*Capital Offences - The story behind Close and Deadly: Edinburgh's Murder Mile
* On how Robert Louis Stevenson entered her life and influenced her work.
* On Robert Louis Stevenson - a legend in his own lifetime.
* On Alanna's Writing Day
* On the Art of Writing Fiction
* Seven Days in the Life of Alanna Knight
As a thriller writer, Alanna Knight couldn't imagine a violent crime or
plot twist that could surprise her. Then she began finding out about
Edinburgh's 'murder mile'.
What makes a novelist decide to write about real-life crime? When Close and Deadly: Edinburgh's Murder Mile was commissioned - originally planned to track events within a one-mile radius of Princes Street from 1900 to the end of the century - I realised it would be a major shift for me. No longer was I the creator and storyteller with an option in the choice of subject or the degree of gruesome details involved. Instead I was faced with real events, most of which were beyond anything I would ever have wished to invent.
As I delved into the press files, I was presented with a new and disturbing vision of the city I had grown to love. Cultured and civilised, picture-postcard Edinburgh - tourist mecca and Festival city - revealed an underbelly of appalling acts of savagery, of man's inhumanity not only to men and women but also to innocent children.
It would not be enough to rely on press reports of events and trials alone. I would have to do some serious legwork. And so I began.
As I write, I look out to Arthur's seat and the Salisbury Crags. There 30 years ago, a young Dutch bridegroom pushed his teenage German bride to her death a few hours after their register office marriage - a villainous plan to collect an insurance payout of more than £400,000 (worth around a million today).
My daily walk into town takes me down South Bridge, past the University of Edinburgh quadrangle, once the setting for a murder mystery that has baffled historians for nearly 500 years: the Kirk O'Field where Henry Darnley, second husband of Mary, queen of Scots, met an untimely end. One night in February, 1567, he was found murdered in the gardens, strangled by his nightshirt.
My walk continues down the Royal Mile, where each dark close, each glimpse of an ancient kirkyard on a cold grey evening, conjures up visions of Burke and Hare's ghastly trade. Then, across from the historic Netherbow port, a leap into the 20th century brings vividly to mind a Saturday evening in October 1977 when two carefree teenaged girls emerged from the World's End pub with a couple of chaps who had been chatting them up and plying them with drink.
They were never seen alive again. Their naked bodies, raped an brutally murdered, were found next day in East Lothian. Their murder remains unsolved.
I can't go to the Playhouse these days without the chill reminder that a short distance away, in Marshall's Court, a horrifying crime took place just before Christmas in 1953. Two small girls, aged four and three, were murdered (the elder first sexually assaulted) by a neighbour from across their tenement landing. Their 45-year-old "Uncle Paddy" put their bodies in the shared lavatory on the stair. The murder house was subsequently demolished, but somehow the agony remains.
My voyage of discovery had one gleam of light in store. Now when I walk in Princes Street Gardens, I imagine I see an old fashioned perambulator, wheeled by a nursemaid. No baby is within. The occupant is none other than Edinburgh's legendary detective superintendent Willy Merrilees - the "pocket-sized policeman with the battleship reputation" - in one of his many disguises, ready to leap out at molesters in the park.
Merrilees aside, the characters and situations I have discovered while writing this book have often been dark indeed. Behind each case is a gut-wrenching tragedy. By collating information from press reports, however, I discovered tantalising loopholes, missing details that raised urgent questions in my mind about the murderer - and, most importantly, about motive.
The first thing I look for in every crime is the motive. What happened behind the scenes? P D James once said that the motives for murder remain constant: love, loathing and lucre. As a devotee of the Sherlock Holmes school of "observation and deduction", I had to search deep into the cast of characters that appeared in the trial and news reports - reports that, especially in the 1900s reflected society's lingering sense of Victorian reticence. Then, unpleasant or indelicate gaps were left to be filled in by the reader's imagination. For me, it was not enough somehow to pass quickly on from grim tale to grim tale without pausing to speculate on the characters involved and the situations that led up to the crimes.
In accounts of many of those early child murders, the word "paedophile" had not yet entered the popular vocabulary. The phrase "child abuse", too, has only surfaced in more recent times. But both evils have been around for a very long time.
