about writing and life and God

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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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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Day Three: A Scottish Sunday

It’s Sunday so today’s activities are church and a walk with my sister and her friends. The weather is grey and not warm – unlike the glorious sunshine I left behind in Suffolk! But this does not deter us. We wrap up like Arctic explorers and set out for Keiss.

What surprises me is how much of the old World War Two tank traps are left lining the beach.

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Clearly the threat of invasion was taken very seriously, and as we walk along, I’m thinking about the effect of the war on local people – and this section in the new book. All useful research!

I love little harbours so we drove round to Keiss harbour

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and found some lovely splashy waves coming in round the harbour wall!

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And then it was time for tea! And home in good time for evening church.



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Beloved voices

My mother smoked. Dad had been one of those soldiers introduced to cigarettes during the war and he had duly brought the habit home. In those early days, folk thought it was glamorous, little knowing the horrendous damage it would do to skin and lungs and other organs.

Mum had been a glamorous young woman with dark hair falling provocatively over one eye like a movie star. And she was talented. From an early age she had been in demand as a singer and I recall her beautiful voice.

But the cigarettes took their toll and her voice deepened and deepened till her beautiful voice was completely destroyed and she could barely manage to reach any notes. For someone who had loved to sing, this was purgatory indeed.

On Monday night at Bible study group, a friend gave us a very lovely gift. Instead of us reading round the group, she invited us to relax and close our eyes and listen as she read the complete passage in her lovely soft Scottish voice.

I joke that my accent strengthens after a phone conversation with my sister, then I have to tame it so folk down here in Sassenachland can understand me! Maybe it’s my accent that makes my voice recognisable – so I hardly need to say who I am when I ring friends.

And I wonder does that come across on the page? One of the delights of opening a new book in a well-loved series is that sense of familiarity with the author’s voice, like the voice of a friend.

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Jesus says He is the Good Shepherd and His sheep know His voice (John chapter 10, verses 1-16). The voice of a loved one is very special. I remember once missing my beloved so much I kept ringing his office number when he was away so I could hear his voice on the answermachine message! Afterwards he commented on the number of calls where the caller had left no message!

Having given up Facebook for Lent, maybe I’ll have more time to just sit and listen out for Jesus and see if I can recognise His voice.





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Surprised by surprise


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Back to the big re-read of the novel first draft. And I am surprised. Truth to tell, I am frequently surprised when I return to something I have written and discover it ain’t bad. I wonder do other folk find the same thing?

I’m making loads of corrections, putting in links, tying up loose ends, seeing gaps that need to be filled. (I have a tendency to charge furiously onwards getting the plot down on paper first time round so I often miss necessary connectors or explanations.) I’m also accumulating a list of things that need to be checked:

  • did Great Yarmouth have street lights in 1921?
  • would newly-enlisted Danny have got married in his brand-new uniform in 1915?
  • when would the first catch of the day be brought to the yards for preparation?

And lots more.

But I’m enjoying it. It seems to flow nicely and is holding my interest and enthusiasm. But I’m a bit nervy lest the second half isn’t so good!

By some strange chance, the paper I’ve used for printing out this first draft is a hand-corrected version of my first book for carers (One Day at a Time) and as I turn the pages over, words catch my eye. I confess I have lingered briefly to read back what I wrote then… and once more am surprised.

I had forgotten just how terrible the caring-at-home years were. How exhausted and burnt-out I got. How isolated I was. In fact, just how bad it was. And I am amazed I ever actually did it. I am absolutely positive I couldn’t do it now. And my heart goes out to all those millions of at-home carers struggling to care and survive. Because it is truly grim. Even cruel.

And the world passes by on the other side.

I read the words I wrote in 2009/10 and wonder will I be just as surprised when I read the words of the next book, Still Caring, in a few years’ time and wonder how on earth I coped with this stage?




Making progress – with help

Happy to report a productive day! And Bella the cat is helping me by keeping my research books company!

