A Lot of Linen Going On

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A new view of Dunfermline Abbey

My home town of Dunfermline may only recently have acquired a Heritage Quarter but it has never lacked heritage: King Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame has his name emblazoned around the abbey tower;  more recently Andrew Carnegie lavished quite a few of his millions on the place of his birth, equipping us with the very first Carnegie library and the first public swimming pool in Scotland.

DSC00920In my childhood these were our local heroes but the town’s  twentieth century economy was more mundane – coal fields and textile mills. The pits were at a distance and by the sixties linen weaving had given way to silk and man-made fibres, but the clank of the power looms was never  far away , something I had come to remember while writing In the Blink of An Eye:  one of the main characters had her roots here with her father and grandfather working in the linen industry. It was only after being invited to talk at the Undiscovered Dunfermline Conference soon after signing  with Linen Press that I noticed the pleasing symmetry!

20171016_120531_resizedI was delighted to be invited to the event and promised Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects  I could talk ad infinitum about the historical figures who inhabit my book, but I admit that as the day grew nearer I had quite a few qualms.  I have read my work at quite  few events, but organising my research for a formal presentation  was a different matter. Then there was the small matter of my new PC dying on me at the crucial moment (is there any other kind?) My novel was safely backed up  but not so my 40 Powerpoint slides! Luckily the thing spluttered back into life just in time for me to haul all the important files to safety.  Eventually it was done – the presentation that is – and I could  look forward to my trip north with the bonus of seeing the newly opened  Queensferry Crossing on the way.

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Amongst friends!

Dunfermline has changed a lot since the seventies but I must say most of the surprises were pleasant ones, especially the fabulous award-winning Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries (incorporating library, archives, museum, and art gallery)  where Undiscovered Dunfermline took place, and if I was slightly daunted by the Hollywood proportions of the projection screen, it was lovely to have jacquard patterned panels around the walls of the room to emphasize all that linen heritage.

As for the talk itself, after some fascinating insights into little known Dunfermliners from the other speakers, I was suddenly aware that my audience were likely to know more about my subject than I could tell them. Luckily those who did were happy to share their knowledge, and I got the impression that most people learned something new, with some very heartening feedback afterwards.

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Not quite the silver screen but pretty big!

In retrospect I’m grateful to DCHP and Jack Pryde of Discover Dunfermline,  not just for the publicity opportunity but also the chance to renew some old acquaintances and see how my home town is faring in its post-linen era. It was also a great chance to brush up my presentation skills.  I’m hoping to do more of this kind of thing after Blink has been released into the world – though maybe not (note to self) using all of my forty slides at one go!

Sunday followed – ideal for taking in some old haunts, more delights of DCLG and of course a walk in the Glen (look hard and you might just see the new bridge beyond the trees).

 

 

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Signed with Linen Press – In the Blink of an Eye

Sometimes something just feels right. 

Having toiled for what has seemed like aeons over my fictional version of the Hill and Adamson partnership, I looked at what I had a few weeks ago and realised it was finished – maybe not totally ready for publication, but the beginning and end felt right and the middle wasn’t far off. Most of the writing was polished (one chapter had just won a prize.) Suddenly  it felt like the story I wanted to tell. As I made some minor revisions to the opening chapter, a new title popped into my head.

In the Blink of an Eye

I liked it.

For fun I decided to enter the MS into a competition and discovered writing a synopsis (usually the worst job in the world) had become a piece of cake. After all this time, the feeling of something coming together was  overwhelming. So much so that on an impulse I sent the whole proposal off to the owner of a small press (we’d chatted over coffee last year) to see what she thought. I had a reply straight away saying the proposal was strong and she was looking forward to reading the sample.  Within a day Lynn Michell of Linen Press got back to say she would like to read more and (my approach had been fairly casual)  did I want her to consider it for publication?

