Category Archives: Writing

Writing Gender Violence

Oscars. Pathfoot Building, University of Stirling. Looks simple, doesn’t it? But by clicking the map link in my Eventbrite email for my fourth event of Book Week Scotland I was taken to the Kilted Kangaroo. That’s a bar. In town. I think. So I Googled Oscars and looked at countless maps of the university. No Oscars.

The Resident IT Consultant dropped me off at the top of Pathfoot – to save me all those stairs, what with the building sitting on a slope – and went for a walk up on Sheriffmuir. So did I. Walk, I mean. I laboured down all those stairs until I got to the reception, where I asked about the event, which the receptionist had never heard of. But she squinted at a discreet A4 sheet on the door, and asked if that was it. It was. So I walked back up the stairs to where I’d started. Oscars is the dining room, except this is not mentioned on any map.

As with the college in Alloa, I reckon the event was really for university staff and students, and they’d know Oscar, whoever he may be. But I got there, and the view was lovely. The campus loch and the Wallace Monument in the background, and the famous Scottish sunshine on the grassy slopes. Beautiful.

Pathfoot, University of Stirling

Now, you know me. Gender violence is not the first thing you think of for a Bookwitch. But the discussion sounded interesting, it was local, and it was to feature Alexandra Sokoloff, among others. Alex had to join us via Skype in the end, as she appears to be stuck in California for various reasons, and where it was very early in the morning.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Chaired by professor Karen Boyle, we also had psychotherapist Madeleine Black, Lydia House from Zero Tolerance and Lorna Hill, who’d just submitted her PhD (Bloody Women: The Role of Women in Scottish and Scandinavian Crime Fiction) that morning. This was to be part of 16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence, which will culminate in an event at the Scottish Parliament next Thursday.

Lydia House

Lydia House started by telling us about the stock images Zero Tolerance have put together, which are free to use, and more suitable for portraying violence against women than what the media usually go for. She also mentioned an award for good writing.

Madeleine Black, who’s written the book Unbroken (about when she was repeatedly raped as a teenager), talks a lot at events, and feels she’s finally getting across what rape means, citing her [male] editor who eventually grasped what the experience had been like.

Lorna Hill is a former journalist who tired of gender violence being considered a taboo subject. As part of her PhD she has written a crime novel, about human trafficking and domestic abuse.

Alexandra Sokoloff’s novel Huntress Moon is about a female serial killer. In Hollywood serial killers are ‘just part of our classic language.’ Alex wanted to reach a large audience, which is why she chose this topic for her novel, and she points out that violence against women is so common, that even though her serial killer has killed a lot of men (slitting throats is apparently quick), she still needs to look out for her own safety when out.

It’s important to point out that this kind of violence makes for a ‘series of surviving’ and it’s not something you only do once. It happens all the time. Over and over again.

Karen Boyle

Madeleine finally realised that date sex can also be rape, and she set out to write her book to tell the world what had happened. Many readers of her book have decided that despite the warning about the violence, they ‘owed it to [Madeleine’s] 13-year-old self’ to read the chapter. Karen Boyle admitted that she wanted Alex’s killer to come after Madeleine’s rapists.

Lorna talked about cultural appropriation, and how she felt she was allowed to write about an African girl who had been trafficked, despite not being either African or abused. Lydia mentioned that it’s important to have survivor-led action. And one of the best interviews Madeleine had ever done was with Trevor McDonald, which she later heard had made an 81-year-old woman open up about what had happened to her many years earlier.

Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Alex said that with television screenwriting, they are looking for edgier and edgier subjects, which now means they want something with women. She also pointed out that it’s vital to call the crimes ‘male violence against women’; that you must mention who did it, rather than against whom.

Lydia said that with their new stock images, it becomes easier to show that much abuse is emotional, rather than ‘a black eye.’ Some women believe they can’t ask for help because they have not been hit and have no bruises to show. They also believe it’s their fault.

Media has not helped by first deciding what they want to write about, and then asking for a victim of a specific kind of crime [rape in a taxi], instead of looking at the whole problem. According to Alex there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits handed in to the police, that have not been processed, because the police don’t know what to do with them.

