This has not been a very newsy month, so there’s not much to write about my activities. Almost the entire month has been taken up with editing and revising my new novel, set in the Fen country in the mid seventeenth century and provisionally titled Flood.
It has ended up at 103,00 words, which is about normal for me, though some of my books have been a little longer. I never allow anyone to see a first draft and only after fairly thorough editing is David allowed to read it. Now it has gone to one other person, whose opinion I respect and fear, so I’m in rather a nervous state of mind!
So day after day I have been slogging away at the keyboard, hardly raising my head to look at the wonderful summer weather we’ve been having, which is a pity, since it’s so rare. At least I’ve been able to look out of the window at this rose which was already here when we bought the house many years ago.
I’ve made the occasional tour of our small vegetable plot to inspect progress. We’ve harvested eighteen heads of garlic. Twenty ‘cloves’ were planted before Christmas, but the birds pulled up two. Otherwise, they’ve done well and it’s lovely to have our own home-grown garlic. We’ve never planted it before.
The broad beans, which I also planted before Christmas and nursed through the awful winter and spring, have produced sturdy plants bearing a fair number of pods, but disappointingly some of the pods (which look fine on the outside) have no beans at all inside. Anyone know why this happens? Such beans as there are have been delicious. As usual we have our flourishing cut-and-come-again spinach.
On the same day in spring I planted twelve courgettes and twelve butternut squash. The former came up long before the latter, and although both are now planted out, the squash still linger well behind the courgettes, which have now gone mad. We can’t keep up and some of the courgettes are turning into marrows. The last time this happened, several years ago, I made a sweet courgette relish from a marrow relish recipe, which was very good.
The mangetout peas were slow starters, as were the carrots, but the recent good weather has brought them on, and the leeks (which I planted rather late) are beginning to gain in height and width.
This may give the impression that we have a huge garden, but we haven’t. This large Victorian house originally had a lovely big garden, still there when we came to view the house. Then we were told that most of the garden had already been sold off by the owners to their bank manager, who was about to retire. We bought the house anyway, but had to watch the garden being destroyed while two bungalows were built on it – one for the bank manager and one for him to sell at a profit. Every time I look at them I grind my teeth and wish I could buy them, tear them down and reinstate the garden. Dream on!
We do also manage to cram in some fruit trees, and some time ago I bought a sweet chestnut and a quince tree, but neither has produced a crop yet. Our garden in Herefordshire (as I’ve mentioned before) produces apples, crabapples and damsons. Both gardens produce rhubarb, which I love – easy to use and easy to freeze.
From all this you might suspect that I’m a dedicated gardener, but I’m not. David does most of the work in the garden, though I do plant and harvest things. And, of course, freeze, stew, pickle, dry, etc.
The fine weather has brought out the beauty of this part of the country where we live, but here are a few of the more local points of interest in Dundee (we live about four miles away).
Admiral Adam Duncan was born in a house which stood on this spot and his statue was erected a few years ago. The plaque on the back of the plinth contains David’s deathless prose. Local hero Duncan commanded the fleet which defeated the Dutch in 1797 at the Battle of Camperdown, thus averting an attack by the French during the Revolutionary Wars.
In the early nineteenth century, this fountain was erected by the then Lord Provost (= mayor) of Dundee, to provide drinking water for local people. Unlike modern facilities erected by local councils, this was built in granite and marble, to the greater glory of the donor! Nowadays it is closed off for health and safety reasons.
This is the ship RRS Discovery, Captain Scott’s ship for his first Antarctic expedition in 1901. He commissioned it to be built in Dundee by the expert builders of whaling ships. It was constructed to the same specifications, in order to withstand crushing by the ice.
In 1938, the long distance flight record was broken by a composite flying boat from the Tay estuary in Dundee to South Africa. If you look closely, you’ll see that one flying boat is mounted on top of the other (a bit like some of the modern space vehicles). The larger flying boat was called Maia and the smaller was Mercury.
As well as editing, I’ve found time for a little reading: some work-related, some not. Recently I bought the computer programme Scrivener, after seeing its praises sung by several authors and knowing that it is now available in a Windows version. Most of the time I’m perfectly happy working in Word. I write each chapter as a separate document and only pull them together after editing. However, I’m embarking on a rather complex project where, I feel, the tools provided by Scrivener would be very useful. Parts of a book can be moved around very simply in the ‘Binder’. Think of a ring binder where chunks of paper are separated by tabbed dividers. A whole chunk can be moved with a click, rather than highlighting a section of text, copying, finding the new position, then pasting. You can keep, in the same project, a file of information on characters, ditto on locations, a file of research materials, and so on, without any of it impinging on the main body of the book. You can collect all the scenes involving one character, for example, and check that they hang together, or all the scenes in one location.
