Weegie Wednesday

a.aaa-student-life (1)I’m lucky to be able to work part-time which means that now that my youngest is at Strathclyde uni I’m able to fit in a trip to Glasgow each week to take him for a meal, bring him some treats and slip him some cash (an expensive outing!). Wednesday is usually the day we meet and it dawned on me that maybe I should go along to Weegie Wedneday while I was in Glasgow anyway. (For any non–Scottish readers – Weegie (n) A slang term for a person from Glasgow).

thisoneI’d ‘liked’ the Weegie Wednesday Facebook page ages ago but I’d never got round to attending any of their monthly literacy networking events. Weegie Wednesday provides an opportunity for writers, poets, publishers, booksellers, librarians, creative writing students or anyone else with an interest to get together socially to talk about books, writing and publishing.

When I read that the April event featured Liam Murray Bell and David Ross, it seemed like the perfect chance to finally get my act in gear and get myself to the venue at the Terrace Bar of the Centre of Contemporary Arts.

last-days-of-disco_December-with-quotes-resized-275x423I was particularly intrigued to hear more about David’s debut novel,  The Last Days of Disco . Apart from my publisher, only 5 other folk on the planet have read my novel pre-publication and one of them is Isabel Costello, who recommended I read David’s book as it reminded her of my own novel. I haven’t read the book yet but after listening to David, I can see how it could be compared to mine. His book is set in 1982, mine in 1985, his book is about adolescence, family, music, emerging sexuality and set in a small Scottish town – my book has the same themes and backdrop. Reviews of David’s book also mention the use of humour which is a key element of my writing too so I can’t wait to read David’s book and see if these similarities match up. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to talk to David in person at Weegie Wednesday but if his presentation was anything to go by I’m sure I’ll love his writing.

The other guest speaker was Liam Murray Bell. I attended the launch of Liam’s last book, The Busker, and it was interesting to hear him talk again, this time about how he juggles his day job as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stirling uni (where I did my MLitt) with his own writing.

After inputs from the guest speakers, the idea of Weegie Wednesday is to meet new folk. I’d arrived early for the event and immediately struck up a conversation with a friendly looking face, Catherine Hokin, whose debut historical novel, Blood and Roses, will be published in June. I was joined by two of my MLitt classmates, Angela and Paul, and we soon got chatting to others. I also crossed paths for the second time with Katie White, a screenwriter from Falkirk who has written an award winning film, Middle Man.

To be in the company of interesting friends, old and new, in a pub in Glasgow full of creative types isn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday night is it?

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Free Your Mind

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For two years, all that connected Anne to the outside world was a single door that was hidden by a bookcase.

A few years ago, I went with my pal Katy on a city break to Amsterdam. At the top of our ‘must see’ list (along with every other tourist there!) was a visit to Anne Frank’s house. The lengthy queue was worth the wait as the experience was very moving. Katy and I had also been to Auschwitz on another trip so we left Amsterdam with an even greater understanding of the horrors of being victimised and hunted down by the Nazis.

This period of history has always interested me and so when I recently went on a tour of Stirling University’s art collection I came across their latest exhibition, ‘Anne Frank: A History for Today‘. As part of the programme, the university were offering a free creative writing workshop, ‘Living in Hiding’ so of course I signed up.

 

download (1)The aim of the workshop was to “examine Anne Frank’s desire to become a journalist and novelist and how these aspirations would have been tempered by the daily fear of discovery.” 

Whilst discussing Anne’s diary with the group, it made me think of the theme of feeling trapped and how your home can also be your prison.

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Burying victims of Leningrad’s siege in 1942.

I’ve made a tentative start on my next novel which refers to the Seige of Leningrad. Thankfully there’s lots of historical information available as authentic and poignant as Anne’s diary. These documents will help me imagine the reality of not being able to leave your city and suffering starvation, stress and exposure resulting in civilian losses at around 1.1 to 1.3 million.

 

download (3)Being denied freedom is a common theme in books and one that was executed brilliantly by Emma Donoghue in Room.  The bestselling book tells of Ma, who has been kidnapped and locked in a room for seven years by “Old Nick”.  Ma and Old Nick have a son, Jack who also lives in the room without being able to leave. Ma tells Jack,“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”

I may reread Room and Anne Frank’s diary as a reminder of how the smallest of worlds can represent the biggest issues.

Have you used source material such as diaries and first-hand accounts to inspire your writing?

 

 

 

 

 

Illumintating Lives

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The Mitchell Library in Glasgow lit up and looking spectacular.