Alex reckons that after Weinstein, and with Trump in power, women have nothing to lose. It’s time to do something. Madeleine feels you must share, because ‘the shame belongs to the perpetrators.’

Madeleine Black, Lydia House, Lorna Hill and Karen Boyle

Karen asked the women for their take-home points, and Madeleine said ‘do it!’ Lorna agreed, ‘just do it, have confidence in yourself.’ Alex said there are many ways of being active; journalism, writing fiction, activism, and she mentioned her own writing classes in Stirling (for when she’s allowed back in…).

Lydia reminded us of the writing award next week, and the event on Thursday at Parliament. And Karen said there is also a march from Stirling Castle Esplanade on Thursday December 7th at 6.30pm, for anyone who wants to take part.

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Lin Anderson – ‘It’s difficult to murder people at home’

Dumyat

The steps up to the entrance of Forth Valley College in Alloa were murder. It wasn’t quite Follow the Dead – which is Lin Anderson’s most recent crime novel – but nearly. On a brighter note, the view was spectacular. Once you arrived. I could almost enrol for the view alone.

We’d parked in the Asda car park, and the upside of this was that we could see the car during Lin’s Book Week Scotland event, knowing that it was all right and happy.

Lin Anderson

The event seemed to attract mostly staff and students from the college, and it must have been great to have someone of Lin’s stature come and visit ‘at home.’ I’d not thought of her height until Lin pointed it out, mentioning how she and her sisters used to stand out among the short people of Glasgow, known as ‘big Willie Mitchell’s daughters.’

Lin Anderson

Lin’s dad was a detective, and he used to worry when he got to a crime scene that he’d find one of his girls there, either as the victim or the perpetrator. And it was this thought which formed the basis of Lin’s first Rhona MacLeod novel Driftnet. At the time she didn’t know there were going to be more books about Rhona, but now there are twelve.

Before writing, Lin was a teacher, and she’s keen to point out that a future author does not necessarily teach English. In her case it was Computer Science.

She realised that she needed a better knowledge of forensic science, so – along with Alex Gray – she joined an evening class in forensics. It was primarily aimed at people who through their work need to appear in court at murder trials, but it worked fine for crime writers too. Lin still refers to her course notes. (And the less said about the [real] victim with an axe in his head and his missing pet snake, the better.)

Lin Anderson

Her new book was inspired by a blizzard in the Cairngorms one New Year. It involved learning about what Mountain Rescue teams do, about answering the call of nature during a blizzard, and how to incorporate something Norwegian in her story.

We learned that these days all deaths in the mountains are a crime scene, and that Mountain Rescue take photos of victims. Up there a forensic tent can very easily just blow away. And did you know the temperature in a mortuary is 4 degrees, like a fridge, not a freezer?

Lin is happy with the trend of fans paying money to charity to feature in books. Apparently the latest thing is to be allowed to go to bed with the detective (if you fancy him/her), and she has actually kept someone from her home village on in more than one book, feeling that this way the character gets more rounded. ‘Her’ Mary Grant even does her own PR and signs the books…

And Lin strongly feels we should volunteer at Bloody Scotland. It’s great in every way. In fact, she talked a lot about her baby, Bloody Scotland. And yes, you are allowed to say Bloody. Not everyone knows this.

Finally, the hardest thing about writing a book are the words.

Ochils

We over-ran quite a bit, which proves how interesting it was. I then had to get down all those [bloody] steps again, so we could retrieve the car, but not before engaging in some shopping. After which, the Resident IT Consultant spent the drive back thinking about getting hold of more of Lin’s books.

