Thursday, 31 October 2013

Interview with Regency novelist Anne Stenhouse

I very much enjoyed fellow Edinburgh-resident Anne Stenhouse’s first Regency novel Mariah’s Marriage so was delighted when her second Bella’s Betrothal was published recently by MuseItUp. I wanted to ask her some questions about herself and her novels.

Hullo Kate, and thank you for asking me to appear on your exciting new blog. I’m thrilled.

Good to see you here, Anne, and congratulations on the publication of Bella’s Betrothal. How has the publishing experience been for you?

Launching an e-book has been one of those learning curves that make Mont Blanc look as though a Sunday stroll would be okay. I’ve learned about blogging. I did that in any case as I love sharing odd thoughts with anyone who’ll drop by! I’ve learned about Facebook and how you have to find the groups that are important to your genre – Readers and Reviewers - in my case, those who like historical romance, humour and sparky dialogue. I’ve learned about the long game that this has to be. Think of the millions of pounds confectionary firms set aside to launch a new product. Then scale back to one wee wifie with an hysterical pc. I’ve learned about how good it is to have a publisher’s stable behind you. I’m still not too confident in Twitter-sphere or on Goodreads, but I try.

Can you pitch Bella’s Betrothal to us – in 140 characters?

Bella and Charles are united in adversity and forced to follow the dictates of their hearts: a rocky road to Happy Ever After in Georgian Edinburgh.

What appeals to you about the Regency period?

It marks the start of so much that we recognise today such as modern English, but it has the romance of horses and carriages, ladies with feathers in their hair and fans in their hands and gentlemen who are confident in their skins.

Mariah’s Marriage, your first Regency novel, was set in London, Bella’s Betrothal in Edinburgh. Did you have fun looking at Edinburgh through Bella’s eyes?

Oh yes! I’ve lived in the Southside for many years and came to Edinburgh as a student. Many of the street names and a lot of the ground plan are still there. I had a lovely afternoon in September taking photos of George Square, Charles Street et al for the launch publicity.

You’re a well-established playwright and the dialogue is one of the strengths of both your Regency novels. How did you find the transition from writing plays to writing novels?

That was a bit tricky, Kate, because playwriting is spare – you’re leaving room for the director and actor. It took me a while to pick up skills like adding what the character is thinking. I would easily forget the reader wasn’t an audience member seeing an actor’s face.

Bella looks gorgeous on the book cover! Is she as you imagined her?

She is gorgeous and she is as I imagined her. My friend has a daughter whose hair is just that mass of corkscrew curls and I think I probably had her in mind. CK Volnek has done a great job.

Your titles – Mariah’s Marriage/Bella’s Betrothal – is this alliterative theme to continue?

I hope so.

If you could share the Edinburgh to London stagecoach with three fictional characters who would they be?

My husband and I spent a whole dinner discussing this while we were on holiday recently.
It’s a fascinating question and quite hard to answer.

1)    Miss Skeeter from The Help by Katherine Stockett. Why? I’d want to know where she found the courage and tenacity to do what she did and to keep going till it was finished.
2)    Miss Piggy from Sesame Street. Why? Sheer off the wall delight.
3)    Harry from the final two episodes of The Vicar of Dibley. Why? If the manifestation is Richard Armitage, maybe you don't need to ask.

Great answer – wish I could be a fly on the stagecoach window! Where can we buy your novels, and where can we find your website?

http://goo.gl/f0zFKa MuseItUp’s store
http://goo.gl/f0zFKa Bella's Betrothal UK Amazon
http://goo.gl/BAJEAi and US
goo.gl/HQjANog Barnes and Noble

Thank you for answering my questions, Anne. Look forward to your next novel.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The day I (almost) went to Bangalore

I had my mobile phone for seven years, one of those pebble ones in a pretty green colour. Of late, I could see friends trying not to chortle when I used it. That should be on the Antiques Road Show I heard them thinking.

But it wasn’t to save myself from being chortled at that I decided it was time to say goodbye to the green pebble. There were various reasons why it made more sense to have what I thought of as a ‘flicky flicky’ phone. Plus I thought I’d like a phone with a keyboard. On the pebble I was the slowest texter in the world. Predictive texting was more hindrance than help although it did have its amusing moments.