By now I was feeling more confident about this book than I have ever done. I had an inkling if Linen Press said no,  someone else might say yes. But who would that be? I could have  gone looking for other, bigger publishers.  That of course would mean finding an agent. The whole process could take months or years – with no guarantee of success. There were other small presses but what did I know about them? Linen Press (recently described as ‘the new Virago’), might be small, but it’s celebrating its tenth birthday this year. Crucially, I liked what I’d seen of its list,  particularly Avril Joy’s Sometimes a River Song, a beautifully written and produced  book  which I mentioned not so long ago  and has since won an award in the People’s Book Prize. Not many small presses had this kind of charisma.

To cut to the chase, I said yes, please consider it. Lynn read it and  liked it – a lot! Within a week  we had ourselves a deal. The rest is not history, it’s the future! If all goes well,  In the Blink of an Eye will be out next year. 

You can read about the book in its new guise on the Linen Press site.  While you’re at it,  cast your eye over the rest of their lovely list. I think you’ll like the look of it.

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FINE WRITING FOR WOMEN, BY WOMEN

Feels like a good place to be.

A win for historical fiction – and me!

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Collecting the trophy!

Having seen my historical short story Silver Harvest shortlisted several times without ever making the winners’ enclosure, I was beginning to suspect that even if competitions were ‘welcoming’ all genres, there was a reluctance to give the overall prize to a historical piece. I’m happy to say my suspicions have been allayed , since on Friday night The Bird of Wax (from the same series as SH) took the adult prize at the Evesham Festival of Words.

The prize was presented at the official opening of the festival which featured a talk by writer and food supremo (suprema?)  Prue Leith who explained just how hard writing can be and how much she had to learn to get a novel published.

 

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Prue Leith signing books

 

(Comforting to know even proven celebs have to put in the hours!)

However the main judge for the competition was acclaimed short story writer Vanessa Gebbie, whose work I’ve always admired, so that was very pleasing indeed, as are her comments, published with the story  in the festival anthology:

 

 

‘I enjoyed so much about this piece – the voice, the characters, the fascinating details which painted the era so well … I found the ending rather poignant and charged with hope.’

Vanessa also admits to googling my characters to find out more, which I think is a good sign! In fact of the shortlisted stories, two others are also historical. So at least one competition judge is in favour of period pieces – fingers crossed this is a growing trend.

 

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Evesham booty

‘Poor Chattie’ comes to Novel Nights

D.O. Hill’s daughter Chattie is best known from the  iconic portrait  taken near the start of her father’s partnership with Robert Adamson, but we have very few further calotype images of her (calotyping was too expensive for regular ‘family shapshots’) .

All we know from the playful letters, notes and sketches her father made for her, is that she remained central to his  busy life and that her early death marked the beginning of his declining years.

When I was talking to other Hill and Adamson fans last year in St Andrews, one long-time aficionado exclaimed ‘Poor Chattie!’ and a  collective sigh went up in recognition of a father’s grief and a young life snuffed out to soon.

Of course in historical fiction, the less we know about someone the easier it can be to incorporate them into the story we want to tell, and I’ve been thinking for a while that Chattie’s voice could be a useful vehicle for her father’s story if only because she provides a unifying thread,  from the ‘Adamson years’  through the 1850’s, when she and D. O. shared Rock House with his sister Mary and an extended family of cousins. This  was also when D. O. Hill grew particularly close to the artist Joseph Noel Paton, an alliance that would  have repercussions on D.O.’s personal and professional life.

Next week  I’m reading the beginning of a story set in 1854 when Chattie would have been fifteen and attending the first ever  Edinburgh school for young ladies. By now she is old enough to take a view on her and her father’s situation. I wonder what she made of it all, and what D. O. made of her? I imagine her confident, articulate and well brought up. But we all know how teenagers can jump to conclusions …

nnaudienceIf you’d like to hear my version of the (not so poor) Chattie, Novel Nights is taking place on Wednesday Jan 25th in its new venue at The Berkeley Square Hotel, Bristol at 8pm.

Several other local writers will be reading their work and there is a talk by historical fiction expert Celia Brayfield (also mentioned here).

