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.

Obsessives are undeterred by rain
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.

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.



Only connect: sun and chemistry at Lacock

Lacock signResearch can take us to some odd places but a perfect English village on a perfect summer’s day was not a bad result  at Lacock Abbey where I was parked up and fuelled by a stiff Americano before the gates had even  opened for Sunday’s demonstrations of  early photography. Of course I’d visited Lacock before, including once since this whole thing began, but mindsets change, new things become significant and the brain becomes ready to reabsorb some of the detail that it just might have discarded along the way. Revision was long overdue. In fact a lot of what I saw and heard yesterday I did already ‘know’ from previous experience and reading, but seeing things in the round (camera obscura, mousetrap camera, photogenic drawings) always makes a difference, not to mention the vital ingredient – meeting experts and other enthusiasts.

Alex Burnham I had Victorian photographer Alex Burnham (in costume and also in the know) cornered very early on, which was maybe just as well in view of the rising temperatures.

He talked me through what was going on in his mysterious darkroom on wheels, , then it was on to see man-in-hot-blue-tent Richard Cynan Jones who explained the differences in the chemistry of these fab photogenic drawings.


photogenic drawingsIn fact what began as a quick chat became more of a pop-up conference (?) when Richard and I discovered a mutual interest in events in Edinburgh and St Andrews in the 1840s.
At this point I had more or less taken root in front of richard’s tent, with one passer by assuming we were – ahem – an item (!) Oops, sorry about that, Richard, but there’s nothing quite like stumbling on someone who cares about the same things, particularly if they are of no particular significance to the rest of the world!

calotype graphicTime for a lunch/hydration break during which I visited the museum (I particularly like this exhibit – no excuse for forgetting the process now) and amassed a few more questions for Messrs Burnham and Jones.


It was an absolute pleasure to be at Lacock yesterday and I’d like to thank not only Richard and Alex (please check them out, especially if you need a historic photographer any time!) but also the other NT staff and volunteers who set up the day and kept loads of adults and children informed and entertained.

Since seeing the wet collodion process demonstrated back in May, I’m struck more and more by how the medium of photography has been changed by the digital age and it’s good to know that historic processes are, if anything, increasing in popularity. Why? I’ll leave that for a more philosophical moment, but now that I’ve begun to revisit my research sources I think I might use this site to list a few more more of them. No point in keeping it all to myself.

To start the ball rolling here are a few that cropped up after Lacock and also after the Bristol Festival of Photography which somehow failed to get a blog post of its own.

Historic Photographic Processes:

Calotype Process (video reconstruction, Richard Cynan Jones on Lacock FB page)

Making a Salt Print (St Paul’s Photogrphy Centre on Youtube)

Early Photography equipment

Alex Burnham

Michael Schaaf, Wet Collodion Photography

Richard Cynan Jones and on Flickr

Richard Cynan Jones
Richard Cynan Jones









Research is freedom. I agree with Sarah Dunant.

I’m not quite sure what I expected from last night’s Historical Fiction Masterclass run by Writers and Artists, but with around fifty people crowded in a room in Bedford Square on a very rainy night in London town, it was more about the chemistry of the two presenters – Celia Brayfield and Sarah Dunant – than learning how to craft a novel.

Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant

So I’m pleased that I knew enough about the crafty stuff (in theory anyway!) to sit back and watch as the sparks flew and ideas were thrown around. What soon became clear is that historical fiction (and maybe all fiction?) involves a number of paradoxes:

Celia Brayfield
Celia Brayfield
  • the reader seeks reassurance in the similarity of past and present while marvelling at the differences
  • the writer must tap into the consensual understanding of a historical period as well as making it fresh( i.e authenticity is about convincing the reader rather than being totally faithful to historical facts)

When the audience were invited to nominate favourite reads other dilemmas came up, like the question of whether to use a voice that is clear and accessible to the reader or one that reflects the ‘otherness’ of the period/character. Books of each variety were equally loved.

