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…

Favourite Books of 2018

With 2018 fast drawing to a close, I thought that today I would reflect upon the books I’ve read during the last twelve months and select my favourites. This year, for the first time, I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, setting myself the modest target of reading twenty books in a year. This doesn’t sound like much, but as a lot of writers will tell you, when you’re working hard on your own stories it can be tough to find the time to read a lot! In the end I exceeded my target, reading 24 books between January and December. With a little over a week to go until the new year and a hefty non-fiction book underway, it seems unlikely that I’ll complete anything else before Hogmanay. So, without any further ado, here are my favourite books of 2018!

Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Genre: Historical Fiction

Blurb: Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

Rating: Five stars. An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Read my full review  here.

A Case of Serendipity by KJ Farnham

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: Ruth Bateman is at her wit’s end. If Bucky’s Beans doesn’t stop spamming her phone with discount codes for frou-frou java concoctions, she’s going to flip. After multiple failed attempts to unsubscribe, Ruth takes to the company’s Facebook page to vent her frustration over the never-ending texts.

When attorney, Henry Mancuso, stumbles upon Ruth’s complaint, he has no idea that a simple Facebook scroll is going to change his life. Now, he has to get Ruth to agree to a class action lawsuit when she’s just looking for some peace on her mobile device—not a drawn-out case against a coffeehouse giant.

As Ruth and Henry battle the legal waters, a friendship full of fun and spontaneity blooms. But could something more be brewing between these two and this coffeehouse case?

Rating: Five Stars. If you like romance without erotica, well-rounded, likable characters and uplifting plots then this book is for you. Highly recommended. Read my full review here.

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Genre: Young Adult

Blurb: Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

Rating: Five stars. A highly entertaining, relevant and powerful read. Read my full review here.

Poets Pass by Hillary DeVisser

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: Dr. Avery O’Gara is a psychiatrist who doesn’t trust men any further than she can throw them. She prefers her boundaries high and her trysts without emotional ties. She likes her privacy and values her independence above all else. Avery’s home in the country is her sanctuary, her escape from the emotional overload of her job. Her sense of peace is destroyed, beginning with the appearance of muddy boot prints outside her window.

Recently divorced, Officer Jake Marcovic needs a change of scenery. He leaves Chicago and his manipulative ex-wife behind for family and a much slower pace of living. Relocating back to his rural roots, he sees women as money-hungry opportunists and avoids commitment like the plague. His focus is on establishing himself in his once-familiar community and enjoying the women who appreciate a man in uniform.

When high walls are built up to protect hearts, what happens when they come crashing down?

Rating: Five stars. The third installment of the Coal Country series, this is a heartfelt romance with just the right amount of suspense. Hillary DeVisser was one of my featured indie authors earlier this year – you can read that post and find out more here.

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Crime

Blurb: Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

Rating: Five stars. A highly enjoyable read – I am looking forward to the next installment in the series already. Read my full review here.

The Bachelors by E S Carter

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romance

Blurb: It is a well-known fact that a single man without a penny to his name must be in want of a rich wife.
Darcy, Bingham and Wick Austen are about to lose the family business.
Without a miracle or a substantial cash investment, Austen’s – the bookstore chain that was established by their great-great grandfather – will go into receivership.
A chance encounter at a charity ball with the attractive, single and filthy-rich Bennet sisters has Wick Austen convincing his brothers that the way to save their livelihoods rests at the Bennet’s red-soled-shoe clad feet.
But these three women are far more than your average, simpering, society-loving heiresses.

Darcy isn’t so sure about his youngest brother’s plan, especially when the smart, feisty and ridiculously sexy Eliza Bennet shoots down his advances in a ball of flames, and accuses him of being a proud and egotistical jerk.
Meanwhile, Bingham meets the sweet and approachable Jane, and insta-love ensues, and Wick gets used up and spat out by the youngest and most flighty sister, Lydia.
Will the Austen bachelors secure a wife and save the family name or will they become the Bennet sister’s latest conquests?

Rating: Five stars. A sassy modern tale inspired by Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. In addition to The Bachelors, E S Carter is the author of the Love by Numbers and Red Order series – more about these over on Goodreads.

Nasty Women by 404 Ink

Genre: Non-Fiction

Blurb: With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

People, politics, pressure, punk – From working class experience to racial divides in Trump’s America, being a child of immigrants, to sexual assault, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, identity, family, finding a voice online, role models and more, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Zeba Talkhani, Chitra Ramaswamy are just a few of the incredible women who share their experience here.

Keep telling your stories, and tell them loud.

Rating: Five stars. An excellent and thought-provoking read. Read my full review here.

Glasdrum by Fiona MacBain

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime

Blurb: One town. Five women. Dark events.

Life is not easy for the women of Glasdrum…

A skeleton is unearthed, too many walkers are falling to their deaths off mountain cliffs, and the local pub doesn’t know how to make a decent raspberry daiquiri.

Single mother Megan is a hill runner and cannabis dealer, an unlikely friend of well-to-do Finella, whose confident appearance hides struggles with her unpleasant husband and unruly children.

