Jedburgh abbey

Borders country – inspiration for writers (and terrific places to visit)

Do you ever visit places because you’ve read about them in fiction? Writing can do that—conjure up places, educate you and inspire curiosity.. Years ago, I visited Rosslyn Chapel thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and this year’s spring break featured a trip to Vindolanda.

Vindolanda, in case you haven’t heard of it, is the remains of a Roman army camp in Northumbria, what was the edge of the empire for centuries. I’d read a couple of historical fiction books by Adiran Goldsworthy that featured Vindolanda, and as I find the Romans fascinating I was desperate to visit.

VindolandaWhat a place… Northumbria is wild and rugged in places so picturing a Roman army in situ and their guarding of the fort and the nearby Hadrian’s Wall is easy to imagine. The remains of the fort and the surrounding villages are complemented by a museum, every artefact in there excavated from Vindolanda.

Preserved shoes

A remarkable set of conditions resulted in the find of the largest number of Roman empire leather goods in the world. (I know; in cold, damp England of all places.)

And Vindolanda is also famous for its collection of wax tablets—basically, cards people wrote on, from an invite to a child’s birthday party, to a letter to the commander from a soldier protesting at the injustice of a severe beating.

How does the past come alive? When people in those times write about their ordinary lives, and the curators of Vindolanda view the tablets as their most precious find. Rightly so.

Sir Walter Scott

Still on the writer theme, we visited Smailholm Tower, made famous by Sir Walter Scott. The famous Scots writer stayed at the nearby Sandyknowe farm when he was a child to recover from illness.

There, his aunt Jenny taught him how to read and the tower, by then unoccupied and derelict, stirred in him a lie-long passion for the history and ballads of the Scottish borders, from fairy tales to the legends of the Reivers. His second publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, tells many of those tales.

Tamlane figurine displayThe tower has lots of little models that enact some of those ballads and fairy tales, created by a local artist. (I wish I’d taken note of her name because I can’t find mention of her anywhere.)

I loved them, and my picture here doesn’t do The Young Tamlane justice. The ghost horses, the woman who sits on his cloak to save him from the fairy queen… again, powerful imagery.

Abbeys

The Scottish Borders are studded with the remains of abbeys, and we visited three of them.

In the 12th century, King David I thought their construction would impress and awe his English neighbours—look how wealthy and sophisticated we Scots are, kind of thing.

Mel;rose abbeyUnfortunately for the abbeys of the Borders, their proximity to the English made them easy targets in times of war. Of the three we went to, Jedburgh (featured image), Kelso and Melrose (left), the most intact one is the Cistercian abbey at Melrose and it’s awe-inspiring.

 

Old churches and abbeys fascinate me, especially when you consider the work that went into building them. And given what happened to Notre Dame this week, the abbey visits felt particularly fitting.

Food, glorious food

picture of woman with a glass of wine sitting in front of a ruined abbeyIf greed is your motto, Northumbria and the Borders offer plenty of choice when it comes to food and drink. We stopped off at a quirky place near Hadrian’s Wall for lunch one day, its walls festooned with beagle pictures and horse brasses. The Belter’s Bar in Jedbugh specialises in home-made beefburgers and the choice of toppings huge so we ate there twice.

And finally, the weather in Scotland hasn’t been great so far this year but on the final night of our holiday, it was warm enough to have that first drink outside. As you can seen from the background, drinking in the shadow of historical monuments adds gravitas to the occasion…

The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-HumeThe Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume by Gordon Lawrie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s always great when a writer takes an intriguing character from a previous story (The Piano Exam) and further develops them, as is the case here with The Discreet Charm of Mary Maxwell Hume, a mysterious woman with many talents – not least music and the way she wears clothes!

This collection of stories about Mary and her efforts to better the city of Edinburgh (by committing the odd crime, but solving them too) is entertaining and laugh-out-loud in places. The book is peopled with fantastic characters and situations you will probably recognise in part. You might even find the odd reference to a certain Edinburgh department store familiar… Just the ticket for relaxing reading.

View all my reviews

Rewriting Your Novel – by Caron Allan

Caron Allan Fiction

I love rewriting, writes Caron Allan. There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and it begins to unfold on the page. Love that. But…sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s because I don’t plot. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But…rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, stepping back from your work, you can begin to polish and tidy.

Don’t revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along. It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at.

Put Your Book Away

After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter mode.

So you’re ready to start. Read it. Don’t write, don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Afterwards, make notes on how you felt about the book. Does the story hang together? Does the plot progress logically (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story)? Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a note in the Track Changes.

If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy, just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong, this can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.

POV Consistency

Start tinkering. Start with the easy stuff like consistency of character description and behaviour, check the names and personal details of all characters, check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.

Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph…it’s really annoying. If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once as unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that stand out from the page. If you use clichés—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.

Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘don’t use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, etc. Once in a while is fine, but you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader knows who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible.

Tidy your grammar, get rid of typos and unnecessary repetition. Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.

Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.

Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing worse than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected child. And when you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.

Caron Allan

Caron Allan is an Indie author who writes cosy murder mysteries as well as not-so-cosy mysteries. Caron lives in Derbyshire, England, where Mr Darcy came from! Caron is deeply interested in literature and social history, and has a bachelor’s degree in those joint subjects.

By way of a day job, Caron works as an editor and proofreader on a freelance basis.

You can find out more about Caron’s writing on her website:

caronallanfiction.com

Also, Caron is on Facebook and Twitter and would love to hear from you.

https://www.facebook.com/Caron-Allan-476029805792096/

https://twitter.com/caron_allan