Don’t forget to get your ticket in advance.

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The Berkely Square Hotel, Bristol

Looks like a lovely venue.  I think Chattie will be in her element!

 

*Calotype of Chattie Hill by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson,  Scottish National Galleries collection https://art.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/42236/112194?overlay=download

 

An interview with Jane Davis (and free novel offer!)

jdbench034I first ran into Jane when someone recommended her historical novel ‘I Stopped Time’ which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I also loved ‘An Unchoreographed Life’, a contemporary novel about a dancer and single mother. But as well as being a great writer with seven published novels to her name, Jane is an example to all ‘indie’ authors in the absolute professionalism of everything she produces.  If you haven’t set eyes on one of Jane’s novels, I can guarantee you won’t be able to tell it apart from anything produced by a big publishing house – and there will almost certainly be fewer typos! She has won several awards and ‘An Unknown Woman’ has just won self-published book of the year. With ‘MMy counterfeit Self covery Counterfeit Self’ – set mainly in the fifties and very much redolent of my own childhood – hot off the press, what better time to have Jane along for an interview?

How would you describe your latest protagonist?

Lucy Forrester is a radical poet and political activist who is a cross between two great British eccentrics, Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, she’s horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. During the book we find out what has shaped Lucy. At the age of nine, she contracted childhood polio. Staring death in the face defines a person. It alters their perception of life, whatever age they happen to be. Lucy has that same stubborn determined streak that Roosevelt displayed when he refused to accept the limitations of his disease. The refusal to wear leg braces, to face the world sitting down. She also resents overhearing her father say that not much is expected of her, and it makes her want to defy him. She becomes totally driven. And then her parents behave so shockingly that it releases her from feeling under any obligation to live up to their expectations for her, and so she adopts a bohemian lifestyle. And into this new life she’s leading walks the man who became her literary critique and on/off lover for the next 50 years.

What is one thing you love about your main character and one thing that drives you crazy?

I love Lucy’s unconventionality, her defiance, her eccentricity, and especially her dress-sense. (Think Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style.) One of my early reviewers called her fiercely moral, which I rather like. She’s my rebel with a cause. Because of the time she was born in, her fear of the Nuclear Bomb is a hangover from childhood. She takes part in the first of the CND rallies and marches from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston to protest about the nuclear threat, and, later, she takes up the cause of the British Nuclear Veterans. As for what drives me crazy… she can be quick to judge others but she’s blinkered when it comes to her own faults. In fact, that’s her downfall.

It’s the first time you’ve written about another writer, isn’t it?

 Yes, in some ways it’s my most personal novel to date. To bring Lucy to life, I had to draw on all of my insecurities, doubts and fears, writing about how it feels when you show your work to someone for the first time. How you manage to convince yourself that people will like you less when they understand what’s going on inside your head. Lucy’s formal schooling was curtailed by illness, and when she finally goes to school thinking that writing poetry is the one thing she’s good at, she’s told she doesn’t have the basic tools for job. That’s very much me. Someone who left school at sixteen, worked her way up in a company to Deputy MD and then had the audacity to attempt to write novels. I am the person who used to make up an answer on the spot when asked which university I went to! And of course, I’ve through the submission process. I know all about rejection – and I also know how overwhelming winning can be. How part of you never feels you deserve it, and how others will be quick to tell you that they didn’t think you deserved it, that it was a fix, or that you must have been related to the judges, and so how, when you fall from grace, it’s almost a relief. Order has been restored.

My Counterfeit Self is your seventh book. Does it get easier to write and publish over time, or is every process a “birthing” experience?

Getting a new novel out of the ground is always tough. It’s possible I make it tougher by not outlining or plotting. I like George R R Martin’s quote: ‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’ It takes me a good three months to get to know my characters. By the time I reach the 50,000-word milestone I think to myself, ‘I might just have a book on my hands’, but by 75,000 words I’m back to wallowing in self-doubt, unsure how to fight myself out of a corner. At 100,000 I may have an inkling of how it ends, but that doesn’t mean I’ll know how to get there. Every time you introduce a new angle, each ‘what if?’ question has to be pushed to its limits. Once the structure is in place, you go back and make every page shine.