In Andrew O’Hagan’s own words, Thursday was a “pishy” night but that didn’t stop my pal Anne and I from heading to the Jeffrey Room of The Mitchell Library to hear the writer in conversation with Stuart Kelly, literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, critic and writer.

I’d heard Andrew talk once before when he delivered a lecture at the University of Stirling on “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” and he argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life so I knew we were in for a treat. On this occasion, he was in Glasgow to discuss his new novel, The Illuminations and was just as thought-provoking and insightful.

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The Kitchen Sink by Margaret Watkins, c. 1919

In describing his new book, the analogy he used was that the characters in The Illuminations had lived inside him for a long time as tinder and the spark that ignited the story and inspired the characters was the life story of the photographer Margaret Watkins. Andrew was intrigued by a still-life photograph, The Kitchen Sink taken by Margaret and investigated her work further to discover that she was born in Canada but died as a recluse in Scotland in 1969, leaving her photographs to a next-door neighbour, Joe Mulholland. The idea of the secrets people keep fired him up to create the central character of Anne Quirk. The onset of dementia makes Anne feel as if her past is slipping away from her and yet in the other storyline we have the opposite scenario. Anne’s grandson, Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, who is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan is trying to forget memories, while Anne is fighting to keep them.

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imagesAndrew read an extract from the novel and spoke eloquently on a range of humanitarian issues connected to the book. He also shared his views on the Independence Referendum and his hopes for Scotland’s political future which resulted in a rousing round of applause from the audience. I can’t resist the temptation to use the pun so it has to be said; Andrew illuminated a dreich February night with his sharp wit and passion for exploring the issues of memory and identity. The Illuminations is going straight to the top of my to-be-read pile!

Has a photograph inspired you to create characters?

(An exhibition of Margaret Watkin’s photographs of Glasgow in the 1930s is currently on show at The Hidden Gallery in Glasgow until 7 March 2015.)

 

 

Grey Hair and Graduation

Me, praying that I make it back to my seat without going head over heels down the stairs.

Twenty two years ago I graduated with a BEd in Primary Teaching and never for one moment expected to graduate again for a second time.  But last Friday, I was strutting across the stage of the Albert Halls (no, not THE Royal Albert Hall in London) in Stirling to receive my masters degree in Creative Writing. With Merit!

This time around I had a new surname (pronounced incorrectly at the ceremony. Grrr!!!) was much heavier, with wrinkles round the eyes and straight from an emergency hairdresser appointment to cover my grey haired roots. And yet, I still felt great.

There was a fantastic atmosphere at the ceremony and the Chancellor of the University, Dr James Naughtie delivered a thought-provoking and inspiring speech about his recent trip to Delhi where he encountered young children living in extreme poverty and yet they had high ambitions for their future careers.

Soppy caption alert! “Without your unconditional love and support, none of it would have been possible…”

It was a timely reminder for me that I am very lucky to have had the financial and the emotional support of my long-suffering hubby which allowed me to pursue my writing goals. He has been there for me every step of the way and almost never got to see me graduate when I somehow managed to lose his golden ticket for the ceremony, only to reclaim it at the ‘robing room’ with minutes to spare!


So now I can call myself Helen MacKinven BEd MLitt but I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. When I left my day job to commit to the MLitt course full-time, I was never under any illusion that the qualification would lead to an amazing job in the literary world. But I did hope that it would mean that I could gain the credibility to call myself a proper writer, whatever that means.

My writing buddy, Anne Glennie likened the MLitt course as a sort of ‘kite mark’ for your writing skills in that it indicates a certain level of quality. Of course it doesn’t mean that because I’ve completed a uni course that I’m a better writer than someone who doesn’t have a formal qualification but it does mean that my effort to develop my writing skills has been professionally recognised.

The MLitt course at Stirling University was recently featured in the Herald’s Scottish Review of Books where the course was described as “taught by writers for writers”.  This was one of the highlights for me as the course was led by award-winning fiction writer Paula Morris and during the two semesters I had the opportunity to learn from Andrew O’Hagan, DBC Pierre, Linda Cracknell, Eleanor Updale and Ewan Morrison. There’s no way that I would ever have had the chance to engage with such talented individuals so for that reason alone the course was invaluable.