Once, I went with friends to Northern Ireland. I texted my family to say I was on a train to Bang … Predictive texting decided I was en route to Bangalore. I was tempted to send it. Back home they would be very surprised to hear that I was in India when they’d waved me off thinking I was going to a party in Bangor.

In writing contemporary fiction, modern communications can get in the way of a good story. Your characters, as they would be in real life, will always be contactable unless you explain – lost/stolen phone, forgot to pack/top up/charge – why they’re not. The red phone box is even more antique than my green pebble.

Enid Blyton never had this problem. The Famous Five could not have had adventures if they’d had to report their whereabouts to Aunt Fanny every five minutes. Or if, using a tracker app, Aunt F could see that they’d gone to Kirrin Island again when she’d told them not to. (On the other hand, in a real emergency, they could have texted her: Frgt gngr br pls brng + 10 jm trts.)

The heroines in the books by one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart (writing in the middle of the last century), would not be in such thrilling danger if they were able to phone/text/sat nav their way out of sticky situations.

In my People’s Friend serial The Family at Farrshore I got round the issue by having signal problems. It’s set in the far north-west of Scotland so this seemed plausible, but not a solution for every story.

Modern communication methods cannot be ignored but I can write stories set before everyone had a mobile or I can try to avoid situations where they need to be mentioned. Or, of course, I can make use of them in a story just I do in real life.

I’m now the owner of a flicky flicky, smart new/new smart phone and I’m trying to fathom all its many functions. And I hope that very soon I’ll be much faster at texting than I was the day I (almost) went to Bangalore.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Interview with Victoria Hendry

On my blog today I’m speaking to Edinburgh writer Victoria Hendry whose first novel A Capital Union was published in September by Saraband

A Capital Union is set in Edinburgh in the Second World War. Ayrshire lass Agnes Thorne, just seventeen and newly wed, is increasingly drawn into the Scottish independence movement because of her husband’s refusal to sign up for the British Army. Agnes thinks Jeff should stop worrying about Westminster and get on with fighting Hitler, and so do their disapproving neighbours.

It has been described by author Alan Warner as being:
A remarkable debut, with explosive moments of real poetry and narrative power. This is an excellent novel, very dramatic and engaging, with a Buchan thrills quality.

Victoria, congratulations on the publication of A Capital Union. It’s a rare novel, I think, that combines a page-turning read and moments of black humour with some really beautiful writing and that’s you have here.

You’ve said that the inspiration for the novel came from hearing about your great-uncle being a conscientious objector in the last war, because of his allegiance to the Scottish National Party. From that piece of information how did you go about researching the background to the novel?

I was curious about my great-uncle David’s story. The family knew that he was a pacifist but they didn’t know that he had been in charge of publicity for the SNP during the Second World War. In looking for information about him, I came across the archive of Douglas Young in the National Library in Edinburgh. Young was prepared to challenge Westminster’s right to impose conscription in Scotland and was jailed for this. His case was built around the terms of the Treaty of Union in 1707, but was rejected by the judges in the High Court in Edinburgh. This became the basis of my story, although all the characters in it are fictional.

You got your inspiration and then the backdrop to the novel, but this is Agnes’ story. How did you come up with her? Is she like anyone you know? Is she like you?

I wanted to tell the story from a female perspective. Women’s voices are more difficult to find in history, so I imagined what it would be like to be married to a political activist at a time of national crisis. I also explored what experience is uniquely female in war. Agnes is not based on me. She reminds me of lots of great Scottish women I know, especially her humour.

I like that Agnes was so resourceful and that her upbringing on a farm was of use to her during rationing. Did people really lay rabbit snares on Blackford Hill?

Not that I know of, but an uncle who grew up in Perthshire laid snares for rabbits from the age of six. He would gut them and would take them home for the family to eat.

You’ve managed to give a flavour of Scots dialect without making the dialogue inaccessible. Was that difficult to do?

I used the words I remember my Grannie using; words I love and still use today. It is very rare for people to speak pure Scots now, and the pattern of sprinkling Scots words into English is typical of people’s speech. The novel also explores the journey to build a Scottish National Dictionary and get Scottish literature onto the university curriculum.

The novel is obviously very topical with the independence referendum coming up next year. What do you think A Capital Union adds to the debate?

