A mild mannered archaeologist by day, a swashbuckler at night! Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
Oh, I started very early, so it would have to be a long, sweeping biopic….
I suppose there are two crucial episodes. The first of these unfolded when I was in First Year at secondary school. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons (I was the only girl to get involved in what was definitely seen as a boy’s hobby…) and not long after, I began to write a long, rambling account of my D & D character’s adventures, which then morphed into an alternative viewpoint version of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. This was my first attempt at writing something which had a loosely historical setting (with added elves and Ringwraiths….). It was also my first attempt at writing fantasy and the first time I’d embarked on writing fan-lit, though fan-lit had barely been invented at the time, and LOTR fanlit was, I suppose, non-existent.
A few years later, I started writing Star Wars fan-lit (at a time when it was really sneered upon). I wrote a lot of stories and a few novels – I suppose I served my apprenticeship as a writer this way! I enjoyed exploring the wider universe at a time when its parameters were still quite tightly set. Nowadays, we’re told everything about everyone, from Luke Skywalker to the Second Technician on the Left’s dog, which has spoiled the fun for me completely!
My Star Wars fiction can still be found on the internet, and considering it represents some of earliest efforts at writing fiction, I’m actually rather proud of it and quite happy to have it out there in the public domain. As for the early fantasy epic saga, yes, it’s still kicking about somewhere. Along with all sorts of bits and bobs from other things – like my first piece of proper historical fiction, which was a Second Year English composition taking the point-of-view of an English Redcoat at the Battle of Culloden. I stumbled across it quite by accident, and oh, it had me squirming at the inaccuracies….
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
By night, I’m a swash-buckling writer of historical fiction. By day, I’m a mild-mannered archaeologist. Or is that vice-versa? I’m not entirely sure…
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
If Batman has Alfred and Robin and Commissioner Gordon et. al, then I suppose I have all the marvellous crew at Hadley Rille Books as my support team, and in particular, my editor, Eric Reynolds. Without him, my writing career may never have got off the ground. In the world of self- and independent publishing, just about anyone can get a book out there if they have the drive, the determination and the self-discipline to do so. But having an editor and a publishing house to deal with the nuts and bolts side of printing and distribution makes life a whole lot easier, believe me.
And then there’s my husband, Jim. Who puts up with the trials and traumas of living with a writer, and is an excellent objective beta-reader, too. Though he’s just recently started writing himself, so we’re almost at the stage where we’re squabbling over custody of the laptop….
Where do you get your superpowers from?
Coffee, red wine and chocolate. In no particular order. And the host of reference books that line my shelves. Knowledge is power, you know – especially when you’re writing historical fiction!
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
My secret lair is definitely my study, and it’s full of books. Books on bookshelves (non-fiction books about archaeology and history), books on the floor (my massive Non-Fiction TBR pile), as well as books I’ve either written or contributed to and also a whole bunch of Star Wars fanzines and some graphic novels. And I have a few inspirational items which pretty much sum up my passions in life: a replica Early Bronze Age Beaker, some replica Bronze Age artefacts, and even a few bits of Star Wars memorabilia, because, you know, some things fade but never quite die…
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?
I suppose my day job functions is my training. Not only do I research and write reports on the history and archaeology of the west of Scotland (and sometimes further afield), I also edit my colleagues’ work, which helps my own editing skills no end. Equally important, the way I write and my outlook on the world is rooted firmly in my approach to my chosen discipline of study – archaeology. How do I make sure this is used only for good? Well, I suppose I refuse to bow down to writing stuff that would be seen as overtly commercial – as yet, I’ve avoided really popular figures in history like Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots who’ve each been studied a thousand times. I want to turn the spotlight on those more obscure figures whose stories remain as yet untold.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
I used to do a lot of cycling, so there’s plenty of lycra stashed away in my wardrobe – in fact, one of my colleagues used to call me ‘The Blue Flash…’ when I took my bike into work. But since my writing got more serious – put it this way, I’m not so svelte as I used to be, so maybe I’d better stick to the standard costume of the archaeologist – khaki combat-trousers, knitted fairisle jumper, lace-up steel toe-capped safety boots and a hard hat!
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Time – or lack of it! To write all the things I’d like to write, and fit them in on top of my regular job and all the other ‘stuff’ that clutters up life – I’d need a forty-eight hour day and a fourteen-day week!
What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
My debut novel Fire & Sword was nearly scuppered by Hurricane Katrina, way back in 2005, and I don’t think you can get more of a supervillain than that.
