Saturday, 18 May 2019


It's hard enough choosing names for new babies in real life isn't it? Oh the suggestions and the rejections abound. Some parents go all out and OTT with lots of names whilst others give just one forename. With girls their name may be a good fit with the parental surname but what happens if they marry and decide to take their husbands name? I once met a woman called Mary a good old-fashioned name that went well with her family name but her new husband's surname was Christmas. Poor woman.

It's not always obvious at first sight that the name is a mistake.
Robyn for a girl is different but teamed with Banks it doesn't work. Penelope Wise - nice name but use the diminutive Penny and it's not so good. As for Joseph King - well I think you get the point when Joseph becomes Jo.

Research carried out by Professor Richard Webber [King's College, London shows that many old British surnames handed down for generations have disappeared in recent years. Names that in the 21st century people find funny or embarrassing  like Shufflebottom, Cock, Daft, Pratt, Balls are dying out. In 1881 the most popular surnames were, Smith, Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor, Davies, Wilson, Evans and Thomas. Those nine names are still popular today.

Getting the right character names for my heroines and heros is a real struggle. Sometimes they come to me ready made other times nothing suits either them or the story. In the past I've been known to be ten or even twenty thousand words into a story when I realise it's not working because the main character's name is wrong. I do have a tendancy too to re-use names without conscious thought particularly for my older characters. Names like Harriet, Matilda and Anna are just three that I have to avoid for future books. In fact I've created a list of all the names I've used in my books so that I can see at a glance which ones not to use again. These days I've learnt that giving my characters the right names for them is essential before I start writing.

Writing contemporary fiction as I do, I find naming characters is a minefield. Of course using everyday names it's virtually impossible to avoid giving a character a name that turns out to belong to someone in Real Life. For this reason I always check via Google these days to see whether there is anyone living with the same name who could possibly be living a similar life as my character. For instance, in the book I'm currently writing, one of my characters is married to a Member of Parliament so while I've given him a fairly ordinary forename, his surname is definitely unusual and I've checked and doubled checked there is no MP with that name. Another thing to worry about is the name of younger characters. Some names given to 21st century babies are quirky and celebrity-led with parents wanting unusual names to ensure their children stand out from the crowd. I can't help wondering whether their grownup children will thank them - or head straight to the nearest Deed Poll Office.

I'lI leave you with this quote from J.K.Rowling and a picture of a boy who couldn't be called anything but Harry.

"I love inventing names, but I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character." 

I'd love to hear how you all choose your character names.

Saturday, 11 May 2019


... the whole day stretched ahead of us, bright as the glistening rollers
rumbling ashore...

I’m a magpie when it comes to inspiration, seeing ideas in the work of other writers, photographers, painters, musicians, but what I’d never considered was that another artist might be inspired by my work. I’m plagued with far too much self-doubt for that. Yes, I’ve had short stories published, but does anyone read them?

Imagine my surprise and thrill when photography student, Susan Orr got in touch on Facebook requesting permission to use my short story, Jenny’s Well as a basis for her college project. I was delighted to agree. Susan read Jenny’s Well in a Scottish Book Trust anthology and felt the story of the young girl playing by the beach, wearing an itchy knitted jumper, stirred poignant memories of time spent with her granny during caravanning holidays. She wanted to know more about what inspired the story (a personal memory) and where the story was set (along the Moray coastline – northeast Scotland). It turned out that the place where Susan enjoyed childhood holidays was a picturesque village called Portsoy, which is about five miles from Cullen, the spot that featured in my story. We decided to meet.

... the water ran clear and fresh as we cupped our hands, dipping our heads,
making a wish as we drank... 

As part of the project, Susan’s mum knitted an Aran cover for the workbook containing her course notes.  How amazing does it look? Susan then invited a young actress friend to Portsoy to re-enact extracts from Jenny’s Well.
Photographer, Susan Orr with the
Aran covered workbook...

I was as fascinated by Susan’s work as she appeared to be with mine. She drew further inspiration from photographer Martin Parr, whose work is bright and vivid, focusing on the mundane to reveal the extraordinary. You can check out his amazing work using this link.

... We picked our way steadily between briny rock pools, slipping sometimes...  

I suspect this may be the only time my fiction is brought to life via photographs. When Susan showed me the amazing photo-book she has created, I struggled to hold back tears! To have my wee short story touch someone in a way that inspired her to create something new is a privilege. Susan was kind enough to allow me to share some of her work.

