Friday, December 26, 2014


26th December 2014

After waxing lyrical in last week's blog about not having my writing flow interrupted, Christmas and family have descended and done just that. But it's only a few days, and I can juggle the story in my head for that long. I may not be at my desk figuring out how to rob a national museum, but the play is going on like some silent movie in the space between my ears and the intent remains unchanged. It can even be productive to let the plot go down into the unconscious and let it sit a while. There's only so much that the space between our ears can generate. Stephen King purports to take no holidays and can be found tapping away at his typewriter (literally) on Christmas day, but it seems to me at that point you start to lose touch with life itself and are in danger of reconfiguring reality according to the self which is not a desirable thing, since the writer is there to reflect reality not create it.

It's a fine line, as most things are: You have to have enough hubris to step over the line, but you should be careful when you do and always have a good exit strategy. You have to immerse yourself in the world you are creating, but never lose sight of the fact that this is fiction and a larger reality exists that puts your vision in some kind of a context. Perhaps artists walks a thinner line between sanity and the dark place, but my advice to writers is to make like good pagans and not lose sight of the light.

This Christmas/Solstice holiday time is precisely about that: from here on in, the stretch of daylight  gets longer, and that is a good direction to be moving in. Before the christians took over the season, people in every corner of the earth naturally celebrated the turning back towards the light. As humans we are naturally heliotropic, which is why insanity lies somewhere over there in the darkness.
So it is all good. Call it what you will, install whatever religious icons you have to, but the world spins on towards the light and takes our spirits with it. We can't help it.We are the sunflowers of winter, naturally unfurling towards the sun.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Scribo Ergo Sum

19th December 2014

Winter obliged this week in Colorado with what natives deem "a good dump."

You get rather blase about scenes like this when you live in them, but there really is nothing more spectacular than the sun coming out in the mountains after a night of snow and setting the whole scene aglitter. This is where I live. I am a lucky woman (skip ahead to April, it won't seem so appealing!) Out of my window as I write is a calendar view of a range of mountains lined with pistes, peaks wherever you look, skinny Aspens  in the foreground that winter has stripped but still left a kind of fragile beauty. The bears are a-snooze at this time of year, but the mountain lions and coyotes are still on the prowl. Every so often a herd of two hundred or more elk wanders through. I didn't grow up in such surroundings, but they have been home for getting close to thirty years now. And yet I know I will not stay here. It's not written into my fabric as the hills and glens and lochs of the west coast of Scotland are.
One day, I will no doubt look back on these snowy winters in this middle section of my life, but it will be a sentimental look, not what the Germans call Sehnsucht. This is more than just longing. It's longing to the point of addiction. For better or worse, I am addicted to Scotland.

News - publishing news. My agent took a look at Druid Hill, my sequel to Veil Of Time, and deemed it worthy of taking to the publishers - once I fix a few problems, that is.  Not all agents involve themselves with polishing manuscripts to this extent, but it is probably as well for me that mine does. Quite apart from anything else (but something he pointed out) the dang thing is riddled with typos. This is only partly due to my inability to spell - it's because my ancient computer won't spell-check a document the size of a novel.
I can't get to it now, though. I am too caught up in the current novel I am writing. It's too close to the climax. To stop now would be the literary equivalent of coitus interruptus. Scriptus interruptus. Can't do it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crows and other Mythos

12th December 2014

So much depends upon the cry of a crow perched on a telegraph pole on a country trail in December with only the sound of tires on a distant road as faint backdrop. Such was my e.e. cummings moment while out walking my dogs today. The crow jolted me out of my ruminations just as the red wheelbarrow disturbed the poet. Cummings was right - it is these little epiphany moments that are the life-blood of the artist, the focal point of all of life right there in a black crow, in a wheelbarrow glazed with summer rain. So much depends upon it. I'm not sure if so much ultimately depends upon it, but for the artist, the poet, the writer the musician or sculptor, there is no urge to create without it. These are the moments that excite the creative quick.

If you're stuck for something to write, bare yourself to these moments, cherish them and tuck them away in a hidden pocket. Don't try to contrive them. Let them find you.

Many moons ago, when I was a philosophy student in Edinburgh, I was assigned weekly essays. My nemesis back then was a tall English aristocrat, an angular and rather handsome professor in her early forties. I won't name her because she went on to Yale and Princeton and could sue me if she is still alive (she is  - I just looked her up and she looks like a nice old lady now!)  At the time, Doctor W. suffered no fool gladly, and most definitely suffered from ye olde pogo stick up the rear end. Though it was not required at Edinburgh University, she wore scholars black weeds, and she scared the living bejesus out of me. I would feign all manner of illness just to get out of private tutorials with her.  I don't know what I was doing in the field of philosophy exactly, because I was probably less suited to the art of dry argument than anyone I think of. But Doctor W. should have noted Scotland's motto, Nemo me impune lacessit. No one provokes me with impunity. Then she wouldn't have become a central, and not altogether sympathetic, character in one of my novels. But I digress...

What I would have to do to write these assigned essays was to find that spark that touched my creative quick and ride the wave from there. An essay on a Platonic dialogue would become a discussion of the novelist Robert Pirsig's distinction between logos and mythos. Doctor W. was squarely of the logos school, and I was definitely more in the field of mythos (which is why I shouldn't have been studying philosophy in the first place!) Her comment in red ink on that particular essay: This is the work of a person who is determined to remain an amateur. 
Funny thing is, old Doctor W. was right. An amateur philosopher I surely was. But what I became in my  profession of writer was a mythos-maker, turning my head on solitary walks to the crows, upon which so much depends.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing in the dark

December 5th 2014

There is probably nothing more fundamental to human beings than telling stories. Cave paintings like those blood-red animals in Lascaux France date back around 14,000 years, and they're all over the globe; some go as far back as 40,000 years. This is an era when people were still migrating out of Africa, a period thousands and thousands of years before stone circles or pyramids or any other human structure.
No written word then, of course, just pictures on a wall telling stories, trying to make sense of this place we find ourselves in. Here were our ancestors, thrown into existence (as the existentialists put it) trying to make sense of where they found themselves and who they were.  The first human to draw on a cave wall was the very first author.

And today we are still telling stories. There is a very haunting line from the very haunting film The English Patient that is written by the injured  female protagonist in The Cave of the Swimmers in the Sahara where she has been left with a fire and a flashlight while Ralph Fiennes is on his way for help. Help, of course, never comes, and so the fire and then her flashlight run out, shortly before her life does. "The lamp is gone now," she writes. "I am writing in the darkness." A cave writer, just like the cave painters. In the dark. But in a very real sense, we are all writing in the darkness, trying to poke a hole in the mystery of why we are here at all.

I'm thinking about these large questions, partly because after more than twenty years I'm re-reading Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here's a book that was rejected 121 times before being picked up by a publisher.  While writing the book, Pirsig had to hold down a day job, and so he would work on it from 2 am to 6 am every morning. That's what you call writing in the dark. But what's the drive? With no hope of publication, why did that man keep sticking his hand print on the wall?
Of course, Pirsig's book became a classic, and is these days regarded as something of a cultural icon. But that's the thing about writing in the dark - only one in one hundred and twenty-one people are going to be able to see what you're really doing.  Still, this is how we as humans struggle towards the truth. I don't care if your a minimalist atheist rationalist, you are still telling yourself a story, still trying to forge little pin-pricks of light out of the darkness.

