I’ve lived in the Scottish Borders for over thirty years, about fifty miles south of Edinburgh. We visit Edinburgh a lot and I couldn’t count how many times I’ve walked along Princes Street – usually on the gardens side as it’s (fractionally) less busy than the shops side. It’s a rather attractive setting – Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat in the background, the castle and the old stone tenements of the Royal Mile towering over the sunken gardens, the Walter Scott monument (yes I’ve climbed it, several times), and the Art Gallery at the foot of the Mound. At the East end, Carlton Hill dominates the skyline, while at the West on one corner there is St John’s Church and opposite it a rather impressive red sandstone hotel. In December there is a Christmas Market and ice skating and at New Year the fireworks display in the gardens is a sell-out. During the festival in August, Princes Street and the Royal Mile buzz with street performers and stalls of every kind and every few yards someone thrusts a flyer into your hand for one of the hundreds of performances taking place in venues across the city.
What does all that have to do with Battenberg for tea? There is one constant on Princes Street whether the sun is shining or the rain is pelting down onto the pavements and only a handful of people scurry along, heads bent against the wind. The piper. Sometimes you will find one at the entrance to the gardens opposite Waverley Station, sometimes in front of the Art Gallery, but it is rare to walk along Princes Street and not hear the sound of the bagpipes swelling in the background.
Combine that thought with a little café near the foot of the Royal Mile, a shop sign I saw once for ‘the support of Indigent Gentlewomen’ (what a wonderful phrase) and a cake that I loved as a child, but which I don’t often see nowadays and the character of Jean was born; along with her economic problems and the rather sad and unintended consequences of the solution that her lawyer suggests.
For me that is often the way stories come about – a fragment here and a fragment there that put together make a completely new whole.
Battenberg for Tea is one of the few stories in the collection Dust Blowing and Other Stories that I’ve never tried to place anywhere, so this is its debut. Signed copies of the collection (UK only) can be ordered here. They are also available in both Paperback and e-book format via Amazon, Kobo, Nook, etc and bookshops.
I’m breaking into my mini series on the inspiration for the stories in my new collection Dust Blowing and other Stories to consider an issue that was raised by one of the first two reviews I received on Amazon UK. The reviewer called the stories ‘compellingly melancholic’.
Now I don’t consider myself melancholic at all, in fact I’m definitely a ‘glass half full’ person (unlike my OH).
But looking at the stories in my collection I have to admit that even if I wouldn’t describe them as exactly melancholic the balance is undoubtedly towards the sad end of the spectrum. So the big question – are my short stories more likely to be sad than happy? And if so, why.
I’ve done a quick trawl both through stories I’ve already written, plus the ideas that I have filed away for possible use at some later stage, and that has thrown up some interesting statistics. (Interesting to me, anyway.)
- When I first started writing short stories – way back in my school days – they tended to have a positive (in some sense) ending.
- When I decided I’d have a go at writing for Women’s magazines – lulled into false optimism that it would be an easy market to sell stuff in – I tried to write happy endings. (It clearly wasn’t the right market for me, I only sold one story, the rest were wall-to-wall rejections.) I was pleased in a way – not at the loss of all those potentially lovely cheques heading my direction (magazines do pay quite well – I’d have to sell 200 books on the royalties I received from my traditional publisher on my first novel to equal 1 published short story – and lest you think I had a bad deal from the publisher, they were paying me the industry standard rate), but at the reasons I was given when I received a personal rejection rather than a standard ‘form’ rejection slips. They were phrased differently, but the general message was the same – my stories were ‘too literary’ to meet the needs of the magazines in question. Apparently my writing would ‘stretch their readership’ – definitely a back-handed compliment – or so I chose to take it. I also decided not to waste my or anyone else’s time by trying for that market again.(As an aside, I received very similar feedback from several agents when I was sending out my first novel – one agent commenting ‘My writing was rather more literary and demanded something from the reader’ – which didn’t fit with what they normally sold, so they turned me down. On balance I’m very happy to ‘demand something from the reader’)
- When I allow my imagination free rein I am forced to admit that in my short stories happy endings don’t feature strongly, though there is one story in the collection that I’d categorise as just a ‘nice’ story. It’s not what I’d consider my best story though: the two that I’m most proud of are, more than anything, thought-provoking and moving, at least that’s what I intended when I wrote them.
So what have I learned from all this navel-gazing?
Yes, I mostly write sad (ish) stories, at the literary end of the spectrum, so I shall probably never make my fortune from them… 🙂
As for the ‘why’ – I think it’s much easier to write a powerful ‘sad’ story than a powerful ‘happy’ one. And I have an almost pathological fear of producing any writing that could be considered as ‘twee’.
Question is, am I unusual in this, or is this phenomenon more widespread? I’d be interested to hear other folks’ opinions.
It certainly seems (from my successes) that for competitions (or at least the ones I target) a literary feel is more appropriate.
As to whether my stories are ‘melancholic’ I shall leave that to the reader to determine…
This story is also set in East Belfast, where I moved following my marriage.
