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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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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Wick Salvation Army

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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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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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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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 Eleven: Wick: Still no cheesecake!

Last day for me at school then a treat lunch (though still no cheesecake).

Yesterday I set S4 and S5 a 50-word story challenge – not an easy thing. But most of them came up trumps. Just a pity we didn’t have time to read them all (though some of them might be quite glad about that!). Good practice though for the Scottish Book Trust competition – with prizes, and a special under-18s category. Worth checking out.

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Photo credit: Jake Nye

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Photo credit: Laura Nicholson

Having cracked fiction, we turned to non-fiction and tore through that in half an hour. Using yesterday’s blog as an example, I realised what a bad example it was! Must do better! And of course that made writing today’s all the harder…

But lunch was lovely. At the Bord de l’eau, French restaurant on the riverside at Wick, three of us enjoyed delicious sea bass in dill and lemon butter, with the most yummy dauphinois potatoes. And of course puddings!

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What to do when you’ve finished the first draft

I finished the first draft of my new novel on Saturday morning. Sunday, being Sunday, I don’t work. Today is a Bank Holiday – though you wouldn’t have known it from the crowds in the supermarket when I went to refill my larder this morning.

Then I came home. Had a coffee. And thought ‘Now what do I do?’

It’s not that there’s nothing to do! Dry jeans hang on the airer waiting to be ironed.

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There’s a recipe I want to try.  And in my study, there was a long table covered with papers waiting to be sorted and filed or shredded or thrown out. Something I have been studiously avoiding for ages.

Time for self-discipline. Get it done. So I did an hour before lunch, then came back to it a couple of hours ago. And now it’s finished. What a great feeling. A tidy study again! Everything put away where it belongs. I’ve even hidden away the big folder with the draft of the new novel in it.

And now I feel a funny mix of bereft and on holiday! More self-discipline required because I WILL NOT look at the novel till it’s ‘cooled’ – till there’s a sufficient measure of distance for me to see it with a little objectivity. Only then will I be able to revise and rewrite and do it justice.

I’m aiming to do this in the next six weeks or so – before I head off for Scotland on my book promotion tour for When the Boats Come Home. While I’m away, I’m hoping to have two or three readers go through it and critique it for me so I can dive back in for a final revise or two before delivery to the publisher by my deadline of end-August.

Meanwhile, there are few hours left of the Bank Holiday, some ginger cake calling from the fridge to go with afternoon tea – and maybe a little permissible relaxation!

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