Vicky is Finella’s child-minder, and when Finella’s husband starts digging about in her past, he discovers she has a secret. How far will she go to protect it?

Glasdrum is a culture shock to Londoner Sarah, but she finds friendship with local journalist Catriona, recently returned to her home town but haunted by memories from her past.

The women battle through daily life while the spectre of death looms over the town. Could one of them be living with a killer?

Rating: Five stars. A gripping read, perfect for enjoying from the comfort of your sun lounger. Read my full review here.

And there you have it! This is my final post of this year; therefore I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support during 2018, and to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. 

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.  

The Suspension of Focus

Those of you who follow my blog regularly will know that a month ago I made a pledge, banning myself from social media, blogging and all manner of other online browsing distractions to focus on my latest project.

Well, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

In the end I managed around 7,500 words in four weeks, which in the grand scheme of writing a novel, isn’t a great deal. Turns out that although you can remove yourself from the internet, you can’t remove yourself from life. For a time a few real-life events took over, which meant my writing had to take a back seat. Also, if I’m completely honest, I struggled to stay away from social media, for which I blame my politics addiction, particularly the mind-blowing boorach which is Brexit.

So, where to now? Well, I’m not planning to extend my internet ban, but I am hoping to get on with some writing, despite the busy festive season ahead. I think the key will be making time but also giving myself a break – if the past month has taught me anything, it’s that so much in life is unforeseen and outside of our control, and that distraction comes in many forms. What struck me, more than anything, is how life’s twists and turns can absolutely leave you in the ‘wrong’ place to write, so that even when you find the time and space, you don’t necessarily feel like writing. In the years I have been crafting stories, it has only been very recently that I have encountered this feeling. I’m not going to lie to you, folks, it’s a tough one to overcome.

One way or another, however, I am going to finish this book. I’m excited about it and I believe in it, and as 2018 comes to a close, it is that sense of determination which I plan to focus on.

Taking a Break

I hope you all had a blessed Samhain and a happy Halloween yesterday! In my household it’s been a non-stop whirl of parties, costumes and sweet treats for the best part of seven days now. Time to come down from the sugar-induced high…

…and get on with some writing.

I’m about 27,000 words in to my current work-in-progress, which I think is either really good or not nearly good enough, depending on my mood and what day of the week it is. However, Christmas is looming large and as my kids keep telling me, it is only a matter of weeks now until the festive season begins and brings 2019 in directly behind it. Time really is marching on at a pace.

I am keen to make some rapid progress on my new book before the end of the year. With this in mind I have decided to put myself on a firm distraction ban for about a month, to spend some serious quality time with my new plot and characters, and to notch up that word count considerably. So, for the next four weeks I’m going to take a break from blogging, from social media, and from aimlessly browsing the internet. It’s going to be tough but I’m going to do it because I think it will be good for me, and I think it will be good for my book.

So, I’ll see you all on the other side! I will be back in December with an update on how my focused writing time went, as well as a review of my favourite books of 2018.

Book Review: Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

I read a lot of historical fiction, but this is the first novel I have read which could be referred to as prehistorical fiction. Set in the first century on what later became the Isle of Skye, Warrior Daughter tells the story of Skaaha as she struggles to forge her own way forward in a wild and often brutal world where enemies are not always easily seen.

I was struck almost immediately by the sheer amount of research the author must have done in crafting this novel. Paisley weaves historical detail into the narrative seamlessly, demonstrating an impressive understanding of a world so far removed from our own, from its druid beliefs to its calendar structured by ancient festivals and the lunar cycle. When combined with her superb, evocative prose, the impact was magical, effortlessly transporting the reader to the middle of the action, from spear fights to the great fires of Beltane. Her success in managing the subject matter so well must not be understated: it is one thing to bring alive documented history, but to bring alive a period and a people which predate recorded history so vividly, is quite frankly magnificent.

The story is structured around the stages of Skaaha’s life, from the death of her mother in childhood through to around the age of eighteen. Although it is a third person narrative, the focus is always on Skaaha, documenting the twists and turns of her life, the challenges and the hardships she faces. Some of the subject matter is agelessly familiar, such as growing up and coming of age, but much of it is not. Living in a matriarchal society of goddesses and warrior queens, Skaaha is revered as the child of Queen Kerrigen and the descendant of the Goddess Danu – an identity which raises her up among her own people but also makes her a target for vengeance, hatred and rivalry. At times the plot is very hard-hitting; a reflection of the times in which it is set, no doubt, but more sensitive readers may wish to exercise caution as graphic violence and sex are frequent features of the novel.

I found Skaaha to be a well-drawn and engaging character who I liked very much; she is a strong female heroine who is bold and brave, but also almost broken by her circumstances and the realisation of her own vulnerability. The story is supported by a fine and colourful cast of characters, from Skaaha’s moon-crazed aunt Jiya, to the wise and otherworldly Ruan, to the thoroughly hateful queen of spite, Mara. To be honest, I struggled to choose a favourite. Nonetheless, I always found myself rooting for Skaaha to find the courage she needs to succeed, to steer her own course and to become who she truly is. Whether she does or not…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Five stars.