... There was a swing set beside the chippers, so I gripped the rusty chains,
kicking high as I could...
But as if that wasn’t fantastic enough, then publishing student Alison Donn asked if she might use extracts from my Doric short story The Whole Hog within a zine she is creating, showcasing contemporary Scottish and Doric writing, as part of her MSc in Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. Again, I was honoured to help.

Extracts from The Whole Hog included with a zine
created by Alison Donn...

So which artists, whichever medium, have inspired your practice? Or has your work inspired others to create something new? Or does the thought of wearing a scratchy knitted jumper bring back fond childhood memories?

Writers love notebooks, perhaps beautiful Aran covers will catch on... 

Huge thanks to both Susan and Alison for not only reading my work but also requesting extracts and creating something fresh and exciting. Good luck to them both with their future studies.

Rae x

Saturday, 4 May 2019


'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be.'
Poet Laureate
Robert Southey
 Letter to Charlotte Brontë.
At the beginning of her writing career, Charlotte Bronte sent copies of her verses to the poet laureate, Robert Southey, for his feedback. His harsh assessment, quoted above, must have been painful to read, but the path to publication is often littered with criticism and rejection, a lesson Charlotte was about to find out.

It was not until May, 1846, when she joined forces with her sisters, Anne and Emily, did Charlotte finally see her poems in print. However the momentous day came at a cost, both financially and emotionally. Although the verses were published by Aylott and Jones, Charlotte and her sisters had to use their inheritance from an aunt to pay the expense of publication. Yes, they self-published! They would not have the joy of seeing their names on the cover as they felt it necessary to use male pseudonyms to avoid discrimination based on their gender.

Following this, Charlotte and her sisters tried to have their novels published. Charlotte's first novel, The Professor, was repeatedly rejected. It would be published later, but not until after her death. Her second attempt, a novel called Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, was more successful and was finally published in October, 1847. Once again Charlotte used her male pseudonym of Currer Bell. It went on to become a best-seller. Following its success, Charlotte finally revealed herself as the writer. I wonder if she recalled Robert Southey's harsh words as she walked into her publisher's office to introduce herself as the author.
There are many stories relating to an author's bumpy journey to publication. The international best seller, Stephen King supposedly nailed his rejection letters to a wall, replacing it with a spike when it could no longer cope with holding them. It would take six years of rejection letters before his first short story was published. His first novel, Carrie, was rejected thirty times, but eventually went on to sell over a million copies. King takes us on his painful writing journey in his memoirs and writing tips, Stephen King On Writing and, like many writers, it took him many years to be an overnight success.
Through her detailed and technically accurate illustrations, Beatrix Potter became a scientific illustrator long before her fiction career took off. Her first work of fiction, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was initially less successful and turned down my several publishers. Determined to see it in print, Potter felt compelled to publish it herself. A traditional publisher finally took it on and published it in 1902 on the agreement that Potter would replace the black and white illustrations with coloured ones. Needless to say, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her subsequent books, quickly became children's classics.
Agatha Christie is world famous for her detective novels, but her quest to be published was as difficult to solve as the majority of her crime novels. Magazines rejected all of her early short story submissions and her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert in Cairo, also received the same fate. Hercule Poirot, the detective who feature in so many of her novels, finally came to her rescue. His first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles was initially rejected, but the manuscript finally found a home with John Lane at The Bodley and was published in 1920. Christie went on to write  66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, the world's longest-running play, The Mousetrap, and (under the pen name Mary Westmacott), six romances.

So what can we learn from these successful writers? I think H.G.Wells sums it up very well.

The only true measure of success is
the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been
on the one hand
the thing we have made and the things we have made of ourselves
on the other hand.

In other words, keep going and keep improving ... and you will be more successful than if you didn't try. It is a valuable life lesson to learn, whichever path we choose to tread.

In April, I celebrated the publication of my fifth novel, Daughter of the House. Were my first attempts at being a published author initially rejected? Yes, several times! Those rejections crushed me and I nearly gave up writing, however today they are just distant memories of an experience I once had ... an experience shared by many of the bestselling writers of our time. My conclusion is that I am in good company and the challenges we face are nothing to be ashamed of.