I’d signed with a small publisher based in Louisiana who had quite literally just told me that she wanted to take my book forward to publication when Katrina came barreling in off the Atlantic and nearly took out the whole of New Orleans. After that, the fate of one little novel seemed irrelevant, and indeed it was a whole 8 years and a whole ‘nother publisher which was needed to take Fire & Sword forward to publication. My current publisher is based in Kansas, so all I need to worry about now is tornadoes, with hurricanes no longer figuring in the equation….
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
I’m still learning!! The day you know it all is the day you get it wrong, as the old horsey adage goes.
The important ones are, I think, always be patient, because making any progress in writing takes hard work and a lot of quiet perseverance. Never give up, however tired and cranky you get after putting a whole lot of effort in and getting very little back in return. Be quick to listen to the sage advice of those who are further travelled along the road than you are, and above all, never stop believing that eventually, you’ll get to where you want to be.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
Fire and Sword is a historical novel, and at an early stage in its writing I got in touch with the living descendant of the hero of the book (John Sempill of Ellestoun), Jamie, 15th Lord Sempill. Aside from the launch, where Lord Sempill very kindly agreed to come along as a special guest, I think one of the most memorable moments took place a couple of weeks before publication, when I quite literally bumped into Lord Sempill at a memorial service commemorating the Battle of Flodden which took place on the 9th September, 1513. Most of the male characters featured in the book eventually met their end at Flodden, including John Sempill of Ellestoun, who by then was John, 1st Lord Sempill. We both attended the event to remember him, and this shared connection with a real historical figure who meant a lot to both of us in very different ways was very special.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I honestly don’t think I’d do anything differently. Okay, if I’d written a more conventional historical novel featuring the story of a really famous personage from history as seen from the perspective of a totally fictional character, then perhaps I’d have got a contract with a big publisher and I’d be enjoying a more high profile career. But on reflection, I much prefer working with a smaller publisher who’s prepared to take risks by supporting a writer whose future probably lies with producing mid-lister material – signing up with Hadley Rille means that I’m allowed to write big epic novels which involve a massive cast and multiple storylines, and that’s perfect for me, because that’s what I like doing most!
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
I was fortunate having spent much of my apprenticeship in the company of Paisley Writers’ Group, and I learned an incredible amount from them, both as a result of guidance from Writers in Residence Ajay Close and Paul Houghton, and from the wider support network of writers who attended. I learned a lot of sound advice which included tips like ‘slay your darlings,’ and ‘cut all that down by a third and it’ll flow a whole lot better,’ as well as gaining valuable practice with reading aloud in public and developing editing skills. Ten years in that kind of environment was absolutely invaluable.
But one piece of sage advice from Ajay Close always stayed with me. She told me to stick with it, as far as my writing was concerned, because one day I’d make it to publication. And she was right, too…
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
It’s set in late 15th century Scotland, and it’s a coming-of-age tale set against a background of feuding and political intrigue. It tells the story of a young man named John Sempill of Ellestoun, whose father dies defending the murdered King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. After fighting for the losing side, John finds his inheritance a fragile one – some powerful local families, including the Stewarts of Darnley, are anxious to profit at his expense and have John denounced as a traitor and a rebel so they can snatch his lands and titles. John finds himself having to rely on the goodwill of Hugh, Lord Montgomerie – a local nobleman who’s enjoying a meteoric rise to success with the new regime- if he’s to survive, but Montgomerie himself is ruthless and self-serving and not to be trusted…
Fire & Sword is a carefully researched fictional account about a little known period in Scottish history, so if you want something set in Scotland which is a little bit different from the standard fare in terms of its subject matter, this is definitely for you. I wrote it as a fast-paced contemporary novel, with contemporary dialogue, but the characters are as true to their time and the setting is faithfully recreated to make it as authentic as possible. The reviews so far have been really good, and if you’re a fan of Mary Queen of Scots, you can find out all about the ancestors of Bothwell, and Darnley, and even Mary herself, because they’re all here!
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
My second novel, called The Gryphon at Bay, is currently with my editor at Hadley Rille Books. Once again, it’s set in late 15th century Scotland – it’s an immediate follow-up to Fire & Sword, though it switches focus from the hero of the first novel, John Sempill of Ellestoun, to the man who’s very much the anti-hero, Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie.
And I’m currently working on something completely different, a time-slip/time-travel novel about a young man from Ancient Sparta who finds himself as a refugee in modern England seeking political asylum from the Past….
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