As often happens with these things there was really one thing in particular I latched on to. As Jean Burnett says here, we can’t ever portray the past exactly as it was because we will always reflect it through the prism of our own understanding and beliefs (and because of this we can hopefully do it  – see above! – ) in a way that will appeal to our contemporaries. BUT Sarah Dunant made the point that even if we can never know exactly how people spoke to each other in a given period, or which sounds smells or tastes they actually noticed, we must give it our best shot, i.e. our guess must be the guess of an expert, and one that no one could actually prove wrong. Sadly there wasn’t much time for discussing how this conflicted with Celia’s preference for allowing fiction to dictate over fact in certain circumstances, so that’s another of the paradoxes we had to consider.

Going back to the research question, to be an historical expert is a daunting task for a non-historian but I sided with Sarah in appreciating that knowledge in this case is actually freedom. The writer must make choices in what to include or leave out but these choices should be based on knowing all there is to know. Research can throw up things that make us tear our hair out and sometimes feels like a straight-jacket, but it’s not. The more research we do the more stuff we have to use.

What we do with it then is up to us.



Cameras – in Lacock, Bristol and Kabul

Since my visit to Dimbola I’ve been thinking it’s time I got a bit more hands-on with the whole notion of early photography, or any kind of pre-digital developing and printing. I mean I once knew a novelist whose research involved learning to fly, a bit of dark room photography can’t be so hard!

W. H. Fox Talbot
W. H. Fox Talbot

Luckily the Bristol Festival of Photography has just got under way, with opportunities to see the wet collodion method and other ‘old-school’ techniques being used by contemporary artists. But the one event that really caught my eye mentioned Fox Talbot, the inventor of the first photograph (or calotype) as used by my own hero, and a camera that wasn’t too far from the kind of thing these Victorian pioneers would have used.


So that’s how I found myself last week at Paintworks in Bristol  where the Milestones Trust had an exhibition called Drop Stitch Drive (yes, knitting!) and where said camera was also on show.

I’m really grateful to Jeff for taking time out from the end of show party (nice grass skirt by the way!) to show me how the camera works. Jeff  explained that the kit (basically a light-proof box with baths for developing and fixing built-in) originated in Afghanistan where it is used for street photography, in particular for producing ID photos. I’ve since discovered that the low-tech camera (it has a lens but no shutter, the focus is determined by a sliding pole fixed by a clip) is also known as the Cuban Polaroid.

afghan box cameraNow the  kamra-e-faoree is threatened by the need for colour , but it’s a great reminder how long the  process invented  just down the road in Lacock in 1839 has lasted and how far it has travelled with only minor changes to the original process.

You can learn more about the Afghan Camera here.

Milestones Trust provides creative opportunites for people with disabilities. More of their camera pictures will be on show during the Bristol Festival in Easton during May.

Meanwhile here is some of the fabulous knitting from Drop Stitch Drive.


Funny where research can take you.

Next week, learning to fly?


Getting it wrong: or may we be forgiven

A friend recently recommended a series of books about a coroner set in Bristol Having just finished May We Be Forgiven – an absorbing but in some ways challenging read (check out the disparate reviews!) – it seemed a good moment for a straightforward crime thriller and so I popped down to the library and picked up The Coroner by M.R. Hall.

The CoronerThe opening is assured – woman starts new job,  back story of mental breakdown and divorce,  instant confilict with new assistant and we haven’t even got to a murder yet.  So far so good. Her office is in Jamaica Street – yes, I know it well, just off Stokes Croft, a satisfying moment of recognition. Was there just last Saturday for a Bristol Lit Fest event.  Hang on, according to the author Jamaica Street, is just off  Whiteladies Road. Er, no, actually. Whiteladies is quite a way away. Well, it’s not the end of the world, I can might have forget this annoying glitch. But a few pages later the heroine ‘pops around the corner’ to Whiteladies to pick up a cofee and a pastry. I picture her jogging all the way ther and back. I’m completely distracted from the plot. I want to shout at the author.  If you don’t know Bristol that well, don’t risk getting it wrong. Or for heaven’s sake just use Google Maps!

