Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Running an imaginary hotel

I wrote my first People’s Friend serial after winning the First Instalment of a Serial competition at the Scottish Association of Writers conference (see here). Called The Family at Farrshore it’s now available as an e-book and as a large-print edition in libraries.  

When PF Fiction Editor Shirley Blair asked me to think about a second serial I thought a family-run hotel would be a good setting. It’s a natural place for all sorts of people to come together.

My grandparents ran a hotel in Inverness shire in the 30s and my mother told me some stories about that.

During two summer holidays when I was a student I worked in family-run hotels – one on an island, and one by a loch where a bridge would shortly be replacing the ferryboat.

And of course I have also stayed in hotels so I could use those as research too.

I brainstormed lists of everything that came to mind from these three resources and came up with lots of material, some of which I used and some I didn’t (yet). As a background to the story, I went with the building of a bridge that can be seen from the hotel window and will put the ferryman out of work and impact in other ways on the community. That scenario was real, as I’ve said, but I had fun making up people to populate it and fictional situations to put them in.

Once I’d got my characters, I watched TV programmes on hotels, and googled restaurant menus and various aspects of running a small hotel – in fact I got so carried away with that last one I had to remind myself I was writing a story not planning to become a landlady …

I did incorporate one of the stories my mum told me about her family’s inn – a smugglers’ tale from a couple of hundred years ago.

I liked how The People’s Friend illustrated the first instalment of The Ferryboat.

When Judy and Tom Jeffreys are asked by their daughter Holly and her Scottish chef husband Corin if they will join them in buying The Ferryboat hotel in the West Highlands, they take the plunge and move north.

The rundown hotel needs much expensive upgrading – and what with local opposition to some of their plans, and worrying about their younger daughter, left down south with her flighty grandma, Judy begins to wonder if they’ve made a terrible mistake.

Other characters include Corin's rather intimidating parents Philip and Verity; Iris, a young widow with a small child, who loses her job at the hotel when the Jeffreys take over; Sandy, Iris' childhood sweetheart; Donny the ferryboat man; and forthright Roberta who refuses to name the day but has been engaged to Donny for eleven years. And of course there are hotel guests, both pleasant and otherwise.
Ulverscroft bought the large-print rights and produced a cover that got lots of nice comments when I posted it on social media.

So much so in fact that I asked if I could buy it and my graphic-designer husband altered it to make a terrific cover to go with the Kindle edition.

For my third serial I chose to write about a Highland farming community in the 1960s (A Time to Reap, coming soon on Kindle) but a hotel is a setting I hope to return to.

I was delighted to hear of a forthcoming book set in a hotel in the Lake District, Felicity at the Cross Hotel, and asked the author Helena Fairfax to tell me more about it. You can read her answers in a blog post here on publication day 8 July 2017 but to whet your appetite this is the really gorgeous cover:

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Eight in May

I read eight books in May.

A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
I read this before I went to Scandinavia for the first time – a visit to Copenhagen at the end of May. Helen Russell, a journalist on a glossy, London-based mag, gave up her job and moved to Denmark for a year when her husband got a job in ‘Lego-land’, a small town in rural Jutland, around thirty miles from the Danish capital. She decided to try and find out if Danes are as happy as they are reputed to be. And they are: she asked people she met from all walks of life to rate their happiness on a scale of one to ten and no one fell below eight despite – or maybe because of – those long dark winters. 

Living there as a non-native wasn’t all hygge but there were compensations not least pastry sampling (in the name of research of course). I decided to follow her example ...

 Then I read:

The Runaway Bridesmaid by Daisy James
After finding her own boyfriend and her sister in a compromising position just before the latter’s wedding ceremony Rosie swaps her Louboutins for Wellingtons and flies from bustling New York to sleepy Devon to the house she’s been left by her aunt. Great fun – and see Daisy James’ latest title Sunshine after the Rain whose cover I previewed here.

The Coffee Shop Book Club – various authors including Jojo Moyes, Ian Rankin, Tracy Chevalier, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley and Val McDermid.

Christian Aid book sale. Short stories. I knew I hadn’t read the book before so couldn’t understand why the stories seemed familiar until I twigged – duh, the clue is on the cover – that they were first published in Woman & Home to which I had a subscription for a while.