That aside, certain parts of the publishing process are easier. I used to tackle all of the interior formatting and the creating of eBooks myself, but now I outsource and concentrate on making sure the proofs are as clean as they can be. The mechanics of publishing are far simpler than they were in 2012, because the process is familiar and technology is vastly improved, and getting better all the time.

Your novel, ‘An Unknown Woman’, was named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine. Did that put extra pressure on your new release?

an-unknown-woman-finalDefinitely. The editor of Writing Magazine said that ‘An Unknown Woman’ would happily sit on any of the Big 5 publishers’ lists, that the writing was exemplary and that my production standards were outstanding. And I only found out about the win when ‘My Counterfeit Self’ was going into production! So yes, it caused some extra nail biting. The first edition of An Unknown Woman was (as far as I know) error free, something I had never achieved before. With a 120,000 word novel, a few typos usually past even the most eagle-eyed proof-readers (and I know there’s one in My Counterfeit Self).

Like most writers, I want to show progression from one book to another and so I try to do something a bit different, but not so different that it won’t appeal to my readers. You know what it’s like waiting for those first few reviews!  But I’m learning. All the time, I’m learning.

Thanks Jane for showing us so much of the book and yourself.

Here are all Jane’s Social Media links and a special offer for anyone who signs up to her newsletter.

Social Media Links:

Universal Buy Link: https://books2read.com/u/4AgQdK
My website: http://www.jane-davis.co.uk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage/?fref=ts
Twitter: https://twitter.com/janedavisauthor
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+JaneDavisAuthor/posts

Pinterest: https://uk.pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6869939.Jane_Davis
Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Davis/e/B0034P156Q/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

halftruthsandwhiteliesReaders who sign up to Jane’s newsletter will receive a free copy of her novel, ‘I Stopped Time’. http://eepurl.com/bugqnr

Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk! She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

 

To healthy obsessions

photo courtesy ASM Media-PR
photo by Alan Morrison, ASM Media-PR

Going to the first ever St Andrews Photography Festival was such a thrill, only part of which was having my first ever one woman show.  I’m happy to say the show was everything I wanted it to be with an attentive and appreciative audience. But in a way the real thrill was discovering I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the lives of a small group of people (all of whom died over 100 years ago) and their photographs. Which of course I knew to be the case. But it was quite something for my obsession to be making me part of something and to discover a shared obsession could manifest itself in so many amazing ways.

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Obsessives are undeterred by rain

On my first day, on a rain-soaked photo tour led by Rachel Nordstrom (head of University Photographic Collections, organiser of everything and everybody) I met a collector and producer of stereoscopic photographs who in a gap between showers whipped out an i-pad  and  treated us to some of his creations. At the evening talk by world authority Dr Sara Stevenson (mentioned here)  I was approached by someone trying to uncover the whole of D. O. Hill’s early (pre-calotyping) life.  Then at dinner,  (gulp – I was slightly star-struck to be in the company of several early photography luminaries) I sat opposite Rob Douglas who creates his own modern-day calotypes according to John Adamson‘s original instructions. Finally, at my own event on Friday evening there were people who had come to the same point from completely different angles:  a lady who was interested in Hill and Adamson because of  photographs taken by her great grandfather, and a descendant of one of  the ministers who sat for D.O. Hill’s Disruption painting.

What all of us came to find was the sudden the ability to air or  unpick details of  St Andrews in the 1840s without having to explain or defend our interest. And we could learn from each other far more effectively than consulting a library or internet site. Rob Douglas – whose hands-on workshop I had missed – had already shone a new light on just what a painstaking business it is to produce a single calotype negative and  Sara Stevenson made a sincere plea for anyone to contribute any materials or knowledge they might have stored away in a dark corner.  And of course there were those special moments when a complete stranger echoes your own long-held thoughts – like the audience member who saw the image on my programme and sighed deeply,  ‘Oh, poor Chattie!’  As if Hill’s daughter were a family friend. Because, of course, to us that’s what she is.

