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Poetry was my first love. For me it is a minimalist art. My aim is to say something beautiful or important is as few words as possible. I scrawl ideas down, cross them out, rewrite until all available space on the paper has been filled with ideas and corrections; you would see lines between lines, margins filled, phrases squeezed in vertically, words struck through and rewritten over and over. Then I write it out fresh, read aloud, cross out what sounds superfluous and finally type up with two fingers on my computer. My originals are hidden away all over the house as they are terrible to behold. Sometimes I write on envelopes, paper bags or restaurant napkins – you don’t always have a notebook to hand. I would hone them down further on the computer and then share. Friends told me I should publish, not an easy task in the UK unless you are very well-connected or have an Oxbridge First and so I learned to self-publish. I made the mistake of not holding back the poems that were more personal than public and was rewarded with a one-star rating and a scathing review that ran into the thousands of words. You learn to deal with it. To annoy someone so intensely is an accomplishment in itself.

My first novel, The Cougar was a different animal altogether. To a minimalist poet the sheer word count of a novel was daunting enough. My main character came to me in a dream one night and literally said “Tell my story.” Berenice was a phantom, a denizen of the temperate rainforest of British Columbia, and it was a labour of love. I wanted the reader to experience the beauty of the forest and Lake Alouette as Berenice does – and as I do also. I am in love and in awe of this great wilderness. Each time I see it is as powerful as the first, existing in a perpetual state of flux, its colours changing from second to second. The forest visibly seems to breathe and is the perfect setting for a shapeshifter. I wanted to make that wilderness real and immediate and for some I did – for others not so much.

My biggest problem was expectation of genre. This is an odd beast for someone of my vintage weaned on literature that has a wider embrace of the possible than the modern “niche” approach. For me, as a poet, writing is about expression and the music behind the words as much as feelings and actions. It was never about marketing. This imperfection was what I brought to Berenice’s story along with a total understanding of what it feels like to be a misfit and never quite belong anywhere.

The Cougar has been called an erotic romance by some, but it is not erotica. It is explicit but romantic. At the heart lie two parallel love stories in different timelines. Berenice is in both and is a loyal and highly principled bisexual woman. That caused me problems with some fantasy readers and Christians who couldn’t cope with LGBT love and ironically it also caused problems with some lesbian readers who couldn’t cope with straight love scenes. Oh boy! Yet again a wicked bisexual predator is at large! There are some other odd love angles in the story because life is strange in my experience and love just is what it is. Perhaps my life as a writer would have been easier if Berenice was straight? She certainly would have done better to be a lesbian from the beginning if that was the target audience. Perhaps she would have done better to choose a more manipulative writer?

In any case, like Berenice, I am a ship at sea in a terrible storm with no apparent safe mooring other than love itself. If she chose me it was for a reason that I will probably never be sure of. Perhaps it is because I too know what it is not to be “amatonormative” (thank you Gabriel Constans for that lovely word). I leave you with the thought that to write an “amatonormative” book requires the author to be in no doubt whatsoever about their own gender identity or sexuality. Where would that leave the Berenices of this world? To force her to be something other than she is would surely be unacceptable in this day and age? Perhaps that is why she chose me after all…

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Kirstie is just so annoying at times, isn’t she? How can she not know her best friend Jeannie loves her to pieces? She hangs on her every word and doesn’t dare to criticise her even when she makes a fool of herself by marrying way beneath her station. Mind you, Kirstie is not the only annoying woman round here. I can be pretty annoying myself, especially when I persist in making life complicated for my poor long-suffering characters. I can’t help it though – it goes with the territory. Well? Life is complicated. It was for me anyway…

A highland wedding is an unusual start for a lesfic novel, I grant you, but all is never as it first seems, I promise. Kirstie proves an easy target for a silver-tongued and handsome young Highlander despite the obvious class difference between them and the hard life that lies ahead for her as a crofter’s wife. It was all an innocent and romantic dream for the lass. But marrying a Jacobite? What on earth possessed her to do that? Was she rebelling against her strict Protestant father? Did she already suspect that her wicked Uncle Malcolm might have secret plans for her at that point? Who knows?

Our pretty highland lassie certainly doesn’t have a clue and yet Jeannie stands by the girl she loves through thick and thin, tolerating verbal abuse and emotional ignorance and constantly hiding her feelings. Jeannie isn’t destroyed by her unrequited love though and she is nobody’s fool either. Kirstie on the other hand seems totally unaware of the havoc she is causing in Jeannie’s life. What an unholy mess! Here we have Robbie destroyed by Angus’s insane jealousy; Kirstie destroyed by Robbie’s foolhardiness; Jeannie wounded by Kirstie’s lack of understanding and Angus devastated by Jeannie’s rejection. All this is set against a historically accurate background of politics and intrigue, war and genocide. How will it all end? You will have to read A Crofter’s Tale to find out. Please do – it’s free with Kindle Unlimited.