But who am I to cast teh first stone? Only a few months ago I was contacted by a reader who pointed out I had got my Fife bus routes wrong in  A Kettle of Fish. It’s as if  however detailed your research or sharp your memory there will be a reader out there who knows better. And once that error is spotted there may be no going back. I’m still reading The Coroner, but Jamaica street rankles, the bubble of the fictional world has been burst. How much of this story can I believe?

That’s why we owe it to ourselvs and our readers to do the very best we can with the matters of fact – or hand over to an editor who will cross-check every last detail. A reader interrupted might be a reader lost, and all we can do is to ask for their forgiveness.

For those who are interested and to show I am not without sin, here’s the story of my of my own fact-failure as printed in the Dundee Courier ( courier pdf file)  earlier this year.


Research – not always what you expect.

Royal MileIt hasn’t really been a week  for getting much writing done as most of it was spent in the wonderful city of Edinburgh where I combined a day of intensive research with another couple of days of equally intensive sight-seeing. So what if those pesky pandas were taken off show? Everything else  came up trumps including, remarkably the weather.

Of course the one day I had to spend in the National Library of Scotland (lunch-break spent with last week’s blog guest Jane – her book is out now, don’t ya know) was never going to be enough. I had also hoped to spend some time in the City Library finding out more about Victorian Edinburgh but somehow that just didn’t happen. Still, I did get a lot out of my trip and it made me realise there’s more than one purpose (or outcome) to research.

IIMG_4505n the end most of my time was spent studying the letters of D.O. Hill, and although this began as an exercise in establishing facts (who did he write to, when and about what) I realise by the end that since I am after all writing fiction, it wasn’t so much about getting to the truth as finding inspiration, in particular ideas for the kinds of things going on in his life in the years that general histories of photography have ignored. And then there were insights into his  family life, the part played by sisters, cousins and aunts, and the warm relations he maintained with his late wife’s family, in some ways as close to him as his own. So in the end I did learn a lot about Edinburgh in the 1840s and 50s since these primary sources brought home the reality of the extended Victorian family and other aspects of life more vividly than any text book.

 looking towards Fife from Arthur's seat
looking towards Fife from Arthur’s Seat

For instance, who would have thought that travellers routinely walked from Queensferry to Dunfermline? But when I checked the distance it is actually 7 miles. Perfectly walkable. But who would do it now?

Meanwhile –  I may not have mentioned here that I recently had a suprise win in the Southville Writers Flash Fiction contest (my entry’s here) and last night was delighted to accept my prize of a copy  of Jo Reed’s Tyranny of the Blood  and vouchers for a certain online bookstore. Now it’s time to get my head down. As for the book I spotted in the NLS book shop and was too mean to buy. I feel a spot of self-indulgence coming on.

Writing, research, technology

Confessions of an erstwhile librarian

Now that I’ve (re)embarked on my historical and now non-fiction (?)  project, I’m beginning to panic worry about the general disorganisation of my ‘research materials’  by which I mean everything from dog-eared articles and handwritten notes, to things I’ve typed up in Word or grabbed from DNB or Wikipedia. Then there are endless other websites and online resources including blog posts, images, letters and maps. Having collected these in a sporadic fashion for four or five years, will I be able to find what I need when I need it?

When the project was a novel, I was less concerned (just write then check the facts later seemed a reasonable modus operandi) but in the context of non-fiction, I’m also going to need to quote from and cite these sources correctly. Having spent a fair number of years lecturing students on the importance of such matters, (sorry, couldn’t resist the retro clipart) I feel pretty stupid at not having been more systematic in my approach.