Mary, Queen of Scots – Revered, reviled

The Resident IT Consultant and your witch had been wondering who on earth would come to a book event at a branch library on a Tuesday morning. Even if it was Alex Nye and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Well, let me tell you; countless elderly ladies, interested in Mary, in history and most likely quite keen on some culture to liven up their day, at a time when it’s easier to get out. St Ninian’s library was ready for business at 10.30, standing by with fresh coffee and enough room for wheelchairs and zimmer frames and the odd, self-balancing stick. Not to mention an ignorant Bookwitch. The man seated in front of the Resident IT Consultant turned round and said he was so glad he wasn’t the only man in the room…

Self-balancing stick

In other news, there was barely a copy of Alex’s book – For My Sins – available to buy, because it’s out of print, and will only be in he shops again tomorrow. Alex had a few copies, which she brought, but at least that’s success, even if it would have been nice to see a roaring trade in Mary.

I hadn’t even heard it all before. This can be a problem when going to more than one event for a book, but Alex varied what she said, so it was almost like it was brand new.

Alex Nye

She set the scene by describing the snow-covered Stirling castle (we’d had one just like it three days earlier), with Mary getting ready for the christening of her baby son James. Alex read a bit from that part of the book, finishing with Darnley’s sudden departure for Glasgow (which presumably had him ride right past the library, seeing as it’s virtually on the Glasgow Road).

Alex Nye

We heard how Alex began the book in her early twenties, in her ‘garret’ in Buccleuch Street in Edinburgh, and how it was eventually discovered by publisher Clare Cain and made into what we all agreed was an attractive book (even if it did sell too well), looking as though it had just escaped from a fire.

Alex Nye, For My Sins

And when it came to questions, the assembled ladies had more and better questions than I’ve heard at other events. They know their Scottish history, and they care about it.

Maybe have more daytime events like this?

Series – to abandon or not to abandon

That is the question.

As has become clear over the Bloody Scotland weekend, there are series everywhere. Not only do the long – and medium – established writers have series. The debut authors are also planning several books. Even the unpublished ones pitching their first novel, spoke of series.

If you are free to read whatever you like, whenever you can, with no blog commitments, you can probably keep up with lots of series.

I no longer know what to do. I tend to wait and see what happens. Because I can’t actually make the decision. It has to be made for me. I will – temporarily – abandon a series of books I love, if there is something else, equally loveable out there. Maybe something that is noisier when looking for attention.

And that first abandoning was never intentional. It just happened. It’s not you; it’s me.

In the last maybe fifteen years I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the crime novels by Kate Ellis and Stephen Booth. I read every one up to a certain point. I read about Mma Ramotswe. I read these usually in the right order, moving backwards to catch the odd earlier book, and then waited in real time for the next one to be published. It seemed like a long wait, until it wasn’t so bad, and then until the next two books were here and I didn’t know how to fit them in.

I discovered Sara Paretsky, whose books I still read when a new one comes along, and slowly reading the older ones.

Among my new people, as you know, are James Oswald and Vaseem Khan. I don’t know how long I can keep going. I want to. But I wanted to with the others as well.

With Sophie Hannah I grew too scared to continue, so that was an easier decison to make. And thankfully we have the new Poirots.

Or there is Harry Potter, but we knew how many books to expect. Knew there would be an end. As we did with Skulduggery Pleasant, at least until Derek Landy decided to keep going a bit longer. With Lockwood you might not have known for certain, but unless something changed, the characters would eventually be unable to do what they did because of their [lack of] years.

Which books do you keep? Will I ever reread the abandoned series? Will I restart one day? Which ones will I regret once I have ditched my copies? When we moved, we parted with about half our Dorothy Sayers. That seemed OK. Many of Agatha Christie’s books I’ve never owned as I borrowed them from the library.

And then I looked at my shelves for inspiration, and considered Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Those books I read slowly over a long time, and I don’t claim to have read all. But the thought that I might get rid of the books made me want to cry. They are staying. Campion is like a crazy older brother, and Alleyn some benevolent uncle. Yes, I know I have now bypassed them in age, as far as most of the stories are concerned.

So what to do about those just starting out? Not read at all, just in case? Read one and be hooked? Have nervous breakdown?

Pitch Perfect at Bloody Scotland

Had they even written those books they worked so hard to pitch?

I ask only because last year’s winner of Pitch Perfect apparently hadn’t. She pitched. She won. She got contract. And then she wrote. Or I hope she did, as the book is coming out in the spring.