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I’m beginning to draw the various threads of the novel together and building up to a major crisis between my heroine and the romantic interest so we can then get to the happy ending! That is going to be fun to write…

Meanwhile, I need to decide how much of that romantic interest’s story to tell.First off, I haven’t yet decided whether he’s a Methodist or a Baptist minister. I need for him to have been a chaplain in the First World War and a cursory glance at Wikipedia suggests I need to do a bit more background reading before I decide. There appear to be complications…

In my story I have inserted him into the real-life story of Jock Troup’s experiences in the Fishermen’s Revival of 1921. I’ve got loads of first-hand material from books and newspapers. Troup and his colleagues, Willie Bruce and David Cordiner, had an exciting time which is conveyed vividly in these reports. I’d like to weave some of those stories into my book but so far have only given them one chapter of their own. I think I need to provide another chapter for their time in Fraserburgh and another for Dundee before letting them get up to Wick for the denouement.

I know my book is an explicitly Christian book – which is why Lion Hudson’s new fiction imprint is probably not right for it – but would Christian readers be interested in the details of what Troup and co. did? Or to put it more accurately, what the Holy Spirit did? It is inspiring and I’m moved by how it affects me each time I reread the material, so maybe I should just go for it and do the best I can to convey the excitement of the time.

Meanwhile, I fit in laundry and lunch, a bit of shopping, planning next Sunday’s morning service and the following Sunday’s all-age worship – wishing all the time that my preaching could have even a small percentage of the effect of Jock Troup’s! He must have been marvellous to hear. I’m sure I’d have been one of the folk in floods of tears!

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Books for the journey

When I was about 13, I was let loose in the adult section of our local public library. I’d read everything in the junior section and had, frankly, outgrown it. Entry to ‘the other side’ was Open Sesame to an Aladdin’s cave of delights which I plundered with joy over the next 6 years.

The Reference Room at Wick library, compete with crocodile Sept 2012

The Reference Room at Wick library, compete with crocodile Sept 2012


At first I simply seized whatever appealed from the ‘New Books’ or newly returned shelves. Looking back, I know I read some thoroughly unsuitable books for my age but my innocence/ignorance protected me from harm. I did get very puzzled by Leslie Charteris’ Saint Books. I thought the ‘Bishop and actress’ repartee was an ongoing sub-plot which I could follow to the end of the book and then understand!

I did become more discriminating. In the days before photocopiers, I used to painstakingly copy out the long list on the back of the jacket of other titles by a newly discovered and loved author and then work my steadily through them. (I confess I still do this!)

Today, I decided I needed to do some further – and lighter – background reading for the Work-in-Progress. If I could identify a handful of books written in and about the First World War and up to c.1922, I decided I would feel more confident about vocabulary for dialogue, concepts and manners. And was taken aback to discover that I had first read a goodly number of them during that first exuberant foray into grown-up fiction.

I wonder how many of your early favourites are here?

Baroness Orczy: The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel

Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Agatha Christie: The Secret Adversary (1922)

John Buchan: Mr Standfast (1919)

John Buchan: Huntingtower (1922)

Georgette Heyer: The Black Moth

Ernest Bramah: Kai Lung’s Golden Hours

and lots more other famous authors  that I discovered later or never did get round to reading: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Colette, Rafael Sabatini, Hermann Hesse, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf,  Willa Cather, G.K.Chesterton, Katherine Mansfield, P.G.Wodehouse, D.H.Lawrence, Boris Pasternak, Richmal Crompton, Beatrix Potter, Walter de la Mare, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle… and many more. It must have been an amazing period, a time when writing and publishing was flourishing.


Many of the names have faded from fame and popularity while others – like Western writer Zane Grey and Tarzan’s creator  Edgar Rice Burroughs – continue to thrive.

I wonder which of our books will be read in 90-odd years? And is it worth writing with an eye on posterity? What will university libraries do without collections of letters and work-in-progress manuscripts now that we e-communicate, delete and revise our work electronically?

