Monday, 31 December 2012

Old Year - New Year

Well, the task of writing the last post of 2012 falls to me. What is it about the end of one year and the beginning of the next one which seems so special and important? The 1st January is only another date on the calendar and yet in the lead up to it we (most of us) spend a great deal of time looking back over the past twelve months – assessing, regretting, celebrating – and looking forward to better times. We always hope for better, don’t we?

It’s a bit like editing our books, this review of the past year. We look back over the chapters we’ve written and realise some things don’t work well. That scene in the second chapter really has to go, as do the words we tend to overuse.  On the other hand, the chapter we struggled over for ages actually reads pretty well and the new character we introduced in chapter four adds a whole new dimension to the story.

Of course, we can’t go back to edit our real lives the way we do our books. Can’t change the parts we didn’t enjoy, bump off the characters we don’t much care for or re-write the scenes which didn’t work. Perhaps that’s why the change of year is special. It marks some kind of climax and conclusion as well as a new beginning.

We maybe can’t change the bad events and disappointments which happened in the last months but we can try to draw a line under them and look forward to the New Year with fresh hope

When I was young and given a diary for Christmas I used to amuse myself by opening it at random pages. I’d stare at the blank pages, wondering what I’d be writing about on, say, August 3rd. Now, I wonder what stories are going to be written. It’s exciting and mysterious – are the stories in my head already waiting to be written down, or will events over the next weeks and month be the trigger? What things will happen in my life to prompt writing new poems?

To all the writers and readers who enjoy our Novel Points of View blog, I wish a happy 2013.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

'By creating we think', 'By living we learn'

If there has been one story in 2012 that has brought together all I value and all I believe in, it has been the astonishing tale of Edinburgh's 'book sculptures'. It all started in March 2011, when a librarian in the Scottish Poetry Library discovered an exquisite gift on a table in the library – an old book sculpted into the shape of a tree. It was an anonymous gift, inspired, the tag said, by the quote from Scottish philosopher and visionary Patrick Geddes that is inscribed in stone at the Library's entrance and is the Library's Twitter hashtag, @ByLeavesWeLive. It was a tribute to libraries, books, words, ideas.

Appropriately, in this digital age, the story of the gift spread rapidly – and is well documented here – and a series of anonymous sculptures began to appear mysteriously around Edinburgh, UNESCO City of Literature.

The second was crafted from a copy of Exit Music, the Ian Rankin novel that marked the retirement of his character, Inspector Rebus. The gramophone and coffin are a pun on the title. Inside the gramophone's horn, the words 'towards dark' are visible, perhaps suggesting the movement of the coffin below – or perhaps a comment on the threat of closure of public libraries?

Edinburgh's Filmhouse art cinema received the third sculpture, a lively and intricate depiction of an audience watching a cowboy and indian film where the 'screen' comes alive and the audience joins the fight. It was a tribute to 'all things magic'.

The gifts just kept on appearing. The Scottish Storytelling Centre received a dragon and an egg. The tag read, 'Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was a dragon and in the dragon was a story...' Once more, the book used to fashion the sculpture was a Rankin classic, Knots and Crosses.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival, two more sculptures appeared at once, soon afterwards another was found at the Central Library, and in late September, a second sculpture appeared at the Poetry Library. It wasn't the end, though. The National Museum of Scotland, in the throes of celebrating its millionth visitor since reopening after refurbishment, unearthed a sculpture lurking under a stag. This one was carved out of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World, which was possibly the inspiration for the film Jurassic Park. Another sculpture appeared at the Writers' Museum in Lady Stair's Close. This was a darkly evocative rendition of the Museum in Victorian times, ill lit by lamplight and suggestive of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

It was the last of a magical, inspired, astonishingly ingeniously crafted series of sculptures gifted to the city by an unknown artist. Or was it? A bonus sculpture of two skeletons sociably sitting on a book and listening to records on a turntable was given to Ian Rankin and left in the Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, near the author's home.

It's impossible to describe the impact this story has had on me. Like the sculptures themselves, the story is multi-layered and complex, with a strong element of mystery and a great dollop of joy. It pushes all my buttons – it's about words and thoughts and the printed record of these, but it's also about art and skill and beauty. The artist has chosen to remain anonymous, but her mission is absolutely clear – she has given a shout in support of our libraries, our art galleries, our museums, our writers and poets and film makers. Each sculpture has references back to the creator of the book and across to other sculptures and to the city where thinkers and writers have lived and created their own magic.

