Victoria’s Love Affair with Scotland

tartanwareIn The Secret of Lanark Island, my main character, Kate Hamilton, is encouraged by her partners in the antiques business to shop for Tartanware  because “prices are going up.” This is true. Tartanware, manufactured during the Victorian era in Mauchline, Ayrshire, Scotland, is now highly collectible.

Queen Victoria is usually credited with popularizing Tartanware, wooden items decorated with Scottish tartan patterns. At first the patterns were hand painted; but in the early 1840s, William and Andrew Smith, the largest manufacturers of Tartanware, developed an ingenious inking machine which reproduced the tartan patterns on paper, which was then glued onto the wood and sealed with layers of shellac.

Ironically, it was Victoria’s great-great-grandfather George II who (following the end of the Jacobite rebellion at Culloden in 1746) attempted to stamp out Highland culture forever. The clan chiefs were stripped of their power and the wearing of tartan was banned. The ban was lifted in 1782 by George III, who may have learned a thing or two about the futility of wielding naked power from the American Revolution.

By the end of the eighteenth century, English attitudes toward Scotland were changing; but it was the publication in 1814 of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverly, with its romanticized portrayal of life in the Scottish Highlands, that captured the public’s imagination. King George IV visited Scotland in August of 1822 and famously attended a reception at Holyrood Palace in full Scottish kilts, his flabby knees modestly covered  with pinkish stockings.

Twenty years later, George IV’s niece Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert made their first trip to the Highlands. So enthralled were the royal couple with the wild beauty of the Highlands that they purchased Balmoral Castle as a summer retreat. Victoria’s life-long love affair with all things Scottish sparked an intense interest in Tartanware. In addition to being wildly popular as souvenirs, Tartanware was also used extensively in homes. Among the most popular items were sewing accessories, egg cups, napkin rings, and whisky glass holders.

Tartanware was produced in Mauchline right up until 1933 when a fire destroyed the machinery used to print the tartan patterns. Now it is prized by collectors, the most valuable patterns being the intense reds, blues, and greens of such tartans as Stuart, Prince Charlie, McBeth, Albert, and Caledonian.

            Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland may have turned into something quite literal. New evidence claims that Victoria, after the death of her beloved husband Albert, had an affair with her Highland ghillie John Brown, married him in a secret ceremony, and had a child with him. If you’re interested, check out the recent article in The Daily Mail. Here’s the link:

What’s In A Name?

long book titleLately I’ve been interested in learning about how books are titled. My manuscript began with the working title An Antique Murder. Later, on the advice of an agent, I changed it to The Secret of Lanark Island, first in the proposed Antique Murder series. I might change it again. Hey—if a publisher has a better idea, I’m in! 

I’ve noticed that agents or publishers often change the original book title chosen by the author. They do this, presumably, because they have marketing experts who follow the trends. After all, the title of a book, along with an attractive book jacket, is meant to tempt you to pick it up and buy it. 

There are theories about naming books. Book titles should stick in the mind. They should describe what the book is about. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set it Botswana, said—in jest—that the proposed marriage of his main character Mma Precious Ramotswe to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni was dragged out for so many books that his publisher insisted he call the next one The Wedding to remind him to make it happen (the book was actually entitled The Full Cupboard of Life). Sometimes books are given different titles in different countries. Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington in the UK, for example, became What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! in the US. 

 Modern book titles tend to be short—many say, the shorter the better. The New York Times Best Seller list is a case in point. Of the top fifteen works of fiction (as of March 2013), one book has a one-word title, eight have two-word titles, four have three-word titles, and two have four-word titles. The non-fiction list is the same. 

My main interest is the mystery genre. Often, when a book is meant to be part of a series, the titles have a correspondence or follow a pattern. This requires gumption—or confidence. Think of Sue Grafton’s ABC mysteries (she committed herself to twenty-six books) or Ann Purser’s Lois Meade mysteries, which started with the days of the week and are currently working their way around the clock. Sometimes a word or a phrase is repeated (for example, Katherine Hall Page’s series, The Body in the…).  

I admire the titles chosen by Agatha Award-winning author Julia Spencer-Fleming for her series set in the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill, featuring the Rev. Clare Fergusson of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. Ms. Spencer-Fleming calls her books “novels of faith and murder for readers of literary suspense.”  Although her titles tend to be a tad longer than today’s norm, they so beautifully reflect her themes of faith and suspense: In the Bleak Midwinter (2002),         A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003), Out of the Deep I Cry (2004), To Darkness and To Death (2005), All Mortal Flesh (2006), I Shall Not Want (2008), One Was a Soldier (2011). 

I look forward to reading In the Bleak Midwinter very soon. I wonder if she considered naming it just Bleak Midwinter? I’m glad she didn’t.


Five Things I’ve Learned (So Far) About Revisions

girlwritingLast week I read a wonderful article by guest blogger Kathy Leonard Czepiel (A Violet Season, Simon & Schuster) on Chuck Sambuchino’s “Guide to Literary Agents” blog ( I highly recommend it.

One of Ms. Cepiel’s comments has been tweeted and retweeted many times in the last few days: “First drafts require starting from nothing and creating something only slightly better than nothing.” Oh so true. In my experience, writing a first draft is painful and produces something so appalling that you’re seriously tempted to chuck the whole thing in the bin. Fortunately, as Ms. Czepiel points out, no one but you ever needs to see that first manuscript.