I hope it might add a historical perspective as it is based on the experience of party members in 1942 when the party divided over the issue of conscription, amongst other things. John MacCormick left to form the Scottish Convention when Douglas Young was elected Chairman in 1942.

Anyone, whether they know Edinburgh or not, will love your descriptions of it. Did you walk around pretending it was 1942 and seeing the city through new eyes?

I have a wonderful book of photographs called The Forth at War William F. Hendrie (Birlinn Ltd). It is amazing how little Edinburgh has changed. Its incredible geography and monuments dictate so much of its structure. It was interesting to look back at copies of the Scotsman newspaper in the 1940s and see pictures with the Forth Rail Bridge blacked out for security.

How many drafts of the novel did you write?

I wrote about two drafts, but it was more a case of adding in scenes and information rather than taking bits out. I kept discovering new things I wanted to include for example about the use of hay boxes as slow cookers when fuel was in short supply.

What are you writing now, may I ask?

I am working on another novel set in Edinburgh in 2013 which looks at modern relationships.

I hope we don’t have to wait too long for that one. Thank you for answering my questions.

A Capital Union: Chapter 1
My mother said I was like jam in a bad year, sweet but with too many pips, and when I asked her what she meant, she said that some of the things I said got stuck in people’s teeth and worried them. I didn’t think that was a kind thing to say, so when Jeff asked me to marry him I said yes. Once I was a fine Edinburgh lady I wouldn’t need to think about the things Mother said, or chickens and sheep and muck. After the wedding when she saw the size of our braw flat in Morningside, she said there was no limit to the doors a bonny face would open. I didn’t expect to miss her when she left for the farm, but I did. I was seventeen and it was 1942.

A Capital Union is published by Saraband in paperback and on Kindle; it is also available as an audio book. 
Find Victoria at https://www.facebook.com/victoria.hendry.3

Victoria is giving two talks as part of the Book Week Scotland 2013 programme: in Longniddry on 25 November at 7.30, and at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling on 28 November at 6pm.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Half-finished jotters and midnights feasts

Scrap paper was hard to come by when I was a child so half-used school jotters came in very handy. What I most liked to do in them was not to actually write a story, but to think up titles, and names for characters, and then compose the blurbs (although of course I didn’t know that word at the time) for a long list of books I was going to write … one day.

All of these embryo books were for girls and most of them were set in boarding schools or in Cornwall. As my only experience of boarding school was through the eyes of Enid Blyton and Malory Towers, and as I had never been further south than Carrbridge in Inverness shire, my blurbs reflected the books I loved to read. I was writing about what I wanted to know, rather than what I knew.

There’s nothing wrong with that but in hindsight I wish I’d thought a little closer to home; it would be interesting for me, if no one else, to read now something of my ten-year-old self and what she thought of her surroundings and place in the world. It never occurred to me for a minute to write about what I knew. My life on a Highland farm seemed dull and ordinary, compared with the lives of girls who had midnight feasts in the dorm or found long-lost treasure in Cornish caves.

I was obsessed with names (still am, a blog subject for another time), so my blurbs each had at least four girls’ names in them plus a made-up name for their school or village or house. Again, these didn’t reflect my own local area, where place-names tended to have Gaelic origins, but were fanciful adaptations from those in my favourite books.

I still have the jotters I wrote those blurbs in and it’s fair to say that it’s no loss to the world that only one of them progressed any further. That was a story set in Cornwall called The Family at Greengates. I’ve still got the jotter it’s written in too, a hardback one, with about eight thousand words of – there’s no denying it – derivative drivel. So I wish, too, that I’d tried then to find my own writing voice rather than aping others.

I don’t want to write for children now but I love to read books for that age group by contemporary writers, and can highly recommend a brilliant time-slip novel called Beswitched by Kate Saunders. Guess what? – it’s set in a boarding school and during the holidays the heroine stays at her friend’s home in the West Country.

And guess what again? Fast forward to my writing a serial for The People’s Friend. It’s set in the Scottish Highlands and I’d called it Farrshore Summer. The People’s Friend renamed it The Family at Farrshore, by coincidence almost the same title as my childhood effort, and it was subsequently also published as a large-print paperback.

If my ten-year-old self could have known that was going to happen she’d have had a midnight feast to celebrate.