I caught up with them at a small exhibition at the Scottish Poetry Library in December, where I was unable to resist buying the record of the delightful treasure trail, GIFTED, The Tale of 10 Mysterious Book Sculptures, published by Polygon. I urge you to seek it out, and submerge yourselves in this fascinating story. The author (who remains anonymous, even to the publishers and editor of the book) has supplied beautifully drawn instructions on how to make your own Poetree, and an endpaper for the book that maps all the locations where the sculptures were found.

Sadly, although I took photographs at the exhibition, my camera has packed up. The image here is the front cover of the book (a detail of the original sculpture). Excellent images and more on the tale are to be found through the Central Station link above.

I hope you enjoy this story as much as I have – and may I wish you all a Happy Christmas and great things for 2013.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


Well, it's December and it's nearly Christmas. I don't suppose there's a person on the planet who can't name 25th December as Christmas Day. Coming a close second for dates carved into our memories is probably St. Valentine's Day. There are lots of other days that are remembered for all sorts of reasons. Many of them are saints days, but not all. On the 13th December my dear friend, Pia Fenton (who writes as Christina Courtenay for Choc Lit - Highland Storms, The Silent Touch of Shadows, Trade Winds, The Scarlet Kimono, and The Gilded Fan) posted on Facebook and Twitter. 'Happy St. Lucia Day' the post said. St. Lucia? Who was she? Well, a few years ago now a gardener friend of mine brought me - because I'm a writer - a book a customer had asked him to consign to the bonfire. It was called A Dictionary of Days. I said,'thank you very much' but I've rarely looked at it. But I was intrigued by St. Lucia Day and had to look it up. St Lucia (also known as Lucy) was a 4th century virgin martyr. She was thought to help diseases of the eye because Lucia comes from the Latin - lux - for light. She is particularly remembered in Sweden when on the 13th December headresses of candles are worn to bring light to dark days. Pia is half Swedish. So, I looked up a few more special days in December. 6th December - St. Nicholas' Day. Only Santa Claus, as we no know him, himself. To this day in some countries - Germany is one of them - children are given prsents on this day. 7th December - Dismal Day. Apparently there are many Dismal Days throughout the year and the 7th December is one of them. Don't we all have one of those sometimes? Dismal Day is also known as Evil or Unlucky Day and we all know about those, too, don't we? So perhaps not worth celebrating, then? 17th December - Saturnalia Day. Saturnalia Day has a nice, ancient ring to it, I think. In the religion of ancient Rome this was a festival in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. It was the time when crops were sown, but also a time of unrestrained celebration - and isn't a bit of the latter good for us all now and then? As a short story writer I have written - and had published - more than a few stories set around Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, Easter Sunday, and Bonfire Night to name but a few of the more common celebrations. But how about 'Kissing Day' anyone? This used to be very popular in Yorkshire and falls on the Friday following Shrove Tuesday should anyone want to join in next year. There is also - to my amusement - something called Plot Night. Oh that they would arrive fully-formed on one night of the year so we could write them all down! But Plot Night is only Bonfire Night by another name ....alas. As a short story writer I'm used to writing 'out of season' as it were. I start my summer holiday stories sitting at my desk in fingerless gloves and with a scarf wrapped around my neck, in deepest, coldest, February. Christmas stories are written with the windows wide open and the fan turned to cold and oscillating - in a good year, that is! But Pia's post got me thinking.....why restrict ourselves to the well-known celebration days? Wouldn't something that makes a reader go 'Eh? - What day is that?' give our stories the edge and catch an editor's eye? I'm off for a trawl through my book now. I rather like the sound of Multitude's Idle Day, which is another name for Christmas Day. Hmmm....can't see an editor breaking her neck over that one! And here's a photo of Pia as a child in Sweden on St. Lucia's Day - with her permission, of course.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

People, place or plot?

I know this is something which has been debated often before, but it interests me enough to return to the subject.  What is it that motivates me most as a writer – or a reader – the people, the places or the plot?

