Saturday, 25 May 2019

Writing on the move

As I write this, I am sitting in our motorhome, affectionately known as Gertie, on the edge of a tiny hilltop village called Sainte Agnes in the Alpes-Maritimes area of south-eastern France. It’s a pretty good spot in which to write.

Writing in the van

I’m spending about ten weeks travelling with my husband, and we’re spending most of it exploring this corner of France. We adore mountains, and love walking and cycling so this is a perfect area for us. A typical day will involve a short drive to the next idyllic spot, park up somewhere – either a campsite, an ‘aire’ or just a suitable car park that has no restrictions against motorhomes. Then we’ll go off and explore, or go for a cycle ride. By mid-afternoon we’ll return to Gertie and that’s when I’ll get a couple of hours in which to write. This isn’t a holiday from writing – I would hate to have so long away from my novels, and anyway, there are deadlines I need to hit!

My husband will cook dinner, and afterwards we’ll play cards, drink wine, sit outside if the weather’s warm enough (though it’s been chilly up in the mountains!), read books or watch an episode of Breaking Bad (we brought the entire box set of DVDs with us).

A couple of years ago we spent six months travelling around Europe in Gertie, so we are well used to this kind of lifestyle. The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere, so why not do it on the move? I love travelling, exploring new places, contemplating new vistas, and life in a motorhome allows me to keep up with my writing at the same time as travelling. The perfect combination.

Gertie admiring the view

My work-in-progress is set in France, and while I could have chosen almost any part of rural France as the setting, I thought I might as well pick an area we love and that we wanted to explore. Hence the Alpes-Maritimes. So while we’re out and about cycling or walking or wandering around exquisite medieval villages, I keep my writer’s head firmly attached and soak it all up, so that I can use it all when writing later on. I find it really helps for inspiration – not just for the current novel but also to spark ideas for future novels.

Sitting outside to write at a campsite

Sometimes I’ll sit outside to write, but if it’s too bright or cold I’ll need to sit inside the van, with my feet up, laptop on lap and a cup of tea to hand. Or maybe a glass of wine. Just like writing at home, except that beyond the window is a view to die for.

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.