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.

Travels, and trying

This year, a lot of things haven’t gone to plan. I know that’s the case for most people – there were things we were meant to do which didn’t happen, and things we ended up doing which we could have never foreseen. It’s an understatement to say that 2020 has been quite some year – for me, like so many others, it’s been filled with disruption, worries, cancelled plans, and a pervasive sense that I’ve lost control over my daily life.

And yet, it hasn’t been all bad.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to go on holiday for a week. It wasn’t the holiday we’d planned – that was an east Med cruise, booked for July and cancelled by Covid. However, it was a holiday which has always been on our ‘to do’ list, and with tourism in Scotland reopening, we jumped at the chance to get away and visit the islands of Mull, Iona, Staffa, and Lunga. I am so glad we did – it was a week of breathtaking scenery, fresh air, plenty of walking and lots of wildlife.

Kilvickeon Beach, Isle of Mull

That’s not to say everything felt entirely normal, and the holiday didn’t always go completely to plan – a reminder, perhaps, that the pandemic casts a long shadow and it isn’t going to fade any time soon. Indeed, I learnt a number of things last week. One was that, as someone who in ordinary times finds busy and/or unfamiliar public places anxiety-inducing, I find the mask/sanitiser/social distancing/one way system merry-go-rounds quite exhausting. A second thing was that, after so many months of having their activities and interactions limited, my children are far less resilient against the disappointment of a locked-up playground than they once were. And a third thing was that catching your face-mask on your cartilage piercing will result in a slightly ripped and very sore ear.

Every day is a school day. Even when school has been shut since March.

Aros Park, Isle of Mull

So, now I’m home and it’s time to settle back down into some sort of regular routine for however long that may last. School starts again next week, as does work, and I have a book to finish researching and start writing. Lots to try and do. For today I thought I’d leave you with a final thing I learnt on my holidays, which is that I really like Taylor Swift’s new album. Not my usual taste in music, but it is very good, and I like this song in particular. In fact, I think it could become my anthem for 2020. After all, despite the pandemonium this year has brought, as the song goes – at least I’m trying.

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.

Crazy Times and Costume Dramas

‘Mummy,’ my daughter said to me this morning, ‘can you tell me about Henry VIII’s wives?’ She was just up, and had had her nose buried in one of Lucy Worsley’s historical novels for younger readers (which are brilliant, by the way).

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘Any wife in particular?’

She thought about it for a moment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Really just all of them.’

Left to right: Henry’s first three wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This thirst for historical knowledge has been a lockdown development, and one which makes me so happy. I can’t describe my joy at having another history enthusiast under our roof! Before I go any further, a wee disclaimer: this blog post is a positive one, but that is not to say that this whole experience has been great for us as a family. I want to stress that it hasn’t; sure, we’ve had nice moments, but all of us in our own way are sore at the loss of many aspects of our lives. I want to say that because it’s true and I think it’s important to be truthful during this. It is too easy to gloss over our lives on the internet, to show only the shiny bits. But I know that doing so can make others feel worse about their own experiences which might not be so shiny, and I wouldn’t want to do that. So, if you’re reading this and not feeling great right now, know that you’re not on your own. I think this is a crazy, worrying, up-and-down time for many.

Hopefully today’s blog post will be a cheerful read. Over these past few weeks, since our evenings have no longer been crammed with activities, my daughter and I have been on a historical or ‘costume’ drama adventure together. Historical dramas have always been an enthusiasm of mine, and I was more than happy to revisit them with her. If you’ve never watched any, I highly recommend that you do, especially at the moment. They are wonderful pieces of escapism and there is virtually always a happy ending. In fact, the other day a friend drew my attention to an article in The Guardian which showed I wasn’t alone in rekindling my enthusiasm. Right now many of us, it seems, are seeking solace in romances set in centuries past.

Close-up photo of Jane Austen books, by Leah Kelley. Source: Pexels.com.

Together my daughter and I have worked our way through the Jane Austen catalogue: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma, with Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion still patiently awaiting us. We’ve also ventured a little further into the nineteenth century with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Of them all, so far Pride & Prejudice has been a firm favourite – I suspect, in part, because of the minimal amounts of kissing. Ten year olds hate kissing, apparently. She also felt that Jane Eyre had the happiest ending simply because of the all the hardships she had overcome. A refreshing take on things, indeed!

These dramas have prompted some great discussions along the way. North & South, for example, led to a conversation about conditions in the mills and the tensions between the workers and their employers. After watching Jane Eyre, we talked about the bildungsroman genre and the Byronic hero. And after so much Jane Austen, my girl is becoming an expert on Regency society and behaviours!

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It hasn’t been an easy time, but these evenings spent indulging in historical dramas have given us something to smile about. And, I think, they’ve taught my daughter a great deal. If, in years to come, she becomes either a historian or literature scholar, I think in a strange way we will have the lockdown period to thank for it. Crazy times, indeed.

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!

Somewhere in Between

Today I’m delighted to share my short story, Somewhere in Between, which has been published in issue 1 of Gutter Voices. Gutter Voices is a brand new online literary magazine showcasing some great writing, so please do check it out here!

In Somewhere in Between an elderly woman reflects on a diminished world in this tale about love and the power of memory. I really hope you enjoy it – please feel free to leave a comment below.



A Message from the Former Rulers of Planet Earth

Hi folks! It’s been a busy time, and today I’ve got a couple of things to share with you. The first is the news that one of my short stories will be published in issue one of Gutter Voices, a new literary magazine. The magazine launches on 15th March, and I will share the story with you then!