A few years ago I would definitely have said that, for me. it was the people.  Characters, likeable, real characters I can identify with, are what make or break a story.  But as my writing has developed, I find that place is also very important for me and looking back at my favourite books (from the Chalet School series as a child to the magnificent Margaret Elphinstone now) I realise that the setting has also been very important in my reading.  I like to visualise the place, to feel that I have been transported there.  When that happens I know that there is something extra about a book.

And more recently I’ve begun to realise (I’m a little slow, I know) that even if a book has both of the above, for me it doesn’t work properly if they’re not properly knitted together by a good plot.  I don’t mean an action-packed, hook-at-the-end-of-every-chapter plot, but one where there is sufficient mystery and uncertainty and a desire to see things resolved in a way you as reader – or writer – don’t quite know until you get there. 

Yes, I am one of those who ‘writes into the mist’.  I may have a vague idea of plot to begin with, but I have to write my way to seeing how it develops and where it ends.

So it’s not people OR place OR plot – it’s all three.  And, when I'm writing, one doesn’t have to come before the other.  Sometimes an idea for a story starts with the place, sometimes with something as small as the tone of a voice; or it might be a complicated situation.  The key thing is that by the end all these essentials are there, entwined together to create the kind of book I like.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Gwen's last blog

As this is my last blog as a "resident contributor" I shall make no excuses for using parts from my own blog as most of the followers are different. I DO apologise if it is rather long though and with too much self promotion.
Here are some of the questions and my answers to the blog The Next Big Thing which has been circulating amongst RNA members
What is the title of your book?
It is called Darkest Before The Dawn
How did you come by the idea?
It is the fifth and last novel in the Home Series  following the fortunes of the Caraford family from the finish of World War ll to present day, so this is a natural follow on with the third generation.
What genre does your book fall under?
It is my first present day family saga. It could almost be a Young Adult in that it has the joys and uncertainties of two young people growing up, but it also has an older love affair. I didn’t expect this but I really enjoyed writing it.
Will your book be self-published or traditional?
Darkest Before The Dawn will be published in hardback by Robert Hale Ltd in May 2013 and as an E-reader in November.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft takes longest and is the hardest for me as I am not a plotter. It takes about three months for a first draft if it is part of a series and longer if it is a new series or a single new novel. At least two revisions follow.
Who or What inspired you to write this book?
It is the first time I have written a modern novel, complete with mobile phones, young car drivers and even a hint of drugs but I wanted to bring farming up to date as well as my characters. My son has recently installed robots for milking cows and my characters have similar debates and discussions before the youngest member gets his way with modernisation.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
People who follow the Archers may be interested in the series. My novels are fiction but the farming and country life descriptions are authentic. In this particular novel - Darkest Before The Dawn - there are also problems of coping with a leg amputation and we hear a lot about these with so many injured young soldiers and the triumph of the recent Paralympics.

Look out for free downloads of my earlier novels. The Lochandee series has  been  divided into several parts for free downloading. The first book -The Laird of Lochandee by Gwen Kirkwood is now published by Accent Press in three parts available to download. I am learning a lot about the promotion of free books and the need for marketing of digital publications. The first part was free to download in November.

 The second part - A Maxwell Mourned - will be free to download from Amazon from 12 to 16th December and the third part will be free 2nd to 6th January 2013. Watch my blog for further free downlaods from the second novel - A Legacy for Lochandee at

I shall keep looking in here from time to time and I wish you all great success with your writing and with more interesting and thought provoking blogs.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni

I’m feeling very greedy – but very happy – to have two books published this year. Back in September my debut poetry collection Thousands Pass Here Every Day was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing and now my narrative non-fiction is about to hit the bookshelves.

Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is about the women, and their families, with whom I was privileged to live and work for several years. With Afghanistan very much in the news at the moment I hope my book will appeal to people who want to know what life is like for ordinary people who have lived with war as a background to their lives for decades.

I spent several years in Afghanistan, from when the Soviets left to when Taliban was poised at the gates of Kabul in 1996. I lived in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and in the rural mountainous region of Hazara Jat in the centre of the country and returned ten years later to visit friends – we were quite possibly the only tourists in the country. Our visas were granted by return of post – the quickest I’ve ever had a visa stamped in my passport.

