dorothystewartblog

about writing and life and God

If it’s Scotland, it’s not trespass

Well, we didn’t notice the ‘Private Road’ sign until we were halfway down the drive… and anyway a) there’s no law of trespass in Scotland and b) we’d just driven down for a wee look!

Today was a bit dreich but we braved the weather and took ourselves first to Ackergill with its pretty little harbour and amazing white shell sand.

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To the right, wonderful views of Sinclair and Girnigoe Castle (as featured in my novel Necklace of Lies) and the bright, white lighthouse at Noss Head.

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To the left, views of Ackergill Tower (late 15th/early 16th century, remodelled 1851-2, and now a luxury hotel and wonderful conference and wedding venue).

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From there we took a nostalgic drive to Alterwall and a look at the deserted croft where our grandfather was born, then to the Lyth Arts Centre in the old school where he received his education. Turning north, there are wonderful views of Stroma, and white-painted Canisbay church where the Queen Mum always went to church when she stayed at nearby Castle of Mey.

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The homeward road led us to Freswick, an area with long links to the Vikings. Sweyn the Pirate had his 12th century stronghold here, though the present house was built in 1791. Built into the old bridge is the ‘Cruelty Hoose’ used as a prison!

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The dovecote dates from the 17th century and the mausoleum is on the site of a chapel dedicated to St Madden/Moddan, who came to the area with St Drostan in around 561 AD.

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Tomorrow, plan A is time in the archives and a start on research for the next book!

 

 

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Wick, day one

I’m writing this a day late. Because I was out late last night. Didn’t get to bed till midnight. Which is a problem for folk like me who turn into pumpkins at 9.30. And at my age, I need my beauty sleep! However, as a wise person once said, if you think you’re too old for something, do it before you’re another day older! So I did.

Last night I found myself in a packed room at the Seaview Hotel, John O’Groats, for the first author event of the first John O’Groats Book Festival. And it was a great evening.

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The first half showcased seven local authors, talking about and reading from their books. (I was on second.) The second half allowed a longer talk from three of the four authors who are the mainstays of the event: Christopher Brookmyre, Theresa Breslin, and Andrew Grieg. 

The great thing about writers is that they are generally thoroughly nice, interesting people, so finding myself at the top table with a gang of fellow contributors soon became a delightful social gathering. No way could Cinderella drag herself away when the witching hour struck. Just as well then that my sister and friend were both ready to depart before the cabaret began around 10.30!

I’d already had a lovely day, walking round the town with my sister:

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and in the afternoon visiting Nucleus, the amazing purpose-built archive for the nuclear industry and local and family history. Sixth-formers in town had been researching the lives and stories of the men from the first world war whose names were on the town war memorial, and the afternoon was their opportunity to share their findings and enjoy looking at more original materials – old copies of the local newspaper, the John O’Groat Journal, and letters and drawings from 1916.

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We’ll be going back to Nucleus next week so I can get stuck into research for the next book!

 

 

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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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Getting Ready

I have rearranged my study. I have sorted out the books on the shelves that face me when I’m at work at my desk and I’ve packed away the non-writing books, replacing them with relevant writing books and book files.

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Books packed away

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Research and admin folders

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Books to inspire!

And I’m beginning to feel better – ready to get down to work again on the novel.

I popped out to the supermarket to stock up on food and met my next-door neighbour as I was going in. I had come home from a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discover that she had cut her own front lawn and then cut mine. She is slightly over eight months pregnant. Her last child weighed in on arrival at 10 lbs and she reckons this one will compete – so cutting grass astounded me. Just as well I was out! I’m sure I’d have scolded and protested!

She wouldn’t accept a lift home from the supermarket either. Walking, she said, would do her good. She preferred to be doing things. She was ready for the birth, she said. It’s time this one arrived.

And as I sort my study and lug heavy boxes of books into the storeroom, I recognise myself in my pregnant neighbour. I’m getting ready for the labour of getting Book 2 of the Mizpah Ring birthed and into the world. And like my neighbour, I’m impatient. Because it’s time!

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Day Four: One down…

Relaxing with a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive at my sister’s. First talk delivered: one down, two to go.

This afternoon I was the guest of Wick Salvation Army’s Home League. What a lovely group…

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but…

But? How can there be a but? They were lovely!

But they kept asking me when the next book in The Mizpah Ring trilogy will be out! And I haven’t finished writing it yet! Part of the plan for this trip was to get some on-the-ground research done, and then go home and write…

So now I want to be in two places at once: here, doing research and giving talks and selling books – and back home getting down to writing! Oh, how I want to be writing!

 

 

 

 

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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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All Systems Go!

I’ve pressed ‘Send’ and now the manuscript of the new book is in the Inbox of Paul, my publisher at Zaccmedia.

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The sun is shining outside my study window, reminding me that there’s a world out there – a world completely different from the late 1890s that I’ve been inhabiting with my characters. It’s the start of a Bank Holiday weekend here in England but a large part of my mind is still in Canada, Buenos Aires, Scotland…

These people – Belle and her sister Hannah, and the three lads (Rab, Hughie and Geordie) – have been my constant companions, living in my heart and mind, for a while now and it’s hard to leave them. Like putting down a gripping novel you’ve been reading, not wanting the story to end…

But here’s the sweet and special joy of this project. Pressing ‘Send’ is not the end. Because this manuscript is only the beginning – Book One in a trilogy – and once I’ve refilled the larder, spring-cleaned the house, cut the grass, seen to the admin, maybe even had a day or two off, I can move into the research for Book Two. And I’m really looking forward to it!

Book One of the Mizpah Ring Trilogy is due out the first week of December. It’s called Seedtime  and follows the five young people as their lives interweave and tangle, in love and hate, devotion and betrayal. There are a couple of murders, and a couple of births – because this book is about the first generation. Book Two takes up the story with the next generation, and Book Three with the third when everything gets sorted out.

I’ve loved researching and writing it. It’s very different from When the Boats Come Home, my first novel, but I hope my readers will love this one just as much!

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