In a time before we projected our idea of god into the heavens, the human being and the god being were not so separable, and so the god was able to tell stories through the man. "En-thused." En-theos, literally means "Possessed by a god." Here's the spark, the flame that inches those drawings, those writings, towards the light. It's the knowledge that we are more than tattered coats upon sticks. Look - my hand on the wall, more than just sticks and bones. I am homo-en-theos; the eternal shines through. The story marks the moment. The writing on the wall says that this is so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Spell Check

28 November 2014

Last week I was thanking god for dentists, and this week I want to extend my praise to editors. (I had better watch or else this attitude of gratefulness might get to be a habit!) Because bad spelling and writers do seem to go hand in hand. Jane Austen (apparently) couldn't spell, and neither could Fitzgerald, Keats, Hemingway, TS Eliot, Agatha Christie and Faulkner. The biographer of WB Yeats described his spelling as "at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork." So, you see, I am in good company.
I once wrote an undergraduate paper on the philosopher "Immanuel Can't." So, there. That tops everything. Unfortunately for me, Immanuel Could and Did very well. I rarely go out at night and look at the ink blue star-studded sky without thinking of Kant's "Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." (Well, I'm with him on the starry skies!)   But I digress...
I should have lived in the time of Shakespeare when spelling was less an art than a preference. The
man himself spelled his own name in several different creative renditions. But that was allowed back then. Dr. Johnston still hadn't appeared on the literary horizon with his particularities about this and that spelling. I have other reasons for pouring contempt on Dr. Johnson (most especially for his pouring contempt on the Scots) but because of him we are now divided into arbitrary categories of dyslexic and Lexic. Before Johnstone the dyslexic were just thought of as creative. 

Writers by nature think outside the box. If they didn't they would have nothing to write about. But it's not the same kind of thinking outside the box that good scrabble players or crossword puzzlers employ. I am notably bad at both of these skills. Perhaps it's because I don't think of words as representational but as pictures, as whole scenerios. So I can't think of words in abstraction with inherent qualities such as orderly letters. Does that make me dyslexic? Or just a writer.
Don't be discouraged if you can't keep pace with the Dr. Johhnson's of the world. If you march to the beat of a different spelling drum, it might just be a good sign. 
Bad spellers of the world untie!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inner Butterfly

21st November 2014

Yesterday I was in the dentist's chair. I only have to walk through the door of a dentist's office, breathe in that clove smell, see the people waiting in chairs next to a rack of magazines, and my shoulders go up around my ears. Don't get me wrong - on a daily basis I thank god for dentists. A recurring anxiety of mine is that if our world fell apart for whatever reason, if we ended up walking among the ashes of our civilisation like on a Mad Max set, what would happen if my tooth began to ache? I want to say to the dentists of the earth, long may you live (especially in my neighbourhood and especially if there is a holocaust!) That said, the dentist's chair is only one of the few places in the western world where we succumb to ritual torture (ritual only because we are wiling accomplices); and to delusion  - for the few seconds between me spying that six inch needle lurking at the back of my dentist's thigh, I really really believe that it's not an instrument of torture and is not going to hurt at all! Just like they say.
I think too often we get into a space like this with our writing, where walking into our office brings on a bout of tension, where trying to pull an astounding array of words out of ourselves feels like lying back in the dentist's chair and steeling ourselves for pain.

It is advisable, of course, to have a routine with your writing. Turning up each morning or at whatever appointed time you have set, not waiting until the spirit or the muse moves us, is just good writing habit. Still, I often find myself neurotically bound to that habit. There's a magazine on the table with an article I'm dying to read, but I feel too guilty to just go ahead and read it. I have an appointment with my creative self, and so the inner dialogue kicks in insisting that I show up. I actually catch myself shaming myself.
One thing people often congratulate me on is my persistence. I keep writing. I never give up. Every morning sees me in my office, and no invitation will distract me away from it.  I don't go on hikes until after my work is done. I don't go out for coffee and chat. Well and good. But it's a fine line. Your creative space is not going to be productive if your rules become jailers.
What you are aiming for is freedom. But the best kind of freedom is not the kind that has no structure at all. The demise of many young artist in the sixties and seventies is proof of that. But freedom cannot thrive either if your creative life becomes restrictive.
I am going away in a few days. The novel I have been working hard on these past months is about 100 pages from being finished. But I am distracted right now. I have been standing myself up these mornings. And I have to let it go. I wouldn't make a habit of this, but for now it is okay. I'm giving myself a little space. I'm doing what I want, which is to fuss about for now doing things that need to get done before I go. And sometimes, I should just let myself read that magazine article. Sometimes I do. What we are aiming at is what feeds the creative soul. Attendance at the desk is one thing, letting your imagination flit around where it wants is another.

So you decide where this line is. It's such a tiny little border between discipline and creativity. I don't know how to put my finger on it to show you where it lies - I only know that it is somewhere. Perhaps you can find it. And if you do, then let me know. And then let your inner butterfly soar.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Keepers

November 14th 2014

We live in a time of paradigm changes, which makes it a very exciting era to be in.  The bishop of Truro recently gave the Church of England six years before it gives up the ghost (and I'm not talking of the holy ghost!) ; all of art in its many forms is slowly wandering out of the desert of solipsism; physics, they said in the news this week, is on the brink of a whole new Copernican revolution; the explosion of social media has really changed the game on just about any front you can think of.

I have a daughter who is tearing around the country promoting the Indie film she wrote and starred in and which has done very well on the Indie film circuit garnering ten awards, including three for best actress. I bring this up because her struggle against the old paradigm, "the film industry" is very telling. Any time an "industry" moves in to represent the voice of the artist, then you have something like the kind of totalitarian regime that we, in our "free" society, love to denigrate.

The Hollywood monopoly still stands in so far as it continues to dictate our viewing options, but there are noises now from down the ladder, loud noises that are questioning the gate-keepers and why they were ever given that power in the first place.  Robert Redford put his mega-millions to very good use when he started his film fest at Sundance (quite apart from anything else, they sell fantastic clothes!) but inevitably the renegade morphs into the status quo, and though those films are still good, they have begun to rely more and more on big money and star-power.
You might wonder why I am going to such lengths to describe the film industry (apart from the obvious fact that my daughter has taken up arms against it!  ( I'm going on about it because this kind of indy movement is happening all over the arts and not in a small way in the book industry. Independent publishers have been around for a while, and of course we all know about "the big six," one of which (happily for me!) published my own book.  There are reasons of course for shooting for traditional publishing and reasons for going down the independent road. Both have their bonuses and pitfalls. But something else is beginning to emerge, a sort of half-way house between the independent publishers and the big industry ones, something that gives more power to the author (check out
The truth of the  matter and the impetus for change is that the voice of the artist doesn't necessarily conform to industry standards. Actually, how could it possibly? In an earlier blog I was talking about the difficulty Pulitzer prize winning Paul Harding faced trying to find a publisher for "Tinkers." He eventually went with this teeny little publishing company called Bellevue, and I am sure he must have worried for a while if he shouldn't be committed to Bellevue (on another level) for putting his hard-won opus into the hands of an underfunded company with a staff of one or two. For Harding it payed off big time. But there ought to be a larger more consistent outlet for "art" as opposed to "commercial art." Let's make the distinction, call a spade a spade. Who would publish James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Steinbeck, Faulkner, even Marilynne Robinson these days? Is it because their writing is outmoded? No. It's because by industry standards, they could not be successful, meaning, not enough people would cherish them to make a profit. But history will cherish them. The better side of our nature will cherish them. Great art is to be cherished and savoured over time, not sold for the fastest dollar.
We stand at a watershed-moment in many areas of life. All we know is, we don't need more gate-keepers. What we need, and what we are slowly getting, is a new paradigm.
Apologies to designer of this great image for using without permission

Friday, November 7, 2014

He said, She said.