But where to now? Getting the degree was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I’ve got the official rubber stamp to prove that I’m serious about my writing, it’s more than a hobby for me, but that doesn’t mean that I have a new career, well not yet. Like most other writers, I need a day job too and after a year out to indulge myself in pursuing my passion, I need to strike a balance between time for writing and contributing to the household income, well at least until I publish that best seller I’m working on…

Writing and Dialect

This Saturday (yes, you read it correctly, a SATURDAY ) I attended an event at uni, ‘Justice and the Arts’. The key-note speaker was former MP, Chris Mullin who gave an absolutely fascinating account of his involvement in helping to quash the convictions of the Birmingham Six (it was well worth sacrificing my lie in to hear this man). In the afternoon, we split into groups and I met with other students and staff from Stirling and Strathclyde uni to discuss issues related to creative writing and publishing. There was a lively debate and the topic I was most interested in was how other writers address the concept of authenticity in their work. This got us talking about the use of local dialect…

My WIP is set in a fictional suburb of Glasgow and I have to decide how much dialect to use in my writing. This is tricky.  I ask myself the question (because I’m used to talking to myself), have I included too many or too few vernacular words and phrases? Do you stay true to your ‘voice’ and pepper the prose with words like glaikit and dreich or is it, in the words of Chewin’ the Fat’s lighthouse keepers, “Gonnae no dae that, jist gonne no” and leave it free of Parliamo Glasgow?

I loved the film Trainspotting but I wonder if many people out with Scotland found reading the novel hard going? But the characters of Renton, Franco, Spud and Sick Boy couldn’t have spoken any other way.

Another great example of the use of dialect is one of my favourite books, Anne Donovan’s , Buddha Da where not only is the dialogue in broad Glaswegian dialect, but so too is the narrative.

And one of the most recent examples of an international bestseller with strong use of the distinctive deep south dialect is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I couldn’t imagine reading it without phrases like, ‘Law’ for ‘Lord’ and AIbileen’s narration, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime” being included in the text (although Stockett has been heavily criticised for using dialect which trivialises stereotypical characters).  So what’s the best way to use dialect?

A fantastic performance  by Viola Davis as Aibileen in the superb film adaptation  of The Help

Surely you need dialect to create a sense of place? But will lots of dialect limit the audience? I suppose it’s a question of getting the balance right to make sure the writing isn’t bland and lifeless.  I think the use of signpost words and phrases to help ground the work is probably the best way to set the tone without making it too difficult for readers.

Does dialect help or hinder the reader? Is it a case of less is more with colloquial speech? Let me know if you think it’s a “pure dead brilliant” idea to use local slang words and phrases in fiction or would it leave readers crabbit and scunnered with it?

Book Culture

What was your first reading book at school? I remember learning to read by following the painfully dull “adventures” of Dick and Dora and their pets Nip and Fluff (the reading series was created in the 50’s and bore no resemblance whatsoever to my Scottish working class childhood in the 70’s)

The Happy Venture reading series

Thankfully, books became more exciting as I moved up through primary school. Back in the day, the routine was for the class teacher to read aloud from a book ten minutes before the final bell rang. I loved to listen to the latest instalment from books like Charlotte’s Web and I would board the school bus desperate to know what would happen next to Wilbur the pig.

I’ve been a voracious reader ever since my encounter with Dick and Dora and I was intrigued to see how many novels I’d read of the list of 100 Novels Everyone Should Read  in an article from The Telegraph. I smugly scanned the list and was embarrassed to find that I’d only read 10/100 (what’s your score?) I’ve never claimed to be well read but I wondered if I should feel any pressure to tick off the remaining 90 novels? Nah, I’m all for experiencing new books but every list has an inherent bias depending on the complier’s view of greatness. Life’s too short to read books just because some literary elitist declares a novel to be worthy and deemed a “classic”. I’ll stick by my own choices- intellectual or not!

I prefer contemporary fiction and I also enjoy to see the author up close and personal at book events (most of The Telegraph’s top 100 authors are long gone). I’ve attended most of Scotland’s book festivals over the last few years so I was interested to hear from the speakers at the ‘Book Cultures, Book Events‘ conference hosted by the University of Stirling. The conference explored the pleasures that readers derive from sharing their reading experiences through ‘live’ book events. With the bankruptcy of the Borders book chain and the closure of many independent bookstores, readers are looking for new ways to share their passion for books in a social context. One example of a new outlet for books and authors to reach the public was a Book Market based on the concept of a Farmer’s Market where book lovers can access a wide range of books in an informal setting. In the past, book events have often been held in cultural buildings and some people can be intimidated by a grand location. There’s also been a tradition of ‘ladies who lunch’ making up a large proportion of the audience at book events. Not everyone has the time or money to be part of this type of book culture, so any new idea to reach readers of all ages and backgrounds has got to be a good thing- as long as Dick and Dora are not invited!