dorothystewartblog

about writing and life and God

A gentle Sunday walk… not!

Sunday afternoon is traditionally walk afternoon and this Sunday my sister had a plan. So far her plans have been excellent so I put my walking boots in the car and climbed in happily.

We headed out westwards into the centre of the county where the scenery, still beautiful, is very different from the fertile fields of the east.

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Our goal was an old graveyard, built in a very strange shape (described in books as an arrow) and perched on top of a high cliff. The site of an ancient chapel dedicated to St Columba, it now provides resting places for over 40 burials (mainly Gunns), with a variety of stones (including table stones, flat stones, and ornate metal-railed enclosures). The oldest stone dates from 1726.

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Now, you may find this a little macabre but my sister and I were brought up to enjoy graveyards. Our grandmother used to take us for our Sunday walks to the local cemetery where she pointed out graves and regaled us with the stories of the inhabitants. We simply enjoy carrying on the family tradition. If need be, we permit our fiction talents to fill any gaps!

After the graveyard, we scrambled down the steep slope alongside the cemetery (the stone wall is the cemetery wall)

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to the bank of the peaty-brown, fast-flowing Thurso River. This stretch is a particularly fine salmon fishing beat.

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But we weren’t finished. The big rocky lump beside us is the site of 14th century Dirlot Castle, built by Reginald de Cheyne.

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On any walk with my sister, if there is an opportunity for a scramble and a fine view… I must admit I found the climb a bit more strenuous than I’m used to down in Suffolk, but the views from the top, encircled by the grass-covered walls of the castle ruins, were well worth it.

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and more views of this classic Highland river, looking south over the Flow Country towards Morven, Scaraben etc. And just enough energy to amble back to the car and drive home for tea!

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Wandering down memory lane

I was born in the town of Wick and after school here,

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a year working on the local paper The John O’Groat Journal,  I left to go to university at Aberdeen – and have since only returned for family occasions and holidays. I reckon it’s around half a century since I really lived here – and now I’m catching up with friends I haven’t seen for years yet it seems like only yesterday we were meeting and chatting. And I’m surprised by how many people recognise me – maybe not so surprising when I’m with my sister who lives here, and folks say we look alike.

The town has changed, of course, and yet it is essentially familiar. We went for a wander around a couple of the places we used to live. Both appear in my latest novel, Necklace of Lies. One is the bungalow Hugh and Ruby live in, the second is where the final scenes in the novel take place.

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That top bedroom, at various stages my sister’s and then mine, is the one that belongs to young Georgina. ‘She liked her new room tucked away at the very top of the house. It had the sweetest little fireplace and a window that stuck out of the roof and looked out over the bay and the harbour. Georgie loved to stand there and watch the boats and the lorries and the people.’

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In our time, the land beyond the tall houses was given over to allotments and rough grass sheering off into cliffs where I used to scramble as a child. Looking at it today, I am horrified!

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There’s a whole housing estate perched on the cliff now with wonderful views across the bay.  And as I finish writing this, the sun comes out.

 

 

 

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NUCLEUS: a northern treasure trove

Maybe you have to be nosy to be a writer. When something interesting crosses our path, we always want to know more. What it’s really about. Where the name comes from. What it means. And last but not least, that glorious fiction trigger: what if…?

So today definitely offered me one of my ideas of heaven: a friendly and welcoming  establishment set up specifically to enable research.

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Set on the bleak windswept land next to Wick Airport is NUCLEUS: the nuclear and Caithness archive. It has in store everything they can get their hands on about the nuclear energy industry in the UK, and absolutely everything about Caithness: parish records, family genealogies,  private papers, books, maps, bound copies of local newspapers, drawings and artworks, research notes – including my own second year University project about integration in Thurso after the influx of folk to work at Dounreay – and much, much more. The Caithness material is available to anyone who makes the journey – and you will receive a warm welcome and as much help as you need. The nuclear stuff is in process of being catalogued. Find NUCLEUS on Facebook and their website.

I was brought the bound copies of the John O’Groat Journal for 1964 and 1965 which I needed to help me research book 3 in the Mizpah Ring trilogy. It was surreal to read articles about people I knew – not to mention see pictures of friends, my sister, and even one (ouch!) of myself receiving my Queen’s Guide Badge in 1964!

