.

Ethersay is also my only novel to have a book trailer. I worked with the very talented Stewart Kerr Brown of The Imagination Engine to create this film, which stars Jodi Findlay. We had an absolute ball filming this in Fife, Scotland.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about how my experiences during the referendum inspired this novel.

You can find out more about Ethersay and where to buy it here.

Spotlight Part 2: A Woman Named Sellers

Last week I started a series of ‘spotlight’ posts, focusing on each of my novels in the order I wrote them, and talking a little about their subjects and themes, what inspired me to write them, and so on. In today’s spotlight it’s my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle trilogy, A Woman Named Sellers.

Published in 2016, A Woman Named Sellers picks up the Pendle witches’ story twenty years after the first trials. It follows the story of former trial child witness Jennet Device, now living as Jennet Sellers. Following the death of her father, Jennet moves to a new village to live with relatives she hardly knows. She tries hard to carve out a new life for herself, and finds solace in new friendships, particularly with her fellow newcomer William Braithwaite, a stonemason from Cumberland. However, Jennet’s past continues to haunt her, and with witch hunters once again prowling the Pendle countryside, she’s not sure if she can ever be safe.

After writing The Gisburn Witch, I really wanted to focus on the story of the other, arguably more famous Jennet in the Pendle witch tale. Originally I planned to cover her whole life story but realised that her childhood and adult tales were too lengthy and complex to put into one novel. So, I decided to focus instead on her adulthood and possible involvement in the 1634 trials. Due to some of the gaps and contradictions in the evidence, we can’t know for certain that the Jennet Device named in the 1634 trial records was the same as the Jennet Device of 1612, although, on balance, it seems likely. I was really captured by the notion that her tragic life probably did come full circle – from witness to accused.

When I was writing this book, I was also really interested in reflecting some of the changes going on in wider society in the 1630s. These were the years leading up to the civil wars, and society was changing – we can see that in the shifting attitudes to witch-hunting, but also in the religious landscape, with many new Christian groups emerging. One of the major characters in the book, William Braithwaite, is a Grindletonian, a sect which sprang up in the northern village of Grindleton during these years. Groups like the Grindletonians were really very radical, placing emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, rejecting the need to be ordained to preach, and believing that accepting God’s spirit was all that was required to attain salvation. William is one of the few fictional characters in the story, and to this day he remains one of my favourites. Some readers have also commented on how much they liked him, and a few have even asked if I’d consider writing a spin-off about him!

The 1634 trials are less well known that those in 1612, which is a shame as they are fascinating in their own right. Indeed, the echoes of 1612 are all there – child witnesses, tensions between neighbours, outlandish accusations, and the persistence of witch-hunting zeal in the north of the country. The results, however, were somewhat different from 1612. You can read more about the 1634 trials and Jennet’s possible involvement here.

More information about A Woman Named Sellers, including where to buy, is available here.

Spotlight: The Gisburn Witch

As the year tumbles towards its conclusion, I’ve found myself in a reflective mood. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot to reflect on this year, and not a whole lot of it has been good! However, in recent weeks I have been staying positive (mostly) and busy, working on the first draft of my next novel, and really enjoying the experience of delving into a different world which writing it affords. After all, 2020 could not be a better excuse for a little escapism, could it?

I’ve also found myself looking back on the books I’ve written and the things I’ve achieved so far. It is good to take stock once in a while, to look at your work and to think ‘wow, I did that’. I began writing my first novel in 2014, published it in 2015 and I haven’t really stopped since. As it is almost the end of another year, I thought it would be fun to shine a spotlight on my books in the order I wrote them, and say a little bit about them – what they’re about, what inspired me to write them, and so on.

So, in today’s spotlight is my debut novel, The Gisburn Witch.

Published in 2015, The Gisburn Witch is a historical fiction novel which tells the story of Jennet Preston, one of the so-called Pendle witches, who found herself caught up in the trials in Lancashire in 1612. I’d always had an interest in the Pendle witch trials, and wrote my university dissertation on the subject. Jennet had particularly drawn my interest as she was geographically separate from the other accused, living in Gisburn in the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands. She was tried separately, too, in York rather than Lancaster. I really wanted to dig deep into Jennet’s story, to understand how she ended up being accused of witchcraft. The Gisburn Witch is my imagining of that story.

In 2016, I wrote an article for Edinburgh University’s Dangerous Women Project, all about Jennet and the other ‘witches’ and some of the aspects of their lives and stories which made them vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. You can find it here.