In the last century Edinburgh has seen more than its share of "culpable homicides" - manslaughter or murder cases in extenuating circumstances, often with the words "insane. detained at HM pleasure" added to the report. Close and Deadly touches only the tip of the iceberg. There are the fire raisers - arsonists whose enthusiasm went too far and ended as murder; the paedophiles who abused and murdered their innocent charges; a husband murdered by a wife after years of domestic abuse and with no women's refuge to escape to; a husband who murdered his wife and children; a homosexual who killed for fear of scandal; young thieves intent on robbery who brutally killed their victim.
In 1913, when Edinburgh boasted of its first execution in 15 years - hanging Patrick Higgins for the murder of his two small sons and the disposal of their bodies in a disused quarry - the city was still firmly rooted in the outlook and conventions of the Victorian age. Robert Louis Stevenson, creator of the nightmarish Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, would have had no difficulty in recognising the city he left for the South Pacific in the 1880s. But, while the streets may change with the passage of time, human nature alters little. In 1947, some 34 years after Higgins went to the scaffold, a murder took place that conjures up the Victorian era. A newspaper report worthy of the pen of Charles Dickens reveals: "A young Edinburgh nurse, once engaged to a Second World War pilot, met a Cardiff man and yielded to his solicitations. Not until she was in a certain condition did she learn that he was married. The child she bore was not healthy and as it could not be adopted she killed it and buried its body in the garden of the nursery where she worked.
It is an appalling fact that in the early years of the last century a woman who bore an illegitimate child could be consigned to an insane asylum for life and in 1947 an unmarried mother was a social outcast. Single-parent families had not yet been invented; there was no state financial support and no chance of a place to live. A midnight plunge off Waverley Bridge became a desperate means of escape for many young women.
The war years of 1939-4 saw an unexpected increase in domestic violence in Edinburgh. Passions ran high on the home front. Marriages made in haste were repented at leisure and husbands returning home on leave sometimes found their marital bed occupied by a rival.
Murder and violence have their peak years. Crimes against the person have a consistently worrying presence in Edinburgh's police files: first degree murder for which the penalty was death, amended to life imprisonment with the abolition of capital punishment; culpable homicide, rape and attempted murder; crimes against property with violence, housebreaking and robbery. One of Scotland's worst years was 1966, when the count averaged one violent death per week.
For all the killers apprehended and brought to justice, there were those who got away. Doubtless many who were young have gone on, untroubled by conscience to marry and beget children, take jobs, buy cats and lead uneventful lives in suburban houses. Some senior members of the criminal fraternity may have carried the secret memory of bloody deeds to more peaceful graves than those of their victims. Who knows? Others may be walking the streets outside, travelling on buses and pushing trolleys in supermarkets. They may even number among the readers of this feature.
(This article appeared in The Scotsman, July 2002)
find out more about
Close and Deadly: Edinburgh's Murder Mile
by Alanna Knight
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Robert Louis Stevenson's Influence R L Stevenson entered Alanna Knight's life via a son's school project in the 70s.
'I had an immediate sense of identification. It was like meeting an old friend. My knowledge had been limited to 'Child's Garden of Verses' and 'Treasure Island' which I read to my two small sons quite appropriately on a long sea voyage to Beirut to join husband Alistair at the American University. Reading everything by and about him led to a radio documentary 'Across the Plains' and a stage play 'The Private Life of RLS', performed in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for three years with actors now famous for mightier TV roles!. The book of the play 'The Passionate Kindness' was followed by 'The RLS Treasury', a reference book which took four years in preparation.'
'While researching this epic in Edinburgh Central Library a collection of the Stevensons' magic lantern slides was produced. The ink was brown with age and most had lain in the archives for more than a hundred years. I knew I held gold in my hands, hidden treasure indeed: a pictorial record 'RLS in the South Seas' and my first piece of detection, relating that obscure photograph with some brief mention by Stevenson to indicate the where and why.'