Of course rather than attempt a root and branch assessment of what I have, it’s much more fun to look at things which might help do it for me. And if playing with software (like Tweeting and sorting the washing) is a distraction, it could also bring long-term benefits, couldn’t it?

 I’ve been aware for a while that there are tools out there used by fiction writers to help with plotting and general organisation of materials. A dyslexic friend is a huge fan of StoryMill (only for Macs) and there’s also Writers’ Café produced by previous guest Harriet Smart. Having ignored all of these, I heard a friend and confirmed technophobe extolling the merits of Scrivener and it felt like time  to give it a whirl. Said friend has even bought a book on how to use it, but I’m afraid I just went for the free download, and after a quick look at the tutorial (don’t be fooled – the interactivity is limited) jumped straight in.

Let me say this is in no way a complete assessment of Scrivener, more the story so far of how I’ve got on. If you want more detail look elsewhere, or start with this useful comparison by Martha Williams, but to summarise what this package does (quite a lot!) I’d say there are three areas –

  • story  planning and structure,
  • producing  a formatted manuscript,
  • research and notes

Now I am a confirmed user of (and at one time even a trainer in) MS Word and so although Scrivener looks good for outlining and navigating I am happy with Word’s  Document map, or occasionally Outline View. Scrivener has some nice extra features like wordcounts for each section and a pinboard view which I haven’t had cause to use but could be a big plus for a project (like the first draft of a novel?) that’s in a ‘free-form’ state. I also like the flexibility of viewing a document in chunks or in a straight run, and the clever ‘scrivenings’ idea of looking at (and editing) different sections on the same screen. At this point, I can manage with the way I do things now, but might be persuaded to change if there are other advantages.

As regards formatting, Scrivener has its own customisable templates and I imagine the output process is reasonably straightforward, but for me the Word style menu is as good as a security blanket and I’m unwilling to give up the whole gamut of word-processing options presented by Word, or to embark on all of that after I export the text from Scrivener instead of doing it as I go along. I also had a minor panic when I had problems exporting my Scrivener files back into Word. The panic (thanks to a friendly Tweep) is now over, but do I want to spend time learning the Scrivener way what I can do already? So this far, although Scrivener might be dandy for someone who hasn’t got the hang of all the features of Word, I’m not persuaded to give up what I know and learn to do it all a new way.

Scrivener screenshotSo what about research materials? At first sight everything looks good. As well as document text, the Scrivener ‘binder’ lets me import research notes and websites into the interface and lets me work in ‘split screen’ with a research document or website on view as I type. So this is a plus. I have character notes, images and web pages absolutely to hand and can as far as I can see, create as many folders as I would like to store them in. I can also type in notes relating to any particular scene or the project as a whole. On the other hand I don’t seem to be able to drag research items into the notes pane, which would have been helpful e.g. to associate a document or website with a particular scene/chapter.

I think I was really hoping that there might be a facility in Scrivener to store references and produce citations from them, which was maybe optimistic. But I know that most citation software (Refworks, Endnote etc)  has a plug in that runs in Word, enabling citations to be imported as endnotes or footnotes in the desired format and ‘on the fly’. It looks like no one has a plug-in for Scrivener, and that the work-arounds would be fiddly. I’m not planning an academic treatise, but I woudl like to store a modest bibliography and be able to incorporate citations from it.  So, Scrivener scores on structure/planning and in organising research, but not (for me) in formatting or citation management.

Despite these shortcomings, the Scrivener interface is user-friendly and in my case having everything to hand does seem to concentrate the mind. It’s also fun to be embarking on a new project with a new tool. So will I take out a licence when my trial period ends? Right now, on balance, I think the answer is no, but I have a couple of weeks left. Possibly just enough time to change my mind.

If you want to see for yourself, Scrivener is available here as a free trial.

Next task? Yes, I’m playing with a free citation manager, but I think it’s time I did some writing – somewhere, anywhere.