The battle of Culloden lies at the very heart of A Crofter’s Tale , literally as well as metaphorically. It is a vital plot driver and takes up a whole chapter of the novel. Why is this? When writing the novel, I was torn between giving too much detail (history) and too little (romance). For some romance writers it might have been enough to give a paragraph or two’s description of the carnage and Robbie’s escape and to ignore the various political and personal dramas that actually destroyed the Jacobites. It is very easy to blame the Duke of Cumberland’s brutality or the inept leadership of Charles Edward Stuart too. That is fairly standard.

The reality is much more complex though. This disaster would not have happened had the Prince trusted his most senior general, Lord George Murray, and it would not have happened had negative political manipulation not been going on in the background. I believe the defeat at Culloden was a natural result of plotting and power play behind the scenes and for this reason, using dialogue and quotes from the time, I have shown it in A Crofter’s Tale . Rejecting Lord George Murray’s advice ultimately led to the massacre and the atrocities that followed. In my opinion Culloden need not have happened at all and, even if it did have to happen, there were serious but avoidable errors in choosing the field of battle and preparing for Cumberland’s forces. The American people have given us the best possible word for it: Culloden was a clusterfuck.

If you have ever stood on Culloden Moor and experienced the emptiness of the place or visited the visitors’ centre and seen the battle brought to life in front of your eyes you will understand that dilemma. This was the one event that turned the 1745 rebellion into a tragedy that brought about genocide in the highlands and lives on in the hearts and minds of anyone with Scots ancestry. I agonised for months over this chapter, how much to give and how much to withhold and if I erred on the side of history rather than romance I apologise now. Time will tell.

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In 1978 my father decided on a family move to the Scottish highlands. My sister and I were at University by then and so the disruption was to be fairly minimal. I lost touch with a few school friends but that was because I failed to keep in touch. I did not enjoy writing letters and was a little phone-phobic so I lived in the present, as I always had done in the past as an RAF brat, and just made new friends. It did mean that vacations involved a long train journey home of course but Scotland proved a wonderful place. I took long walks in the forest, swam in the Spey and worked part-time in a local hotel and in my father’s shop. We were regulars on the Whisky Trail and after so many talks on how whisky is made I feel I could nearly build my own distillery. The prize for listening was always a wee dram at the end and I grew fond of malt whisky, particularly the Spey malts which are mild, warm and fruity rather than sweet, smoky and peaty like the Islay malts my late father loved.

Anyway, I digress (because I like whisky so much). From being a little put out at the move, I became very fond of our new home and I can smell the clean air to this day in my memory. If you have never been to the Scottish highlands and you prefer wide open spaces to clubbing and city excitement, do go there please. You will love it. It must have made quite an impression on me as I found myself returning there again and again in my mind’s eye as I wrote A Crofter’s Tale. This started as a short story, written following a request from Jewels some twelve years ago. Looking back on it, it was a sweet little story but I lacked the confidence to make much more of it at the time.

Now, having published one not particularly great novel (that seems to be either loved or detested) and another more middle of the road novel that I am actually quite proud of, it seemed it was time to take the original story to its conclusion and I worked very hard on it. I researched the Jacobite Memoirs to learn about the rebellion from first source and I read a biography of the Duke of Cumberland for balance. I steeped myself in the Victorian genre too because I wanted an antiquated eighteenth century feel to the language.

Meanwhile the original story line expanded to include a truly black-hearted villain and also the political intrigues that led to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s downfall and the dreadful aftermath of Culloden. (Drummossie Moor is one of those places you won’t forget easily, by the way. It is so empty and bleak even now. I stood there and felt I could almost hear the screams of the massacred men. I wouldn’t want to spend a night alone there and remembered my father saying how Belsen had encroached on him in a similar way in the 1950s – a bleak place, where even the birds refused to sing). So, I approached the historical scenes with an eye to accuracy, using descriptions of the times wherever I could, particularly with Lord George Murray. For some, that might be dry but I found it necessary to understand the times and the events better.

There is nothing new in any of that of course but one thing struck me in my reading that I felt I needed to address. That is the issue of stereotypes. My story is different because it has a lesbian romance at its heart but that is not the only difference. I wanted to build on characters and on a way of life now lost to us. I wanted to have earthy, ordinary characters. The original Jacobite novels and the modern highlander take-offs I have read usually have big similarities – they focus on the rich, noble and powerful players in life and ordinary people, if they do appear at all, tend to be rogues or beggars who speak in unintelligible dialect. You won’t find much of that in A Crofter’s Tale. They speak more eloquently than we do because the 18th century was a time when most people did speak well. There is a tiny bit of Gaelic and a few expressions common in Scots English but apart from the Burns poem I quote at the beginning there is no heavy dialect.

