The Best Job for a Writer

5th July 2017

The Orkney based writer Duncan Maclean once told me that the best job he'd ever had was as a caretaker. Not much to do and no creative thought required, so plenty of time to think about writing, and indeed to write. My best job was as a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in a small town. If nobody was born, got married or died, and my minimal paperwork was up to date, I had nothing to do. I wrote a whole novel in the fifteen months I was in that job. Now I'm an editor, a job...

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The Best Job for a Writer

So What About My Desk?

4th June 2017

Workspaces are supposed to tell you about those who use them. The desks of famous people: writers, explorers, philosophers – are preserved in their houses or in museums, as if they might reveal the lives. Perhaps they do. So what about my desk? It wasn't until I took a photograph of it that I realised how everything pictured, taken together, reflected my life: past and present, family and friendship, work and writing. 1. My computer is in the centre, its large screen showing a...

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So What About My Desk?

The Shopping Delusion

24th May 2017

It's something I don't do very often, so maybe that's why I lost my head. I confine myself usually to Tesco and the butcher and the garden centre, and there's no scope there for shedding inhibitions. In any case, I go alone, with no one to inspire me to rashness or wrong decisions. I've only myself to blame if I start thinking 3 for 2 is a bargain when it's for something I don't use much. On the whole, I've become immune to the blandishments of Tesco, and the butcher just gives me what I...

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The Shopping Delusion

What Friends Are For

24th April 2017

If there's anything I dislike it's having my photograph taken, so I wasn't much looking forward to last Thursday. Having decided I needed new portraits before my next novel comes out in July, I began looking for a photographer, and because I'm now so skilled in social media (!) I found someone through a Facebook group I'm in. Near Edinburgh. You may well ask why, since I live in the Highlands, I didn't just go to a local photographer, but I couldn't find anyone I thought would be right. I...

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What Friends Are For

Home for Tea

28th March 2017

For the last few days I've been staying with my daughter and baby grandson while my son-in-law was away. The baby is nearly four months old now, aware, alert and full of smiles. I had a lovely time, of course I did, especially for someone who doesn't much like leaving home. I know I'm home when the road from Tore to the village turns, the landscape opens out and there's a wide vista of hills along the horizon, milky blue in the afternoon sun. Next morning, on my early run...

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Home for Tea

An Hour Well Spent

5th March 2017

A supermarket chain (the one that takes a large slice of my income every week) has kindly sent me an email telling me how to spring clean my house in an hour. Now, let's suppose all houses are the same size, and can all be cleaned in the same time. Let's also suppose that you have already spent an hour gathering together your supply of bicarbonate of soda (including the pot you threw out last week because it had a use by date in 2011 and other stuff you need to do this...

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An Hour Well Spent

In Bed with the Philosophers

19th February 2017

Over the last year or so my reading stamina has dwindled. This may be because I have a brain partially turned to mush by a diet of old Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths, my nightly escape from the current lunacy in world affairs. Despite there being so many murders it seems safer and more comfortable between their covers. Besides, that's all I'm fit for by bedtime. The philosophers, requiring closer attention, must therefore be addressed in the mornings, as I attempt to...

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In Bed with the Philosophers

Diary of a Provincial Lady, updated

17th August 2016

I've just finished re-reading EM Delafield's hilarious Diary of a Provincial Lady, first published in 1930. Comfort reading, I admit. I'm certainly provincial, so will begin the contemporary diary of a lady who may not have to battle with the Servant Problem, but who is certainly suffering from the Lack-of-Servant Problem. Although her Cook and House-Parlourmaid are awkward and keep giving notice, at least they exist. 16th August Just as we had settled into quiet...

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Diary of a Provincial Lady, updated

Making the Pitch

14th June 2016

Although I've not posted anything here for months, this doesn't mean I've not been writing. I've been working on another novel. Or trying to. The weeks go past and I find I'm not much further on. I comfort myself by remembering The Treacle Well took seven years to complete, so a novel can be a long time in its genesis. I need more time to think about this one. Until this week, I've not had that time for months – other things have taken over, mainly work. At one point, I was editing six...

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Making the Pitch

The Right Audience

8th April 2016

How much do writers need an audience? A readership, yes, we'd hardly be worth our money (little though it usually is) if nobody read the books. A lovely and in my case unexpected thing that happens when you publish a novel is that complete strangers write and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Nowadays if you're lucky they tweet out their appreciation, or put something up on their Facebook page. All of it reassures you that other people really are reading what you wrote with so many pauses...

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The Right Audience

What I Did on My Holidays

14th February 2016

Of course I'm getting older, we all are, but usually I don't feel it. Instead I have the sense that I stopped somewhere around forty which was a good age, though my life fell apart soon afterwards and took some time to piece back together in a new form. Windows 10 for women, perhaps. Then I went on holiday. Over the years, my holidays have diminished, and apart from two long distance trips to spend time with my children during their post-graduate travelling, I have had none...

