Monday, 19 April 2021

The Saturday Scribblers


In 2005 I did two things that changed my life. I started going to a drop-in creative writing class run by Edinburgh Council and I joined Edinburgh Writers’ Club. As well as meeting lots of lovely people I discovered a whole new world of writing prompts and exercises.

Although I’ve subsequently (and with no little thanks to both these organsiations) had a novel, four magazine serials, and around seventy short stories published, I still go to both the class and EWC and it’s still a thrill to get a great writing prompt to respond to.

So when it came to writing a fifth People’s Friend serial I decided to move from my previous locations in rural Scotland* and set it in a writing group in a fictional town in the north of England (in my mind, it’s near Alnwick).

In my writing class there can be up to eighteen people and more than that at an EWC meeting but of course I couldn’t have that many in a story.

So it was fun to think of a reason why the class would be small (it’s migrated to Jess’s house when funding is withdrawn from it being held in a library) and to dream up the attendees, Tina, Madeleine, Clarissa and Neil, and decide on their varying reasons for joining, and of course their lives when they’re not being ‘Saturday Scribblers’.

I’ve found in real life that everyone responds differently to a writing prompt and personalities emerge so that turned out to be a good way for the characters (or some of them anyway … ) to find out more about each other.

I was delighted with the illustration (see above) for the first instalment (in issue dated 17 April) and (I have a subscription so get an early copy) here’s a sneak preview of the second.


* my first four serials are now available on Kindle; the first three are in a ‘boxset’ Kindle edition and in large-print library editions:


The Family at Farrshore

The Ferryboat

A Time to Reap

Jinty's Farm






Saturday, 10 April 2021

The Castilians

I am very pleased to be featuring fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member V E H Masters (Vicki) on my blog today to ask her questions about her debut novel The Castilians* which was recently placed second in the Scottish Association of Writers’ self-published book competition.

*only 99p on Kindle until 16 April; also available in paperback


The blurb:


Scotland 1546 … and a preacher is burned at the stake. In revenge a group of lairds infiltrate St Andrews Castle and murder the instigator, Cardinal Beaton.


Local lad Will is among them, fighting for the Protestant cause. His traitorous activities place his family in grave danger, forcing his sister Bethia into an unwelcome alliance.


As the long siege unravels, Bethia and Will struggle over where their loyalties lie and the choices they each must make — whether to save their family, or stay true to their beliefs and follow their hearts.


This debut novel closely follows true events of the siege of St Andrews Castle and its dramatic re-taking




KB Welcome, Vicki, and congratulations on your success in the SAW competition. Did you decide at the outset to go down the self-publishing route?


VM Thanks Kate, I was very chuffed.

I know a few people who have self-published successfully so I shamelessly picked their brains. I also had a few ideas about how to promote my novel and, even if I’d been successful in finding an agent and then a publisher, I didn’t really want to give up the rights to my book. So I decided from the outset to go the indie route, and I’ve found learning how to market more enjoyable than I expected



KB Most people probably think of St Andrews in connection with its university or its golf course without knowing of its place in Scottish history – but even from a quick visit you can see the remnants of buildings that were there in the time you were writing about, six hundred years ago.

Apart from the Castle (looked after by Historic Environments Scotland) which landmarks would you encourage visitors to see (albeit virtually at the moment)?


VM Growing up in St Andrews was like living in the middle of a history lesson. Probably my favourite is St Rule’s and you get a fabulous view from the top. When I came to write The Castilians I realised how much the towers and spires of St Andrews were also about creating distinctive landmarks from the sea. For pilgrims coming there at the height of the pilgrimage era from the 13th to the 15th centuries their first sight of the town must have been something – like arriving in a second Jerusalem.



Margaret Skea, winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Award, has said of the book: ‘A clever blend of fact and fiction, with engaging characters, gripping tension and drama galore, and a dash of romance. For lovers of Scotland and Scottish history this is a great read.’


KB With which I can only agree … by coincidence I’ve read a couple of other novels recently which mix fact and fiction and I think yours is done the most successfully.

To be fair to the other two, perhaps it helps that you have written about a period of Scottish history that hasn’t often been fictionalised and as less is known about it there’s more space for a novelist’s imagination.

Certainly I finished The Castilians feeling that I’d read a really gripping story and also seamlessly learned some history along the way.


Did you have a lot of research that, for the sake of the story, you had to leave out?


VM Lots and lots and lots of research and most of it was, indeed, left out. I was convinced an academic from the university was going to pick the novel up in the local bookshop up and go through it with a red pen, so I was very anxious to be historically accurate. It boosted my confidence no end when Dr Bess Rhodes, an expert on the period, agreed to be part of my online launch.


KB And thinking of a different kind of research – I don’t want to give a spoiler but there is a very hairy scene at the end of the book, involving one of the characters whose only escape route involves a steep cliff and a churning sea below … how did you manage to conjure that up?


VM There was a point when I realised I needed to go St Andrews at low tide and study the cliff, and the access to the castle by sea. The uncovered rocks were slippery with seaweed and I ended up crawling over them determined to reach the seaward side – most undignified, but no doubt entertaining to those on the nearby beach. The castle is very dramatic to look up at from the rocks below, on its seaward side. It was all worth it, as I was then able to describe accurately what it was like to clamber off the rocks, although I still had to do some imagining because both the cliffs and the coastline will have changed over the past five centuries.



KB I was thinking that it was an interesting decision on your part to set a historical novel in the present tense – until I remembered that Hilary Mantel’s trilogy is done that way. It does give immediacy to events of so long ago. Was that something you always planned to do or did it evolve that way? And were there any difficulties in sustaining it?