Anyway, A Crofter’s Tale is out there in the wild, yours for the taking so to speak. You can read it for free on Kindle Unlimited, it’s on Kindle and published also in a clear print paperback edition. I hope you do give it a chance and I hope you will enjoy it.

I must confess, I never thought about genre as a simple reader. I just looked at the cover and the subject matter of a book in a store and I bought it if I thought I might enjoy it. This is something I have done thoughout my book buying life and it also applies to books I now buy on kindle. I have a leaning towards the scientific, the bizarre, the unusual and the historic so things like generic romance or chick lit were never really on my radar until I joined Goodreads.

At that point I discovered two things, the existence of something called genre fiction which dominates publishing and the Goodreads Giveaway which allowed me to explore new writers at no cost. I won and subsequently read and reviewed several books that I admit would not have jumped off the shelves into my shopping basket. I also participated in discussions about genre fiction versus literary fiction and some of these were very heated. I learned about sensitivity readers and tropes. These were things I had never known about before, despite having studied English Literature.

Now at this point I must declare an interest as a writer and also that I am the victim of a British Grammar School education that was steeped in classics from Chaucer to the 1960s. My interests may have been a little different, but the standards I was held to had very little to do with genres or tropes. Times change, standards change and people change; I now read books that are certainly not classic literature and I read for reasons other than either study or pure pleasure. I still enjoy books that are different though.

My attitude towards books is similar to my attitude towards food and music. I will try it once and, if I like it, I may well add it to my list of things I must do again. Having said that, I am not a fan of the safe or the predictable and this is why I find genre fiction difficult to cope with. I want to be surprised and delighted and tropes do neither for me. In films the prevalence of tropes is something that is a real turn off for me. I no longer enjoy sci-fi or horror for example. I used to, and I still relish old films when they come on the television – especially 1950s sci-fi and Hammer horror – but the problem remains that I absolutely KNOW what modern “heroes” will look like, behave like, talk like and often it is not at all to my taste. I also know who will die horribly, in what order and that we are all in a real mess if this is how people would behave in real life. I guess I am just an old-fashioned girl, right? For me as a potential film goer, the ability to shock and amaze has now disappeared from an industry that now just believes in gore, swear words, more gore, camera shake, fast cuts, more gore, more camera shake and those over-riding stereotypes.

I am not advocating any return to “the good old days”, but I am starting to feel like a “missing link” between the 18th century and the 1990s. Bear that in mind if you read any of my books. They will contain ideas that are not safe, sexuality is neither censored nor packaged to appeal to only one type of reader, my people do not conform to tropes and their behaviour is not easily pigeon-holed. By today’s standards, this is bad writing. By my standards it is honesty. I write badly because in my experience life is usually lived badly, without censorship, without a safety net and without a label.

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Carol, a good film, a great read

Incredible. Don’t you feel a bit silly when you sort of half see a film between shifts in the kitchen and think I must read that book? I know I do, because it seems as if you are being led by advertisers to the slaughter but because of Christmas preparations I missed half of Carol on the TV and I couldn’t work out whether or not it had a happy ending as it was all a bit vague. I saw enough to be interested, so I ordered the book. Was I in for a treat! I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like the Georgian style of writing, that is very quaint and too long-winded for me, but my taste usually lands somewhere between Steinbeck and Hemingway. What makes Patricia Highsmith’s writing so special is that amongst her overt simplicity a beautifully descriptive phrase will come out of nowhere. I am thinking of phrases like “her short fair hair that made Therese think of perfume held to a light”. The writing style is so simple that this book can speak to anyone; it is beautiful at times, stark and brutal at others, but always evocative.

I wish I had found this book when I was nineteen. That was an age at which the world had not changed so much as to make it seem an old fashioned story. Today everything goes and yet people are still unhappy. There are those who will never understand this level of repression and for them I am glad; there are others who still suffer under it and I never want them to be forgotten. The past interests me because our lives are not long enough to learn from experience and still know everything good that love has to offer. Two quotes hit my Twitter feed this morning:

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” – Hellen Keller and “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.” – Marcus Aurelius

Both of those sum it up beautifully. Today young people are often (but not always) out and proud and it is probably hard to empathise with the level of restrained passion and yearning in this novel but Patricia Highsmith’s characterisation is so good you can’t but feel every nuance along with them, every last bit of yearning, every pang of disappointment. It is a beautiful story and a terrifying one therefore when their happiness so quickly turns into an ordeal of persecution. In the book, you see Therese is less of an innocent, Carol is less of a seducer and both are tormented by circumstances they cannot hope to control. Carol’s sacrifice and bravery is so much clearer than in the film too, Therese’s pain and coming to terms with the loss of her first true love is still there but she hurts others as much as she is hurt by them. Richard is a brute. We don’t see much of this in the film and the ending is far less optimistic. I often prefer the book to the film, but I was grateful for the film because it led me to an unforgettable read that had me up all night.