I don’t know why I’ve never gone to one of these sessions before. Well, I do. They sounded too intimate, for some reason. A moment between hopeful writer and stern publishing person. Could be embarrassing to witness.

Pitch perfect

Except it wasn’t. Eight – slightly vetted – hopefuls using their three minutes as wisely as possible, trying to charm the four professionals, who in turn had three minutes per applicant to give their verdict.

The first pitch was really good, I thought. I liked the person, I liked his performance and I thought the book sounded promising. But maybe they’d all be like that.

Well, some were, in some respects, and others weren’t. Most were interesting in some way. But what fascinated me was that while what I liked best, the professionals also liked. I think. But they seemed to like what I didn’t go for, even more. Very illuminating. As far as the publishing world goes, I mean.

And the thing is, a personable potential author does not guarantee a good book, or sales. A good pitch still does not mean it’s going to be a cracking novel. And so on. Those publishing people could be wrong. Maybe?

Or rather, they know very well what is likely to work. But it doesn’t mean they pick the best story to work with. The choose what will fit in best with their business. And it’s from this readers get to pick what they might enjoy. I noticed how one of the panel was impressed by an idea that I at my age felt was anything but original, because I’ve been around for longer.

Pitch perfect

They liked the person who could say who her expected readers might be. Except she had young people in mind, and that makes it YA (the horror of it!), and young people don’t spend money. Probably right. What they overlooked – perhaps – was that authors are often mistaken about who will love what they have written. It’s a judgement better done by someone else.

The panel obviously wanted to tick boxes. It’s how business works. And the digital publisher understandably had different needs from traditional publishing.

That’s why they eventually picked two winners; one for a possible digital future, and one traditional. The latter was the one I liked best, the first one. Look out for crimes in 1930s Singapore!

Launching Trespassers

No sooner had I met Claire McFall last Saturday than she invited me to her book launch, which was last night at Waterstones. So back to Edinburgh I went. This was no hardship, as I’d had several days of ‘rest.’ And I was able to meet up with two toddlers on the same day, both of whom took exception to their mums being a bit busy with other people.

Claire McFall

The second toddler belonged to Claire and he was a little vocal about mum sitting over there on the chair, without him. I thought that was rather lovely, and realised that there are too few tiny children helping launch their parent’s books.

Lari Don was there as well, and I will not speculate on why, or make anything up. Maybe. She had chaired Claire’s event at the book festival on Saturday, so has read both Ferryman and Trespassers. (Ferryman is Claire’s first novel about the afterlife, the one that is doing well in China, and it’s just been re-issued by Floris, so it can help usher the sequel Trespassers in.)

Claire McFall and Lari Don

Between them Claire and Lari have enthused a lot about how wonderful they feel Floris have been. And that is good. Floris had laid on lots of crisps and chocolates and drinks, too. (And I know why Lari was there! She offered to hold my glass so I could drink and work.)

Claire McFall

After an enthusiastic introduction, Claire told us all – well, some at least – about herself and her writing, what comes after the afterlife, and how she used to read trashy books as a teenager, and was a little surprised to find she’s now seen as writing romantic fiction. (Not surprising at all, and nothing wrong with that, I say.)

I had already encountered several spoilers re the end of Ferryman, so coped relatively well with Claire’s reading from Trespassers. It sounds at least as good as the first book, so those Chinese fans are in for a treat. As are the – slightly fewer – Scottish fans. Some of them are Claire’s students at school, and they were there last night.

Claire McFall

Lots of photos were taken, including some great ones by Claire’s mother, which I had to go and ruin by suggesting maybe the book shouldn’t be held upside-down. I won’t be invited again.

Claire McFall

Here’s to another million sales!

Day 7

Let me tell you about Keith Gray. Eight years ago, on our seventh and last day of our first Edinburgh Book Festival, Daughter and I happened upon Keith Gray signing in the children’s bookshop. It had been a bit of a learning curve for us, and we realised when we discovered Keith sitting there, that authors might be there even if we hadn’t gone to their events, and even when we didn’t know there was an event.

