Writers as Travellers in Time

Marking Time

image via shutterstock

image via shutterstock

Writers as travellers in time.

How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?

As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or  it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.

Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.

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Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.

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On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.

But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.

In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet.  And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.

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I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.

I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.

This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.

So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.

Time for some lateral thinking.

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image via shutterstock

 

We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.

Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.

The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.

Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally  out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .

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image via shutterstock

 

I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.

I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.

I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.

I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.

I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.

 

 

 

 

Review of Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh

Crime Fiction at its best.

Cold Pressed

Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh

This is the fourth book in a series based on the personal and working life of Scotland Yard officer, Detective Inspector Beatrice Stubbs. However, it’s not necessary to have read the others in order to be able to follow this one. Like its predecessors it can stand alone.

I have read and enjoyed the other three and so my expectations were high, but I was also apprehensive in case this latest one didn’t live up to the high standards of the earlier books. I needn’t have worried. It was the best yet. Author JJ Marsh has produced another excellent piece of crime fiction.

Beatrice Stubbs is a wonderful creation. She’s complex, flawed and utterly believable.

She’s not only a clever, successful and gutsy police officer, but she also has mental-health issues and faces some difficulties in her relationship with her long-term partner, Matthew.

Her occasional malapropisms only add to her endearing qualities. For example she mentions ‘not upsetting the apple tart’, and needing ‘forty wings’ when sleepy.

Beatrice’s job often takes her abroad and involves her working  jointly with  foreign police forces. In Cold Pressed,  when a British woman, a passenger aboard a cruise ship sailing around the Greek islands, dies after being thrown from a cliff whilst ashore, Beatrice is sent to investigate alongside Inspector Stephanakis of the Greek police.  The setting, of course, lends itself to beautiful visual descriptions, and Marsh certainly brings Santorini, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese to life. The reader can see the bluest of seas, feel the hottest sunshine, taste the delicious food.

But there’s menace too and there are serious crimes to be solved, and what Beatrice had hoped would be a straightforward and brisk investigation, becomes a more prolonged and difficult case when two more of the ship’s passengers are discovered to have been murdered. Beatrice and  Inspector Stephanakis  must stay with the ship and get to know the captain, crew and guests. Before both police officers find their own lives in danger when they discover a dark secret and a murder suspect out for revenge.

But Cold Pressed is much more than a simple police-procedural tale. Marsh is an excellent story-weaver. The plot twists and turns, the suspense is compelling. The intertwining of the details of the case and Beatrice’s personal demons is clever and credible and gives the plot a multi-layered feel. All the characters, major and minor, are well drawn and believable. As a reader, you’re drawn in and made to care about them as you feel the terror and panic that sweeps the ship.

Marsh’s economical, highly visual prose make this book a deceptively easy read, but at the same time a most satisfying one.

The book is available in ebook and paperback here.

 

 

 

 

 

Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2015

It’s fine to be indie and judging a book by its cover…

Seizing the Day and Getting Our Work Out There seemed to me to be the main themes of the above conference held on 27th to 29th March 2015. It was also the year that conference finally and fully embraced going indie as a legitimate and positive choice as a route to publication.

As writers, most of us can also be expert procrastinators. We allow self doubt, the rejection and criticism of others, the difficulties of getting published traditionally, the effort required to self-publish, the muse being away on leave, the dust on the shelves, the ironing in the pile, the worms in the dog – anything – to get in the way of just getting on with the job. We get distracted. We get discouraged. We get lonely. But writers groups, clubs and conferences – online and in the real world – can be a great antidote to the writing blues. There we find we’re not alone and, hey, we’re not weird after all, no, it’s just that we’re writers.

Although I live on the Isle of Skye, I am a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club (EWC). Yes, this is probably taking the club’s definition of ‘country’ member to its limits, but it’s such a good, friendly club with access to annual competitions, informative and inspirational speakers, and general writing support, that I was reluctant to give up my membership when I left the city many years ago. One of the advantages of belonging to such a club is that it’s affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) and therefore my membership of the EWC entitles me to attend the annual SAW conference weekend.

This year’s conference took place last weekend in Glasgow, and I made the long trek south to be a part of it.

It was definitely worth the effort. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, I was inspired, encouraged, and I learned such a lot.