Sometimes browsing back numbers of newspapers offers real treasure trove and I have come away with pages of useful notes for the new book and a definite decision that it will begin in 1964.

We popped into the tiny airport to find lunch.

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So important in the second world war, as mentioned in book 2 of Mizpah Ring, Necklace of Lies, there are still traces of wartime activity.

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The power of the deadline

I have a deadline. Two, in fact. And both, insanely tight. This is good – for several reasons.

  1. Like many writers I am bone idle. No, I mean creative… I can spend hours gently daydreaming, gazing at lovely views (or nothing in particular) and letting my thoughts wander where they will, up hill and down dale. And not putting fingers to keyboard.
  2. I find it only too easy to say yes to everything anyone asks of me. Yes of course I’ll bring a cake to that church tea. Yes, I’ll help out at that event. Yes, I can drive that person to wherever. Yes, I’ll… do anything but sit home alone in front of the computer…
  3. I like to read… and I find I really cannot get into other people’s fiction when I’m trying to write fiction! It’s like being given the gift of a box of chocolates after you’ve binged all Easter Sunday on chocolate eggs and Cadbury creme eggs and chocolate cake and… you really don’t think you can face another chocolate ever again. (Of course I’ve never done that….)
  4. I’m afraid… of not being able to do it again. Yes, I know it happened with every book so far, and several times within the process of each. But it’s horrid. And not writing at all is one way to avoid it. But agreeing to a deadline makes me face it, and work through it.
  5. I’m afraid… of it not being as good as the last one. I’m afraid of running out of words. I’m afraid of diving so deeply into my story that I’ll get lost down there and drown and never come up again. I’m afraid of doing what I love to do more than anything else in the world: am I really allowed to do this? I’m afraid of discovering I don’t really like doing it at all… A deadline simply demands that I sit down and get on with it. Like a job of work. Word after word. One after the other. Just do it.
  6. And a deadline reminds me how afraid I am, and idle, and weak, and needy… and that I don’t need to worry about any of that because I’m a Christian writer who writes because I believe God gave me the gift and asked me to use it … for Him. I write overtly Christian books, deliberately, determinedly. To uplift and encourage God’s Christian women particularly. To entertain yes, but to give them a thoroughly good experience at the same time. Good in His terms. So if He wants me to do, He’ll have to help me. And He says He will:
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‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that’s fine with me. I’ve got plenty of weakness!

Oh, did I mention the deadlines? For Mizpah Ring Book 2: end of May; for Mizpah Ring 3: end of August. And the plan is publication of both books this year: Mizpah Ring 2 early September, and Book 3 early December. Oh yes, I’m going to need all the help I can get!

 

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Day Six: Sharing the history

Caithness Horizons is a fabulous museum in Thurso on the north coast of Scotland and tonight, I was there as the guest of the Caithness Family History Society.

Chair, Janet Mowat, had said to my sister that where family historians take family stories which may or may not be fact and try to find out which they are, I take family stories which are fact and deliberately turn them into fiction.

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Janet and me

So the focus tonight was on the facts – the family stories that underpin both When the Boats Come Home and The Mizpah Ring. And in return, I got some great stories of World War Two providing local colour and humour for the next book.

Book sales and tea and shortbread rounded off the evening, and as we left, I stopped off to look at the amazing Pictish symbol stones – from the 5th to 9th centuries.

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The Ulbster Stone

 

 

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Did Al Capone drink Scotch?

Funny how there never seems to be an end to what you can find out in the way of background for a historical novel! Google and Wikipedia are wonderful resources for the author – and trawling the internet for that extra piece of information can while away many happy hours.

So today, I got my writing stint done first, then went in search of more background. One of my characters spends some time in 1920s and 30s Chicago, first having a high old time amongst the gangsters, latterly paying the price alongside them in an American  penitentiary before being deported to Scotland.

This is true to the facts of many young Scotsmen of the time. Notorious gangster, Al Capone, had Scots as bodyguards and when he was gaoled, they were too, then deported to Glasgow – complete with guns and bad habits – to contribute to the culture and crime of that city.