'Stevenson was also responsible for the emergence of Inspector Jeremy Faro, hero of my Victorian detective series. A move to Edinburgh from Aberdeen in 1986, from a lifetime in modern houses to one more than a century old was also a change careerwise and having just completed the last in a series of historicals involving research for missing fragments, these seemed to be the necessary qualifications for a life of literary crime. Thanks to walking the paths and touching the stones book in hand, so to speak, with none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, I was well acquainted with Edinburgh of the 1870s.'
Alanna has also been involved through the years in helping other writers into print, lecturing in creative writing and adjudicating competitions. Hon President of Edinburgh Writers' Club, ex-committee Crime Writers' Association and member of Mystery Writers of America, Secretary of the Society of Authors in Scotland, are activities she slots neatly into a highly disciplined writers' life, With a deadline to meet, she firmly turns her face away from tempting social activities.
'It isn't deprivation - I love writing. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. I even wrote plays for my classmates at school and poems for children's radio. And before my first novel, I had won short story competitions and written magazine serials. I realise that I am a workaholic that I'm never really happy unless I have a book in progress.'
'My inspirations? The Brontes, Dickens and 'Rebecca' had a profound effect on my adolescence. And Stevenson continues to work his magic. In 1994, 'Bright Ring of Words' (with co-author E S Warfel) a centennial tribute to RLS from 21 people from all walks of life. Who knows, maybe he still has something up his spectral sleeve for me!
Read more about Alanna Knight's books on Robert Louis Stevenson
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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
a legend in his own lifetime
Famed for the world-wide success of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island, news of Stevenson's early death in Samoa ( not from consumption but from a cerebral hemorrhage induced by overwork) had everyone of slight acquaintance, or none at all, rushing into print. Articles in newspapers and literary magazines evolved into dusty theses by worthy Eng. Lit. students regarding the significance of his lesser known works.
More than a century later, the Stevenson cult continues. Hardly a year passes without the publication of yet another acclaimed biography. In paradise, Stevenson must smile. He entertained no exalted ideas about his writing dismissing Treasure Island as 'tushery': 'No need for psychology or fine writing. it 's awful fun, boys' stories; ' you just indulge the pleasure of your heart no trouble, no strain - just drive along as the words come and the pen will scratch.'
A frail sick man all his life, he wrote out of hunger and the need to survive "a few years more" to support his family. His novels came from desperation rather than inspiration. The exception was Jekyll & Hyde. Living in Bournemouth (the house Skerryvore, a potential shrine, was demolished by a German bomb in World War 2), Fanny Stevenson was aroused by his screams in an opium-induced nightmare,
"Why did you wake me?' he demanded, "I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,"
Daybreak found him writing with feverish activity. Three days later the first draft of 30,000 words was dismissed by Fanny, a lady with literary pretensions. Angrily Stevenson threw it on the fire and for the next three days the family walked on tiptoe glimpsing him sitting up in bed, surrounded by written and torn up pages.
Sixty four thousand words in six days, more than ten thousand words a day! Another two days to copy out the entire manuscript, and on the third day it was in the post.
Later to a critic, he wrote: "The wheels of Byles the Butcher drive exceedingly swiftly and Jekyll was conceived, written, rewritten, re-rewritten and printed inside ten weeks." Even in our computer age, such writing is an astounding feat and robust Victorian writers considered a daily thousand a pretty good average,
Fanny wrote: "That an invalid in my husband's condition performed the manual labour alone seems incredible. He was suffering from continual hemorrhages and hardly allowed to speak, his conversation carried on by means of a slate and pencil."
Success was immediate and phenomenal. Used as a text in churches (including St Paul's), pirated in America, with many translations, Jekyll & Hyde added a new phrase to the language.
Stevenson was aware of the monster he had created, writing to a friend: "I send you herewith a Gothic gnome, interesting I think, and he came out of a deep mine, where he guards the fountain of tears." To another: "Jekyll Is a dreadful thing, I own, but the only thing I feel dreadful about is this damned old business of the war in the members. This time it came out; I hope it will stay in, in future."
Signing family letters: "Jekyll and not Hyde" he wrote of a holiday in Matlock: "My father gave me a furl dose of Hyde this morning... the dose at breakfast finished me (Jekyll had been in the ascendant till now!)"