The keynote speaker was Alexandra Sokoloff,  an award-winning  thriller author and Hollywood screenwriter. Her talk was both inspirational and motivational. She has no truck with doubt, fear or procrastination when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. Her determination and self-belief have been hard won, as has her success, and she urged all of us to believe in ourselves as writers and to ‘just do it’. She ended her speech with the following Goethe quote – Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. This is a quote I’ve had above my own writing desk for years.

During the weekend, Alexandra also delivered two very informative workshops on story structure and pace. She talked about the three-act-drama format and about how the hooking process used in films and in television drama can and should be used when writing stories. She’s written a book on the subject if you’re interested to know more.

There were workshops on several topics including  writing non-fiction, writing for children, writing drama, writing dialogue and writing for women’s magazines. All of them included advice and information sharing on getting our work published. All of them embraced both traditional and self-publishing and in the case of non-fiction all of the workshop participants were encouraged to find their markets, no matter how niche and were also advised on where to look.

One of the workshops I attended dealt specifically with getting published. It was delivered by Allan Guthrie. Allan is a literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh, the biggest literary agency in the UK outside of London. He is also an editor and an award-winning author of crime fiction. And as well as all that he’s a co-founder of publishing company, Blasted Heath. He began by acknowledging how publishing has changed in the last decade and he also pointed out how self-publishing has evolved and how the quality of books produced in this way has improved.

He then went on, in an excellent workshop, to point out why having an agent is a good thing if you’re going to be traditionally published.  He offered advice on how to get an agent and gave us copies of both good and bad query letters. He also gave us a ‘skeleton hook’ – that is a brief (less than 75 words) agent-slanted blurb containing all the essential information about your book.

It was refreshing and reassuring to hear that he, and in his opinion, other agents are open to taking on previously self-published authors. Although he did say that the first thing a prospective agent will do will be to do an online search of the author’s profile with a particular interest in level of sales.

Of course not  all self-published authors want an agent or to be traditionally published. But for those who do, and for those who are hybrid, it was good to see how the conference in general, and the guest professionals in particular, now accept the indie route as legitimate and of an acceptable standard.

Also on that note, this was the first year that there was a competition for self-published novelists included along with the other dozen or so annual conference competitions. I entered my own novel, Displacement  and I’m proud to say I was runner-up. Yeah! First prize went to Dundee International Award winner, Chris Longmuir. The adjudicator of this competition was Michael Malone.

Michael is both an author of several crime thrillers and a sales rep for a major publisher. His job as a book rep involves him going round bookshops and getting the store buyers to give shelf space to the books produced by his employer. In his adjudication speech he emphasised the importance of the book cover for getting a book into bookshops. He advised a matte finish, saying that for booksellers gloss equals amateur, and the same goes for not using cheap, white paper. He said how bookshop buyers will often neither look at the blurb nor the inside of the book, but will make a judgement based purely on the cover. Food for thought there.

I’ve only provided a snapshot view of the SAW conference here. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience – even more amazing when you realise what a lot of work the SAW council must have put in to organise it and make it all go so smoothly. The council members are all volunteers fitting in SAW work around day jobs and otherwise busy lives. It’s obvious when they speak that it’s a labour of love, but labour it is and the results were awesome.

Thanks to President, Marc Sherland, and all the council members, to the workshop deliverers and speakers, to the lovely staff of the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld – and of course to my fellow delegates – for making the 2015 SAW conference such a worthwhile experience.

Oh, and a PS –  I was also highly commended in the conference Book Review Competition for my review of crime thriller Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh. I’ll post the review here on the blog very soon.

Door Closes on the Open Book

 

The End of A Chapter and the Start of Another

interior of the 'Open Book'

interior of the ‘Open Book’

We’ve been home now for four days. Our stint as booksellers-in-residence at the Open Book second hand bookshop is now over for the husband and me. It was a great adventure. We hope we’ve left the Open Book slightly tidier and the stock a bit better organised – having built on  the hard work of our predecessors in the project. Now it’s over to our successors-in-residence to continue the process.

You’ll have seen from my earlier posts on our time in Wigtown that we met all sorts of interesting and lovely people – both local and visitors to the town. We did a bit of exploring of this corner of Scotland and liked what we saw. It was good to visit the other bookshops in Wigtown as well. How wonderful to have them all, and to have people who are so committed to selling real books in real independent shops and who are prepared to work so hard to do so. It was an eye-opener as to how much goes into running a successful bookshop and it’s definitely a labour of love. More power to all independent bookshops!