What I  didn’t know – and won’t use – is that there was a link between the Chicago gangsters and the Scotch whisky industry during the period of American Prohibition. According to author George Rosie in his book Curious Scotland, Tales from a Hidden History, a very reputable London firm, Berry Brothers & Rudd, were approached by Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, one of America’s most notorious bootleggers, and a deal was struck whereby Scotch whisky was shipped legally into the British colonial warehouses in the Bahamas. There, as a result of another deal struck with a Scots-American Bill McCoy, the whisky would be removed via McCoy’s schooner and taken to international waters off the New York/New Jersey coast. There it would be smuggled to the mainland on high-speed motor-boats and distributed for re-sale among such high-profile gangsters as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegal and Al Capone.

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Not the whisky in question – but a very good one!

The arrangement worked well and the high-quality whisky was soon seen to be more desirable than the poor-quality illicit, diluted or adulterated hooch otherwise for sale. So of course, it came to known as ‘the real McCoy’.

It’s a great story and too good to waste – so since I can’t use it in the book, here it is!

 

 

 

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What’s it all about?

The good news is that I’m 26,525 words into the new book, Part 2 of The Mizpah Ring.

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The bad news is that I haven’t written a new word of it since 7th March.

Ouch!

I’ve given a number of talks on Mizpah Ring 1 and must admit to some discomfort, compared with the ease and joy of giving talks on its predecessor, When the Boats Come Home.

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Basically I’m a story-teller, and the story I like to tell is the good news of the Lord Jesus. This is what I do in the pulpit (that’s right – story not sermon!). That’s what I do at women’s meetings. And that’s what I was able to do with talks about Boats – because Boats is really about the good news of new life and second chances offered by Jesus Christ.

But I discover I’m not so comfortable talking about Mizpah Ring – and feeling a bit blocked about Book 2. Till I read Steven Pressfield’s blog Writing Wednesdays: The Hero Embodies the Theme and suddenly I had a handle on the problem. What was Mizpah Ring all about?

It’s taken some time chewing this over, because I thought I knew – when I started writing Book 1. There was an inciting incident that set off a trail of consequences through three generations – and three books. There were bad guys who got badder, and good guys who slipped up and messed up. There were good girls and bad girls and not-quite-sure girls. And some of them went the way of all flesh, and others got turned round.

It was all a lot grittier than Boats – including  the locations. The ‘worst’ location in Boats was a pub and a dark alley. Mizpah Ring has a brothel and gambling dens!

But I’m still telling the good news of Jesus Christ- because He wasn’t afraid of mixing with prostitutes and others unacceptable to respectable society – and He loved them and came to save them too.

And so my story is one of redemption – for those who will turn round and take it. And it tells the truth about those who make other choices – something else Jesus was clear about when He walked this earth. We all have choices. We all have free will.But our choices have consequences.

And that’s what Mizpah Ring is about. Book 1 showed the choices of the first generation – and the results, bad and good. Book 2 shows what the next generation makes of it.

But that’s not all – because that’s never all there is to it. Because there is another character active in the story and in the lives of the characters: and that’s Jesus Christ Himself. And where He is, anything can happen!

So now I know, I’m grounded again and can get back to work!

 

 

 

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Best-laid plans and Second Attempts

I had haggis for Burns Night, celebrating the poet bard of my homeland who mentioned so wisely ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’. My own plans for getting stuck into the new book were indeed well laid and I have in front of me the result: a nice sheaf of pages from Chapter One to Eleven.

But they’re not in the new book file. I can’t quite bear to throw them out yet. And I know they’ll come in handy. But as back-story, not Chapters One to Eleven.

I wrote them, then ground to a halt. At first I thought it was just the seasonal blues. My mother often said she thought we were designed to be hibernatory creatures, taking to our warm beds for the cold dark winter months!

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Then I decided I needed to do more research. The problem, I suggested to myself, was insecurity because of lack of basic information. So I searched the internet for books, ordered from Amazon and eBay, located some at my local second-hand bookshop, sourced others through our library.

And read. Made notes.

And did not enjoy it. Which is not like me. I love research! Usually my temptation is to keep on researching because it’s so fascinating what I uncover…

But no. This was plodding. And, I had to admit, boring!