His writing life was short but prolific; fifteen novels in twelve years, but for us Stevenson is immortalised in Jekyll & Hyde. it remains one of the first and finest of all classical crime/horror stories.
Read more about Alanna Knight's books on Robert Louis Stevenson
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My Writing Day
'I have been a writer for thirty years,' says Alanna Knight. 'It's a job of work, and with deadlines to meet, you have to be very disciplined about things. What's more, I like to have more than one book on the go at a time; it can be very stimulating to have a change of scene, the breath of fresh air that can come by having two books in mind at the same time. At the moment I am writing another Rose McQuinn novel, but I am also doing my background on James VI for my next Tam Eildor story.'
Tam Eildor first appears Alanna's recent novel The Dagger and the Crown a story set at the time of Mary Queen of Scots and which leads up to Darnley's murder at Kirk o' Fields.
Tam comes into the novel without any background because he has lost his memory, and at the end he disappears just as mysteriously. In the story he finds himself investigating a series of murder attempts on Bothwell: 'Tam will be my time-travelling sleuth,' says Alanna. 'A kind of Dr Who. In his next book he turns up at the time of James VI which is why I am doing all my research now.
'What I am doing here is writing historical crime fiction. But in this kind of book, you cannot take liberties with the facts of history - all the details have to be accurate. At the same time, however, I am an entertainer writing a crime novel, not someone giving a history lesson.
'So I put myself in the shoes of people who lived at the time and I walk around wondering what might have happened, what would be feasible. In The Dagger and the Crown I have Anna Thronsden attempting to murder Boswell. We know that Boswell was once betrothed to her, and we know that she often travelled between Norway and Scotland. Whether she ever did attempt to murder Boswell we just don't know, but it is perfectly feasible that she might. And in telling the story I don't take liberties with the facts.
'I also write my Inspector Far series. There have been eleven so far, with more to come. He is a detective in Edinburgh in Victorian times around 1870-1880. And I have started a new series about Rose McQuinn, who is Faro's daughter. She becomes a private investigator, again in Edinburgh, but this time around 1895.'
Keeping all these series active, and also writing several non-fiction books, is a busy programme for any writer, and Alanna sets herself a regular schedule:
'I start writing around nine each morning, and will work all the way through until one o'clock. After lunch, I may go back to writing or I may take the time to attend to other things, perhaps giving a talk to a writers' group or whatever. But I will usually put in a further couple of hours of writing between four and six in the afternoon, and then in the evening I will read what I have written during the day and will begin to make notes for the next day. This is a regular pattern, and I will take only one day a week off.
'My first drafts are all written in notebooks, head to pencil and pencil to paper. This is writing in the white heat of creation, and by the time it has been keyed into my word processor it will end up as a draft of only about 25,000 words. at the second draft stage I will expand and develop the story to something between 70,000 and 80,000 words. Then there will be third and fourth drafts at which further revisions are made.
'After all that, I must say there are very rarely any changes asked for by my publishers. Perhaps the odd paragraph added here or one taken out there, but nothing very much.
'Afternoons giving talks are always a great pleasure. I am honorary president of the Edinburgh Writers' Club, and a founder member of the Scottish Association of Writers.
'I give talks at libraries and to all kinds of writers' groups, and I find it very stimulating to get out and meet people in this way. It helps me to feel that I am not living in an ivory tower, and it is surprising how many ideas you can get from just meeting people.'
'I can never work if there is anyone else in the room,' says Alanna Knight. 'That's why one of the rooms in our Edinburgh flat is my study-cum-bedroom. Ours is a Victorian flat with not many rooms, but those we do have are huge. So my study is lined with bookshelves containing all the reference books I use for my research. Apart from a small bed and the chairs, the only other piece of furniture is my desk, which looks out over a pleasant garden. I like to feed the birds on the window sill. But I do not write my pencil first-drafts in the study. I would be uncomfortable writing at the desk. Instead I sit back in a comfortable chair in the drawing room for my head-to-pencil sessions.'
(This article first appeared in Writing Magazine April 2002)
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How to Get to Page One
In three decades of published novels, one of the most popular questions from non-writing audiences is: 'Do you write just when you feel like it, or do you write every day?'