You can find out more about The Gisburn Witch and where you can get a copy here.

Next time in the spotlight will be my second novel, and the second book in the Witches of Pendle series, A Woman Named Sellers.

Writing in the Time of Covid

As we reach the final quarter of the year, I think most of us will be looking back on what a difficult time 2020 has been. Each of us will have had our own challenges and hardships over these preceding months. I saw a meme on social media earlier this week which captured this sentiment perfectly – in essence, it said that though we are all going through the same storm, we aren’t all the same boat. It’s perhaps a statement of the obvious to say that this situation we’re living through touches every part of daily life. For me, it has undoubtedly affected my writing, both in terms of my ability to find the time and space to write, but also how I go about developing a story. One area which has definitely been affected is the way in which I do my research.

From pexels.com.

As some of you will know, my latest project is set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The seeds of this story were sown around nine months ago, during my second Open University assignment. I wrote a short story about a psychic sleuth who, having seen a genteel young woman’s dreadful fate during a leaf reading, tries to intervene with unexpected and rather creepy results. I loved the sleuth so much that I knew I had to write a novel about her – indeed, a series of novels about her. At the time I looked forward enthusiastically to the research I’d be able to do – as anyone who has visited Edinburgh will know, it is a deeply historical and atmospheric place, with a wealth of landmarks and museums to visit.

Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh. From pexels.com.

And then Covid came along.

At the time of writing, things are beginning to open back up but are by no means ‘normal’, meaning that some of the visits I’d planned, particularly to museums, can’t go ahead. Fortunately prior to Covid I had been to some of the places on my list, notably The Georgian House (which is just wonderful, by the way), and as someone living in the nearby Lothians I am broadly familiar with the city. But there were gaps in my knowledge, particularly in understanding how Edinburgh would have looked c.1800 (trust me, even seemingly old cities actually change an awful lot).

Thank goodness for books, and of course, the internet.

I thought today I’d share with you a couple of the absolute gems I’ve come across online during my lockdown research. The first is the Edinburgh World Heritage website, which contains a wealth of information about the old and new towns in the city. This is a really good starting point for anyone interested in the city’s history, and for finding interesting bits of information about individual streets and buildings. The second is the Maps Section of the National Library of Scotland website. I think I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent poring over eighteenth century town plans, cross referencing streets and just generally building a mental image of the Edinburgh my characters inhabited.

North Bridge, Edinburgh, c.1809, from Wikimedia Commons.

In these past months, the internet has been an invaluable resource. If it was hard to imagine life without it before Covid, it seems impossible now. As an historical fiction writer, its importance to my research over these past months can’t be overstated. Quite simply, my latest project wouldn’t be happening without it.

The Immersion Method

Recently I was reading an interview with Hilary Mantel in BBC History Magazine. Mantel, who is currently one of the most famous and celebrated historical fiction writers, was talking about her approach to her research, and referred to the need to ‘absorb’ the period you’re writing about. I found myself nodding along with this, as it’s so true: when you want to write a story set in the past, it is important to not only understand it, but to visualize it as clearly as you see your own world around you. It’s not enough to know its facts on an academic level, although of course, these are important for accuracy. You have to be able to see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. To do that, I think that you have to breathe it in. You have to let it get right under your skin.

From pexels.com.

Depending on the specific period or context you’re writing about, this can be hard to do. When I wrote about the Pendle witches, I was always conscious that the sort of evidence which aids vivid recreations of settings and characters was scant. I had the awe-inspiring presence of Pendle Hill and Lancaster Castle to work with, but key places like Westby Hall and Malkin Tower are long gone. Furthermore, the women accused left no written record of their own – the sole primary sources available were the court records, steeped as they are in bureaucratic officialdom (and no small amount of propaganda). Interestingly, though, it was this sense of the victims’ lack of voice which made me all the more keen to re-imagine their stories, and to tell them from their point of view.

Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘The Lancashire Witches’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, I’m researching for my sixth novel, set in late Georgian Edinburgh. Just as I did when preparing to write about the Pendle witches, I am reading widely and exploring the period. In short, I am immersing myself in it. And wow, what a lot there is to be immersed in! Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century Edinburgh, standing at the crossroads where Enlightenment and Romanticism meet, is a richly recorded and well-preserved place. The source materials, the books to read and the places to visit, are quite simply vast.