I wanted to write a book which showed a different perspective of women’s lives from the one usually depicted by the media. Despite the hardships in their lives – and there are many – the women are not all helpless downtrodden victims, but determined to make the best of life for themselves and their families.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had some of our country’s best writers provide testimonials for Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni. If an author blowing her own trumpet doesn’t encourage you to investigate further perhaps the words of award winning author Eileen Ramsay might. She said: “At last, a book about Afghanistan written by someone who not only lived and worked there for several years but who obviously has a deep understanding and fondness for this troubled land and its peoples. As the mother of a serving British soldier, I have looked high and low for information that would help me understand why my son and so many others feel that their struggle in Afghanistan is 'right'.  Ms Smith has helped by introducing the reader of this truly beautiful book to some of the people, mostly women, with whom she lived.  I embarrassed myself and my husband by bursting into tears on a train while reading about the struggles of some of these remarkable women; an hour later, I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of others.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab, author, journalist and political blogger, described the book as “honest and unsentimental, intimate and comical, bringing Afghanistan into focus beyond the headlines and political posturing.”

Author of The Gathering Night, Margaret Elphinstone said: “Heroism is the keynote of this book - the kind of courage that struggles to make ordinary life worth living in the face of war, repression and reprisal. We encounter Afghan women who fight to be healthy, to control their fertility, to bring up strong children, to lead fulfilling lives: not exactly front-page news, but that’s the point. Smith brings her Afghan friends into such sharp focus that the reader is soon absorbed in their lives. These are the real lives behind the headlines; and such lives.”

And if you want to know why those chickens were drunk you need to buy the book. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is available direct from the publisher, Indigo Dreams (who pay their taxes), on Amazon (who can offer discounts and free postage because they don’t) or in good bookshops – if they don’t have it in stock ask them to order it.

Join me on a journey from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif (where you can meet the chickens) to the remote mountainous region of Hazara Jat and get to know my Afghan friends and their families.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The writer's world

Did anyone else watch Ian Rankin on BBC's Imagine the other night? I thought he was very brave to do a video diary of his book-writing process.

I watched the programme absolutely riveted – because so much of what he was saying and doing resonated with me. I wanted to hug him when he confessed that he still found it hard, after 28 books! I felt better when I realised that my first drafts are marginally more finished than his first drafts. And I wanted to jump up and down and yell, 'Me too!' when he told us that the 'magic' begins to happen on the second and later drafts.

Writers, I believe, are either plotters or pantsters - that is, they either plot every last detail of their work before they start writing, or they do the whole thing by the seat of their pants. Ian is a crime writer, so I was a bit surprised to discover that he is a pantster. There was a strange kind of alchemy that happened once he started, but  I was quite surprised that so much of the detail still needed to be filled in even after he had finished the first draft.

Another thing: when Ian writes, he apparently withdraws from – well, from pretty much everything, including his family. That seems like a luxury. Does it happen to women writers too? Or do they still have to shop, clean, cook, tidy? Sometimes I think it would be fantastic just to be able to sit and write all day, but then I realise that characters and plot points need to be mulled over. They need to mature and ripen in their own time and, actually, doing the cooking might be as good a time as any for this process to happen.

On another topic – briefly – it seems that 'granny lit' may at last be on the way in.
Has it had to wait for a generation of tech-savvy mature women to buy e-books before the publishing world has woken up to the fact that 'older women' read books too?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