In the word ‘obsession’ there’s a hint of the pejorative, and I guess the adjective most commonly used of it would be ‘unhealthy’. You can certainly recognise an obsessive by a certain gleam in the eye and a tendency to catch you by the sleeve if you try to walk away. Yes, they can become boring.   But I think we are mostly harmless and although some obsessions might have a touch of the dark side, most of them are good for us.  They give us a a reason to learn and to connect with fellow obsessives. They lead us to places and experiences that help us grow. I have a friend who’s into Lord Nelson and another hell-bent on discovering all there is to know about Lady Ottoline Morrell. Why? Well why not? Although I’ve tried to unpick the origins of my obsession, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. These interests give us, if not a reason to go on, something to fall back on at least. Maybe this is what they call a hinterland.

Since coming home from St Andrews I’ve been to see the  Painting with Light exhibition at Tate Britain where the  Disruption Painting has been on show.  The commission for this painting was Hill’s original motivation for trying out the use of calotypes and the beginning of his partnership with Robert Adamson, but having begun it in 1843 he didn’t complete it until 1866, close to the end of his life. I thought this journey might be a kind of final leg or even post-script to my research in to Hill and Adamson, but of course it might just be a new chapter.

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Rodger’s photo of Hill on a biscuit – unreliable evidence?

The picture raised so many questions for me, not least the troubling issue of the colour of D. O. Hill’s hair which I’d previously mentioned to  John Fowler, author of Mr Hill’s Big Picture, in which Hill is described as having ‘flowing blond locks’. Really? From the calotypes you would say that Hill is dark-haired, and in this Thomas Rodger portrait of 1855, possibly grey. In London I got as close to the picture as I possibly could to make my own assessment and I now I’m not sure. Brown with blond streaks I would say. Or has something been painted over?

Oh dear  I am boring you now, but these things matter to obsessives like us.  Mr Hill’s hair is definitely something to discuss next year in St Andrews.

 

St Andrews Photography Festival – being part of it

“Celebrating 175 Years of Photography in the home of Scottish Photography”.

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By invitation!

When I found out about the first St Andrews Photography Festival taking place this summer, I had a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be there to see it. However, in an unexpected  turn of events, I will actually  be part of it as I’ve been invited to read my historical fiction in a festival event on September 9th. I can’t think of anything more special than to take my work to the place where the story began, and present it to people who share my enthusiasm for early photography and its exponents.

I realise most of you will know about this via my outpourings on social media, but with the festival kicking off on August 1st (my event is Sept 9th) I thought it would be good to post about it here, especially for those who aren’t on Facebook where the festival has its main site.

Here’s a link to the full programme of exhibitions and events put together by the University Library Special Collections Department and running from August 1st to September 11th.

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Please share it with anyone you know who has an interest in early or contemporary photography, especially if they happen to be in or near Fife.

And here’s a description of my event.

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In Sunshine and In Shadow
Stories surrounding the photographs of Robert Adamson and David Octavus Hill, 1843-48

Fiction writer and St Andrews graduate Ali Bacon brings her own words to the calotypes of Hill and Adamson and lends a voice to those who sat for them.
In this series of readings you will meet Elizabeth Johnston Hall of Newhaven, Jane Adamson (sister to John and Robert) and literary critic Elizabeth Rigby, and hear how an encounter with early photography changed all of their lives.
Presented with illustrations from the University Special Collections.

It’s on Friday September 9th, 5.30 – 6.30 pm,
Martyrs Kirk Research Library
80 North Street, KY16 9 Saint Andrews

Again, I know very few of you can be there, but do spread the word. If you can be there, please register for a free ticket.

This post will be top of my blog page for a few weeks to come!