I gave up. And worried. When what you’re working on is book two of a trilogy  and people have bought and read book one (The Mizpah Ring), and are asking ‘When’s the next one out?’ there is a certain pressure!

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Best-laid plans indeed. Panic stations more like!

But I had arranged a number of research ‘interviews’ -meetings with folk who could remember the second world war and were happy to talk to me about it. So rather than confess shamefaced that I’d hit a block and maybe it wasn’t worth bothering them, I felt I had to go ahead. So I did.

And something shifted. I got myself back to the keyboard and what came out of the ends of my fingers was something different. Not the best-laid plan but my story starting in a different place and with a different tone. And suddenly lovely because I wanted to follow it through and see what happened. I was gripped by it again.

I wonder was it the getting out of the house and spending time with interesting people telling me new things I didn’t know that unlocked the block? Did meeting people who had lived through that time make my story come alive again?

I don’t know – but I’m glad and I’m grateful. I’ve now written a new chapter one to six and am much happier with it. My characters are alive and surprising me! I love getting to the keyboard each morning for the next instalment. And the first draft material is definitely not wasted. I’ve drawn on some of it already. I maybe had to write it so that I knew where my characters were coming from.

Book One of The Mizpah Ring takes us from 1897 to 1912. I had intended Book 2 to start in 1913 but it definitely doesn’t want to! It will start in the late 1930s instead. In it I bring together the second generation of the folk who featured in Book One: Hughie, Geordie, Belle and Rab and Hannah. And this time we’ll see the results of the sins of the fathers!

 

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Down and Out

I think many of us have projects shelved, completed and set aside for one reason or another. Projects that nag from time to time, demanding a revisit, a rewrite, a fresh chance.

A couple of summers ago I did a major clear-out – pulled all the old manuscripts from their boxes and dumped them in the recycling bin. But I didn’t get rid of everything. Lurking on floppy disks (remember them?) were a few that remained to nag me.

And one has been doing just that for the past few days. I wrote it during a particularly ‘interesting’ period in my life back in 2006 and named it  Tea for Two. It went out to one publisher who thought the humour was too dark for her list. Two friends read it and loved it. And then life moved on and I wrote other books.

But as I pondered what to give friends and family for Christmas, I began to wonder about dusting down Tea for Two – or Annabelle as I nicknamed it, after the main character – and letting one particular friend read it.

So I found the disk for Mark 1 and the first few chapters read ok. Then I found the disk for Mark 2 and yes, I thought that would do nicely. So I printed off three chapters and delivered them, with the request that if she liked them she could have the rest.

And I went home and got to work on editing and polishing Mark 2 and putting it onto a flash drive for her.

But… Annabelle is indisputably autobiographical. Writing it was cathartic – and necessary at the time. But ouch! didn’t I tell the truth, and the truth is now a little close to the knuckle, the raw skin that there was back in those unhappy times.

I’m not that person any more. I’ve moved on. And I’ve forgiven the folk I wrote the book about. We’re all in a different place in our lives and with one another. So I don’t want to peel back the years and revisit those bad times – or the person I was then.

So I carefully deleted both versions, checked the disks were now blank, and dumped them in the recycling bin.

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I don’t need Annabelle any more. But I do need another Christmas present for my friend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day Sixteen: Wick: Raising the bar

Last planned book talk on the tour delivered to a lovely, responsive, appreciative audience at Wick Salvation Army Home League today.

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I’m so delighted they were able to fit me in.

But now I’m wanting to be back at home to get stuck into serious work on the next book so I’ve something else to share with them!

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I’ve had a wonderful time. People are interested in books that connect with them and are happy to purchase copies. It makes all the work that went into the book so worthwhile – and it makes me want to make the next one at least as good, at least as interesting, at least as connecting with them, at least as enjoyable…

In fact, I think they’ve raised the bar. And so there’s a real challenge.

But where there’s a challenge to do something that God calls us to do, there’s power available to do it. Just one of the many texts reassuring us of this is in Hebrews 13:21: ‘Now may the God of peace… equip you with everything good for doing His will’. ‘Everything good’. That will do nicely!

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