Love and loss when worlds collide

This morning I found out that another of my short stories has been published. It came as a bit of a surprise as in fact the story was published towards the end of July, but as I hadn’t received any correspondence about this, it had escaped my notice. It might never have come to my attention at all, but for a google search. Yes, I looked myself up, which is not as self-indulgent as it sounds; I learnt some time ago that when trying to tell the world about your books, it’s important to know what sorts of search results are yielded from your name and what order they fall in.

Anyway, a happy discovery made whilst refining my marketing strategy means an unexpected blog post to share with you all my short fantasy story, The Smailholm Faerie. Set near the beautiful and isolated Smailholm Tower in the Scottish borders, The Smailholm Faerie tells the story of an encounter between an inquisitive mythical creature and a grieving young man, and what happens when their worlds collide.

You can read the story on the Reader Writer Lounge’s website here. I very much hope that you enjoy it.

The Other Pendle Witch Trial

August 18th 2018 marked the 406th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials at Lancaster Castle in 1612. It is an anniversary which always causes me to pause, and one which I never forget. Growing up in Lancashire, I was captivated from a young age by tales of the Pendle witches. For a child there is, after all, something irresistibly and gruesomely fascinating about the likes of Old Demdike and Chattox doing their worst with magical misdeeds before meeting their own horrible fate. As I got older my interest developed into something altogether more academic, with a dissertation on the subject for my undergraduate degree at Lancaster University and, of course, several works of historical fiction since then! Over the years, the Pendle witches have been a big part of my intellectual and creative life.

Although perhaps not as widely known internationally as other later trials, notably those which occurred in Salem in 1692/3, there is no doubt in my mind that across the breadth of English history the 1612 trials have grown in stature and notoriety over the years. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that 1612 has become the stuff of legend, or that it contributes enormously to the cultural and artistic life of the north of England, and of course to tourism and the economy. This activity and interest in the trials reached fever pitch in 2012 for the fourth centenary, with commemorative activities, events, sculptures and new works of literature and scholarship on the subject, and such activities have continued ever since; for example, this year there was a family weekend of events at Lancaster Castle.

What is less well-known, however, is that a second round of witch trials occurred in Pendle in 1634. In late 1633, a boy named Edmund Robinson gained local fame and notoriety as a witch-finder. It seems that upon returning home later than expected one day in early November, he told his father a tale;  a story of his abduction by witches, of women turning into animals and of a great, unholy Sabbath. The story quickly spread around the local area and the boy became something of a celebrity. Edmund’s father, perhaps sensing there was fame and fortune to be found in such a reputation, began charging people to see his son’s ‘performances’ and taking him on a tour of the local churches.

It was only a matter of time, of course, before a story of this magnitude reached the local Justices of the Peace and in February 1634, young Edmund finally told the story to the authorities. As part of his deposition, Edmund gave a considerable list of local people who he claimed had been involved in his fantastical tale.

One of the names which appeared on Edmund’s list was that of Jennet Device.

We don’t know for certain, of course, if this Jennet Device was the same Jennet who had been the star witness of the 1612 trials; however, to imagine that it might have been is truly the stuff of stories. My second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, is a story woven on the supposition that it was the same Jennet, that in 1634 events in Pendle came full circle, that the witness became the accused.

As in 1612 the accused, including Jennet, were found guilty at the Lancaster Assizes. However, in a move which signaled how times were beginning to change, the judges deferred sentencing to seek further advice from the authorities in London. The Privy Council duly dispatched the Bishop of Chester to undertake a further investigation into the case. They also requested a number of the accused be sent to London for further examination. Four women were sent on the long journey south, where they were subjected to a physical examination by the king’s physician, further questioning, and an interview with King Charles I himself. We can only imagine how utterly terrifying and bewildering that experience must have been.

The Privy Council’s intervention led to the 1634 case falling apart, with the authorities ultimately finding that the story was a fabrication exploited for financial gain and ordering the arrest and imprisonment of Edmund Robinson’s father as a result. The accused were all acquitted, allegedly pardoned by their monarch, and their four representatives were sent home to Lancashire. However, the ending of the story is not a happy one: despite the acquittal many remained in prison, probably as a result of being unable to pay the debts they had accrued after so many months of being unjustly detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

The tragedy of the 1634 case is that whilst the changing attitudes of the London authorities were able to prevent this tale ending at the gallows, the accused were nonetheless undone by poverty and powerlessness, by being at the bottom of the social heap and by being without the means to free themselves from a justice system which was always stacked against them. It may be less well-known that its 1612 counterpart, but in many ways the story of the 1634 trials is no less poignant. I hope that when the fourth centenary comes around in sixteen years’ time, the other Pendle witch trials will be given the recognition they deserve.

More information about my second Witches of Pendle novel, A Woman Named Sellers, which focuses on the 1634 trials, can be found here