This is not just a book for those interested in LGBT rights or lesbian romance because it has a very clear truth at its heart. One that all adults know. There is nothing quite like falling in love. It overwhelms you totally and the rush of endorphins is unbelievable. That is probably why so many people are addicted to love of course and continually searching for “The One”. They never find “The One” because harsh reality and even sexual satisfaction itself can take the shine right off that first rush of overwhelming tenderness and desire and yet sometimes, just sometimes, if you can live through the pain and the sheer ordinariness of life, a deeper and stronger affection is born. That is the happiest ending of all and in Carol you live through these characters and feel every emotion they do which makes the ending just perfect in its optimism.

I wrote last week about the pigeon holes we assign to ourselves as readers and as writers and how these make it difficult to assign genre at times. Since then, I put out a new LGBT story I had been working on for some time. Coming Home for Christmas is a sweet lesbian romance on the surface but it is also story about wasted years, old attitudes and a time that is probably better consigned to history. Its heroine, Rebel, is ironically far from being a rebel in real life. I can see young women getting quite angry about her behaviour towards Laura and I am not sure how sympathetic she will be to anyone under a certain age. I thought the best thing to do is let Rebel speak for herself:

“Hi Rebel, or shall I call you Jill?”
“Jill is a pseudonym, only Laura calls me Rebel. Perhaps it might be better to call me Eleanor. It feels more relaxing.”
“Well, I am not sure I want you to relax too much, Eleanor. I have a few difficult questions to ask you.”
“I’ll survive!” She laughs. “Fire away!”
“OK! I’ll start with a tough one then. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
“What? I can’t believe you’d ask me that right off the bat.” She looks shocked.
“Well? Why didn’t you? You were obviously suicidal.”
“Because the gun only fired blanks of course. What would be the point, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Rebel, but I have to ask. I was told only yesterday by somebody in the know that Bruce Lee’s son was killed with a gun that fired blanks.”
“Really? Wow! You really do believe in putting a girl at ease, don’t you?”
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to get to the point quickly.”
“That’s not just quick. That’s brutal.” She is visibly shaking. “I always knew I was lucky to get through my teenage years but I didn’t know just how close I actually came…”
“Well, I am sure your readers will be glad you didn’t shoot yourself. What they would probably like to know is why you very nearly did.”
“That’s not hard. It was tough in the 1970s. Tougher than you might think. People always go on about the 1960s and the permissive society and all the new freedoms young people had but for people like me it wasn’t so rosy. Folks always talk about rock stars – glam rock, Queen and Bowie – being gay, lesbian or bisexual was a fashion with celebrities. There was a lot of parody on TV too, some of it quite cruel, but in ordinary life there was gay bashing, name calling, inequality under the law, you name it and then there was this whole thing of coming from a religious background.”
“Did you have many gay and lesbian friends back then?”
“Not that I knew of. It wasn’t something you shouted about. When I went to College I met a few students who were “out”. I thought they were incredibly brave at the time.There was discrimination going on in so many fields; the armed forces, teaching, anything with responsibility it seemed. It was tough to get a job. Despite the outrageous show biz stuff we were just ordinary kids.”
“Any element of being provincial in that?”
“Oh, I am sure you’re right. The more insignificant your hometown, the more likely these things are to be driven underground. It’s different if you live in a big city; sheer volume of numbers I suppose and with that comes bravery. I was never brave.”
“But you got through what was in effect a nervous breakdown…”
“Yes, and without treatment. I was in denial of course and I went through a phase where I would go with men just to convince myself I was straight.”
“I got that. You were married twice I see. But no kids?”
“It never happened although we did try. It’s just one of those things I suppose. I’m not too worried about being child-free though. I don’t think children should be compulsory you know.” She laughs again.
“So what brought you to tell your story now?”
“Meeting Laura again. The way I behaved towards her was cowardly and unforgivable. I am not proud of myself. I don’t know how she forgave me to be honest and all that is largely personal but I look around and see Christians, many of whom are otherwise lovely people, calling us every name under the sun and trying to take away our freedom. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for it but so many were. If I was sixteen now I don’t think anyone other than my parents would bat an eyelid. They loved me and I am sure they would have accepted me in time but the fact is that so many kids still need to be brave. They shouldn’t have to be. There are too many to this day who are thrown out or forced to conform and there are countries where love still carries the death penalty. To me, that is the real abomination in the sight of God.”
“Thank you for your time, Rebel, and thank you for your honesty.”
“No, thank you for giving me the chance to explain how it was for me back then and how it still is for some young people today.”
“So we might say you are now a Rebel with a cause?”
“Yes, I think I probably am,” she laughs.

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