Keith Gray

Back then I was less shy about being forward, so walked up and introduced myself, and we had a nice chat. Over the years Keith has tended to pop up in Charlotte Square at some point, and there have been other Scottish-based events as well. But ever since that day – the 26th of August 2009 – in my mind he has personified the happy coincidence of the bookfest.

Yesterday was also the 26th of August, and Keith and his family had organised farewell drinks in Charlotte Square, for their many book friends, because they are moving away from Scotland. It was lovely of them to do so, and they will be missed. Much less coincidental popping in future, I suspect.

Jasmine Fassl and Debi Gliori

So, it was especially nice that Daughter was able to be there with me, freshly extricated from the Andes. She was able to say hello to Frances in the press yurt, and – oh, how convenient – she was able to take photos for me as I had an interview to do. I’m nothing but an opportunistic user of my nearest and dearest.

Claire McFall

The interview was with Claire McFall, about her astounding fame. In China, in case you were wondering. She’s lovely, and didn’t even complain as we almost cooked her in the ‘greenhouse’ café. (There will be more about Claire later.)

We’d already spied Michael Rosen, and I’d caught a glimpse of David Melling with Vivian French as they walked over to the Bosco Theatre (which meant I missed out on their signing in the Portakabin) for an event. The signing no one could miss was Julia Donaldson’s, still taking place right next to us in the greenhouse, a couple of hours after her event.

Kirkland Ciccone and Sharon Gosling

Pamela Butchart

Despite not dressing quite as loud as usual, we still managed to see Kirkland Ciccone, signing next to Sharon Gosling and Pamela Butchart. Who else but Kirkie would have posters of himself to sign and hand out? Pamela wore some rather fetching furry ears, but it wasn’t the same. Also milling about in the children’s bookshop were Danny Scott and Keith Charters. The latter chatted so much to Daughter that I had to do my own photographing…

Keith Charters

I believe that after this we managed to fit in eating our M&S sandwiches, before keeping our eyes peeled for one of Daughter’s heroes; Catherine Mayer of the Women’s Equality Party.

Catherine Mayer

We searched out some shade after this, enjoying a wee rest next to the Main theatre, where we were discovered by Kirkie and Keith C and chatted before they departed for home.

Cressida Cowell

Noticed Gill Lewis at a distance as we sped across the square to find illustrator Barroux in the children’s bookshop, and then straight over to the main signing tent for Cressida Cowell. Her signing queue was most likely of the two-hour variety, and necessitated the services of her publicity lady as well, so no chat for me.

Barroux and Sarah McIntyre

And as it seemed to be a day for dressing up, we lined up to see Sarah McIntyre sign, in her queenly outfit. You can join her but you can’t beat her. Barroux, who was still there, seemed to think so, as he stared admiringly at Sarah.

John Young

After all this to-ing and fro-ing we had covered all the signings we had planned for, and we went in search of the drinks party out in the square. Debi Gliori was there, before her own event later in the afternoon, and she and Daughter had a long chat, while I talked to Keith Gray himself. He introduced me to a few people, including debut author John Young, whose book I luckily happen to have waiting near the top of my tbr pile.

Philip Caveney and Lady Caveney turned up, and so did a number of other people I knew, but mostly people I didn’t. We were all charmed by a lovely young lady, who spent most of her time smiling and playing on the grass. If it had been socially accepted, I reckon Daughter might have taken her home with us.

Little M

Daughter and I had placed ourselves strategically by the path, so that when Philip Ardagh strolled past, we cut him off, forcing him to chat to us for a little, while also giving Keith an opportunity to come and say goodbye. And then Philip made Keith take the photo of him and the witches. It only looks as though we are of different height. In reality Philip’s arm on my shoulder was so heavy that I sank straight into the mud, making me look a little short…

Philip Ardagh and witches

We’d never have got away if we hadn’t had a train to catch, so we got away, and the train was caught, but not before we’d encountered Jackie Kay on the pavement outside. Seemed fitting, somehow.