dorothystewartblog

about writing and life and God

Research – seriously

One of the best sources I have found for background information for my novels are back numbers of local papers. There are lots of online archive sources, and microfiche copies, but I feel you can’t beat the actual feel – and smell – of real old newspapers to take you back into the world and the time you are wanting to write about.

So I always try to track down the newspapers for the years I’m writing about. I found the Reference Library in Great Yarmouth really helpful for the 1921 newspapers I needed for my novel, When the Boats Come Home. And today I was poring over the 1964 issues of the John O’Groat Journal – a newspaper I worked on as trainee reporter in 1967.

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I wanted to know at what age women were dying – because I really hoped I could have someone in their late 70s or mid-80s without being historically inaccurate. And I’m delighted by the result. I simply listed the ages of women appearing in the deaths section of the Births, Marriages and Deaths column, added them up, divided and got… 81. It will work! Whee!

As well as factual info I need to support the story, the newspaper articles give me background info I might miss that would otherwise spoil/wreck the story – for example,there was a typhoid epidemic in Aberdeen for a few months that year, and I need a couple of my characters to be in the city – and not catch typhoid! There was a sea-change general election in October and a lot of canvassing.

For a book to have that verisimilitude, the real-life world against which your characters are playing out their stories needs to be as true and accurate as possible. So that’s why I dig into newspapers. Thank you to the staff at NUCLEUS for their help today and last Tuesday. I’ll be back!

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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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Day Seven: To the end of the earth

That’s what it feels like – standing on the northernmost edge of the mainland of Britain, gazing out over island upon island studding the cold blue sea all the way to the horizon.

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View from the beach

John O’Groats. A tiny hamlet with hotel, harbour and a few shops – one of which has the best stock of Scottish-related books I’ve ever seen.

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Books and more lovely books!

And I’m delighted to say, they requested stocks of both When the Boats Come Home and Mizpah Ring so my sister and I went out there today to gaze at the view, deliver the books, buy some others and some gifts for the kind folk who have been feeding my cat Lucy while I’ve been away.

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This is the shop where you’ll find those fabulous books

And have lunch – with glorious views over the Pentland Firth across to Orkney.

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The Storehouse, John O’Groats

We also went exploring, round an old mill built in 1901 and fitted out by our great-grandfather, millwright Donald Miller.

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At Huna, near John O’Groats 

All useful background 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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Planning a book trip

I’m off on the road again in a few days. Only ten days this time – a weekend at either end mainly taken up with travelling – but I’m booked to give three talks on the new book, The Mizpah Ring, up in my home town of Wick.

Today I’m at that lose-endish stage – too soon to pack, too close to launch into anything much. The excitement/anticipation is building nicely and I’m wondering should I do a daily trip blog like last time? It helped me process the experiences of each day and I printed it out when I got home so I had a lovely record of the places I’d been and the people I’d spent time with.

There were so many highlights last time – from spectacular scenery, hunting haggis in the rain, reunions with friends after far too many years… I’m hoping this time will be just as good. I’m planning to check out some of the locations I’m using in the new book. Wick was a very interesting place during the second world war with a large air base for Coastal Command and the war in Norway. My sister and I are planning some recce trips for authentic background.

I shall be driving (665 miles each way) because I need to bring books with me for sale. Last time I had sold out before the end of my trip so this time I’ll take more than I think I’ll need. I have a solid order for both When the Boats Come Home and Mizpah Ring from one rather special retail outlet: the last shop on the mainland of the UK- right at the end of the road at John O’Groats! If you’re ever there, do drop in for a browse. Their range of Scots-interest books is second to none.

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Harbour at John O’Groats

I’m hoping the weather will be reasonable – especially for the drive. But I was horrified to overhear a snippet of conversation this morning which concluded: ‘Oh yes,snow. The mountains are full of it.’ I hope they were talking about Switzerland!

Anyway, planning. The packing list looks like:

  • Smart outfit for talks
  • Comfortable,warm clothes and walking shoes for trips out with my sister
  • Books – to sell – and promotional postcards to give away – and a decent ‘signing’ pen!
  • Books – to read at all those solo stops along the road!
  • Notebooks and pens
  • iPad and charger for Facebook and soothing sudoku etc
  • Camera and usb cable
  • Laptop for emails and blog
  • Mobile phone charger
  • Kindle and charger – in case I run out of reading material
  • Diary, and address book (for sending post cards)

and much more besides!