I particularly liked As The Time Draws Near by Eowyn Ivey. Piper returns to Alaska to scatter the ashes of her daredevil father ‘Red’ Robertson. I really loved Ivey’s writing and look forward to reading her novel The Snow Child which has been on my Kindle for ages.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Read for book group. Becoming a vegetarian is apparently a very subversive act in South Korea and the fallout from one young woman making this decision is told here from three viewpoints (none of them hers). Several of the group admired some aspects of the writing but only one was very enthusiastic about the book … which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

I is for Innocent and O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton

Yes, another Kinsey Milhone gumshoe blitz.

There was an interesting To the Reader note in O is for Outlaw which clarified the timeline of the books – or rather lack of timeline. The books: are sequential but Miss Milhone is caught up in a time warp and is currently living and working in the year 1986, without access to cell phones, the Internet, or other high-tech equipment … You’ll find few, if any references to current movies, fads, fashions or politics.

Famously, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series is written in ‘real time’. The plus side of this meant that Rankin could set books around topical subjects such as the G8 summit in Edinburgh; the downside of course was that Rebus got older and so eventually had to retire.

As Sue Grafton planned from the outset in the mid 80s to write twenty-six Kinsey Milhone books I guess she had to make an early decision about how she was going to handle time and thought she wouldn’t have wanted Kinsey to age too much (plus her lovely landlord Henry who’s in his 90s clearly would not survive a further twenty-six years however good his gene pool). Hats doffed to her for pulling this off so successfully.

Since I’ve read so many Kinseys on the trot I notice (from a writerly perspective) that when a character is mentioned for the first time, however minor they are, we are always told what they are wearing in some detail, maybe not a technique that would work for everybody but effective here. Observing clothes would be part of Kinsey’s quick summing up of a person perhaps because she is supremely uninterested in what she herself wears – jeans and a black turtleneck being her uniform.

A quick Google tells me that in the US a ‘sport coat’ is what we in the UK call a sports jacket – but it sounds much more dashing.

And courtesy of a rescheduled flight and an unexpected four-hour train journey I was able to – yes, let’s hear it for the Kindle – bring my monthly total to eight with these two corking books:

A dual time-line novel (a device this author has made her own I think). Each story had a connection with Red Hill Hall –in earlier times a family’s stately home and now a hotel. The parallels were cleverly done and I enjoyed both the historical and the contemporary strands.

Felicity at the Cross Hotel by Helena Fairfax
Of which I shall say nothing for the moment, except do go and buy it and look out for an interview with Helena Fairfax here in early July.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Meeting Hans Christian Andersen

I spent a most enjoyable few days in Copenhagen recently.

Like every tourist I was keen to see the Little Mermaid and that wish was fulfilled when I took a boat trip from the colourful harbour area. 

And like every tourist I was surprised at how small she was – and where she was. Somehow I thought she was in the middle of the sea rather than by the shore – but I suppose that would be too difficult.

The statue of the Little Mermaid* of course is there because she is the creation of one of Denmark’s most famous sons, Hans Christian Anderson.
Before Anderson there were no authors of fairy tales – only collectors of tales from the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation, from region to region and culture to culture.

So says the Introduction to Best Fairy Tales which I bought while I was in Copenhagen.

(It’s published by Macmillan in London and I suppose I could have waited and bought it for less when I got home but I thought it was a lovely edition and a fitting souvenir of my holiday.)

Andersen was born in rural Denmark in 1805 to a poor family, but his shoemaker father read to him from the Arabian Nights and encouraged his early interest in theatre.

Later, in a way that makes a good tale in itself, Andersen was able to travel, visiting twenty-nine countries and meeting fellow writers and folklorists.

His first volume of stories included The Princess and the Pea and The Tinderbox and astounded Denmark’s literary establishment.

I ‘met’ him in a very touristy shop devoted to him (how bemused people from long ago would be if they saw the trinkets commemorating them) but at least there was no charge for having your photo taken with him.

I saw him again in the grounds of Rosenborg Castle.

This statue wasn’t completed and unveiled until after Andersen’s death. Apparently he objected to earlier versions which had him reading to a group of children, maintaining that his stories were for adults too.

The leafy graveyard in which he is buried was about five minutes walk from where I was staying

His grave is well kept, and on that day pretty with planted pansies, but it occurred to me that it ought to be burnished with gold and studded in diamonds as grateful thanks from the various film corporations and from other authors and illustrators who have taken his stories – The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Snow Queen, to name but a few – and made them their own.

* photo courtesy of Rosemary Gemmell