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Writer in Residence 2017

I’m into my fifth week as Writer in Residence at Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar, Edinburgh. Here is why it’s so important that school librarians continue to exist, and that they receive funding for projects like this. I’m working very closely with the school librarian Sylvia Gorman, and English teachers at the school, in particular Fiona McCulloch, to create fun and inspiring workshops. So far the pupils are really engaged. They’re looking at books in a new way, studying their covers, working in groups and a large circle to discuss their own book proposals in a way that brings them confidence and self-esteem. It’s a brilliant little school which helps many who might be under-privileged or disadvantaged. There are some in the group from places like Romania, Syria and Poland, and I was struck by how they all help each other to cross language barriers with humour, tolerance and understanding. By the end of the workshops, all 30 pupils will have produced their own portfolio, a poly-pocket delight of ideas, letters, novel openings, blurbs, and cover ideas which will be their own book proposal to a potential editor. I get to choose the top 5 who are rewarded with a prize. If anyone needs convincing that school librarians should continue to be supported, they can look no further than a group of disadvantaged S1s who are prepared to sit and discuss books with each other.

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In which I share with you the blurb…

01-for-my-sins-20mm-spine

So… why Mary? Well, because she had a talent for escaping, through tunnels and graveyards, on horseback, via boat, across silent lakes, through forests, across moorland. And, she was accused of murdering her second husband in order to marry her third…

The question is – is she or is she not the culprit of one of history’s unsolved murder mysteries? I think I know the answer to that one… and (just like most things in history, past, present and future) it’s not clear-cut.

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My Review of WOLF HALL

It took me a while to read this, and its sequel BRING UP THE BODIES, but I did it. I finished both. Darkly intelligent, with such concise accuracy, Hilary Mantel has imagined the subtle nuances most of us would not have even thought about. She has explored a darkly maligned character in history – Thomas Cromwell – in such a way that she has brought him to life with all his flaws and virtues, describing him not as a monster but a man of his time, and even a man before his time, the father of modern democracy. The history we were taught at school is sometimes so different – a bad reputation sticks. I’m not saying he was an angel, because he wasn’t, but Hilary Mantel portrays him as human. I particularly like the way in which Cromwell is mocked by his aristocratic contemporaries for being a blacksmith’s son, and the way she touches on the class system here – which actually became more rigid and difficult to transcend or overcome in later centuries. Well worth the read even if you dip in and out because of sheer size of it. I left my bookmark in, and went back to it later, and was able to completely get back into the swing of it.

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Breadalbane Academy, Macbeth and Weird Sisters

Had a fabulous day yesterday visiting Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy. The pupils were delightful, and they were very eager to buy books – unfortunately I forgot to take any photos of the pupils themselves, just an empty auditorium before the event itself… so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The early morning drive to Aberfeldy was stunning, the sun touching the hills through the mist. There were pockets and hollows of mist exactly like Macbeth country. I kept expecting to see the Weird Sisters. The only weird thing was my PowerPoint though… Saw a loch with reeds which had a perfect mirror-like reflection. Crossed over a moor, then dipped down  into the valley which was full of mist, exactly like a bowl of cream with mountains showing through the far side. Honestly, it was breathtaking…

Treated myself to lunch in The Watermill afterwards, bought myself two books – THE WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rundell and WOLF WINTER by Cecilia Ekback – then drove to Kenmore and walked around the loch where the crannog sits out on the water. Used this for inspiration later with my creative writing pupils, then I dashed out to Drama in the evening (we’re doing Treasure Island… don’t ask!!!!!) then finally washed up by the fire, where it’s best.

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CARROTS, MEMORIES AND THE RISE OF THE SMALL SCOTTISH PRESS

It’s half past eleven, and I have already written 1,800 words today, so I’m well pleased with myself and thought I ought to add a little blog post before I take the dog out for a walk. He is looking at me expectantly, but I’m choosing to ignore him for now.

I’m very excited about this new novel. I have 53,000 words so far, but I’m keeping shtum. No title as yet. It’s set in Scotland, it’s topical but I’m not saying why. It explores a topic I feel strongly about – one of humanity and our lack of it at the moment – but again, I’m not saying anything more.

What I will say though is that I have found myself drawing on personal experiences from when I was 14 years of age, which was a surprise to me. It just happened as I wrote. I found myself writing about the carrot-topping shed I worked in one Easter Holidays in the rural Norfolk village where I grew up, and remembering how rough it seemed to me. We had to pull carrots across a blade in the work bench in front of us, and when I cut my hand there was little sympathy from the foreman, who was a scary woman with biceps, who threw a whole crate-load of carrots back at me when I hadn’t topped them properly. (They were hard with frost). We were paid by the crate, so that was a couple of hours’ work lost, which felt like a lifetime. I earned £20 in 2 weeks, and spent the money on clothes, which I remember really well. THIS IS TRUE. So I’ve used this in my novel, together with the experience of being bullied in school through a six-month period which I have NEVER forgotten, and which makes me feel very strongly about the impact of bullying on pupils. Or on anyone, for that matter…

As well as this, I have a whole load of school visits lined up – Breadalbane Academy on Tuesday, then Bellshill and Cumbernauld Academy the following week, plus three separate events in Craigmillar, and another in Cowie.

I’m also aware that the launch of my first adult novel FOR MY SINS about Mary, Queen of Scots, is looming on the horizon. That will be in January, and I’m very much looking forward to planning the event, thinking about what I might say, sound effects, images, music, lights… atmosphere… etc.

Have also been reading an amazingly good book lately, published by a relatively small Scottish press, Freight Books. It’s called THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES by Sarah Maine, and is so inspiring. I loved it, and I’m quite chuffed by the positive growth of small Scottish presses at the moment. Contraband/Saraband, a small Scottish press, have managed to get one of their titles shortlisted for the Booker!!! HIS BLOODY PROJECT. I haven’t read it yet, but the structure looks really interesting and original, and reminds me of THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, which I studied at school under a teacher called Mrs Fraymouth. She had a very grumpy persona which went with her name, but I liked her. She was good…

Sorry about the bizarre title, but when I’m writing all morning I zone out into Alex-land, a place of strange thought and emotion. Here I am looking thoughtful in the graveyard which I live not far from. And there’s MARY, looking mysterious and capable of great treachery and plotting. She looks as if she knows too much, and has found out that her friends can’t be trusted…. (I love it…)