Greyfriars Bobby: Reimagining a legend!

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The famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby that sits proudly at the top of Candlemaker Row, on that  sharp corner where it meets George IV bridge, is firmly embedded in my Edinburgh childhood.  I would beg my dad to retell me the story every time we passed him on car journeys through the centre of town. If visitors came to stay, my parents would include Bobby on tours of the city, alongside the Castle, the Scott Monument and Holyrood Palace. We would talk of Bobby sitting on his master’s grave, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, his loyalty and love making him a local legend.

Whether the story is true (or a tiny bit embellished as has also been suggested), the love for this wee dog endures. Everyone loves Bobby!  Now, folk from all over the world gather around Bobby’s statue for selfies, and rub his nose for ‘good luck’: a relatively new ritual which unfortunately leaves him with a polished nose. Poor Bobby!

When approaching Greyfriars Bobby as a picture book concept, I knew that his story had been told many times in beloved children’s books. But to be honest, I wanted to avoid the sadness of losing his master, so instead, I began to play around with ideas of his younger days – a tale untold! I remember pitching my idea to Sally Polson of Floris Books suggesting this energetic wee pup running around the old town of Edinburgh having adventures! Maybe getting into scrapes!  And then, perhaps of how he came to meet his future owner, John Gray in the first place: a prequel, if you will, to the familiar story.  

My imagined tale of a puppy’s adventure in this Victorian city would reveal that evolving loyalty we admire, first  to local street urchin, Sandy who longs to play with the school boys of nearby George Heriot’s school, to John Gray, night watchman: Bobby’s destiny. 

Illustrator Elena Bia has captured Old Town Edinburgh with such vibrancy and energy, so far removed from notions of a dull grey, Auld Reekie. Her illustrations make my heart sing for the Edinburgh I know and love. But my favourite is the spread of Candlemaker Row, with lines of washing hanging between the old buildings. There, sits puppy Bobby, a wee premonition of the statue that would be such a draw for dog lovers around the world, around 160 years later.

As a dog lover ( I have three!),  I knew I would enjoy writing Greyfriars Bobby, A Puppy’s Tale, I didn’t know how much that wee dog would get under my skin. Special? Loyal? Oh yes all of that. But he was, in my mind, a truly special soul: one in a million, that simply sought to love and be loved. Our loyalty never wavers either. We love you, Bobby.

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The Quest for an Agent…..

I’ve swithered about posting about this. It’s a toughie. I just thought I would share with you my attempts to find myself an agent. I suppose for those of you who are also on this quest it might resonate, comfort, reassure, or even, perhaps in some way inspire(!!!??).

I’ve been writing now, in the sense of writing with an aim to be published, for around ten years. I was relatively late to the process, now in my mid forties, but after studying Drama as a mature student, I specialised in Theatre Criticism and learned the mechanics of writing. I was hooked.

From time to time over the last ten years, I’ve tried to find an agent. I have bought the Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook. I’ve trawled through submission guidelines for agents all over the country.  I’ve been to a course in London run by the wonderful Juliet Mushens, so I’ve had pretty much every helping hand out there. No excuses! But I still can’t seem to find the magic formula.  Each submission process begins with such hope and excitement: I’ve been careful to tailor each one to the particular requirements of each agent.  And then I’ve inevitably read on various social media pages of those lucky enough to be  asked for a full MS, or signed by an agent, or even better to be in a situtation whereby the author has to choose between a number of offers from various agents. This, surely is the stuff of dreams.

In the interim, I’ve been incredibly lucky. Without an agent, I’ve had six books published by two really wonderful independent Scottish publishers. I’ve already got two books lined up for next year. I do feel very grateful for that.

However, I have always been led to believe, all the way along, that being represented by an agent was really the golden ticket, the gateway to the big international publishers and therefore a bigger income.  So once again, in June this year, I set out with my latest MS. Now, I know it’s not a complete disaster as a piece of writing. I know this because a relatively well known independent publisher took it right to the wire before deciding that ultimately it just wasn’t for them. And an agent who I know quite well has been very encouraging and has given me constructive criticism and feedback.  However, I decided that seeing as I wrote it three years ago and have been redrafting and tweaking it since then,  I really would give it a shot.  I spent two weeks carefully submitting. In the end, I counted 17 submissions to agents primarily in London.

So here we go. So far, six outright rejections. 11 to go. And let’s be honest, I may not hear back from them at all. It’s pretty tough: at best slightly demoralising, at worst completely confidence crushing!!  At times, I really feel it’s a process I can’t see myself repeating.

All you can do is try to be a better writer, a more exciting writer, a finger-on-the-pulse, original writer. But sometimes, it feels like grasping in the dark.

But, keeping my chin up, I shall press on. There’s nothing else for it! But for those of you starting out on this journey or like me, somewhere in the middle,  I know how tough it is.

 

Otterly Exciting!

I absolutely love otters – what could be cuter? Baby otters? Yes! How about twins?!!! Arrghhh now that is CUTE!!! So when I set about writing Animal Adventure Club number 2, I had the enviable task of watching countless You Tube clips of baby otters! I had to learn about how they play, the sounds they make, even how to bottle feed an abandoned cub. It was great fun! And now here it is! Out in August, The Baby Otter Rescue! With otter twins, Pitt and Dooey on the front cover.

 

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New cover alert!

I’m thrilled that The Revenge of Tirpitz has been given a makeover. Not that I didn’t love the previous cover, but every now and again things need a wee freshen up and Anne Glennie from Cranachan has done a wonderful job creating a cover that still encompasses the key themes of the book. IMG_1048.jpeg

Meet the Animal Adventure Club!

I’m thrilled that my new series Animal Adventure Club is out Spring 2019!

If there’s a wild animal in trouble, the Animal Adventure Club are here to help!

Isla, Buzz and Gracie love helping the rangers at their local nature reserve — and they love animals! So when a baby deer gets trapped, they’re the first to the rescue. Can they save the little creature — even with new girl Lexi getting in their way?

This is the first book in an exciting new series for young environmentalists following the adventures of the Animal Adventure Club as they care for wild animals in Scotland. It’s been a joy to write and research!

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This Bonny Baby

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I had such a lovely morning on Friday with three classes at Baby Sensory Dundee. I was launching ‘This Bonny Baby’, a boardbook with adorable illustrations once again from Kasia. With its chunky format it’s perfect for little fingers.

The babies were all absolutely gorgeous and enjoyed the Bonny Baby puppet which was lovely. They interacted, they cuddled, they giggled, it was really funny and heartwarming. Who knew that such little souls would understand the humour of a puppet? I joked that it was like looking in the mirror for them….!

 

Bonny Baby Success!

Well, two bits of exciting news to mention on my blog. The first is that The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee has been shortlisted for the Bookbug Picture Book Prize 2018! What a thrill and an honour! Kasia and I had great fun making a wee film for the Scottish Book Trust and we’re both delighted that the book will be enjoyed by Primary 1 children across Scotland! Huge thanks to Scottish Book Trust and congrats to other shorlisted authors Chae Strathie and Debi Gliori.

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Secondly – I’m thrilled that This Bonny Baby has just been published. This is a board book for tiny fingers with simple text and adorable illustrations by Kasia Matyjaszek. I’m really looking forward to doing a few mum and baby groups later this month to introduce them to the book!

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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.