The only trouble is, it is HUGELY complex, because it can do so many things, such as handle journalism or screenplays, play around with colours and so on. Far more than a basic working novelist needs. A useful tutorial is included, which starts you off, but I also bought a Kindle book: Writing a Novel with Scrivener, by David Hewson. This is very helpful, boiling down all the facilities to those you really need. I also made a card of keyboard shortcuts from this and from the tutorial. However, the Hewson book didn’t answer all my questions, in particular how to rejig his template to the font I wanted and how to copy existing text from Word into Scrivener without it turning into something peculiar.
I thought I’d better get a comprehensive manual as well, so I bought Scrivener: Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Jennifer Kettell. This hefty tome runs to 506 pages and is not a bedtime read. Moreover, to access the last three chapters you have to go online, which really annoyed me. Everything, I suppose, is in here, though it was clearly written in the first place for Mac users, with the differences for Windows slotted in as an afterthought. I read around the first 80 pages conscientiously until I decided Life Is Too Short, so I’m now just dipping in as and when I want to find something. I did eventually sort out the problem with transferring text from Word, but as much by fiddling about as by anything else.
I mentioned last month that I’d started rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series, and I’ve now reread Queen’s Play, the one set at the French court and amongst the châteaux of the Loire. We once, when the children were young, took the caravan to the Loire valley and visited most of those châteaux, so I have quite clear memories of them. On first seeing the Loire valley, I was surprised that the area was so flat. I had always somehow imagined it as being like the Rhine, with the river running through gorges between towering cliffs topped by the castles. My French brother-in-law was born in the Loire area and my niece, Susan Meyer, has written a YA novel based on his boyhood, called Black Radishes. A traumatic time, well caught in Susan’s novel.
The Dunnett novel is a powerful portrayal of the French court at the time, riddled with luxury, corruption, betrayal, arrogance, suspicion, and self-serving. As always Lymond is devious and unpredictable, with the uncanny ability of the heroic character to extricate himself from seemingly fatal situations. And as in all of Dunnett’s historical novels the physical and intellectual setting is rendered in stunning detail. She really was an exceptional writer.
The next novel in the series is The Disorderly Knights, the title being a play on words as it concerns the Order of the Knights of St John, during a particularly bad period in their history. About half the book takes place on Malta and, as it happens, we attended a conference there, so I’m familiar with Valletta (not called that at the time, but the extraordinary harbour and the Knights’ Hospital are unchanged). We were invited to dinner in the castle on Gozo, which features in the novel. After the conference we stayed on for a few days and travelled around Malta on the rickety local buses. I have some great photographs of the ancient streets and fascinating doorways of Mdina, which also plays a part in the novel. So I can vouch for the accuracy of how they are depicted by Dorothy Dunnett. The setting of the second half of the novel, in Scotland, is even more familiar. I remember from previous readings my same reaction – getting more and more angry and frustrated at how everyone takes ‘Gabriel’ at his own assessment as a wonderfully spiritual leader, with an angelic sister, when they are both evil through and through. A writer who can make you still seethe with anger at a character (and the related misjudgement of Lymond), during the umpteenth reading of a book, is certainly doing her job!
I’m currently reading one fiction and one non-fiction book. The novel is The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley, set in Leningrad in the period leading up to and during the siege. The characters are the musicians – real and fictional – centred round the Leningrad Conservatoire. I haven’t reached the siege yet, but I know that the defining moment is the playing of Shostakovich’s symphony over the radio to the people of the city to give them the courage to resist and survive. As I found Helen Dunmore’s The Siege absolutely stunning, it will be interesting to compare this different perspective on the same events. One of the many terrible episodes of World War II, not helped by Stalin’s attitude during the siege and his appalling treatment of the survivors afterwards.
The non-fiction book I’m reading is The Watchers by Stephen Alford, subtitled The Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I – a subject of great interest to me, as some of you know. It starts by analysing the situation in Europe when Elizabeth came to the throne, viewed by the great Catholic powers of the Continent as a heretic and a bastard. It then deals briefly with the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, another personal interest, as I’m descended from Huguenots who fled France for England at that time. Then it moves on to study in detail the secret service set up by Walsingham to protect queen and country from treachery, treason and invasion. I’ve read several other books on the subject, but this is one of the most recent, drawing on a lot of rare primary sources.
Oh, one other book. As a brief enjoyable read, I thought I’d go back once again to The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. Having just completed my own book set in the Fens, I wanted to remind myself of hers. Some similarities – inevitably – in treatment of the landscape, even though the periods are three hundred years apart. Do you know the book? Handled with her usual skill. One of these days I really must try and work out what all those bells are doing!
Till next time,