Revisions, on the other hand, are fun. You have raw material to work with. The manuscript begins to take shape. Your “nothing” begins to resemble (ta da!) a book. Currently I’m about a fourth of the way through the third major revision of my first mystery. And I’ve learned a few things—the hard way as I always do. Here are five simple observations that might resonate with you.

1. Revising a manuscript isn’t the same thing as polishing language.
I love to polish language. I love to work with rhythm and images. I love finding exactly
the right word for each character and setting. This is fine. Language does need to be
polished. You want your submission to be as perfect as you can possibly make it. But
polishing isn’t revision. I’ve spent hours polishing words that no longer appear in my
manuscript. Before polishing (I tell myself sharply), spend time working with scenes,
structure, motivation, plot, and character.

2. Consider proportion.
A scene may be wonderful in itself, turning the plot in a twisty new direction. Description
may be beautifully rendered, adding depth and layers to a character or a setting. But is the scene or description worth the space and words you have afforded it? Proportion is very difficult to “see,” immersed as you are in the manuscript. Ask someone else for input. Make a chart of the word count in each chapter and scene. Does the word count reflect the importance to the whole?

3. Be willing to kill your darlings.
This is a classic. Unless you have the near-supernatural ability to turn out a publishable manuscript on the first draft, you will inevitably have to hit the delete key—often. I always overwrite and then pare down. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself. But what if I’ve fallen in love with words that don’t belong (like my first three opening chapters)? In graduate school, my thesis advisor told me to put extraneous material in a footnote first. Then delete the footnote. It’s easier to delete in stages. Novels don’t have footnotes, but an alternative is to print out the iffy material and save it in a file for possible use later. If later never comes, so be it.

4. Don’t try to revise a bunch of things at once.
The human mind can hold only so much in tension. If I’m revising for scene structure, I
probably won’t catch all my typos. If I’m working with character motivation, I can’t
work simultaneously with plot and proportion. If I’m eliminating unnecessary words and
tags, I will miss lapses in POV. This means that each revision will require many pass-
throughs, each with its own emphasis. Taking time to do this saves time in the long

5. Beware of that seductive little “Find-Replace” feature on Microsoft Word.
Microsoft Word’s “find-replace” feature is a great tool—unless you push the button
before you really know what you’re doing. Last week I learned this the hard way. I’ve
been having trouble with the space bar on my keyboard. Knowing that there should never be two spaces in a manuscript, I had Word find all the double spaces (there were 14) and replace them with single spaces. So far so good. But then, intoxicated by my power, I decided to “fix” the few extra spaces my keyboard had added between the ending punctuation and the closing quotation mark in dialog. Gleefully, I pushed “replace all” just as I noticed that Word was making 732 changes to my manuscript! Now I have 732 corrections to make because the “back” button doesn’t work in this case. Lesson learned. Today I’m buying a new keyboard.

Advice and Consent?


Since beginning my mystery novel project two summers ago, I’ve learned a lot (The Long, Steep Learning Curve), and I’ve gotten lots of advice—from writer friends and colleagues, from books on the craft of writing, from magazine and web articles, from writers’ conferences, workshops, and professional organizations. I’ve listened to all of it. I really have. Much of the advice has resonated with me and has already been incorporated into my manuscript, at least to the best of my ability. But some of the advice I’ve gotten has been, frankly, contradictory. What, then, do I act on? 

            Recently I started reading a mystery by a well-known author, the winner of several prestigious awards. I like the story. I want to keep reading. And while I wouldn’t  call the plot exactly riveting (so far), I’m being gently drawn in. I want to see what happens to the protagonist, a young girl from Boston with no money and no family ties. And I am eager to see how the author provides motivation and rationale for her to involve herself in the investigation of a murder. So far so good. The goal of every author is to keep his or her audience interested enough to keep turning the pages. 

But nowhere yet (I’m several chapters in) do I see the element that all the current advice says is “absolutely necessary” if one wants to be published today—tension. Oh, maybe there’s some mild tension in the fact that the protagonist finds herself at loose ends in a foreign country. And yes, her grandmother did leave a last request that she look into her heritage. But this is nothing like the kind of tension I’ve been advised is a must in today’s mystery market. Things are going pretty well for the protagonist. There’s not even a body yet.

And there’s something else. I can’t count the times I’ve heard or read something like this: “Don’t make the mistake of explaining too much at the beginning. Slice and dice the backstory, dropping it in only when necessary. Cut to the chase. Pose questions that simply must be answered.”  

I’m sure that’s right, and yet the mystery I’m reading has quite a bit of back story at the beginning. And it’s taking its own, sweet time getting to the murder. No jumping into things in medias res. No puzzles to pique the reader’s interest. But, to repeat myself, I like it. And obviously others have as well, since it’s gotten very good publicity. 

Here’s my take-away—at least for now. Listen to advice but act on what seems right. So, I will finish this revision. Then I will give the manuscript to a few beta readers, after which I will revise again. And then I will begin the process of sending out queries and synopses and sample pages. Will there be an agent out there who loves my writing? Will there be someone who believes in it enough to pitch it to publishers?  

Now that really is a mystery.