Don’t Look Up

I don’t normally post really personal thoughts on my blog. But I wanted to share this with you as I felt it might resonate. I visited a branch of Waterstones yesterday and had a good wander round. Normally I love going to bookshops but somehow this particular visit had an unwelcome effect; I felt overwhelmed. And my two books were nowhere to be seen.

I came away feeling despondant. Here am I attempting to be a writer and yet there are literally hundreds, thousands of books being published every year, filling the bookshelves. How does one compete?

But this morning I woke up and remembered the dream I’d had. Bear with me – I know it’s tiresome when people start reeling off their dreams. I was setting off on a walk but the walk became a climb and the climb was a seemingly never ending sheer face of ice. As I climbed I looked up and was dizzied with vertigo. I didn’t consider going back as some in front of me were. I decided to just focus on what was directly in front of me. Step by step I found foot holes in the ice. I hauled myself up with all my strength, never peeling my eyes away from my immediate path. Until finally, with immense satisfaction, I made it to the top. To safety.

Profound eh?

Don’t look up guys, it’s too much. Too overwhelming. Tackle what’s directly in front of you. One step at a time.

Now, back to the writing………

 

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Mud, Rats and Fears Western Front, 1915

With the centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele – one of the bloodiest of World War One,  it reminded me of a piece of writing I did a few years back. I wrote a book (unpublished) about Dundee’s connection to WW1. Anyway, here’s a chapter….

‘Whit d’yeah think Mags and wee Robert are up tae the now?’ asked Alec. He was huddled up in a hole cut out of the wall of the trench that was currently home. He peered out and up to the dusky grey, sullen sky. It would soon be dark. Rain fell in great soaking swathes. Water rippled down the stacked up sand bags and corrugated iron sheets that lined the walls and gushed into the murky mud pool that was the trench floor. Days, weeks, months even had been passed in this way, day after day in the trenches. Waiting.
While Alec thought to himself, hopeful of a suggestion from Donald, crouched in his own hole on the opposite side of the trench, he stared intently at the curves and coils on the print of his thumb. Mud stained its fine lines and creases. He spat on his thumb and rubbed. But still the dirt remained. And still he rubbed. Like Lady Macbeth the mud was his blood, an ever present reminder of this hell. The mud was part of their life now. It was everywhere. They lived in it, tried to move in it, cooked, ate and slept in it. And as Alec was now experiencing, it was tattooed into their very flesh.
‘Dunno,’ said Donald quietly tracing his hand over the rough surface of a jute sandbag beside him. It could have been woven and made in Dundee. Maybe Maggie’s nimble hands had been responsible for this very piece.
‘Robert’ll be havin his tea, mi’be some porridge wi’ a bit of sugar,’ he sighed. ‘Maggie’ll just be back fae the mill,’ He paused. ‘Life’ll be jist the same fir them, except their rain’ll jist be soaking the streets o’ Dundee. They’ll be tucked up inside. At least she’ll hae no idea aboot aw this.’
He leant his head on the cold dampness of the dugout wall and let his mind wander back to home; to Maggie laughing and singing ‘Ally Bally, Ally Bally Bee,’ to wee Robert who would be chuckling; to the warmth of their room and the steady comfort of domestic life. A dull ache settled in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly that sandbag seemed too poignant a reminder of home.
‘That’s just it,’ said Charles who was attempting to smoke a cigarette in the pouring rain, standing ankle deep in water. ‘The chaps at home will never understand this life,’ he mused, smoke licking its way out of his lips. ‘The only ones who’ll ‘get it’ are other soldiers like us.’
‘And the Hun,’ chipped in Alec. He pointed in the direction of No Man’s Land with his muddy thumb. ‘They’re probably o’er there richt noo talkin’ aboot the same stuff. They’re probably sloppin’ around in the mud like us.’
‘Dreaming of warm beds, hot baths and home?’ added Charles smiling.
There was a long pause as they all considered this. The rain dripping on a corrugated iron sheet was rhythmical and soothing. But the constant reminder of battle, of impending doom was the distant boom of bombs somewhere further down the line.
Their sombre mood was quite suddenly interrupted by a boot flying out of Alec’s dugout. It came out with such force that Charles had to quickly dodge out of the way.
‘Hey!’ he yelled. ‘Watch out old chap!’ And then he realised what Alec was aiming for – a rat the size of a cat had been scurrying and swimming through the trench happy as you like. It had stopped to investigate an empty bully beef can that was nestled half floating in the swill. Alec had seized his chance. The boot knocked it square on the head and it keeled over with a small and yet satisfying splash! They cheered! Rat killing of this kind had become quite a sport.
‘Got yeh ya wee blighter!’ said Alec with bitter triumph. He then clambered out and spiked the poor devil on his bayonet. ‘I hope yer mates are watching. Let that be a warning tae the rest o’ yeah! I hate yous all!’ And he pulled his bayonet back like a catapult and flung the rat with some force over the side. Alec found this deeply satisfying.
‘Nice work Private,’ laughed Charles. ‘One down, only five million nine hundred thousand and ninety nine left!’ he shouted triumphantly. They all laughed. It was a moment of light relief.
‘Aye, them and the lice,’ remarked Donald who’d begun running lit matches up and down his coat hoping to scorch their tiny bodies. ‘They ‘Scots Greys’ are the bain o’ ma life.’
Billy appeared along the trench.
‘Captain Dixon’s on his way. Look lively lads,’ he said and gave Alec’s ear lobe a hearty flick. Alec threw him a frown and rubbed his ear. ‘He’s wanting us fir a working party the night,’ he continued. ‘And that’s jist the start. There’s talk o’a big offensive.’
Alec groaned.
‘Braw,’ muttered Donald bitterly. ‘Just in time fer w’our move tae the front trench. Means we’ll be goin’ o’er the top.’
He looked anxiously over to Alec who was now quiet and pensive once more. He was lost, deep in thought.
Charles seemed thrilled with the news. ‘At last!’ he cheered. ‘About time we got to get out there instead of being the part-timers. I’m fed up digging trenches. I want to fight! It’s our turn! Time to make Dundee proud! We’ll be welcomed home as heroes!’
Donald nodded. But fear overwhelmed him. And he worried for Alec. Every night he was awoken by Alec crying out in the depths of a nightmare. The terrors of war gripped him even in his sleep.
‘At least we’ll get oot of these blasted trenches,’ remarked Alec quietly, hunched in the bitter cold. Darkness was beginning to fall. Captain Dixon, their officer, arrived and the men quickly jumped up.
‘Gather your wits about you boys,’ he said with boyish enthusiasm, ‘We’re to head out into No Man’s Land tonight. Wiring party,’ he said cheerfully as if announcing a boy scout picnic. And with a quick nod of the head, he waded further down the trench.
Alec felt his stomach knot. He looked down and realised his hands were shaking. They all stared at one another with taught faces. A trip into No Man’s Land at night was deathly. And although they never said it out loud, they all wondered if this day would be their last.
‘Right,’ said Charles smartly, deftly flicking away his cigarette end. ‘Better get to it then.’ And with that, they began to make preparations to leave the safety of their trench.