7th November 2014

To begin at the beginning....

Every writer ought to have a house like this. It should be the law, that's what I say. This one belonged to Dylan Thomas, and no wonder it gave rise to such unearthly lines. I would have a house such as this right over the water. As Jung said, the human psyche gravitates towards water. I know mine does. It's primordial, our first home. And on this day of my birth, this is what I wish for myself: a good place to live and an even better place to die. Not that I'm there yet. There's much too much to get done, too many books to be published, too much to see (including the above house which is now a museum.) But in the end, in the very end, the spirit should pass out over the water. That is something I have no fear of.

And so to dialogue. The funny thing about dialogue both in literature and in film, is that it has to perform an amazing trick: it has to appear normal while being at the same time far from normal. It has to be doing a job, which in everyday living, of course, speech rarely does.

      "Did you get the teabags while you were out?"
       "I think I got the right ones. Which do you prefer?"
       "I used to think it was Tetley, but these days I prefer Yorkshire Gold. Which ones did you buy?"

And so on and so on.  This is the way people really converse, but if you filled a book with this kind of meandering drivel, you'd have your reader asleep in no time.
So speech in books and in film has to be condensed. It has to be pithy and move the story along. And it has to do all this while sounding real.

"You keep away from Curly, Lennie."
"Sure I will, George. I won't say a word."
"Don't let him pull you in, but if the son-of-a-bitch socks you, let 'im have it."
"Let him have what, George?"

Immortal lines from the best of all dialogue-writers: Steinbeck.

"When dialogue is right, we know," says Mr. Stephen King. "When it is wrong we also know--it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument."

"Bond. James Bond." This does not sound real, though it has become standard fare in books and film when people introduce themselves. I have never once in all my many years introduced myself as "McDougall. Claire McDougall," but in written dialogue you see it all the time.
Another thing you see too often in dialogue is people repeating phrases in a way they would never do in real life: "I will never get over this," he said. "I will never get over it."  If you heard anyone talking like this in real life, you'd think they were reading off a badly written script.
Dylan Thomas wrote in a converted garage just up the cliff from his amazing house. Every day his wife would lock him in it for four hours. She should have locked him in it for good. If he had lived until 2014, he would have been 100 years old.
"To begin at the beginning...." He hardly started. But he filled our hearts with beautiful soul crunching language. And none of it sounded in the least bit like speech.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Good Witches

31st October 2014

All Hallow's Eve (Halloween) is one of those pagan holidays that the church took over and tried to make holy (in the sense of people filing down the aisle to drink blood at the altar! Mmmm)  In my country, Halloween is called Samhain (pronounced Sah-voon) in the old Gaelic language, and my book Veil Of Time starts on Halloween when my protagonist arrives at the ancient fort of Dunadd in Scotland.  There are plenty of Christians these days who won't celebrate Halloween because it is supposed to be the devil's birthday, but whether you do or you don't, Samhain keeps shining through the veil: there is just no escaping the holiday's pagan roots.
What our ancestors were celebrating on this day of Samhain was not the devil, for god's sake, since they hadn't yet divided the world into "good" and "evil," but the fact that our everyday world is only a thin veil drawn across the great totality beyond space and time (which is why we dress up as the dead, the ghosts and ghoulies.) Once the church took over the holiday, witches appeared in this Halloween pot, too. But "witches" were just the wise women of pagan times, the ones the church didn't want leading their disciples off the Christian straight and narrow. You can't conceive of Halloween without witches -  those hundreds of thousands of "witches" the church took out and burned to death.

On this Halloween day, let's take a moment to remember the wise women, as they are remembered by a small sconce with pink flowers set in the wall of the esplanade at Edinburgh castle. This is one of the spots the "witches" were taken. Sometimes these innocent women were garroted first, often they went to the flames fully conscious. It is a horrendous and not much acknowledged part of church history. In 1727, Janet Horne was the last woman to be burned at the stake in Scotland on the charge of consorting with the devil. This was the same year Handel was composing St. Matthew's Passion. The plaque next to the sconce allows that "some" of the witches were actually good witches. Small recompense, I say.

I was going to talk today about dialogue -  a fun but crucial aspect of writing stories - but let's leave that until next week. On this day of Halloween, I am feeling the weight of this fear of the wise woman and of the pagan in general. I'm thinking of the untold damage it has done to human consciousness. It is not a literary point and I apologise for this time out of my blog's main function. But it inspired me to take a stand in a book series and write about what was lost to our religious sensibility when the monks took over. It's about time someone did. It's about time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Rewrites and Conjuring Tricks

25th October 2014

When you write a book of fiction, when, like God, you create this world populated by projections of your own psyche, it takes over your life. That seventh day of rest doesn't come for you, though, because you're too absorbed with your fictional world and too disengaged from your real one: the days just keep on passing, from five pages on this day to ten on the next, to a day when you are forced to go out and attend to other aspects of your life but keep chewing over what you have written and what you are going to write next. It's a socially sanctioned obsessive compulsive disorder.

I have to say this is where I am right now, recreating this book that I created once before but so long ago now the initial impulse has become hazy. So I get to be god all over again, and it is a heady business, a piece of psychotherapy, if truth be told. The craft of the writer is to make this journey of self-discovery compelling also to the reader.  Funny thing - I thought I knew these characters of old (Lord knows I have been carrying them around for long enough!) but they are surprising me all over again.  They are saying different things and are reacting in different ways, and my main character, Hazel, has much more of an internal struggle going on. Sometimes I wonder from where in the dark pool of my own soul I am pulling this stuff. I thought her attraction to the love-interest was obvious, a
fait accompli, but now I don't know if he isn't just too aggravating, that in the end she might not, as she did before, end up with him.
Stephen King says in his fantastic little book "On Writing," that stories consist of 3 things: Narration, Description and Dialogue.  Where is plot in this? - nowhere, and that's the way it should be (he says, and I agree!)
So re-writing becomes a new voyage of discovery. You have the same characters, but this time around you're not in the same place you were the last time around. This time the story begins to list in different directions, because the characters have come out of their sleep and are not the same.
If the writer of "The Three Bears," had picked it up a few decades later and messed with it again, it might have come out differently: Goldilocks might look up at the three bears crowding her bed and, instead of fleeing, might begin to explain her predicament. The bears, being reasonable bears, might probe more deeply and find out that this little girl is truly lost, and not just in the forest. In this version, they might adopt her, and then the point of the story would be entirely different.

So don't carve characters out of stone. As you do your own children, let your characters blossom into their own persons. Stephen King says, "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it something I never expected."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ye Of Little Faith

17th October 2014

There are people, some of them my friends, who balk at the idea of being seen with a time travel book like mine in their hands. They think it reflects badly on them: REAL literature is not taken to such flights of fancy - it deals, if somewhat poetically, with REAL life or with Quirky life or with an Aberration of life, but always with tangible life, thank you very much.  The REAL reader of fiction is a no-nonsense sort of reader, and time travel, they think, is precisely that: nonsense.
I was giving a reading earlier this year and found myself saying, "Time travel isn't as far-fetched as it used to be." This caused a wave of titters to move across the room. But I am right, you know. Our whole notion of both space and time is dissolving about our ears, and neither one is that solid entity we once mistook it for. Reality, science is beginning to concede, is what you make it. Reality, as it turns out, might be the best case of mass hallucination there is.
At another reading, I came to the conclusion (with the audience) that my book really falls into the genre of Magical Realism. Why does Gabriel Garcia Marquez get to put the tail of a pig on babies and have people floating about, while when I have people floating about, it is deemed low brow supermarket nonsense? I take umbrage at this. All books ask the reader to take a leap of faith. It's just that I am asking them to jump a bit further. So is Marquez.