Saturday, 27 April 2019

A MATTER OF LIFE AND .............................................................. By Linda Mitchelmore

...... I think you all know what word comes next - yes, the 'd' word. Picture the scene - I was sitting, drinking a lovely glass of chilled Prosecco and chatting to my cousin Barbara who had been asking me about my writing .... what was coming next, plot and so on. We moved on to ALCS (Authors Licensing Collection Service) and PLR (Public Lending Rights) and then onto Royalties. I said they were all nice little earners, to which Barbara responded by saying, 'All very interesting, but what happens to it when you're dead?'
Crikey but that sort of conversation pulls you up short! But what does happen to it? I had no idea back then. However, I'm a member of the Society of Authors and I guessed they might know.
They do as it happens. They produce a most excellent leaflet - free to members, but £20 to anyone else - entitled, GUIDANCE ON YOUR COPYRIGHTS & PAPERS AFTER DEATH. It's rather a stark heading but it does what it says on the tin. After that initial conversation I imagined Royalties might live on to anyone to whom we bequeath them but I had no idea that ALCS and PLR do, but they do as well. The surprise has been that even if a writer isn't a member of the SoA prior to death their estate can apply and be a member with all the same benefits. There are various sections (seven if I remember rightly), all very clearly explained and laid out. WILLS AND POWERS OF ATTORNEYS, WHO INHERITS WHAT ON YOUR DEATH, INHERITANCE TAX are but three. All this has made me pause for thought .... and it dredges up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings and I think it's a travesty that any of us have to hand back the pen, as it were. So, to whom will I leave not only my small - but exquisite to my mind - collection of paintings, and my very, very, small collection of jewellery comprising two rings? In June this year I'll have the copyright of nine novels to pass on. I doubt my grandchildren will reap the benefits that Agatha Christie's grandson did when she left him the rights to the Mousetrap in her will, but mine could still be a nice little earner and buy a decent bottle of Rioja at Christmas.
So .... there we have it - something writers really, really need to think about. And best done with your tipple of choice in hand, and possibly chocolate .....

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Evolving Language: How to Talk About Cats

A magnificent floofy cloud...
Image from Sheryl Leigh, via Wikimedia (public domain).
I use the internet a lot. I use it for work and I use it for leisure. I use it to keep me in touch with my friends and family, and to stay updated with the news. I use it for instant alerts on the progress of my sports team (sometimes there’s no progress and therefore no alerts) and most of all, it sometimes seems to me, I use it to look at pictures of cats.

There are fat cats and thin cats, smart cats and cats that are what we’d call in Scotland “thick as mince”. There are appealing cats and appalling cats. There are cats in high places — such as Larry the Number 10 cat, Palmerston the “diplomog” and other governmental felines with their own Twitter feeds. Some of my happiest places in the sewer that social media can be are Facebook groups where people post random photographs of strange cats, or of their own pets.

As I’ve tripped merrily through this forest of feline felicity, I’ve noticed a strange thing. It’s to do with language. Cats, when they’re not slaying you with a look, are more than capable of communicating via meows and hisses and chirps or, in the case of my own elderly moggy, deafening wails in the dead of night, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how we, their humble servants, talk about cats.

Language evolves and it fascinates me to watch it in action. Cats in general might be known as cattos rather than cats, or sometimes as floofs, a word often preceded by the adjective “majestic”. Those with long fur, especially all white, all black or all grey, are fondly referred to as clouds.

Look closely: this cat has a blep
I have learned that when a cat sits with its tongue out, that’s a blep. If the tongue flips in and out in a lapping movement, that’s a mlem. (You get a lot of extra likes if you post a photograph of a cat doing either of these.)

 There’s more. Look at the soles of your cat’s paws. Look at the pads. Those are what we initiates know as toe beans or jelly bean paws. And if you see a very large cat, the chances are (regardless of gender) that it’s a thicc boi, also known as a chonk or choink. (For some reason these last two are often capitalised.)

I’m sure other animal groups develop their own language. In fact, I know they do, because sometime I venture into rabbit — sorry, bun — circles, where I have learned the difference between a binky and a sploot.

I love seeing how people develop their own secret languages to cover their own interests…and I wonder how long it will be before some of these terms make it into the dictionary, if they haven’t already. And what about my readers. Do you have any favourite (repeatable) words?

Apology: dear spellchecker, I’m very sorry. I know this article almost broke you…

Jo Allen

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Rewriting the Classics

For today's joint blog, we discuss which classics we'd like to rewrite, or see rewritten.

Jo Allen kicks off the discussion:

I love the Brontes. Who doesn’t? (I mean, surely somebody, somewhere, doesn’t, but…)

So the novel I would like to rewrite for the modern day is the most rip-roaring of them all, Anne Bronte’s fabulous, scandalous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. These days we’d call it romantic suspense and it has everything, so much so that if you don’t know it I recommend you go and look up a plot summary.

