Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Mavis Gulliver talks about her writing



My guest post this week comes from Mavis Gulliver, non-fiction author, poet and now children's author. Mavis's debut, Cry at Midnight: Witchbane Trilogy Book 1, has recently been published by Cinnamon Press.



Apart from family, the two passions in my life are writing and islands, so it is not surprising that the two come together in my work. Evoking a sense of place is crucially important to me. I write articles about islands and I write poetry about islands. So when I started writing for children, it was natural to use an island setting.

I had several ideas and I made a few attempts, but it was not until I was on holiday on the Isle of Tiree that I discovered a story that I simply had to write. I found an old fence post in the shape of a horse’s head and out of that my book was born. The bare bones of the story developed in my head throughout the holiday as I imagined events taking place at particular places on the island.

I worked through the story with Lorraine and then I put it on one side for many months. When I returned to it, I found that I wanted to make changes. So I worked through it again… and again. I then became involved in writing a collection of poems – Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn for Cinnamon Press. This involved a lot of research and took up most of my writing time for three years. It was an exciting collaboration with Jan Fortune in which she wrote about the slate mines of Wales and I wrote about the slate islands of Scotland.

I tried to write fiction alongside the poetry but found that the two genres needed a different mindset. So fiction was forgotten until the Cinnamon editor asked if I had written anything other than poetry. I read the first few chapters of Cry at Midnight to her and to my surprise and joy she said she would like to publish it. When I explained that it was the first part of a trilogy entitled The Hagstone Chronicles, she agreed to take all three books over three successive years. So I was even more surprised and even more joyful.

I can’t estimate how long the book took to write as the work was spread over a long period. All I know is that it went through innumerable drafts. I read it over and over, and at every reading I found something that I wanted to change. The problem with this was that even a small alteration had a knock-on effect that involved even more re-writing.

When I retired after thirty-five years teaching, writing became my main activity. When I am engrossed in a story I can write all day with hardly a break. I find that fiction is easier to write than poetry. I can spend days battling with a few lines in a poem, striving to get exactly the right words in the right order. I can come back to a poem again and again, sometimes after weeks but frequently after months or even years. With fiction, the story catches hold of me, and when the characters do things that I hadn’t expected, there is no possibility of stopping. That isn’t to say that it’s easy. This spontaneous outpouring is just the first of many drafts. It gets the gist of the story onto the page. After that comes the more concentrated work of editing, re-drafting and checking for continuity.

My ideas can come from anywhere, but usually from something I have seen or experienced.

With Cry at Midnight, once the key character appeared, I walked around the island, looking for real places to include in the story. I read about Fang an t-Sithean (The Fank of the Fairies) in an old book, but no-one I asked knew its name or its location. A bit of detective work with books and maps led me to the small mound with its rocky summit and tumbled wall.

I placed my ear against the Ringing Stone and tapped it with a pebble. The bell-like sound it made was so magical that it had to play an important role in the story. Just like the children in the book I saw moon daisies growing on The Reef and I had a picnic in the tiny cove at the south end of Traigh nan Gilean.

I found a tiny purple-tinged shell, a stone in the shape of a heart, a hag-stone and a sea-bean. All of these things found a vital place in the story. Grounding the story in a real place brought it to life for me and I hope it will do the same for my readers.

I didn’t find the suterain. No-one could tell me where it was. So this underground dwelling from the days when lives were at risk from invaders became an ideal hiding place for the witch. Because of the low, windswept nature of the island, Tiree has only a few very stunted trees, a fact which made it difficult for the witch to mend her broomstick. She had to resort to a branch of an introduced tree, the Ake-ake from New Zealand. Throughout my story there are patterns that never end and the final magical discovery came when I learned that the Maori word Ake-ake means for ever and ever.

When I’m not writing I like to walk, especially through woods and beside the sea. I don’t like hot weather so I never go abroad, preferring instead to take my holidays on other Scottish islands. I like working in my garden, a semi-wild stretch of coastline where I encourage native plants to flourish while trying to prevent bracken and bramble from taking over. I have a cabin on the shore where I often write, but it is always tempting to look up in case an otter is passing by. My day always ends with an hour or so of reading in bed. I read widely but I don’t like crime, violence or horror.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a teacher and I always enjoyed writing. I was no good at maths, hating numbers with as much passion as I loved words. I used to make magazines filled with stories, poems and puzzles and I always managed to get an article or a poem in school and college magazines. I regret that family concerns and a busy life as a head teacher took away my writing time. I tried from time to time but found that my head was too full of more pressing concerns.

I write notes when I’m out walking. This is essential because I have a dreadful memory, and if I don’t immediately commit a phrase or idea to paper, I lose it entirely. For the actual writing I need a clear head and silence. I started off writing in longhand, and still do so occasionally, but now I often work directly onto my laptop. It saves a lot of time and it is good to see how the words fit on the page.

The most surprising thing I have discovered in writing fiction is that characters can come to life. They develop personalities and patterns of speech and they sometimes push the story in ways that I had never intended. When that happens it isn’t just surprising, it’s exciting.

My current work is a final draft of Book Two of the Hagstone Chronicles. Clickfinger has been around even longer than Cry at Midnight but the deadline is looming and it will be published in July 2015. Book Three is forming inside my head and will be published in July 2016. I have a rough idea of the plot but I’m confident that when I start to write, the children in it will show me the way.

Alongside this I also have a deadline for my island poetry collection. From One Island to Another will also be published in 2015. As a regular contributor of illustrated articles for the Scottish Islands Explorer magazine I have titles agreed for every issue up to the end of 2015. After that, who knows? I have the beginnings of a collection of poems about birds, but some unexpected event may provide the inspiration for another story, and if that happens it will take precedence.

Find out more about Mavis by visiting her website: http://mavisgulliver.co.uk/
Contact her by email: mavisgulliver@googlemail.com






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