Jump, and you will be vindicated when the first contraption makes it possible to send your collection of atoms through space and time to another spot. Scientists are already teleporting photons, for god's sake. So, don't go scoffing at my time travel book! If you want reality as Newton saw it, I have a whole backlog of unpublished books with people up to their ears in the quagmire of hard reality.  Maggie, the protagonist of "Veil Of Time," is actually doing the same, trying to find her life, and in the process digging up some questions about what we lost when the pagans were ousted.

These ancestors of ours would have had less of a hard time with the idea of time travel. It was the Christians who made time look like a long line because they needed to put God at the beginning and heaven at the end. The pagans knew that time doesn't really exist. They were masters of magical realism, and not only Marquez but McDougall would have been up there on their bronze-age shelves. Right next to Hawking's A Brief History of Time. You see, they wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Unlocking the Story

10th October 2014

This last week I turned the final (for now) rewrite of the sequel to my published book over to my agent who is currently in Frankfurt for the international book fair. Unfortunately, he will not be able to flog my published book, because in the initial contract with the publisher we gave up all rights but the motion picture rights. This is fairly common - when you are an unknown writer trying to find a buyer in that great unknown sea of big publishing, you would practically sell your body, and don't think twice about foreign rights. Brazil did step forward early on and bought the rights for translation into Brazilian Portugese (what they will do with the Gaelic is anybody's guess!)
I've been wondering how the various translations of the title might look: Le Voile du Temps? Der Schleier der Zeit? El Velo del Tiempo? Den Sloja av Tid? My vote goes for the French, which lends it a certain mystique. But only the languages with an archaic indigenous precursor are going to be able to handle the Gaelic. Spanish could use Latin, I suppose, though that might conjure pictures of Roman legions marching through Scotland in squads - a little different from the druidesses and stone circles the early Gaelic suggests.

So, with my sequel out of the way and with no immediate plans for Book 3 in the series, I am more than excited to be beginning a new book. This isn't exactly new, but one of my first. This is "Hazel and the Chessmen," about a young American woman who gets caught up in the plan of a Scottish nationalist (a surly but attractive Scottish nationalist!) to steal back the Lewis Chess pieces from the British Museum in London. It has long been in my plans to rewrite this story in the first person, because I think readers were having a hard time getting into my protagonist Hazel's head as long as the narration was in the third person.
But now I am back from Scotland after the failed referendum for independence, with all this disappointment and even anger.  All that energy has to go somewhere, and now I see I can recast the story in the times of the referendum, giving the plot a whole new level of intensity. I am fired up and working long hours (for me.)

That's what writing is all about anyway - not about politics in the first instance, but about harnessing those rivers that are moving and move you. I wouldn't have set out to write a book around the referendum, but since I had already written the story, it's just about angling it differently. Paul Harding said at the seminar I took from him, that sometimes just the addition of one word or one sentence can alter the cast of the whole story, so that you unlock something you hadn't seen before and you can literally hear the tumblers turning and everything just falling into place. Here's the writer with a Kaleidoscope of words, just turning the instrument round one more notch.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Twisted Sister

3rd October 2014

I had never actually gone off by myself on a research trip until this last month when in Scotland for the referendum I drove my miniscule rental car far up the A9 to a very small town called Portmahomack on the edges of the Moray Firth. This was an ancient stronghold of the Picts, and I am toying with the idea of setting my third book in the Time series here. I checked into a B&B right on the shore and was the only guest, sitting there each morning for my breakfast of "jugged kipper," and "brose porridge," reading the table mat which happened to contain quite a bit of information about times past in Portmahomack, for instance that the early Picts here lived right on the shore in their wattle round houses and ran a kind of trade market, presumably served by travellers along the eastern sea board.

The Picts left a few of these amazingly intricately carved stones around Portmahomack erected by master Pictish stonemasons. This one, the Hilton of Cadboll stone, is my favourite, although as so often happens, it got wheeked away to the National Museum in Edinburgh (not before making a detour to the British Museum in London, of course!)  At the top of the stone is a crescent and V-rod Pictish symbol (which I happen to have tattooed on my arm and which I learned on this trip might have connoted woman - cf. the crescent moon, and the broken arrow, which let's hope will be woman's final contribution to our race's story!) Below is a hunting scene featuring a woman riding side-saddle, drawing one to the conclusion that the status of women in this pagan culture was significantly higher than it was to become under Christendom.

This building is what I found on the site of a Pictish settlement just up the hill from the shore. A church, of course, because I have come across this endlessly now in my research: The monks would come in and plonk a church right on an ancient pagan site. By a nice twist of fate, this church has now been turned into a museum to house some of the Pictish finds from the area. One thing the monks didn't count on was that bones speak and have their own dark energy (which is what I plan to call Book 3, Dark Energy.) Now the pagans are speaking to us through the ages in a place where hymns were once sung and misguided monks fought with that other kind of dark energy that lurks beneath the cassock. Oh, I love the irony of it! Perhaps it's just my twisted mind and perhaps the reason I am a writer in the first place.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Waiting it out with Robert Burns

Why is patience so hard to come by?
The Scottish referendum which came down on the wrong side of independence through fear and indecision teaches me about patience: The majority of under 55 year olds voted Yes and 75% of young people voted for independence - so patience is in order. The debate won't go away. We just have to bide our time (we might have to wait until JK Rowling is out of the picture so she can't fund the unionist campaign!) Robert Burns was fighting the unionists for Scottish independence 250 years ago,  and so he had to have had even more patience, a patience that would outlast him.

For the second time this summer I sat through an eight hour flight from Scotland to America's east coast, only to run for a connection for another four hour flight to Denver. The airlines have figured out the absolute minimal space a person can endure for twelve hours of flying without going completely bonkers, but only just. You're on the verge of screaming for more leg room, more centimeters on the arm rest, more space between you and the seat-back screen in front of you. Inhuman patience is required.

Same goes for my writing career. It would have been silly for me to hover over sales figures in the first month or so after publication. I am not a known entity - as my agent forecasted, it was going to take time for the book to percolate up. And that's what it is doing. I got a letter lately from a reader in Australia who had bought my book at a local book store - I didn't even know it was available in Australia! (I should add that she called it a "work of art." Can't argue with that from down under or anywhere else!) Then, while I was in Scotland, I went into the big Waterston's book shop in Oban, the biggest town in Argyll, where I went to school. Being a Scot and having been taught not to toot my own horn, I was extremely uncomfortable going up to the man at the cash register and introducing myself and my book. Especially when he went to his computer and tried to bring it up. He shook his head. "Not in the system." I located a kernel of growing panic in the area of the chest. But he had been entering "Vale of Time," instead of "Veil," and suddenly he found it. "Already on order," he said. It's not a big place, Oban, but the news made my heart sing an ode to joy -  it is  a home town for me in many ways, and I felt like Sally Field: "You love me right now! You really love me!"
But such an outburst wouldn't have gone down well, not in Scotland. There is still something subdued and cowed about the Scottish people. I think that is why I left. And it is why, given the offer of independence, the people of Scotland chose not to take it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sailing to Byzantium

12th September 2014

At the end of the day, in my book, the laurel wreath of literature goes to the poets.

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

If I were to be reincarnated, or if I were already a reincarnation of someone, who would I want that person to be? The poets spring to mind - Godlike WB Yeats? But he spent most of his days longing after Maude Gonne.