 

 

 

Age is Just a Number!

When I set out to write The Revenge of Tirpitz I didn’t really analyse too closely my target age range. I set out to write a tense, gripping thriller and hoped it would have mass appeal. Mmmmm – there’s nothing like optimism. But there comes a point when you have to make a decision – particularly when you are pitching to publishers and agents. So I initially thought Young Adults: late teens perhaps?  Early feedback from a publisher who took a look at a draft suggested that perhaps a younger audience would be more appropriate….around 9- 12. So I focussed in and when Cranachan signed me, we mutually agreed that this market would be ideal for schools. The Revenge of Tirpitz tied in nicely with class projects on WW2.  But you know, when it comes to the bit, you just never know who might be drawn to your book…..

I’ve had several emails now from the over 50s, male market who have stumbled upon my book in libraries or online and have really enjoyed it! Whooopeee!!! How fantastic!  I’ve posted up a comment I received on my blog below and it’s really got me thinking. Perhaps I’ve been too narrow in limiting my marketing to youngsters?  It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak quote: “I don’t write for children. I write, and somebody says, ‘that’s for children.'”  Idealistic perhaps? But at the end of the day, a good read is a good read…..and I like to believe, we’re all young at heart.

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Bonnie Baby at Christmas!

“It’s Christmas Day!” the bairns all shriek.
Our Bonnie Baby takes a peek
To see his stocking filled with sweets and toys.

A teddy, a train, some coins, a cracker,
A Santa in a shiny wrapper –
He’s chocolate! Bonnie Baby has a lick.

He rips and bites, grips Santa tight.
The chocolate melts – we thought it might!

Och no! Our bonnie baby’s in a state!

He’s sticky, claggie, clarty too,
Head to toe in chocolatey goo!
The tastiest Christmas baby in Dundee.

 

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The night before….

It’s been a funny old week. I’ve just moved house. I am surrounded by boxes and chaos. I can’t find anything. I’ve had so many heated discussions with call centres organising gas/electricity you name it, my head is fit to burst. The dog has barely been walked and is pinging around like a loon. And in the midst of all this….my book is out tomorrow. I just want to tell you about it. Not the plot. Not the themes. Just about how I wrote it. It took me two years. It was my escape from domesticity, my secret focus to daydream about while I washed dishes, cleaned, in between my little boy’s nap times and doing the school run. I wrote it because I had just been rejected for the gazzilionth time; I had failed to be shortlisted for everything. I sobbed in my bedroom and told my husband I was utterly disappointed with myself. But I kept writing. And researching. And writing. It’s out tomorrow. I hope you like it. M xx

Gold!