I’m sure of one thing: people will still be reading and needing good books. So we need to keep on writing!




Another time, another place

I spent the afternoon immersed in a segment of the First World War. 1917. The Battle of Cambrai. It was the usual incompetent-general-driven fiasco that characterised the first three years of the Great War. Around 44,000 men were killed – mainly squaddies, of course, horrifyingly young, and their young officers.

In the four years of that war, the glorious British Empire executed over 300 of its own men, dubbing them cowards, and shooting them by firing squad pour encourager les autres. Of course, neither Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nor shellshock had been recognised in those days. And there was also a condition caused by the horrendously loud and incessant barrage of noise from heavy artillery which damaged the hearing so badly that men went mad or were totally incapacitated by it.

The First World War was one of the special subjects I chose to  concentrate on for my Scottish ‘H’ level (A level equivalent) History. At that time, the BBC were running a wonderful series at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, with lots of original and contemporary footage. My mother didn’t want to watch but my father told her very seriously that he would sit with me and watch it. It was important, he said, that I understand about war. That it solved nothing. And that it was not glorious.

He had served in the second World War. One of the British sitting ducks for American bombs at Monte Cassino (what’s called friendly fire these days). He had been in Egypt – my auntie remembers a letter where he said that what he longed for more than anything was… a bar of soap! At the end of the war, he was in Italy. He saw Mussolini, strung up on a lamp-post. And he drove his Scammell truck up the mountains and across to Austria where he spent time in a village there as part of the occupying/reconstruction forces.

The people in the book I’m writing – the Novel-that-has-no-name (only it has but I’m not telling…not just yet!) – have been impacted hard by the Great War. Yesterday my thousand words suddenly turned into a sequence in a trench. Wholly unexpected. But once written, I realised it was essential. And in memory of the men who died, and out of respect for them, I have to get it right. I’d done a certain amount of research, but back I went to my notes and the maps of the Battle of Cambrai where two of the characters are killed.

Coming out of it afterwards was strange, and difficult. Getting into another time and place  and especially one so fraught and dangerous, reading the words of the officers’ reports  – one from a Welsh regiment, the other importantly for my story the record of the 51st Highland Infantry and the Seaforths in which my characters would have served – is stepping into another world.

And like all the folk touched by that war, it is not possible to come out unchanged. One of my heroes of the time is ‘Woodbine Willie’ – the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929)who wrote powerful poetry giving voice to the men out there in the trenches and the women back home. (The Unutterable Beauty is one collection.) Some of it may be a bit Kiplingesque for modern taste but it is never jingoistic and always fiercely Christian. For example :

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,

waste of patience, waste of pain,

waste of manhood, waste of health,

waste of beauty, waste of wealth,

waste of blood, and waste of tears,

waste of youth’s most precious years,

ways of ways the saints have trod,

waste of glory, waste of God –



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And for the family at home, like my great-grandmother, who lost two sons:


Just a little scrap of paper

in a yellow envelope,

and the whole world is a ruin,

even hope.

1914-18. And have we learned anything yet?


Lest we forget…

11th November. Remembrance Sunday. Armistice Sunday. Remembering all who fell in wars, past and present.


I have his letters –

the youngest of the great-uncles,


a boy-name for a beloved brother –

wrapped in soft, rough, brown paper,

pencil-written notes

from a hand more used to sowing and planting,

tending crops and animals,

than writing to his mother.

The censor’s pen has slashed through the place-names

“Somewhere in France”

and that is where his body lies,

in the mud and screaming carnage

of one more stupid war.

And thousands of miles away

the bog cotton waves white pompoms of peace

over the now-deserted croft

and the long northern sky looks down.

And another boy dies screaming in a foreign land

in an even more meaningless war,

while the warlords,

this time in business suits not khaki uniforms,

count the value of their shares in oil.


One More Stupid War Copyright 2007 Dorothy M. Stewart

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