Oh, the misery - and I did too much of that kind of longing myself in my youth! Or how about the wordsmith himself, Dylan Thomas? Mmmm - he spent most of his life worshipping the bottom of the glass.

Emily Bronte - er, no thanks. Dying of TB in a draughty manse (well, I grew up in a draughty manse - but let's hope I don't cough my way into the grave.) Ugggh. DH Lawrence, an author I have much affinity for? Yes, but he was such a wanderer, always searching for but never finding a place he felt comfortable in. Mmm, that's a bit too close already for comfort on the day of my departure for my own country from my adopted country, neither of which place makes me feel completely at ease.
Point is, Peter Schaffer has it right in his play "Amadeus:" The vessel is tarnished when it comes to the transmission of art.  The gods and goddesses see fit to pour their elixir into any old cup, which is a good thing for you and me, because they might choose us! The one who holds the art is practically irrelevant: the art stands alone. Even for the poets.
My next blog will come from Scotland the day after our vote for independence from the manic grips of imperialism. As in all strikes for freedom, may the heart win out, because, as William Wallace says in Braveheart, "They can take our lives, but they'll never take our Freeeeeeedom!!"

Thursday, September 11, 2014


19th September 2014

I am in Scotland researching my third book in the time travel series, and this was one of my first stops on Loch Tay. These amazing constructions called Crannogs were built starting in the iron age, and it isn't that easy to build them, let me tell you. Those iron age ancestors of mine knew a thing or two. For instance, these houses are built on stilts, and the way you secure all the many stilts it takes to support a house on the loch bed is you take a very long tree trunk out into the water and then you put a cross piece over the top of it. Next, you start to wiggle the trunk and because the floor of loch is sand over clay, you start to create a quick-sand effect, and the trunk becomes lodged in there witha vice-like grip. Another thing they did, which was very crafty and not so far from what we do today is that they built the walls of the crannog in two parallel layers, and in between they stuffed insulation made up of wool and bracken. I enjoyed poking around the crannog, and was especially pleased to leave a copy of my book with the lady in the gift shop, who was quite excited about it and promised to order more.

After the crannog, I drove up to the tiny village of Portmahomack, which is on a finger-like peninsula of Ross-shire and where a long time ago there was a Pictish settlement and lots of fantastically carved monoliths. One of the stones bears the symbol that is (not by coincidence) tattooed on the inside of my arm! It's called a crescent and V-Rod, and no one knows what it means, except for some who think it intimates that Scotland will gain her independence like any other rich and self-sufficient country should. (Well, I am the only one who thinks this!)  
It is lovely here, quite unspoiled, as you can tell below. Last night in the closing dark, I sat on a       and watched the sky fade. A heron flew up and flapped magestically, as Herons do, across the surface of the water.

As for the fog. Sometimes people vote for fog. Sometimes the smoke screen gets taken for daylight, And that's what happened to my country on September 18th 2014.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ne'er the Twain

5th September 2014

I gave up on Mark Twain's time travel book "A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur" - for the time being, let's just say. I thought I ought to read it, so that I didn't look non-plussed the next time I do a Q&A and someone asks for a comparative study of my book in the light of Twain's. Well, I am glad he wrote a time travel book, because it lends the genre some street cred, but it is much more of a tongue-in-cheek affair than my book is - it's Twain, what would you expect? Not sure what his point was, except to show mankind's inimitable progress since days of yore. His is set in the fifth century,  but he gets the time period all wrong. He didn't have access to the internet, of course, and I don't know how I would have done without that particularly wonderful tool, but his characters speak in Shakespearean English at a time when English didn't even exist! He decides to show the savages the better part of how democracy works, and he's always going about impressing the backward folk with his inventions, though he needs materials for these (matches?) that he wouldn't have been able to find. Like me, he does have it in for the church, though, and how it upholds feudalism - but just so long as you're talking of the Catholic church (no such distinction, Mark, in the fifth century!) He's fine with the reformed church, and I am fine with neither. Unless you're looking for rules for sheep herding, you're probably not either.
So, I put Twain's book down on my bedside table on the pile that I know I ought to be reading but probably won't get back to (it's getting quite high.)

What I want to be reading instead is Edna O'Brien. I recently acquired her Country Girls trilogy and I am racing my way through them. There is something very raw and sweet about O'Brien's writing, especially in these early books.  In the very real and funny dialogue and in the gorgeous and minute observations lies a real poignancy. After the first book, I came away thinking I ought to write a book like that, only set in Scotland, and then I remembered that I had. It's called "Above Duntrune" and it is the book that my agent initially picked me up for (but hasn't yet sold - Country Girls probably wouldn't get past the drawbridge of publishing houses these days either.)
As for me, I am back off to Scotland next week to lend my support to the Scottish Referendum, to wave my Scottish flag in the face of the unionists, and to romp about the wild green places, because I am at the end of the day a country girl myself.....

Well, not that kind of country girl, though I wouldn't mind being that handsome! (I'd probably ditch the yellow earrings, though.)

Friday, August 29, 2014


29th August 2014

T.S. Eliot: "Every country is home to one man, and exile to another."

I have been thinking a lot about exile, because I live in a kind of self-imposed exile myself, and because when I look at the lives of other writers, it seems to be a common theme. The favourite author of my youth DH Lawrence left his home town of Eastwood, England, and spent the rest of his life wandering the globe trying to find a place he could call home (he never did!) Ireland's James Joyce lived in Paris. Great Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon lived way down in the south of England. Steinbeck removed himself in the end to New York state; Irish writer Edna O'Brien has lived forever more in London.
The list goes on and on, and I think it's because the writer growing up has felt him or herself a step removed from his surroundings. There but not really there, which is the kind of perspective you need to look upon a place artistically. And then, of course, those people who populated your growing up don't generally like it if you turn around and start throwing their way of life back at them.  They find it condescending, because you are after all only the cheeky child who had too much say back then, and they are not about to condone it now. Same goes for the family - no one loves the Joseph character and would rather sell him/her off to the hairy Ishmaelites, thank you.

But in the great irony that most art rests, the writer in exile spends his/her life longing back, looking over his or her shoulder with a wistful "If only" look.

The images in this picture are the kind that get my heart bleeding, and I only have to hear Scottish music for my toes to go into involuntary spasms. You only have to ask me about Scottish independence, and I will talk without ceasing about the case for a Yes vote. I will call on my forefathers and Robert Burns and wax lyrical about Braveheart himself Mel Gibson, I mean William Wallace.
Out of a family of five children, I was actually the only one born in Scotland. Out of my syblings, I was the only one to sit out in the car of an evening by myself listening to the Alexander Brothers singing about the days of their childhood in the Scottish mountains and glens.
And then there's the blood, you see, the dancing gyres of the DNA: Mc (son of - should really be, and is in the Gaelic, Nic daughter of) Dou (Dubh - dark) Gall (Ghall - stranger.) NicDougall. Daughter of a dark stranger, that's me.

So why not go back? Or at least why not stop all this longing, wipe the Scottish dust of your feet and have done with it? It's because you're trapped. "Draining your dearest veins" (Burns) for the life-blood of your art, you still don't really belong anywhere, neither in the old country nor the new. It's too late for me - I am a mid-Atlantic dweller now, my feet in No-man's Land, marooned in a country that like Atlantis does not exist.