VM Early drafts skipped back and forward, and sometimes half way through a chapter. In the end I liked the immediacy of the present tense and stuck with it. It does feel as though the action is happening now when write, rather than in the distant past.


KB If there were to be a film of The Castilians who would you like to see cast as Bethia? And as John Knox?


VM Peter Mullen would make a great John Knox (although he’d need to do an East Coast accent). Bethia would have to be an unknown actor  — it could be a great part for someone!


KB It certainly would. What are you writing now? Are we going to hear more about the Seton family?


VM I’ve just finished the first draft of the sequel, which will be out later this year if all goes to plan. I’m also planning on working in parallel on a WW2 novel I have half finished – I’ll soon find out if I’m being over-ambitious!


KB That sounds terrific – look forward to both of those. Thank you for answering my questions, Vicki, and all the very best with your writing.



VEH Masters was born and brought up on a farm a few miles outside St Andrews. The first time she ever visited St Andrews Castle was aged twelve, when her history teacher took the class on a school trip. She was fascinated when they crept down the siege tunnel and peered into the bottle dungeon, where Cardinal Beaton's body was said to have been kept pickled in salt for the fourteen months of the siege. When she heard the group had called themselves The Castilians, she thought, even then, what a perfect title for a book. 

Keep up with her on Facebook





Saturday, 3 April 2021

Seven in March

 I read seven books in March.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

That’s Mary*, the middle sister from Pride and Prejudice. This is an extremely enjoyable read – a standalone but of course all the better if you’ve read P&P / seen the film(s).

The first quarter of the book is the timeframe of P&P, seen from Mary’s point of view. Thereafter <spoiler alert> with her four sisters married and her father deceased, she and her mother live with the Bingleys where Mary is tormented by the ghastly Caroline.

So she moves on to Pemberley but here she feels like a gooseberry in the midst of the Darcys’ domestic bliss – so much so that she gets herself invited to stay in her old home, Longbourn, where the Collins now reign. Unexpectedly, she finds more in common now with the much-maligned Mr C than she does with her friend Charlotte, née Lucas.

It was lovely to catch up with these old acquaintances before we made some new ones.

Mary then goes to London, to the welcoming home of her mother’s brother and sister-in-law, the Gardiners.

And there I will leave you, gentle reader, to find out for yourself what happened next. (I succumbed to a supermarket paperback but it is currently 99p on Kindle.)


*I too was inspired to write about Mary Bennet, in a modern-day story called The Real Thing; it was long-listed for the Jane Austen Short Story Award a few years ago. You can read it in my collection Another World.



The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Read on Kindle. Still on a JA jag here.

The blurb said it was a fictionalised account of a group of people who saved the Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire to be a museum to her, and bought back various Austen artefacts that had been sold abroad. I did get absorbed in their various stories (especially Dr Benjamin’s) while at the same time thinking that in places the dialogue was a bit clunky.

Then I got to the end where a note says that all the characters are entirely fictitious and not based on anyone who was involved in that (real) exercise. Not sure what to make of that.


The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

A Christmas present. I knew a little about the long siege of Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg), which began in September 1941, and I knew a little about the Hermitage Museum there because they lent objects for a National Museums Scotland exhibition some years ago.

But I didn’t know that Hermitage Museum staff and some of their families spent that dreadful time actually in the museum, cataloguing and wrapping the precious paintings and objects for safekeeping.

In this novel, partly set in present-day America, former guide Marina, now slipping into dementia, can still walk through the Hermitage in her mind and recall especially the paintings of the Madonna. It’s a time of her life that her children and grandchildren don’t know about – and one that I was very interested to read about.


Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston

I’d finished The Madonnas one evening and thought I’d go for a reread rather than embarking on a new book (anyone else do that?).

This is a quirky novel, set (indeterminately) around the early 1990s, about Boston-based Lucy who is artistic, slightly hippyish, upset at how much time her 13-year-old twin boys spend on their computer – but who nevertheless has made up a multi-million-selling video game called Maiden Quest.

For various reasons, she rebels against what her life has become and nostalgically recalls her father’s cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin, still in the family but unvisited for fifteen years. She enrols her urban and very unsporty lads in a canoe summer camp she’d loved when she was a girl and, without leaving a note for her husband, sets off to relive her youth.

I love this book! (I bought my ex-library copy some years ago for 80p).



 Jackie by Josie by Caroline Preston

So having happily reacquainted myself with Lucy I reread this equally enjoyable novel by the same author.

Josie has been asked to do some research (ie look for scandal) at the Kennedy Library for someone who is writing a biography of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She’s going to be well paid so she temporarily moves back with her small son to her mother’s large, ramshackle house while her husband takes up a teaching post in California.

It’s difficult having that (pre-mobile) distance between them; her mother’s asked a convicted arsonist to move in; and her own dissertation on an obscure woman poet has ground to a halt.

Warm and funny.



A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Read for book group … the ‘long petal’ being Chile. The book begins in Spain during the bloody civil war; when dictator Franco wins, the losing side disperse in various directions. Victor, Roser and baby Marcel are picked by poet and activist Pablo Neruda to embark on his rescue ship, the Winnipeg, to begin a new life in Chile. Years later, they find their lives turned upside down by another dictator, General Pinochet.

This is a fictionalised version of historic events. I learned a lot that was interesting and it was page-turning but the novel part of it was rather unsatisfactory; it seemed to play second-fiddle and the tone made me feel as if I was being hastily told a story rather than been given the chance to get involved with the characters.



The Castilians by V E H Masters

By coincidence, another novelised version of historic events, this time of the siege of St Andrews Castle (1546/47). Here, the characters spring to life and carry the story of this little-known or long-forgotten extremely dramatic part of Scotland’s history.

Look out for my interview with the author coming soon.