The ongoing pandemic means that getting out and about to visit key parts of the city hasn’t been possible yet, although I’m fortunate to know Edinburgh pretty well and have visited many of its museums and historic sites in the past. Until I can refresh my memory, however, there is plenty to be looking at in terms of online resources and books. I have made some truly fabulous discoveries, from the late eighteenth century town plans available through the National Library of Scotland, to the autobiography of a lady called Elizabeth Fletcher, a writer who lived in Edinburgh’s New Town at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Edinburgh. Image from pexels.com.

And to keep my mind firmly on the period, I’m busy re-reading some of my favourite Jane Austen novels and listening to Beethoven!

Some of the information I’m gathering will come in useful directly for the novel. A lot of it, though, is important simply because it enriches my understanding of the period, its people, what their lives were like, and how they felt about the world they inhabited. If I’m going to successfully evoke the setting and create some authentic characters, then this knowledge will be really, really important.

Online Events and Writing Time

I’ve not been very good at keeping my blog updated in recent times, so apologies for that. In truth, the competing demands of work and home educating my children placed upon me by lockdown have meant that I’ve had very little time to spend on my writing. However, this week is the last week of term, and the coming holidays hold the promise of some respite and, hopefully, some writing time. So I’m starting as I mean to go on, with a blog update on what I have managed to do recently, and what’s coming next…

Noir at the Bar

Earlier in June I took part in an online author event with Noir at the Bar, Edinburgh. It was great to go along to this and to talk about The House at Kirtlebeck End, and to hear from lots of other authors about their work. If you didn’t catch it on the livestream, you can watch it on YouTube here:

The Long and the Short of it

Given my severely limited writing time, short stories have been the order of the day (or past three months, I suppose). I produced quite a few pieces of work during my Open University course which I’m editing, and along with other pieces I’ve written, I intend to submit to some competitions and anthologies over the summer. It’s been a while since I put anything out on submission, so it’s time to get back into it.

Image from Pexels.

Book Six

Those who watched me on Noir at the Bar will have heard me mention my next project, the as yet untitled book number six. It’s very early days but I have started researching for this book, a historical mystery novel set in late Georgian Edinburgh. The idea for this book was borne out of a short story I wrote for my Open University course, and I’m really excited to get started on it! I will keep you all updated…

Image from Wiki Commons.

Lockdown Life

Happy Easter, folks! It’s a bit of a strange one this year, but life has been pretty strange for several weeks now. I hope you’re all staying well and sane during this unsettling time. I thought I’d check in with a few updates from lockdown life…

The House at Kirtlebeck End Offer

Like a lot of people, I will be getting through this period with the help of good books. More time at home does, after all, mean more reading time – at least, that’s the theory. With this in mind I decided to reduce the Kindle price of my newest release, The House at Kirtlebeck End, to 99p / 99c on Amazon UK and US. Head over here to get your copy.

Writing in Retreat

Over the past few days I’ve seen lots of ads online for virtual writers’ retreats. What a wonderful idea! Sadly I’m finding that this lockdown life does not agree with my creativity. Between homeschooling my kids, managing my own day job and generally adjusting to the bustle of a 24/7 full house, I’m not stringing many sentences together just now. I’ve got my final Creative Writing assignment due at the end of the month, so I am trying very hard to ‘freewrite’ my way to inspiration. Unfortunately, everything I write seems to wind back to this horrible situation we’re in which, frankly, is the last thing I want to write about.

Books, Music & Walks

Fortunately, there are those daily glimmers of light which keep me going. I am reading, and have read, some great books. My last excellent read was The Year without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd. Set in 1816 during the summer which was blighted by the Mount Tambora volcanic eruption, the novel features the compelling and hard-hitting stories of a handful of characters and how their lives were affected. The scope of the story is impressive, spanning many lives and a number of continents.

I’m now reading Tombland, the latest Shardlake novel by CJ Sansom. Running at over 800 pages it is an absolute tome, so I may or may not finish it before this lockdown ends! Away from novels I’m also making an effort to read more modern poetry, and have recently picked up a copy of the collection Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times. Pretty suitable reading just now, I’d say.

I’m grateful also for some wonderful new music which has arrived in 2020. I have three new albums on rotation just now: Myrkur’s Folksange, Delain’s Apocalypse and Chill, and Nightwish’s Human. :II: Nature. And when I’m not reading or listening to music, I’ve been making the most of the good weather and discovering new walks around my local area with my family. It’s amazing how in the bustle of everyday life we often overlook those things which are right under our noses. If anything good comes from this, it’s that I’ve gained an appreciation of how much nature there is, right there on my doorstep.

Best wishes and Easter blessings to you all. Stay safe!