As a professional writer, I get paid for what I write. Writing is my business and I treat it very seriously and conscientiously by working regular hours as I would in a shop or office, whether I feel like it or not. And I frequently work unpaid overtime in he evenings, editing the day's work and preparing my notes for the next morning.
In order to write the 100,000 words required by a novel, I have to write every day (weekends included as the dreaded deadline draws steadily nearer!). However, I very rarely approach my typewriter in a mood of jubilant inspiration. I invent all manner of domestic trifles to delay that inevitable rendezvous, the moment of truth when I am faced with a blank sheet of paper and even blanker thoughts. By now, my study has acquired all the charm of a dentist's waiting room, so I decide that the fuchsias need watering, the guinea-pig needs grass (he has a superior turn of mind and appetite, not any old grass will do!) Having fed the flora and fauna, my mind wanders to the human variety - I must phone the butcher, make a grocery list. I try to keep all housework to a minimum as I don't possess a 'daily' so I have to fit into a tight working schedule frivolities like baking, shopping and laundry.
I envy those who tell me: 'Someday I'm going to write a book too. Someday when I'm not so busy. When the children are off my hands,' or 'When I have time.'
Well, dear reader, if this is your category, if you've felt the mysterious urge to write, the feeling that you have a masterpiece of prose tucked away, if only you had time hanging on your hands to write it down, you had better be prepared right now to jettison yet another fantasy! There are no words of wisdom from writing classes, capable of turning your dream into a runaway best-seller!
Successful novelists don't dash off a book in the evenings between television programmes, after working a long day in the shop or office, although it is possible to dash off an article or a letter, or even short story, written in the white heat of inspiration in a few hours. But such activities will hardly buy the writer a villa on the Cote d'Azur or a world cruise, unless he is Roald Dahl (and there aren't many of those about).
The sheer size of the novel is against part-timers. Say you have one hundred thousand words in the finished product. In all likelihood this was preceded by at least a first and second draft. With luck and a third typing, it is then accepted by the publisher who decides he wants editing and a revision of certain chapters. By which time the happy author has probably written half a million words.
The second question I'm asked is: 'Where do you get your ideas from?'
Sit back comfortably and I'll try to tell you. Writing fiction is in fact transmitting experience into something else altogether. It is not just a matter of setting life down as life actually is, if that were so, then tape recorders and computers would be creating all the best fiction. There is something in human thought and experience that makes it possible for one person, using only the background of his own life, to project himself into many different skins, and to walk around in them. And then to transfer into the written word believable versions of what might happen. This is what the novelist tries to achieve each time he writes a book. A hypothetical experience is filtered through his mind and the results are determined by his own individual way of looking at the result. But what he writes must have intelligible meaning for others and it must seem real and true.. I say 'hypothetical' experience, because it takes a certain ruthlessness to use for the purpose of fiction, the frailties, and follies of friends and families!
Writing a first novel is like taking a journey into the unknown with no travel agent to work out the itinerary, no passport and no ticket. You have no clearly defined starting point, there are no consoling schedules neatly posted, and no friends to bid farewell. Even your destination is only vaguely known for you are about to wander into a strange country which you must explore and record alone. No one has been there before you and no one can go with you. If you're lucky and you've had experience of writing shorter pieces, you'll know that you can travel with The Character. But at the most he or she is a shadowy creature, and as the road gets steeper and the paths more confusing, you put out a hand to clutch this Character who is very likely ready to disappear.
The only consoling luggage is an uncharted map in the form of a spiral notebook in which you plot your course as you go along. You write down every landmark, every thought and hope, every piece of dialogue. Most of such matter will never be used but then again this insignificant notebook might turn into Cinderella's magic coach ready to carry the long-suffering author effortlessly through the strange country with its scaring heights, its mazes and labyrinths, those tempting leafy lanes which turn into blank high walls, which send you scurrying back to 'Go', where you do not collect your advance either! All those empty pages in the notebook suddenly appall, for there is no shortcut. You can travel only one paragraph, one sentence, one word at a time. Sometimes you are so weary you can hardly put one word after the other.