As Lawrence so aptly put it: "We're rather like Jonah's running away from the place we belong."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Reads

22nd August 2014

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work." Stephen King

I am going to take a moment or two just to rest on my laurels a little here: five months on from publication of "Veil Of Time," some little whispers of success are beginning to make themselves heard, and I have to report that it is salve to my lonely little ear. Oh, it is lovely, and it has taken a hunch out of my shoulders after these hard silent paranoid weeks and weeks of waiting to see how my book is going to fair out in the wide world. For those on the brink of publication, let me warn you, that no struggle in the dark hours of your creative office, no argument with your editor, no disparaging comments from people who should know better, comes close to the gnawing doubt that sets in during the weeks and months after publication of your first book.
Okay, so here I am at month number five - Veil Of Time is not on the New York Times Best seller list, but it is making its way onto a few lists.

The first of these is a recommended summer "beach reads" list from my own Simon and Schuster. Of course, being my publisher, you'd expect them to want to tout their own publications, but I just want to point out that not every book they publish made it onto this list. And lots of potential readers are going to see this list, some of whom will even go out and buy my book. Some may even take it to the beach, which is where I wouldn't mind parking myself - like, permanently. Like, it's the best place for, you know, like chilling out.

Second of all, not being an internet aficionado, I am not well acquainted with popular websites, but my editor e-mailed me a couple of days ago to tell me that my book is number 17 out of 125 on a list of best books of 2014 (so far!) Glory Hallelujah! The website is called and has a readership of two and a half million. I pulled it up and found my book on another list of their's: Books you will love if you like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. My book is number 5 (out of 23) on that list! More, they had a little blurb accompanying the book jacket, which read, "While it is similar in concept to Outlander, the novel differentiates itself by focusing on royals instead of rebels. You won't be able to get enough!"
To which I say, thank you Popsugar! (I don't even mind that you called my book a Romance - give me two and a half million readers and I am anybody's!) Like, no brainer. Like, duh.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Hot and Heavy

August 15th 2014

I have had some fan mail lately, a very nice thing for an author so insecure she can't even look at her reviews. One of the messages said that they really loved the book Veil Of Time, but sort of wished there had been more hot stuff.
Well, that is one of those issues that every author has to face and make a decision on. Some authors decide not to go into the hot zone at all, but frankly a book with no sex is to me like a dinner with no dessert - you just can't help feeling something is missing. And, Freud aside, sex is just so much a part of the human experience, how could you have 350 pages describing the lives of people without it? Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series took the opposite tack and decided to put it in every other  page, but that leaves me after a while feeling like shouting "Enough already!" It's just hard to write one good sex scene, let alone a hundred.

Then of course, there's the embarrassment. Pretty much your reader knows that you're going to draw on your own experience, so then you have your Great Aunt Theresa to think about, not to mention children. That's not a part of your experience you're gong to post on Facebook, if you have Facebook, which I don't. Because I am private. I keep myself to myself. Hence the question of sex in what I write is not a small issue.
So, my rule for literature is the same I hold up to sex in movies - if it moves the plot along and isn't gratuitous, then it should stay. People seem to allow for clicheed sex scenes in books much more readily than they allow for clichees in any other aspect of writing. In American films, the sex clichee that is acted out time and time again revolves around the saxophone, the clothes strewn up the stairs, the abandoned high heels, the sparse bedroom, the bodies moving under the covers. Why do people not object? It makes your eyes glaze over. You know what they mean, but it's not showing you anything about the characters.
Real sex isn't like that anyway - especially not with someone you have known for two hours, as is usually the case in movies.  European films are better about this, and don't do that saxophone thing. The bodies tend to be real bodies; the action tends to come out of the characters.
That's what I strive for in my writing. In "Veil Of Time," there is really only one sex scene (though others touched on) when Maggie and Fergus come together for the first time. So no saxophones, but some confusion over leg wraps and dirks sheathed under the armpit and surprisingly stretchy modern  underwear.  I wanted to show in that scene that his expectations, coming from the 8thC, would be quite different from hers, being a modern somewhat damaged woman. Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn't.
And then there is virtue in leaving something to the imagination. We won't go into Shades of Grey, because that isn't literature but something else - maybe a useful something else, as a pressure valve is useful to a pressure cooker, but not worthy of art.  Some sex scenes I read are just too explicit and make you feel uncomfortable, like someone exposing themselves to you in an alley. I don't need to know how well a man is hung - it isn't going to change much about this intimate soul-bearing interaction between people. I certainly don't need to know about enormous mammary glands, God save us. Let the reader fill in the gaps - it's far more erotic anyway. Give hints.
In writing, this is the kind of balance we strive for.  The author is a tight-rope walker between truth and suggestion. To be a writer is to be a conjurer. The magician shows you more by showing you less. The conjurer never lays everything out on the table, and certainly not the manual of how the trick is done.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Unmoved Mover

8th August 2014

There's still lots to tell about my trip to Scotland!
First of all, my visit to the Kilmartin Museum was more than remarkable. Dunadd, where I set my book and where I was staying for a week, is the most important of the ancient monuments that dot the six mile-long valley called these days Kilmartin Glen, but which in my book is called "The Valley Of Stones." Archeologists come in from time to time and excavate another of the burial cairns or stone chambers, and they have also from time to time taken their trowels to Dunadd. Some of what they find is housed in the Kilmartin Museum, which also boasts an outstanding little tearoom. Every time I go home to Argyll, I pay the Kilmartin Museum a visit, because it has provided me with good source material for my writing (and because the scones are the best!) In my book, Veil Of Time, one of my main characters Jim Galvin works there, and it is in the tearoom that he has tea and scones with my protagonist Maggie.
Anyway, this time, I also wanted to sound out the lady (also named Claire) who acquires books for the museum shop and see what the prospects were for her carrying my book. So, not only was she willing to do that, but she had already heard of the book. (Another lady on the till taking entrance fees turned out to be the mother of my brother's childhood friend, and she let me in for free.)
I took my little party down to the museum housed in the old Kilmartin church manse (such a nice little irony!) and began to explain to them some of the features that had informed my book. A lady volunteer (doing the job of my Jim Galvin) approached and asked if I was Claire McDougall, saying she had read my book and loved it and was quite effusive about the chance meeting. Made my day.
On to the tearoom. Sitting there, looking out through the oversized windows first to an 8ft deep pile of stones known as Glebe Cairn (where a burial chamber and necklace of jet was found), and then to the walls of the tea room, I noticed a couple of pieces of art. The first one is this:

You can't tell from this picture of the running shoes, but the title of the piece is "Time Traveller." I remind you that time-travel is one of the main features of my book. Then above my head at the table where I was sitting was a painting of Dunadd. Below is the inscription:

"Veil Of Time" all but jumped out of the paper and hit me square in the forehead!
The stone features of Kilmartin Glen were built thousands of years ago along a ley line, a fissure in the earth's crust emitting unusual levels of electro-magnetic energy. (How did those ancient folks know that?) Perhaps that energy informs both the veil of time and the book of the same name. I don't know, but I do suspect that we ignore at our peril the larger forces that move our story along. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Back To The Source

18th July 2014


Who knows what is going to spark and take flame for a writer.  It can be the most mundane of things, like a red wheel barrow beside white can be the look on the face of a child, or a host of golden daffodils. It can and very often is place.  Commonly for ex-pats it is place. For me it is this place. When I am  drifting off to sleep, this is the bridge I walk over, the image that settles into my bones and connects me like an umbilical. I grew up in this place, surrounded by cows and fields and sea, looking across the bay to the floating islands of the Hebrides. Like some fictional character myself, I wandered in my teens through the forests to hilltops where I would stand like Julie Andrews with my arms outstretched, my clothes billowing crazily like flags on a pole. I was the place and the place was me. Eleven O'Clock at night in the summer when you could see yourself in moon shadows, I would stop at the cattle grid at the end of our lane, not wanting to break the spell.