...and mistress of some of them, I hope. For trades, read writing.
When I'm introduced to someone new and tell them I'm a writer the inevitable question is 'What do you write?'
Well.....all sorts is the answer.
My first ever published piece was a little poem which I sent to People's Friend. It was about my then 8 year old son going to Cub Scout camp and was a cross between a Limerick and doggerel. But PF liked it and they illustrated it cartoon style. They paid me £10 for it which was quite a sum way back then for just twelve lines.
But looking at it now I can see it was truly awful so you'll all be relieved to know that's the end of my career in writing poetry!
My foray into short story writing came about because of my increasing deafness (fairly well-documented here and elsewhere). For this blog post I looked up my old records. Some months I would send out ten or so stories and sometimes none of those would sell at all. Another month might see five or six sales, then a fallow period. So in the fallow periods I decided to have a shot at writing articles.
My Weekly liked a couple of ideas - a feature about my cochlear implant and another about the threat of plastic bags on the invironment. they paid me very nicely for those along with some high res photos. I had similar pieces in local newspapers but nothing in the nationals. Yet!
My daughter-in-law, Elisabeth Hadley, is a sculptor. Like all artists, she was having a fallow period, too, just as short story sales dried up a bit for me. She asked if I would write something about her and her work for Devon Life. Well, I'd never written a feature on an artist in my life but I bought a copy of the publication and wrote something to what was obviously Devon Life's house style. My son lugged about half a dozen of Elisabeth's nude bronzes down to the beach and took some very arty photos of them with little frilly waves creeping up to their toes. I decided to be cheeky and I offered the article and photos to Devon Life for nowt if they liked it. Well, don't we all like a freebie? Devon Life was no exception. After that article was published two artists got in touch with me to ask if I would do the same for them. Not for free I wouldn't. So again, I got cheeky and asked Devon Life if they would pay me for these two art features. They would. And so began a couple of very happy years going around to art exhibitions and going to artists' houses and studios to interview them. I racked up about 70 features for Devon Life, Cornwall Life, Somerset Life and Dorset Life. I even interviewed a glass blower/engraver who made all the glassware for the first Harry Potter film.
I began to get commissions to write beauty and lifestyle features.I got sent to gyms and health spas and had my feet and my nails and my body primped to within an inch of its life for said features. But while they were fun, I'm a soap and water, shampoo, a slap of Olay on my cheeks, and a dab of lipstick sort of woman really.
And then the recession hit and Archant Life (which owns all these Life publications) stopped taking work from freelance writers and did it all in-house.
But that was all right because short stories started taking off again. I gained some new markets in Scandinavia and Australia and that kept me busy - and still does.
Why not write a novel? more than a few asked me. So I had a go at that - well, seven goes actually before Choc Lit took me on. All has been heavily documented here and elsewhere...:)
So, that's a few writing things that I do. Then there are guest blogs. And my own blog. And this blog. Some reviewers interviewed not me but the characters in TO TURN FULL CIRCLE (see, I've managed to name-drop at last!). Do Facebook messages count as writing? I could argue that they do because don't we all try and spell things correctly and put in the correct punctuation and make those post interesting and fun or very informative? Ditto Twitter where we have to hone the thing right down to 140 characters or whatever.
So, enough about me......but I think if we write we can write all sorts.
What does anyone esle do to pay the bills?
And to sign off here's a picture of Elisabeth's beautiful mermaid statue.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bonfire Night and All That

Words and their origins have always interested me and with Bonfire Night upon us I found myself wondering where the word ‘bonfire’ came from.  My immediate thought was ‘good fire’, from the French ‘bon’ for good.  However, I couldn’t be more wrong.  According to an online etymological site it comes from the Middle English banefire meaning a fire on which bones were burnt.  Which I suppose is appropriate, if we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on it, as was traditional in my childhood (although I haven’t seen this recently), but certainly gives a much more gory meaning to the celebration.

Mmm, and where does the word ‘effigy’ come from?  According to the same dictionary, it is derived from the Latin effigies (back to Latin – such an important language, see my last blog!) which meant copy or imitation of something.  More interesting, in the context of Bonfire Night, the page on which I found this also produced the fact that the word ‘guy’ has come to its current meaning (man, fellow) starting with the effigy of Guy Fawkes, a 'guy' being a figure paraded through the streets by children, then 'guy' meaning a poorly dressed person – and to our present usage.

And so this set me wondering again – where does ‘dudes’ come from, a term used these days interchangeably with ‘guys’ to signal a group of people as in ‘what do you dudes/guys think’.  Dude apparently came into common usage in America in the 1880s to mean 'city slicker' or 'fastidious dresser'.  Definitely not what we mean by it now.  Our current usage comes from the 1960s when the term was used by Black Americans to mean any man.

I could go on and on!  On Saturday, as an early celebration of Bonfire Night, we had a Bonfire Party.  So, where does the word ‘party’ come from?  According the etymologists it is from the Old French partie meaning ‘side’ or ‘division’, usually the side in a dispute.  It only came to mean a gathering of people for social reasons (as opposed to disputing) in the 18th Century, usually for a specific purpose such as ‘hunting party’, ‘dinner party’.

So there we have it.  On Saturday we held a gathering of people (dudes? They were certainly well-dressed) who all take the same side in order to burn bones on a fire… or maybe not.  Whatever it was, we had a good time.