During the fortnight, although there wasn’t a lot of spare time to write, I did get to do a bit of thinking and planning in connection with my writing. And I met several local authors and  we shared experiences, thoughts and ideas – this in itself was such a valuable opportunity.

The Martyrs' Stone, Wigtown

The Martyrs’ Stone, Wigtown

So thanks to the Wigtown Book Festival Company and all those behind this unique project, especially to project manager, Anne for the chance to be part of the Open Book. Thanks, too, to Joyce from the Old Bookshop, to the owners of the Glaisnock Cafe, (yummy),  to Jayne and to Sarah from the writers’ group, and to  everyone else  who made us so welcome.

And most of all thanks to the Open Book shop. It was fun getting to know the best wee bookshop in the world.

END OF CHAPTER

Kelvin Walkway, Glasgow

Kelvin Walkway, Glasgow

It’s a long drive from Scotland’s National Book Town to our home in the Hebrides, so we broke our journey north on Saturday with an overnight stay in Glasgow. We stayed at a hotel in the city’s vibrant west end and so were able to enjoy a walk in the Botanical gardens and along the River Kelvin walkway, as well as a lovely dinner out at a nearby Italian restaurant.

Then on Sunday we drove the rest of the way home. And what a drive home it was. It was a beautiful day and  the west of Scotland was looking stunning. Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Kintail, to name just a few of the places, were all showing off their full glory – Scotland was at its most jaw-dropping and glorious best.

Scorrybreac, Skye

Scorrybreac, Skye

It’s nice to be home. The weather has continued to be good and I’ve already had the chance to enjoy one of my favourite local walks.

NEW CHAPTER

Since getting back,  I’ve also been catching up on all my own writing jobs and looking to further the plans I finalised while I was away.

There are two deadlines tomorrow.

One is for my contribution to Words with Jam, the online writers magazine that I’ve been on the staff of since its inception around four years ago. The theme of April’s issue is History and I got two pieces off to the editor yesterday.

The other deadline is for an  application to be included in an opportunity being offered to writers by XPONorth. Below is an edited extract from the organisation’s publicity for the opportunity.

XPONorth (Writing & Publishing) is delighted to offer seven independent, self-publishing authors living in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the chance to sell and promote their work at the Indie Author Fair 2015. The Fair takes place at Foyles Bookshop, London, on Saturday 17th April 2015.

The Fair is part of the London Book Fair Indie Author Fringe Festival, run by The Alliance of Independent Authors/Indie ReCon, and Triskele Books are hosting the 2nd Indie Author Fair at Foyles Bookshop.

Authors selected for the showcase will be offered support and mentoring in developing their marketing and promotional materials and platforms in readiness for the Fair.

Indie authors living the Highlands and Islands can apply to participate in this showcase either to be present in person with their books at the Fair (books, plus promotional materials), or to have their books available on the XPONorth display forsale and with promotional materials.

Whether for readers, writers, publishers or observers of the publishing scene, this will be an unmissable event – an opportunity to say hello to the best indie authors in the business, meet suppliers, talk to experts, buy/sell some books. The event will be FREE to the general public.

( XPONorth Wrtiting and Publishing is delivered by Emergents Creatives CIC Ltd, and the programme is funded by European Regional Development Fund and HIE.)

My application is away. I’m not planning to attend in person, but it would be good to have my books promoted and on offer there, so fingers are crossed.

A week from today I’ll be off back down to Glasgow. I’m attending the annual, weekend conference of the Scottish Association of Writers. So I’ve got travel arrangements to finalise and promotional materials to gather. This is a great opportunity to meet other writers, to catch up with my fellow members from the Edinburgh Writers’ Club, to network, attend workshops and to see if I’ve had any success in the Association’s conference competitions. I’ve entries in a few categories so maybe, just maybe…

Then, after I get home, it will be all systems go for the April publication of my first children’s novel. More of that in a later post.

 

 

 

 

 

Timeout Tuesday – Pictures from Mossyard and Gatehouse of Fleet

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As I said in the post previous to this one, the Open Book was quiet yesterday and the weather was good so we closed the shop early yesterday and went for a walk.