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What I Did on My Holidays

The Optimist Reflects on 2015

22nd December 2015

The glass half full/half empty image is a complete red herring – sorry about the mixed metaphor. You are either an optimist or… you're not. Realistic, perhaps. I have spent a wasted ten minutes this morning trying to get the cat to do something interesting in relation to the Christmas tree so we can post a photograph on Facebook. He is resistant to all efforts, as the most he's done is sit under it looking resentful or lie on his chair quite near it. He has been completely...

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The Optimist Reflects on 2015

What Can We Do?

23rd September 2015

There are too many days now when I turn away from the news on radio or in the newspaper, with a vaguely guilty, helpless feeling. Across Europe, whole peoples are on the move, escaping terror and torture, war and destruction, desperately seeking peace and the normal life the rest of us take for granted. There's nothing I can do. My house is in chaos with the extension work, and even if it weren't, what family of refugees is going to want to come all the way north to Muir of Ord and...

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What Can We Do?

Advice for Authors from a Temporary Invalid

1st September 2015

The last couple of weeks have been difficult because I've been ill. I'm never ill. I get one cold a year if I'm unlucky, and don't catch the bugs and viruses that from time to time are said to be 'going round'. So to have a raging sore throat, hacking cough and feel utterly exhausted, has thrown me into something of a panic, especially since it's happened twice in the last month. When I think back, I realise I've not had my usual energy for a while. So when I finally talked to a doctor...

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Advice for Authors from a Temporary Invalid

Endings and Beginnings. Part 1: Endings

12th August 2015

What I'm best at is beginning. Ending is more troublesome. I did once write a novel that ended with a wolf leaping at someone on a Highland hillside, but even I realised that wasn't any good. The rest of the novel was fine, and when I changed the end, it was better, but still unsatisfactory. Perhaps all novel endings are unsatisfying. I've had a couple of comments recently on Facebook from readers of Tell Me Where You Are, saying how much they liked it, but where was the sequel?...

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Endings and Beginnings. Part 1: Endings

The Editor's Heatwave Rant

3rd July 2015

During these hot summer days I'm up early. This is principally because the elderly cat is hurling herself at the kitchen door, pathetically mewing – she thinks daylight means breakfast. I'm also staying up later than usual. In balmy dusk I sit on the front doorstep, both cats quietly beside me, tails twitching, watching something invisible. I've started to believe the only thing missing from making me truly continental is a siesta in the middle of the day, and if the summer goes on for...

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The Editor's Heatwave Rant

Time's Running Out Here

4th June 2015

There must be a word for it. At the same time as good things are happening, and you feel now and again foolishly happy, terrible things are happening all around, and joy is quickly quenched by pity, sorrow, and a vague sense of guilt. During the last year, too many people we know have died, none of them older than we are. So many husbands and wives left on their own after years of being one of a pair. Then there are the friends who've been invaded by serious illness, or had terrible...

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Time's Running Out Here

Least Said, Soonest Mended?

16th May 2015

On the train to Edinburgh last week, I was joined by a young man with a beguiling smile (good) and some work papers that he laid on his side of the table, suggesting that if we spread out our stuff, nobody else would try to sit there. I had already set out i pad, newspaper and notebook with just this strategy in mind, but it was a quiet train. He had long hair tied back in a pony tail (not so good) and seemed inclined to talk. So we did. He was a Tai Chi teacher who had intended to travel...

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Least Said, Soonest Mended?

Imaginary People

22nd April 2015

Do you remember when Microsoft Word used to default to Times New Roman 12 point, whenever you turned your back? You thought you'd set up a nice cuddly invitation with Comic Sans, or a bold leaflet with Ariel, when bang, one wrong click, back to Times New Roman. Novelists are like that. We all have default themes and ideas, and however hard we try to move away from them, they creep back in. With Irvine Welsh, it's drugs, sex and violence. I don't need to read the books themselves –...

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Imaginary People

Where the Ideas Come From

18th March 2015

The Treacle Well is an autobiographical novel but no one in it is a real person, and none of the events happened in my own life. Writers are often asked: 'Where do you get your ideas?' and 'Are the characters in your books based on real people?' Sometimes I can pinpoint the moment when a new story sprang into being. With David's Sisters I can trace it to a café in the High Street of the small town where my sister and I lived. A visit from our teenage daughters to eat a bit...