You know little of the plot, the time and place appointed by your Character who remains obstinately frail by day and by night tends to become very real indeed, he wants to argue with you and is full of divinely witty dialogue - just as you are about to fall into an exhausted sleep. It needs superhuman strength to leave a warm bed at 2am on a December morning and risk the wrath of a hitherto peacefully sleeping partner to wrestle with the hopes and desires of the Character. And if the Character happens to be of the opposite sex, it takes a great deal of understanding on t he part of said earthly partner not to be just a fraction huffy.
'Ah', I hear you say, 'but where does this Character come from?'
Before the Character, as in life, there is conception. The tiny embryo which grows and grows in the mind. Unlike planned human babies this one comes without warning. If you're a trained writer, you've been on the lookout and hopeful, searching about in the overflowing untidy filing cabinets of remembrance, scratching away among ill-sorted , unclassified joys and sorrows in the attic we call memory. That fascinating uncle who lived to be ninety-nine, that moving family story from World War II - or your own first love, which always seems different from anyone else's. You take the chosen memory out of the attic store, give it a shake and regard it closely. More often than not, the creative monitor will have nothing to do with it. Hunger it has, but it is also very particular. It'll give your first love a cold stare, that fascinating uncle a contemptuous sneer and after having all your pet ideas kicked aside, it will present you with a situation you've never encountered in this life before. And when it does, there is no resisting. Suddenly you are triumphant. You're not searcher anymore, you're awake and prowling. The listener inside you has caught the message and a rendez-vous has been appointed. If you've already written one book and are slightly afraid that you'll never find another plot (which is the common denominator of all writers, successful or not), this new character is what you've been praying for.
But what triggered off its creation? A fragment of conversation, a half-remembered phrase, a line of poetry, or al old memory? So vague and ephemeral, it is hardly yet an idea let alone a character, but the vibrations are unmistakeable. At this stage recognise its presence, tolerate it gently but wait for it to move into focus, to take on substance before attempting to wrestle with it and imprison it on paper. For at this delicate stage, your frail idea can die at any moment. What looked like the breath of life on Tuesday can be dust and ashes on Thursday morning. This can come of staring too hard, plotting and prodding too soon. But often it vanished for no reason at all; just too gossamer to survive.
Let's say that you've been lucky, that the idea has survived to become The Character. The next stage needs infinite patience. Much of that novel has to be written with words and pictures - a kind of picture-script - in the mind before it is translated into print on paper. It is rare indeed that whole novels arrive on your doorstep fully-clad, full of well-chiseled characters, the setting well-drawn with a precise beginning, middle and end. And that's when the uncharted map, the spiral notebook comes into its own. You are now in the country of the rough notes and what you write at this stage will look meaningless, a series of jottings and gibberish, which given time, will expand into character sketches, descriptions, snatches of dialogue, all out of context. However, if the day dawns when you can walk away from your desk back into your real life, with the sense of clutching an unseen gem secret and if the invaders of your imagination will stay with you in the kitchen or where you work and not be scared off, you then know you have progressed. The Character is alive and well, and thriving.
But handle with care. At this stage a detailed synopsis and the whole lot can commit suicide and take your novel with them, leaving you with ten pages of lifeless words.
Another way of having your characters commit harikari is by talking about them. There is a temptation in all of us to ant to share our marvellous story with someone else. Don't! Take a vow of silence. The only person you can talk to with safety is yourself. Preferably in the privacy of your study or in the sleepless hours before dawn. Bring in a third person at your peril. If pressed you can admit, yes, you are writing a novel. Asked politely, even eagerly, what? You can say it's set in Venice in the eighteenth century or wherever. But be wise, stop there. Not another word.
'I'd write a book - if I were younger." That's another excuse I often hear. here's the bonus about being a writer. You can begin at any age, you are never too old. Whatever you look like, in sickness, or in health, for not even illness or physical handicap can destroy the power of an active mind nor the strength of imagination. That perfect time will never come. We mark time, but life does not. Tomorrow is suddenly today and it changes rapidly into yesterday, last month, last year.