We headed for the pretty town of Gatehouse of Fleet and walked in the Cally forest there.

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On our way to Gatehouse we stopped off at Mossyard beach. It is one of the smallest but prettiest beaches I’ve ever been on. And it had the most amazing assortment of rocks. Geologists look away now as I’m about to describe said rocks and I know nothing of geology. There were what I think was large piles of basalt, chunks of marbly granite and pieces of sandstone. There were rocks with layers, with marbling, with folds; some were smooth, some were jagged; there were grey ones, black ones, pink ones and creamy ones.

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Gatehouse 006 Gatehouse 004

In the Cally forest the ground was carpeted in snowdrops, the river was running high and the trees were just beginning to bud.

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Cally Forest Walk

Cally Forest Walk

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The Open Book – days 9 and 10

Walking, window-dressing and working hard

Cally Forest Walk

Cally Forest Walk

Yesterday was a lovely sunny day. It was very quiet in the shop so we closed a bit earlier than normal and went for a walk in the Cally forest at gatehouse of Fleet. There were buds on the trees, swathes of snowdrops and the birds were in good voice. Maybe, just maybe spring is on its way. Again we were impressed by how lovely this part of Scotland is and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the fresh air. We rounded off our time out with a glass of ale at the Masonic Arms hotel and returned to the flat feeling much better for our time outdoors.

Today it was back to work and it was a longer day in the shop to make up for yesterday’s early close. Iain began by giving the place a good hoover. It’s amazing how grubby the shop floor gets in a couple days! Then he set about moving the fiction paperback books around so that they’re all in the same section of the shop. In order to do that, he first of all had to move crime fiction and in order to do that sci-fi had to come down  couple of shelves. However, despite it being a big task he has made good progress today.

Shop Window of Scottish Books

Shop Window of Scottish Books

Meanwhile, I have done another window display. Different window this time and I decided on a Wigtown and Scottish theme. I’m quietly proud of how it looks. I plan to do the third and final window on Friday, when Iain should be out of the way with his paperback reorganisation.

I also did a new table display and chose the theme of Birds. The shop has a large assortment of bird books, so I thought it would be a good idea to showcase a few of them.

I finished up by going round all the shelves, just straightening and pulling books to the front and generally tidying up.

In amongst all this there were customers to serve – the bit we like best. There was a fairly steady flow of people today. Again several of them took the time to chat and were interested to hear about the project. And Jayne from the writers group also came in to interview me about my writing for a piece on her blog.

So all in all another busy but productive day at the Open Book.

And in a PS to the sanctuary story of two days ago, ‘our’ gentleman came in to say thank you and to confirm that his operation had gone well. So that was nice.  

 

 

 

Sanctuary at the Open Book

Glad we could help…

'Our' bookshop

‘Our’ bookshop

I’m just hoping the elderly gentleman who we gave shelter to in the shop this morning is okay. He appeared in the shop doorway around ten o’clock and was obviously distressed.

He was waiting to be picked up by patient transport to go to hospital in Glasgow for surgery. The original time for his pick up was 8.00 a.m. but the driver had been delayed. So a new rendezvous was arranged. To make things quicker and easier the man had offered to make his way into town and wait for his lift at the cafe across from the Open Book . Unfortunately the cafe was closed, the weather was atrocious and there was still an hour to wait.

We took him in and gave him tea and biscuits and chatted with him while he waited. What an interesting man he was. He shared some of his life story with us, including his birth and early life in Africa, his working life which took him all over the world, learning several languages along the way and his more recent past as a shop owner in Wigtown. It also turned out he’d done his national service on our home island of Skye and it was fascinating to hear tales of how island life was back then, before mains electricity amongst other things. We also discussed Scottish cuisine, the sourcing of good local ingredients and the pros and cons of living an eco-friendly life.

He told us his wife had recently passed away and that he’s having work done on his house which means he has no water in his kitchen. But there was no self-pity, just a stoical acceptance and a great sense of humour.

Eventually at 11.15 his transport arrived and following his early rise at 6.00 a.m for an operation originally scheduled for 11.00, he was off on the two hour journey to hospital.

It was humbling and a privilege to meet this man and hear some of his story. I do hope it all went  well.