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Where the Ideas Come From

A Rant about the Radio

7th March 2015

You know how it is, when the people you've been loyal to all your life, let you down? Should you protest feebly, but stick to them anyway? Perhaps it's best to let go, and fill your life with other things, other people. Somehow, you will deal with that empty space. This is how it's been with me, these last weeks. The final straw was when a different set of friends (I call them friends, bear with me) also let me down. They have left me in an impossible situation. If I support their...

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A Rant about the Radio

The Pleasures of Illness

31st January 2015

Do you remember being ill as a child? In adulthood, I wasn't always in tune with my mother, or she with me, but in childhood, and especially when I was ill, she was the best mother in the world. I was ill a lot as a child, not just with the childish ailments – and I had everything except mumps and whooping cough – but flu more than once, glandular fever and a strange illness that went on for weeks without any diagnosis. In those days, when you were ill you went to bed. You...

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The Pleasures of Illness

The Giddy Limit

22nd December 2014

When it comes to Christmas trees, there is only one thing worse than buying, bringing home, putting up and decorating the thing on your own, and that is doing it with someone else. If I want to avoid curses and family breakdown, I do it myself. I've therefore developed an almost foolproof method of installing a tree, in such a fashion that it stays where it's put and is kept watered if not fed. A bucket of potting compost. It has to be that, not soil, or you risk bringing worms into...

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The Giddy Limit

My Brilliant Career and Other Absurdities

16th November 2014

The world is full of absurdity. When I read about the leaves being removed by hand from trees outside the Palace of Westminster I was reminded of the unfortunate soldiers repainting roses that were the 'wrong' colour in the Queen's garden. Alice wonders why on earth they're doing such a thing. In their case, it was in terror of the Queen who was inclined to order beheadings for the most minor infringement. Sometimes we seem to be living in Alice's Wonderland or – more often these days –...

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My Brilliant Career and Other Absurdities

Getting it Right

22nd October 2014

An important realisation came to me at one o'clock in the morning as I lay awake and wondered whether it was worth getting up and heating a mug of milk to help me get back to sleep. Several things militated against this course of action: The cat would want to come out of the kitchen and follow me back to bed I was warm and comfortable and might just fall sleep anyway, if I had the patience to wait The very thought of drinking the hot milk made me feel queasy Where was my...

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Getting it Right

Answering the Big Questions

4th September 2014

Working at home has many advantages even if you don't include the opportunity to bring the washing in when it starts to rain. It has disadvantages too – you're there to answer the doorbell during the day. It doesn't often ring here, as I'm in the country, but the other day I opened the door to a handsome young man (good start…) who invited me to a Mission meeting (less good follow up) and asked me if I was troubled by what was happening in the world today. Today it rang twice...

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Answering the Big Questions

Yes Yes

23rd August 2014

I wrote this on September 10th 1997, just before another referendum, when we had two votes. This time, one answer will do. It's hard for writers not to tinker with old pieces of work when they come across them again, but this time, I'm not tempted. Yes Yes A wee country not big enough for power the folk few and scattered the land divided North and South Protestant Catholic Highland Lowland the dense, disliked too cocky by half Central...

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How it Begins

17th August 2014

Every writer is asked 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Probably visual artists, and for all I know, musicians, are also asked this. Writers' answers are unsatisfactory for readers, since what people really want is to understand how art begins. Where it comes from is less important than how you begin, what you do to turn a memory, a dream, a conversation, into fiction. I asked the question myself the other night, at the Kilmorack Gallery's new exhibition of Eight Sculptors and...

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How it Begins

The Best Place for You

19th July 2014

When you were a child, over tired and overwrought by the end of the day, your mother probably said, Bed's the Best Place for You. I've come to realise how right my mother was in this as in so much else. Bed is wonderful when you're weary, a place to lean back, open your book and try to stay awake for five or six pages at least. It's not just the quiet and the reading, it's the way you feel so welcome. When did your bed last say 'Don't come in here!'? Only, in my case, when I've stripped...

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The Best Place for You

In Praise of Nothing

2nd July 2014

For years I set the alarm for 6.20am, giving me ten minutes to wrestle myself from sleep before I had to rise at half past. I heard the thump of the boiler coming on in the kitchen, tried to catch the atmosphere of the fading dream, always more vivid in the morning, then pushed the covers off and got up. Now I was into the day, and had to think about work. I don't have to set the alarm now and the work is very different. Yet when I'm not working I feel guilty, and when I am working, I...

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In Praise of Nothing

The Good Old Days

14th June 2014

I'm living in the past. I've been dividing my reading (not reading for Sandstone Press, a different matter) between revisits to Barbara Pym and my new exploration of the Quirke novels by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Barbara Pym wrote several of her novels in the fifties and early sixties; Quirk inhabits 1950s Dublin. What different worlds they are – Pym's is full of Excellent Women, replete with curates, vicars' wives, anthropologists, typists, antique dealers and elderly...

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The Good Old Days