We bought a three-storey terrace house which was quite up-market of its kind – in that at the front it had about four feet of concrete and a small wall separating our space from the pavement, rather than a door opening straight onto the street, as houses around the corner did. At the back it had a traditional yard, possibly about 12 feet by 6, which opened onto a cinder lane. (Handy for taking out the bins.)
The story opens with the phrase It was a headline in the paper, and it actually was a headline that first gave me the idea. At that time in Northern Ireland dogs had to be licenced, yet there was no provision for exotic pets, however large or dangerous. And, famously, there was a precedent for someone keeping a big cat, though I’ve no idea what happened in that real-life case.
Looking out at our yard it was a very small step to speculating about who might want a tiger, and what the consequences might be. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it mightn’t end well…
At one stage I submitted this story to Radio Ulster for the 15 minute short story slot. The response was interesting – the editor who’d read it loved it but said that it wouldn’t get past the top person in London unless I cared to change the ending. I declined, so sadly what might have been my radio debut never happened and this story lay in the proverbial ‘desk drawer’ waiting for an opportunity to be used. This was the first story I’d written in the 1st person and the first time I attempted a very distinctive voice. It remains for the reader to decide whether I succeeded or failed.
It is now part of my new collection Dust Blowing and Other Stories, more information / signed copies are available here.
Some time ago I was invited to a Book Group which had just finished my second novel A House Divided as their monthly read. I gave a wee talk and they were able to ask me questions and I had some for them which gave me some really useful feedback. After a lovely evening, including a supper (of which I probably ate too much!) they very kindly presented me with a book token as a thank you for coming.
I wanted to save it to buy something special that I wouldn’t have bought for myself and last week I found the absolutely perfect book for anyone interested in history and especially for an historical novelist. So to give a wee flavour of it, here are some photos. I took them on my phone so they don’t do this stunning book justice for the maps are gorgeous, and they cover every county in England, Wales, the whole of Ireland and include one map covering all of Scotland. They were drawn by a man called John Speed in the late 16th century and as you’ll see include town plans, and coats of arms of important people / families in each county as well as other quirky things, such as sea monsters.
It is fabulous and will provide hours of reading / pouring over / enjoyment time (not to mention the possibility of displacement activity… I’m going to have to ration myself.) So far though I’ve just been sitting stroking the pages and thinking how lovely these maps are.
Aside from their beauty, the skill in surveying that these represent is amazing, given the equipment available at the time. Somehow, a bit like modern versus classic cars, modern maps don’t have quite the same appeal.
This story goes way back – it’s the first story I had in print in a magazine for which I was paid the going rate. So it has a special place in my heart. As did the illustration that the magazine commissioned for it and I’ve always wished that I could have bought the original, which captured exactly the sense I had of the main character. I contacted the artist at the time and they were going to send me a print of it (which would have been lovely) but whether they did, and it got lost in the post, or something happened which caused them to forget, I don’t know. Sadly, when I moved house sometime later I lost my copy of the magazine, so now don’t have a copy of the picture at all.
The idea for a story can come from anywhere and anything. In this case, I was on a bus on my way into Belfast to shop and as we passed an area of housing obviously scheduled for re-development, I saw a street much like the one below, but in which every house but one was empty, with all the windows bricked up.
It raised lots of questions – Who lived there? Why were they still there when everyone else had gone? What would it be like to be that last person in the street? What kinds of problems might they encounter? How or would they cope with them? What might they do in the end when they had no choice but to move out?
The answers to these and other questions formed the core of the story and gradually the character of Agnes was born. Often, as an author, you become very fond of your characters, and this was definitely the case for me with Agnes, as I got to know her, and developed her personality and her back-story. And having formed her I then needed to get inside her skin in order to work out what the end of her story would be.
The final piece of the jigsaw arose out of the Northern Ireland context, and my own childhood, but I was pleased to discover that when this story first appeared in a magazine in the UK, someone from England wrote in to say that the story spoke to their particular circumstances also.
This story can be found in my new short story collection, Dust Blowing and Other stories.
Afghanistan is a country that has fascinated me since I was about 8 years old. The vast open spaces, the austerity of the landscape, and the relationship of that area to ancient civilizations such as the Mogul Empire and the huge derelict cities of the plain captured my imagination.
Sadly I’ve never been there, to experience the amazing and often difficult terrain for myself, and probably, courtesy of the political situation, will never be able to. But I can go via the imagination and I hope that in Dust Blowing, set in modern-day Afghanistan, I can take my readers with me.
As for the story itself – it developed, as stories often do, out of a dilemma which the main character in Dust Blowing faces. And as often the case there is no easy answer. As there is no easy answer to the question it raises – is there such a thing as mercy-killing, or is killing someone always murder?
I’d love to hear others’ opinions, both on the main question, and on the story itself if you’ve read it.
The collection is available via the following sites
and signed copies can be ordered direct by contacting me here or on FB.
Somehow I missed this one in my post yesterday – what has really surprised and delighted me is the breadth of the authors I’ve found myself alongside. Fun, if nothing else.
I wonder what tomorrow might bring…