So, if I love this place so much, why did I ever leave it?  Why does a child rebel and reject the home it needs? When I was a young child, my grandparents lived in Harwich, Essex, a port in England from which huge ferries leave all day for the ocntinent. I used to stand at the end of my grandparents street, watching the ferries leave and experiencing an inkling of something that would become a bit of an affliction for me, and for which German has a wonderful word: Fernweh. It has equivalent in English, and it means the longing for far away places.  As the saying goes, however, "you can take the girl out of Scotland, but you can't take Scotland out of the girl. 
It's a bit like that song by Dougie MacLean, Caledonia: Let me tell you that I love you, that i think about you all the time. Caledonia, you're calling me and now I am going home.....

So here I am again. The summer brought me back. It's been calling me back, and I am getting worse at ignoring the call. There is too much of me stamped in this place, too much of it stamped in me. I am becoming ill at ease anywhere else.  Like Emily Bronte out of Yorkshire, something is withering at the heart.  

If Music Be The Food...

11th July 2014

All summer long Aspen enjoys a much celebrated music festival. Like everything else Aspen it is expensive, but if you go about it right, you can enjoy fantastic music all summer long for a song (so to speak.) And it is so important to get music into your life, because as Victor Hugo said, "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." Music is the vehicle; the human heart is the freight. So, get chugging. If the spectrum of human creativity stretches from physics at one end through writing and poetry as you get to the opposite end, it ends with music. Whereas good poetry almost bypasses the intellect, music lies beyond the reach of intellect altogether, which is why it is so powerful. It gets you at the quick.
To beat a well worn gong of mine: modern art, including modern music, has lost sight of that maxim, and so we run into the thinking of the artist instead of the non-speaking zone. Modern poetry has lost its proximity to music, which is why it has also given up on rhyme. The tradition in modern poetry has been to mimic the spoken word, and so it has lost its musicality. It's a good thing music can't lose its musicality - or can it? Listen to Benjamin Britten and you might think otherwise. Last year Aspen music festival did a run on Britten to celebrate his centenary, and there were so many complaints (and not just because people are being unimaginative - think of the Emperor's Clothes) but because it doesn't chime with the upward beat of the heart.
Kahlil Gibran said, "Music is the language of the spirit."  This year, to make up, the festival laid on some favourites: I just went to hear Beethoven's 5th. Oh yes, it is an old chesnutty piece, but people fill the tent. Yesterday I went to hear Joshua Bell play Bruch's violin concerto, and I thought I might bleed all over the floor. Why? A woman I know met me outside the tent and placed her hand over her heart. "Oh," she said, "the music." Yes, the music.  Every time I sit through one of these pieces, my eyes well up, though I remain doggedly determined not to let a tear fall. Why? It's embarrassing; we live in an age of stony silence. Sentiment is highly suspect. People would think me over the top. I am over the top. Always have been. Bleeding is the thing I do best. But I am a Brit who should have been born an Italian and then the tears would have been able to flow, and I wouldn't be in this battle between feeling and decorum. Bruch's violin concerto takes a dagger and plunges it into the heart. It makes me cry. What can I say? It makes other people cry, too. So it is doing the job of the unspeakable art. It is speaking to the ragged heart.

When I signed a copy of my book for a music teacher recently, I wrote in the inscription: "Yes, but music is better."
I am told there is a statue of Mozart in Salzburg with the inscription Die Macht der Musik (I like that in German both power and music are feminine - sometimes languages give much away!) The Power of Music. Like I told my teacher friend, music is still the best, the thing on our armour that shines the brightest.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dead Poets

August 1st 2014

All over Britain are remnants of the Celtic people who first inhabited these shores. With various invasions of other cultures, the Romans and then the Angles and Saxons, they got pushed out to the western-most fringes. So you have small Gaelic-speaking populations in Cornwall, England's south westerly point, Wales and the west coast of Scotland and the islands.  Dylan Thomas belonged to such a population, and I do, too, which is maybe why the man sends me into raptures and why I have made my way down to his home town of Swansea for the celebration of his centenary.  

A few days ago, I was heading north to Stonehaven in Scotland when I drove past a sign for the Grassic Gibbon centre and knew I would have to drive back to investigate. Lewis Grassic Gibbon is another of my heroes, because he took the Scottish landscape and made of it a character in his novels, the best of which is "Sunset Song."  This is Scottish literature at its best, not just that the author happens to be Scottish but in which the land is allowed to speak. That longing the author feels for the landscape of his childhood draws the reader in on the level of soull. It literally sings on the page.
Dylan Thomas did this for southern Wales and for the dreamy state of childhood. It is a profound human state, one that turns the writer in exile forever back to the land of his or her birth. And it's what makes you sad when you visit it. The longing can never be sated, and you are sent away again back to the place you live now restless and aching for the ineffable dream.

Dunadd 2

 25th July 2014

At Dunadd where my book is set and where I am staying just now, the Scottish Trust has mounted new plaques describing more of the history of the place. Good timing, I say - look at this one with an artist's depiction of how Dunadd might have looked in the time period I am writing about.


Well, it's only an artist's imagination, and my imagination didn't put a large building on the top, though everything else is pretty much the same. On the top of my 8thC Dunadd, is Sula the druidess's house, because their pagan religion was more than likely woman-centered, even though they would have allowed the men to hold positions of apparent power. This is the way matriarchal societies work, keeping it quiet who is really ordering the way things play out. DH Lawrence wrote a wonderful short essay about this called, "Cocksure men, hensure women." At the glass doors of my Dunadd cottage are five brown chickens waiting for me to scatter another handful of oats. They are all female. You can't have cockerels around holdiay cottages because they start crowing at ungodly hours of the morning. They are male and like to strut their stuff. As long as men are allowed to strutt their stuff, everything goes along smoothly and they won't question the real policy makers. That's why I put Sula the druidess in the highest poistion - she was up there looking out for her people.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Independence

July 4th, 2014

When you live in a foreign country, some of the holidays leave you a little bewildered. I can never remember which end of summer Memorial Day or Labor Day falls. Presidents Day is for celebrating presidents, I guess, good or bad.  Thanksgiving is a whole story in itself and when I first came to this country I refused to celebrate it in deference to the Native Americans and the hyprocrisy of celebrating a people whose help you sought and then turned around and eliminated. But I eventually had to concede, because whatever its roots, it is nowadays a celebration of family and get-togethers, so how can you fault that?
Today, Fourth of July, puts me in the awkward position of living among a nation that is celebrating the absence of British people like myself.
Valentines Day is the same here, but different. In Britain, Valentines is only for lovers or would-be lovers. None of this sending your mother a Valentines card, because that would just be downright weird. Growing up, it was the day no one sent you a card because no one fancied you. Even though you waited all day for a Valentines card to pop up in unexpected places, or a declaration of love from out of the blue, nothing came but the sorry realisation that love was not on the cards. The song by Janis Ian called 17 must have been written on just such a day.
And then being an ex-pat, I miss the holidays I have had to give up. There's Guy Fawkes, pretty hypocritical itself, that celebrates the government in Westminster, which for reasons of nationality, I have come to regard as Westmonster. It's our bonfire and fireworks day, magical for a child whose birthday was only two days down the road. Autumn just needs a bonfire - the smells all go together - and that is ours.
And then there's good old Boxing Day. Come on, folks, you can't have Christmas Day and then back to work as usual. You need a buffer zone. You need Boxing Day so you can do the whole thing (minus the presents) over again.  All the family that you didn't necessarily want over on Christmas Day can come and have another round of turkey and Christmas pud.
Then there's those spurious holidays, like Halloween and Easter, so obviously pagan, but ones the church tried to dress up in monkish outfits to varying degrees of success.  What does anyone think rolling eggs down a hill or celebrating little chicks and rabbits is all about? Tack on a cross and you've got hot cross buns, but it ain't anything to do with Christianity.

