How was it for you?

February’s now here, so I thought I’d post a little update on how the ‘New Year, New Start’ has gone so far. Whilst the rest of the world feels like it’s falling apart thanks to the Tangerine Toddler, it’s been a creatively promising month in this corner of Fife.

First, I’m extremely pleased to announce that I’ve now got a literary agent, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates. How did this happen? Well, it’s all thanks to the magic* of Twitter – and a great little initiative called Tweet Your Pitch. Organised by XPONorth, the trade network for writing and publishing in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, it’s a one-day open call for book pitches from writers across Scotland. The catch? Your whole book needs to be crammed into just one tweet. Mine was:

Jenny got in touch to say she’d be interested in finding out more; I sent through my proposal and a sample of writing, and a week or so later we met in Edinburgh to seal the deal. I’m beyond honoured to be represented by Scotland’s best-kent agent, alongside the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and Gavin Francis.

Second, Tweet Your Pitch also got me in touch with Glasgow publishers Freight Books, who liked my idea for a book detailing the experiences I had nine years ago whilst living in Japan. Last week I meet with design guru and Freight head honcho Adrian Searle, who gave me a much-needed confidence boost, a reading list and several pointers regarding narrative construction – and introduced me to the weird and wonderful (?) world of Wool Fetishists. Go on, click on the link…

Third, I finished my first freelance copywriting and editing job – producing the School of Geography and Sustainable Development’s new magazine. It hits the newstands university website next week, and has helped me reach my January freelance earning target (phew). It also helped me to snare my second freelance job, copyediting a book on coastal rowing – which should keep me financially afloat through February.

On the book front, I’ve drafted the prologue and first chapter of the wool tome (you can keep up-to-date with this project over on This Golden Fleece) and am now rolling up my sleeves to crack on with chapter two. I had a great day’s research at the National Library of Scotland, combined with mornings mostly spent in the University of St Andrews library – cosy, spacious, and completely free! I’m also approaching the finishing line with January’s knitting project, a pair of intricate Dentdale gloves in Shetland wool. And my wool trivia is growing a-pace: who knew that Virginia Woolf was a literary knitter?

It’s been a busy month, but a good one – hopefully this momentum can carry me through the rest of the year…

*=reclaim Twitter from Trumped-up terror, says I

Research, Live, Write, Repeat

I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.

First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.

A little friend in the archives

A little friend in the archives

On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!

Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. Man Hat1The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]

I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:

  • omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
  • claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
  • suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them

It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I  have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.

That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…

Contemplating my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

April: Memory and Desire

Apologies for the prolonged break in blogging: leaving one job, moving house, attending two hen parties, one birthday and three weddings have all been occupying spare moments over the last few weeks and months. But now I have a little more time on my hands, here is my first post of 2015!

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

Stove in the new flat: not a real woodburner, but at least that saves lugging logs up three flights of stairs

As T.S. Eliot famously averred, April can indeed be the cruellest month. I’ve never been much of a fan of spring, with its unpredictable weather disappointing my expectations of sunshine, gambolling lambs and a profusion of flowers. I know it is a necessary transition, and I long for bright summer days and long warm evenings, but I much prefer autumn as a season of change. At that time of year everyone expects rain, storms and shortening days, so every bright spell is a lovely surprise and cause for unexpected celebrations.

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

Beautiful Victorian fireplace in the new flat

But this spring is not so cruel: I am happy to have my memories and desires mixed this year. For it promises a new start: a move to a new flat in Edinburgh (complete with wood-burner style stove, beautiful fireplaces and lovely views), the chance to research and write about a writer whom I admire (details still hush-hush but I will be keeping you posted if this develops!), and who knows yet what else.

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

The summit of my first Munro, Ben Wyvis

Something I am committing to now is writing more. Together with my friend over at Melissa’s Compass I am promising to write every day – if we don’t write, how can we be writers? I have always struggled to maintain a balance between work, research and creativity, but after reading this soul-strengthening interview with biographer Jenny Uglow I am aiming to make sure I spend some time writing, researching and working every week – and continuing all the other lovely things I do with my time too! Having scaled my first Munro in September, I am keen to make it a round 100 over the next 18 months: only 99 to go…

Our house... on our street

Loving the Liebster

The Liebster Awardliebster

My friend over at Melissa’s Compass has nominated me for a Liebster Award – but what is that, I hear you cry? It’s a great way to discover new blogs and to interact with the people who run your favourites, and the rules of the award are:

1. Link and thank the person who nominated you

2. Answer the questions they asked you

3. Pick eleven bloggers with fewer than 3,000 [this number can vary!] followers to nominate them.

4. Ask them eleven questions

5. Let them know by commenting on one of their posts

So my questions from Melissa were:

How did you come up with the name of your blog?

It’s from a quote in Sidney Lee’s Principles of Biography (1911): “Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.”

Romantic book spines

So many literary figures…

What was your first ever blog post about?

Learning to Love Literature – this was the original name of my blog and it was initially designed as a literary teaching resource. After a couple of posts I realised that my ‘insights’ into classic literature probably weren’t hugely insightful, and that I wasn’t reading enough of it to post on it regularly. But I was reading a lot of auto/biographies – so I decided to write about those instead!

 

Where is your favourite place to write?

At my laptop, in the armchair in the corner of my living room, when no-one else is in the house.

If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?

To a polling station in Scotland to feel the mood on this historic day!

What have you been doing today?

Working at this literary museum and historic house in the Lake District. I’ve written a report, answered some emails, tidied my desk… exciting! But it is a very beautiful place  to live and work.

Do you have a favourite author? Roger Deakin's Waterlog

Hmm, more than one! I love Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mary Wesley, Richard Holmes, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, Joanna Smith Rakoff, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwyneth Lewis – my husband always says ‘I don’t do favourites’, which can be sometimes annoying, but I’m with him on this one.

What was the last thing you wrote about?

On this blog? Submitting my work to the Scottish Book Trust to win a competition. Outside of blogworld? 5,000 words of Life Writing for the Mslexia Memoir competition, all about my time living in Japan and first moving to the Lake District.

Would you rather live in a grand castle or a cosy cottage? 

Our house... on our street

Our house, in the middle of our street

Cosy cottage. I actually do live in one of these anyway – here’s a sneaky peak!

What was the first story you remember writing?

The first thing I remember writing was a poem about three witches (green, blue and yellow) which I did once I’d finished my work in year 1 of primary school. My mum still has it! The first full-length story I wrote was when I was in year 7 (aged 12 or 13) about Midgard and the adventures of some fictionalised Vikings. I remember spending ages on it, and then becoming completely convinced it was dreadful, so much so that I didn’t want to show it to my teacher. And I was absolutely gobsmacked when my teacher said it was brilliant.

Do you have favourite letters of the alphabet?

Erm, never thought about it before this question but I do like M (a nice bilabial consonant) and L is beautiful too. And of course E, as it’s my initial.

What is your biggest aspiration?

To be a published biographer. And to run or set up a literary museum or arts organisation!

Now, I don’t think I regularly read 11 blogs so I’m just going to nominate those I do:

Stuck in a Book

Kim Moore Poetry

A Penguin A Week

Grasmere Poetry

Scarlet Pyjamas

I Prefer Reading

And my questions (six for six people) are:

Do you regularly read biographies, autobiographies or anything that comes under the category ‘Life Writing’?

Do you scribble in the margins of your books?

Do you read your books in the bath?

If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?

Do you keep a diary? If so, how long have you kept it for?

Do you have a favourite sort of weather to read in?