Do you remember back in the day when you went to the library, you could explore back issues of newspapers with one of those microfiche readers?  And it made you feel as though you were an investigative journalist in a film….?  Or was that just me? Well anyway, recreate that moment by following this link. Go on. Indulge me.

https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19831011&id=lIZWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=0eYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6871,4645498&hl=en

Find anything interesting?

Yes…..?

 

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The article about Nazi gold in a Norwegian cave is rather exciting isn’t it? I thought so too…. A good spy story needs some gold or treasure doesn’t it?  And perhaps,  Tirpitz herself would have been a good hiding place for Nazi loot. Until such time as she became a very real target. Then, the gold might have to be moved. To a cave perhaps?   And what if someone saw it being hidden. And knew, after all these years, that it existed…and was out there still, buried in a Norwegian fjord cave. Now that could be very exciting…..

The Art of Simple Sabotage!

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My husband knows me very well. On a trip to London some time ago, when I was in the midst of research, he visited the Imperial War Museum.

IMG_0306.jpgNot only did he take photographs for me of a Norwegian Resistance radio (above)  and various other secret agent gadgets, he bought me one of the best presents I could have hoped for: a book called, ‘The Secret Agent’s Pocket Manual’.  What could be better when you’re trying to write about clandestine activities during WW2?

I got a lot of practical advice from this corking wee book, particularly from the chapter entitled: ‘Simple Sabotage Field Manual, 1944’. Sabotage, it would seem is on a spectrum. From the art of everyday sabotage – opportunisitc, subtle, ‘the human element’ causing delays, accidents and ‘general obstruction’ right up to highly planned physical acts of mass destruction.

‘Simple sabotage does not require specially prepared tools or equipment; it is executed by an ordinary citizen – who may or may not act individually and without the necessity for active connection with an organised group; and it is carried out in such a way as to incolve a minimum danger or injury, detection, and reprisal.’

Sabotage, it emerged, was to become a major theme in ‘The Revenge of Tirpitz’.

 

The Shetland Bus

Up until I read the book by David Howarth, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never heard of ‘The Shetland Bus’. But the very name caught my interest.  And reading about the bravery and commitment of those selfless souls who manned simple fishing boats  during WW2 – sailing in perilous conditions from Shetland to Norway and back was compelling.

 

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I began to explore further life in occupied Norway; it was quite simply a time of fear and survival.  The underground work of the Resistance was crucial to the cause and so the Shetland Bus became a life line. Missions involved transporting radios, ammunition, agents and there was even a failed attempt to destroy Tirpitz. Boats were under constant fear of discovery and attack. These were extraordinary times and required extraordinary bravery.

Here’s a link to a fantastic website to give you more information:

http://shetlandbus.com

David Howarth’s book is a wonderful insight into the story of The Shetland Bus operations. And for a further tale of survival, Howarth’s follow-up book, ‘We Die Alone’, is simply incredible.

 

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But I knew now, that the story of Tirpitz, and the Shetland Bus could somehow come together in my book. That perhaps, the German radar operator who ensured the destruction of Tirpitz escaped. According to the documentary, ‘The Dambusters’ Great Escape’, this was entirely feasible if he had already been involved in helping the Resistance.  And then I began to wonder if, perhaps….he could have escaped to Shetland?

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About two years ago now I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called: The Dambusters’ Great Escape. It was utterly compelling and well worth a look. The programme explored how, finally, the great Nazi warship was destroyed.  Here’s a link to a clip – take a look.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-dambusters-great-escape-secret-history/videos/all/the-dambusters-great-escape-secret-history-clip-1/4400504205001

I found it fascinating to watch these men relive their experiences. And I began to wonder if   they suffered any sense of guilt or remorse. That maybe they did but they never discussed it? Because after all, they had simply been doing their job? I also started to think about how I might have viewed these men  before I watched the documentary had I seen them in my daily life. Would I have just seen ‘old men’ and not really considered the person behind the ageing facade?

But what really caught my attention was the story of a Norwegian man called Sander Pettersen. Sander, as a youngster, had worked in a German radar station during WW2 when Norway was under Nazi occupation. Here, he met a German officer whom Sander was certain helped bring about the destruction of Tirpitz – by witholding key information about the approaching British Lancaster bombers. What convinced him the German was working against his own people? A small silk Union Jack flag….hidden in his cigarette case. Now this really got me thinking…….

The Launch Of Bonnie Baby!

Last Saturday was the launch of ‘The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee’! We had a great turnout at Waterstones Dundee and it was amazing meeting illustrator Kasia Matyajaszek for the first time. The Bonnie Baby puppet made his first appearance and we all sang the ‘Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee’ song. There was even a surprise….’the lady judge’ from the original Bonnie Baby Competition in Broughty Ferry appeared! What a hoot! Here are some pictures…..

 

 

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