Halloween - well, they tried (All Hallows Eve), but there's not much you can do about a celebration of witches and ghouls. It was and ever shall be the Day of the Dead, the time when the veil between the living and the dead gets thin enough for a person to peer through. In Gaelic it is Samhain, and it figures in my novel series a lot. I have neighbours that call it The Devil's Birthday. Well, maybe it is, but The Horned One was a benevolent fellow in the pagan way of looking at things, and so was the witch.  Same goes for the black cat, for Pete's sake, whoever Pete may be. All of these icons got stood on their heads by the church, so I don't mind celebrating the birthday of the Horned God, no matter what country I live in.
I'll take Halloween and Boxing Day. The rest can go to the devil.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Pen and the Sword

27th June 2014

Everyone knows the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I bet no one can say who coined it.

Well, for your information, it was English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and maybe his only famous line. Of course, the sentiment didn't start with him, and Shakespeare also famously wrote, "Many men wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills." But then even before The Bard, Mohammed is credited as saying, "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr" (whoops, that line must be on the inside crease of the Qu'ran, difficult to read...)
I bring this up because the British media reported this week how Russian writer Boris Pasternak's book Dr. Zhivago actually was picked up and used as a sword. Apparently, in 1957 a British intelligence officer took it upon himself to copy Dr. Zhivago when it became clear the book was going to be banned in Russia.  (Russian authorities rejected its "non-acceptance of the socialist revolution.") M16 then passed the book on to the CIA who recognised its potential for stirring up unrest in Russian politics and came up with a plan. A war plan. They needed the Russian public to read Pasternak's book, but they knew that if they tried to send copies of Dr. Zhivago into Russia, it would be intercepted by the censors. So instead they started handing out the book to travellers who were going into the country, and they orchestrated a number of foreign editions, including the English one.
Who would have thought? Who even read Dr. Zhivago, or do most people, like myself, know of it because of the beautiful movie? Who is Dr. Zhivago - is he an orphan forced to endure the hardships of the socialist takeover, or is he dreamy Omar Shariff unable to remove his heart from Lara? Who knows if Dr. Zhivago contributed to the downfall of communism.  It certainly didn't hurt that the Noble committee awarded Pasternak its prize for literature (was that CIA influence, too?)
What is without question is that men with swords do fear writers with quills, and that is why art is one of the first things any totalitarian regime goes after. You have to control the art or the truth will out.
John Steinbeck in the journals he wrote while writing his oeuvre, took up considerable space waxing lyrical about certain pens that came into his possession. Even though I write my oeuvre on the computer, I do still understand the joy of a pen that fits nicely in the hand and flows. But more than that, what matters are the words that come out of the tip, the voice that needs to speak out in any culture and does so through the pen.  Swords cut off limbs, but words cut into the meat of the heart. That is the glory, and for some the danger, of this whole enterprise.

My apologies to the graphic artist who came up with the above picture. I don't know who you are, but I appreciate the sentiment. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Baby

20th June 2014

Aahh, it feels so good, every morning at my desk, pounding away at the keys, chiseling and reshaping the narrative, molding it into a new and better story. I am full of optimism - I have left my first book in the dust. It is a grown up child now with a life of its own. Someone took a picture of it on a New Releases table in a library in Brooklyn New York.

I guess that review I got in the Library Journal ("Veil Of Time is a worthy addition to the Time Travel genre") did it some good. Veil Of Time is on its own path, working its way through the machinery. I am told it will become available to booksellers in Great Britain and in Australia in October of this year. My baby, all grown up and off to Australia!
This week I was talking to a well published friend of mine, and he gave me the advice not to hang on to my children (or was that a mother of eight - same thing.) "Just get on with the next," was his advice, and that's what I am doing.
I can't tell you what a sense of relief it brings, those barely noticed  minutes and hours, the staring off to the middle distance and then the tap tapping of the words from my fingertips onto the screen, painting pictures with words. What is so exhilarating? I would say it is the act of creating, but it is actually more the sense of being created through. I've talked in lots of blogs about hooking yourself into the collective unconscious, and that's what it is. It's our bliss, because the creative act is what defines us as humans. It's only in the humdrum, in isolation, that we fall into gloom. Wonder is being what we are - connected.  It is in a way a sort of love.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Twit Twoo

13th June 2014

One of the topics someone brought up during my Q&A in Boston last month was about social media as a tool for promoting ourselves and our writing. She was an older woman, and clearly frustrated by the demands of building her online presence when she felt this to be an alien technological process. She wanted to know if I availed myself of this and how important it actually was. I didn't know at the time that an intern from my agent's office was present, one whose job it is to promote authors through the use of social media, so my answer didn't meet with complete accordance with all members of my audience.
Thing is, as I Tweet and as I blog, I do wonder about the good it does me. I spoke to another author at the writer's conference who said she refuses to blog because it takes too much of her writing time. It does take time, but I don't blog during the time I have set aside for my work. Those morning hours have become the sacred domain of my creative life and I don't let anything interfere with them. Not that blog-writing isn't creative - it is -  and I have been grateful during this recent fallow period to have this commitment to my readers that forces me to put words down.

I Tweet at handle @Kilmartin1978 (Kilmartin is the nearest town to where I grew up rurally in western Scotland, and 1978 was the last year I lived there full time.) I feel that Twitter could occupy much of my time, because it is constant and draws you into an ongoing conversation. So I try not to  engage in it like I do my blog (which I am working on in short bursts throughout the week leading to its Friday release.) I am quite happy to retweet others' comments and let that be my daily offering. It's not really an art form as such, and for me what tends to come out are my political leanings.  I have been hovering around 160 followers for quite a while now - I seem to lose as many followers as I gain, because my interests are all over the map. I am fervently for gun control; I believe this country is not a democracy but an oligarchy; I think women are the answer to the mess we (I say "we" but I mean male hierarchies) have made of our world; I think the Republican party as it stands today is pretty underhand and sleazy and has not much but its own survival in its sight lines. More than this, I am a Scottish Independence zealot. Every so often, I retweet quotes about writing and sometimes, too, about life in general, particularly what humanity needs to do at this point to heal itself.
This is all a mistake from the promotional point of view, because Twitter works best when it slots you into a group of like-minded peers. But my peers on the Scottish Nationalist front don't want quotes about writing; my fellow Zen devotees don't want to hear about Republicans or the way Westminster is brain-washing Scots. So, I lose people. Twitter for me as an author is not that successful, because I don't focus on one thing. (You should be focusing on one thing, I hear my publicist say - on promoting your book :-)

The blog is different. I have devoted it to the topic of writing and publishing - that's its name, and I have stuck to it. I do have more hits than in the beginning when I first started, many more actually and from all over the world, but in the large scheme of things, does it really build any momentum? Not sure. This is what I told my audience in Boston, and this is when my agent's intern stood up and identified herself. Her perspective is different, but then she has the loud speaker of Zachary Schuster Harmsworth to her mouth. People pay attention to loudspeakers.
This is my 124th post on this blog site. I might be able to make a book of my offerings one day, and I think they are going to be interesting in hindsight, just as a record of how one writer came through the whole process of publishing, from being accepted at a major publishing house, through the grueling process of editing, through being published and now in the aftermath as I wait for the great Hallelujah.