In short, Gilbert Markham falls for the mysterious widow in the neighbouring hall who it turns out, isn’t a widow at all but on the run from her drunken, violent husband. He, of course, comes after her and we have a chase and a misunderstanding, in the midst of which poor old Gilbert (who always struck me as not quite able to keep up with the extraordinary Helen Graham) doggedly pursues her, the love of his life.

If there’s a real kickass heroine in any of the Bronte novels it has to be Helen, unprepared to stand for the kind of nonsense her debauched husband and the restrictions of society place upon her. I love her to bits.

Having said all this, I don’t quite know how one would go about modernising a novel so far ahead of its time. Dare I say it, but I think Gilbert could do with a bit of a makeover. Then perhaps he’d be a match for Helen… and imagine what a film Hollywood could make of that…

Victoria Cornwall also chooses the Brontes:

Wuthering Heights was Emily Bronte’s only novel and was originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. The initial reviews were mixed, some critics finding the unsavoury characters, hatred, revenge and violence difficult to accept, despite the novel being a compelling read.

Even today I find Heathcliff, the “hero” of the love story, difficult to accept. He starves a trapped bird, verbally and physically abuses his wife and damages the lives of all those around him … all in the name of love. Well in my opinion, loving someone does not give you the excuse to be a violent thug who destroys people who happen to be in their orbit. My adaptation would have Heathcliff coming to his senses and rescuing the bird in time and being emotionally distant from his wife (as he still loves Cathy) but not intentionally cruel to her. As he is Heathcliff, I will still allow him to behave badly, but ultimately he has to come to his senses and regret his behaviour. For my adaptation, Heathcliff has to deserve meeting up with Cathy in death, and unless he has changed his ways, I just wouldn’t let him. No woman deserves to be with a violent man, in life, in fiction or beyond the grave.

Rae Cowie picks something completely different:

Which literary classic would I re-write and why? For this writing challenge I’m reaching over to the dark side, choosing Daphne du Maurier’s chilling short story, The Birds (adapted for screen by Sir Alfred Hitchcock).  However, I would never presume to improve upon such a perfect piece of Gothic literature, but instead would have a bash at composing a modern-day version.

In du Maurier’s original story, ever more violent flocks of birds attack the family of farmer Nat Hocken, who responds by fortifying his home. Today, many farmers feel assaulted not only by the usual stresses of unpredictable weather and rising costs, but also from the increasing divide between urban and rural life. This leads to a feeling that society no longer appreciates their work, compounded by abuse on social media from activists interested in veganism, animal welfare, the climate change lobby and so on… Pinching tricks from du Maurier, I’d build on the farm’s isolated location. What begins as a stranger trolling my farming family online, quickly turns towards the even more sinister, where barricades may not be enough…

Kath McGurl kind of dodges the question:

You know, I don’t think I’d ever attempt to rewrite any of the classics myself. I would be terrified that doing such a thing might open me up to loads of criticism from anyone who loved the original! Of course, like any other writer, I might ‘borrow’ elements from the classics, either intentionally or accidentally. I had a phase of reading nothing but classics in my twenties and am sure they rubbed off on me.

Having said that, I do quite like reading reworkings of great stories. Funnily, many writers like Victoria are drawn to rewriting Wuthering Heights! I’ve read Juliet Bell’s The Heights – which retells the story but set in 1980s Yorkshire. And Sue Barnard’s Heathcliff  does something a little different – it fills in the missing years in the original tale, letting us know what happens to Heathcliff in the years when he disappears. 

Sue Barnard is quite a master at reworking the classics. Her novel, The Ghostly Father, retells Romeo and Juliet, but gives the story a completely different, much happier and to my mind more satisfying, ending. 

The reworkings I have not yet managed to bring myself to try are the ones where the original text, now out of copyright, is used with some weird additions. The ‘classic’ of this genre is Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. I suspect the title tells you all you need to know about it.

As well as rewrites of classics, I’ve also enjoyed books where a contemporary author has imagined mysteries in the life of a classic author. For instance in Dan Simmons’ Drood, Wilkie Collins is forced to confront the possibility his best friend Charles Dickens may be a murderer…

Finally, another book in this vein that I am looking forward to, bringing us neatly back to the Brontes again, is Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride. In which the Bronte sisters use their considerable talents to discover what happened to the bride in question…

What classics would you love to read a rewritten version of?