I’d like to welcome Marie Macpherson to Layered Pages today. Marie lives in a small village not far from the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. She studied at Strathclyde University, gaining a PhD in Russian Language and Literature. She spent a year at Moscow State University in the former Soviet Union to research her thesis on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.
After a career teaching languages and literature, she retired from academic life to pursue her interest in creative writing and has found her niche in historical fiction.
The rich history of lowland Scotland provides her inspiration. Reeling and jigging at Scottish Country Dancing and walking the Lammermuir Hills keep her fit.
Marie, please tell me about your writing…
Why do I write?
I often ask that question myself? For writing is such hard work! Why don’t I just remain a reader? I often ask myself when the words won’t flow, the characters don’t gel, the plot refuses to thicken and my wonderful ideas come out half-baked.
Like most writers, I developed a passion for literature and language at an early age: learning to read was an eye-opener for me. That marks on paper could be transformed into words seemed a kind of magical process, a kind of alchemy – not least because most of my earliest reading material was fairy stories and legends.
The film Dr Zhivago cast a spell over me aged sweet sixteen and drew me into the exotic culture of Russia. Learning to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, I re-discovered the magic I’d experienced as a child learning to read. And being able to understand the great classical novels – those big baggy monsters – by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev – in the original language was thrilling.
Since winning a writing competition (aged 10) – a story about my pet dog, I’ve been a closet writer, secretly scribbling stories There are a couple of novels locked away – not in the proverbial drawer – but in an ancient, primeval version of Word that needs a magic spell to open it. One day I will.
After experimenting with contemporary, satirical fiction, I found my niche in historical fiction set in 16th century Scotland, not surprising perhaps. Growing up on the battlefield of Pinkie and within sight of a ruined castle, I was surrounded by history and haunted by stories from the past. Ghosts and ghoulies stalked the tumbledown halls and walls – all rich fodder for the imagination. The legends of the great Scots heroes and heroines have always enthralled me: Wallace the freedom fighter wielding his broad sword, Bruce being inspired by a spider, Mary Queen of Scots getting her head chopped-off. Perhaps, subliminally that was why I chose the work of Lermontov topic for my PhD thesis. The Russian writer claimed to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.
Winning the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University, followed by the Writer of the Year award by Tyne and Esk Writers, pulled me out of the closet and pushed me to submit my work for publication.
How writing impacted on my life
I’m a ‘late call’ to creative writing and being published has given me a second career. What better way to while away the time to the grave? Instead of contemplating my navel, I’ve taken off on a rollercoaster ride. When not writing or researching, I’m giving talks, presentations and interviews, appearing at literary festivals and events, writing articles for magazines and blogs. While it’s been a steep learning curve, there’s never a dull moment.
Be careful what you wish for, as it may come true. And, at times, that’s how I feel about being a published writer. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My advice about Writing
It’s hard to think of something new to say as so many other writers here have given very wise and practical advice. What to add?
- Heed Toni Morrison’s maxim: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
- Write in a genre you feel comfortable in. Don’t try to follow the latest fashion if it doesn’t suit your style or doesn’t fit.
- Take time to develop your voice. After a lifetime of writing academic articles this was the most difficult lesson I had to learn. To shift my mindset, I try to heed Anton Chekhov’s advice: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. My mantras are show don’t tell, be specific. Clichés perhaps but crucial.
- Dramatise a scene as much as possible but don’t romanticise too much. And above all be authentic.
- Since my memory is a sieve, I always carry a notebook to catch hold of those fleeting thoughts before they take off again.
- Work off-line, but I’m the world’s worst at not following own advice. I’m at risk of being a Facebook fly, gadding about the internet, hopping from blog to blog – not so much to self-promote but to give and receive moral support readers and writers from all over the world. As E. M. Forster famously said, ‘Only connect.’ And that’s the benefit of social media.
- Keep in mind Bruce’s spider – if at first you don’t succeed in being published, keep trying! Never say never!
The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first book in the Knox trilogy was published in 2012. It is available in hardback, paperback and Amazon
The next in the series, The Second Blast of the Trumpet, is due for release in September 2015 on Amazon
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