The second is a poem. Recently I completed the poetry section of my creative writing course, and thought that today I would share a poem I wrote during those weeks of study. I found that a lot of what I wrote revolved around the natural world and, in particular, climate change. I also wrote quite a few poems in the voice of various animals. This poem came to me whilst sitting in traffic one morning, watching some magpies swooping around a nearby field. I hope you enjoy it.

Message from the Former Rulers of Planet Earth

I see you.
Stuck, stationery in your metal box.
Those lights are dazzling
but I see you,
row upon row of you,
and yet you call us flocks.

Did you know, we used to be bigger?
All fearsome faces
and tyranny and teeth.
The earth you line up on
was our dominion
until the fires came.

Now I see you:
your smoke, your flames,
the liminal space you occupy
but are too blinded to see.
I see your metal boxes in the sky
and I wonder when you’ll grow wings.

Perhaps never.
Perhaps you’ll stay tethered
like the biggest of us;
those most ferocious,
now fossils
pressed down into dust. 


Book Review: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

“The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds”

Mary Barton, the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, is beautiful but has been born poor. Her father fights for the rights of his fellow workers, but Mary wants to make a better life for them both. She rashly decides to reject her lover Jem, a struggling engineer, in the hope of marrying the rich mill-owner’s son Henry Carson and securing a safe future. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself hopelessly torn between them. She also discovers an unpleasant truth – one that could bring tragedy upon everyone, and threatens to destroy her.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s debut novel is my first classic novel of the year, having set myself a goal of reading more classic literature, particularly focusing on nineteenth century novelists. I must say that prior to reading this I was already a fan of Gaskell’s work, having greatly enjoyed reading North and South, and watching the TV adaptations of both this and Cranford.

Mary Barton is set in early Victorian Manchester, a grimy, industrial place, where life is hard and poverty is rife. Those familiar with North and South will recognise the early emergence of similar themes: the plight of the poor, the apparent indifference of the wealthy, and the class tensions bred in large part by the socio-economic precarity faced by all. As in her subsequent novel, Mrs Gaskell addresses these overarching themes with sympathy and understanding, giving them context through her setting and relevance to her characters, thus demonstrating both their complexity and dire consequences.

The novel is written with a third-person omniscient narrative voice, a highly fashionable choice of narrative in Mrs Gaskell’s era. As a result, the narrator knows all of the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, as well as their pasts, presents and futures. For modern readers, used to the more limited omniscience and the subtleties of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ which are common traits in modern literature, this can take a bit of getting used to. However, the narrative style doesn’t detract from the dramatic elements of the story, as the novel is well structured to ensure that the reader doesn’t learn everything all at once.

The title character, Mary, is a well-drawn and sympathetic heroine, who develops through the novel from a naive girl who makes some youthful mistakes into a brave young woman who, despite facing impossible choices, determines to chart the correct course. Like most of Gaskell’s characters Mary isn’t perfect, which serves to make her more endearing. The supporting cast around her is also wonderful, and I particularly warmed to Mary’s friend, Margaret, and her grandfather, Job Legh. At times I found Mary’s two love interests, Henry and Jem, a little two-dimensional; Henry’s sudden death means that his feelings towards Mary are never fully explored, whilst Jem is absent for great swathes of the novel, only really coming into his own towards the end. I would have liked to have known them both better, but overall this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Finally, the dialogue is rich and authentic, filled with wonderful dialect words and expressions from the period. As a Lancastrian it was a joy to read; I could hear those Mancunian accents clearly in my head. For those less familiar with northern English dialects, the public domain edition I purchased included a glossary of terms embedded in the text, which at times proved useful.

A compelling read which clearly evokes nineteenth century northern life. Five stars.

Short Pieces and Classic Fiction

Happy Monday to you all. It’s still January, the loooongest month of the year (well, not technically, but you know what I mean). It’s dark outside, and it’s cold, and it keeps threatening to snow (yuck).

But on the bright side, the weather is a perfect reason to stay indoors with a good book, or working on a bit of writing. And, so…

What am I writing?

At the moment, mostly poetry. I’m on to Part 3 of my Open University course now, and it’s all about lines, stanzas and iambic pentameters. I have to admit to being quite nervous about starting this part of the course. It’s been a very long time since I crafted much poetry, and I’ve never felt as confident with it as I do with prose. However, so far, I have surprised myself, and I’m very much enjoying it. With my next assignment due in a few weeks I am knuckling down to a poetry project; something a little bit supernatural, and a little bit Byronic. Loving it.

I’ve spent some time recently having a look over my writing from the past few years. Aside from the novels I have written, I have realised that I have a wealth of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. In fact I have so much that I’m now giving serious consideration to polishing up some of these pieces into a collection of fiction. So, watch this space – there might be a publication from me in 2020, after all.

What am I reading?

Currently I’m reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell is one of my favourite nineteenth century novelists, and has been ever since I read North and South. One of my aims this year is to expand my repertoire of classic fiction, as well continuing to read widely across modern genres. As a result, the top of my TBR list is looking pretty eclectic right now, with everything from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to CJ Sansom’s Tombland, to The Dead Girl’s Stilettos by Quinn Avery. As they say, variety is the spice of life!

I’d love to hear what you’re all reading, and any recommendations of great books you’ve read over the winter. Please feel free to comment below!