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.