And once you've reached your goal, you have to work hard to stay there. An author is only as good as his last book and authors who don't meet their deadlines are soon forgotten. For everyone who slipped quietly into oblivion, there are another fifty, a hundred, ready waiting for a chance to leap into that publisher's list.
Finally, remember that no writer was born proficient. Genius is five per cent inspiration, 95 per cent perspiration and perseverance. Remember that minds can be trained like an athlete's muscles, so don't expect too much, too soon. You won't find a dental student with one filling to his credit putting a nameplate on his door. But people who have written and had published one story or one feature, frequently regard themselves as writers, polished and complete.
If you have the vital spark within you, imagination, a flair for - and a love affair with - words, an all-consuming ambition to be a writer, backed by dedication and perseverance, then you can learn short cuts and techniques, the pitfalls to avoid. But only one person in the world can make you a writer: Yourself.
(This article first appeared in Leopard Magazine.)
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Seven Days in The Life of Alanna Knight
Off to the Edinburgh Room in the Central Library in search of material for my next book, featuring the latest instalment of the indomitable Inspector Faro. Non-fiction makes an interesting change from crime novels and my new book comes with a daunting deadline - but I thrive on challenges. Leaving the library mid-afternoon I remember my empty fridge and make a rapid detour to the supermarket. Home again to a late lunch (if fruit and a yogurt could be so defined) eaten while I check the answer phone. Can I give a talk in a local library? "Yes", I say, "when do you want it?" "Now!" is the answer.
Check my morning mail before leaving for the library. As always I stagger upstairs with a huge pile that looks promising. Turns out (as always) to be mainly junk mail destined for the waste paper basket - poor trees! With the approach of Christmas it's now charities plus gift catalogues - excellent for the housebound, but for me a soulless way to shop. Home from the library, make soup - my favourite household task. Sort out photocopies, type some notes for newspaper article and watch Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? My husband and I are addicts.
All set to grapple with ancient newspapers on microfilm at the library. An eye-boggling experience, especially as their printer isn't working so it's back to old fashioned pen and paper again. Today's mail brings some real letters! Hand-written personal letters. What joy! One from a new writer friend met at a Scarborough conference. The other from My granddaughter Julia, aged seven, A beautifully written, scary story in three chapters, about one of her beanie babies, and the moral of her story is: don't accept sweeties from kidnappers! Watch Millionaire - of course - and retire to bed to read Margaret Forster's Good Wives, which I fear I'm not!
No library today and instead a wild rush ensues to get my newspaper article away. And of course my fax couldn't have chosen a worse moment to go temperamental. I know how it feels. Long-suffering husband (LSH) gallantly conveys it across town to the repair shop - gloomy verdict, no guarantee of early delivery. Help! Cavalry to the rescue, courtesy of a friend with a fax in the next-door guest-house. Stay for coffee and catch up on gossip. No fax, no answer phone: looks like being a quiet spell ahead - just like the bad old days.
This is my favourite day of the week as it involves a wonderfully diverting three hours at an art class in water colour painting. My attempts never please me, as I haven't quite got the technique right yet but I do love a challenge. Home again, and I'm quite exhausted, so spend the afternoon completing the painting I started in class. Give up in despair and tackle boring household chores instead. In the evening we dine with favourite friends who only live five minutes away. No driving problems for LSH who I reckon has earned a glass of wine (or two or three).
Wrestle with the illegible notes I scribbled in the library and transfer them on to the word processor, with not the foggiest notion of what the final book will look like. My writing week isn't over, and so spend the morning working on a jacket blurb and some suitable illustrations for the publisher's catalogue. A first visit to the Ocean Terminal with LSH, he puts my silence and preoccupation down to plotting the next Inspector Faro. To be honest, I think that when you've seen one shopping precinct you've seen 'em all.
Up at 7.45am for early church attendance. Home for breakfast, the Sunday papers and the crossword. At lunchtime we are meeting our friends' new daughter-in-law, then perhaps we'll walk back through the golden-leafed Queen's Park. I'll speak to our two boys, in Brighton and Germany, before settling down for some TV. Plan to go to bed early with Classic FM for a good sleep, glorious sleep. Back to the library tomorrow - a writer's work is never done!
(This article appeared in the Sunday Herald Nov 2001)
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