I’ll pack tomorrow!

 

 

 

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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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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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Day Thirteen: Wick: Pilots’ Houses, Printers’ Ink, and Public Libraries

Quiet start to a busy day with lots of surprises. Walking to post my large number of promised postcards, we noticed that the pilot house was open.

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Wick Pilot House

What, you may ask, is  a pilot house? Not a place where a pilot lived but the small building on the top of the cliff where the harbour pilot watched to see if boats approaching the harbour were requesting pilotage to enable them to enter the harbour safely or already had a pilot on board.

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Flag showing pilot on board

Here’s the link with my book: Sir Arthur Bignold, the man who bequeathed the building to the town was MP of Great Yarmouth!

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After lunch, I popped in to my local newspaper offices – where I worked as a trainee reporter 1967/8.

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John O’Groat Journal Offices, Union Street, Wick

Digitalisation has transformed the place – where once there were typesetters working on Monotype and Linotype machines and compositors painstakingly making up wedding invitations with single pieces of lead on a forme, there are now computer screens and keyboards. And downstairs where once the huge presses rolled, are empty rooms that still smell of printers’ ink.

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Press room: note floor bolts

I remember the big lorries arriving with the huge rolls of paper for the presses and the rumble that thrummed through the building when the presses rolled.  I remember how everyone on the staff got a copy of that week’s paper fresh off the presses before we went home the night before publication day – and how exciting it felt.The smell of printer’s ink still thrills me!

And then at seven o’clock, I gave a talk about When the Boats Come Home at the wonderful local library that began my journey as a writer – it provided the books that inspired me to want to become a writer, to write books like the ones I borrowed. Wick Library played a crucial role in my life as a writer. But more about that tomorrow!

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Wick Public Library

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Day Twelve: John O’Groats

There is a certain mystique about far away places. In our own small island of Britain, Land’s End and John O’Groats entice with promise – something about extremes, a sense of the end of the known world. I’ve been to both Land’s End and John O’Groats, but for me, only John O’Groats fulfils that promise.

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A long narrow road winds between croft-scattered fields and peaty moorland where fluffy white bog cotton blows in the wind. And then, suddenly the road tops a rise. There is a straggle of houses, hotel, car park, tiny harbour – and the end of the British mainland. Cold and blue-grey the Pentland Firth laps on rocks and white sand.

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Close enough almost to touch is Stroma – the island in the stream – now populated only by sheep. And beyond, island upon island, rocky-coasted and hummocky. Orkney.

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My sister and I both love this place so even though it was very cold we wandered around so I could take photographs (and have mine taken).

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And then my day was brightened even more when the owner of two of the shops that serve the thriving tourist trade bought in copies of my novel, When the Boats Come Home. And even nicer, the teashop welcomed us into the warm with tea and a yummy chocolate brownie!

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Day Five: Last day in Dundee

Late afternoon in Dundee. It’s been a busy couple of days but hugely enjoyable.

Yesterday evening I met the very lively and talented Angus Writers Circle at the splendid location of Rosely House Hotel, Arbroath.

Scottish crime-writer Wendy H Jones outside Rosely House Hotel

Scottish crime-writer Wendy H Jones outside Rosely House Hotel

Rosely House is a classic Scottish baronial mansion – all wood panelling and more animal head trophies in one place than I’ve ever seen before!

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A bit fuzzy but conveys the view quite well!

I really enjoyed talking about writing to the group (and selling my book, When the Boats Come Home). One-on-one chats were great too, with folk ranging from beginners to award-winners.

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Me with award-winners Chris Longmuir and Suzanne Milne

Today I found myself at the Priory in Dundee, now home to the City Church. There I was privileged to speak to the Ladies Prayer Fellowship before Wendy Jones and I took ourselves off to lunch via the thriving CLC Bookshop.

Now it’s time for putting my feet up and having a little rest before I’m back on the road tomorrow for the long drive up to Wick- a distance of 240 miles. Should be very beautiful though. I’ll make sure I stop and take photos!

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