Thursday, 8 October 2015

Our Very Own Serial Killer – Not!


One of the many joys of publishing my novels on Kindle and in Paperback with Room to Write is watching my recent publications trickle out week by week.

 I don’t subscribe to the notion that publishing on Kindle will lead  to thousands of sales but it’s still a delight for a writer to know that someone in Aberdeen or London or Tunbridge Wells is buying and reading – and I hope enjoying -  my stories. If you are she or he – here is a great thank-you!

So in this way it’s great to know that people are buying and reading my two latest novels Writing at the Maison Bleue and The Pathfinder.

But I am now intrigued to notice that among these more recent

Obtain the Book

titles readers out there are now buying copies of A Woman Scorned which was published a decade ago.

This marvellous development probably has something to do with the fact that subtitle to A Woman Scorned is; Serial Killer or Scandal Victim?  I am aware that serial killers have something of a hold on people’s imaginations in these insecure modern times.

I also note that there is to be a forthcoming TV drama based on the story of Mary Ann Cotton. I hope the film makes don’t roll out the usual stereotyped macabre melodrama which would confirm the fact that we’ve made no progress at all in our understanding of this woman and the times in which we lived.

In my novel, I put the case for the defence of Mary Ann Cotton, who was alleged to have killed at least three and at most eighteen people in the mid nineteenth century. Hanged for her ‘crime’ in Durham Goal, she has become a dark legend in the north as our very own female serial killer. Mary Ann Cotton lived a mile from my house.   There is even a nursery rhyme which begins Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten.

I have to say that part of the fun of writing historical fiction is delving into the research. Every one of my novels has required me to get not just the facts right, but also the feeling.

The facts are often easy – laid out there in histories and argued about in learned articles. Of course contemporary press reports, court data, images, diaries and letters are great for that specific 'feeling' research. This art of gathering materials to illuminate feelings and world-views of a particular time plays an important role in creating fiction around a real event. 

To my mind the charismatic itinerant nurse Mary Ann Cotton is as worthy of this process as Henry the Eighth.

A Woman Scorned was to be a work of fiction, but inspired and informed by a detailed study of the papers the records and the real people and events surrounding the trial and execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873.

The newspapers were a strident then as they are now. This trial became a national sensation reported in lurid terms assuming her guilt well before the actual trial.

Looking for some balance I was pleased at the extent of the detail available.  Newspapers, like the court and the police reports, which I also read, involved verbatim accounts where you can hear not just what people say but just how they say it.

Interestingly in these Mary Ann Cotton years, Charles Dickens as a young man was a trained court shorthand writer. This is where he must have honed his ear for intricacies of accent, semantics and idiosyncrasies of speech.

I had actually started to research and write this novel assuming the basic rightness of the myth. I started out feeling that the Mary Ann Cotton event could make a very good novel.

But my perspective on her case changed as I read of the judgemental public pre-trial outcry and noted the idle carelessness of Mary Ann’s first solicitors who gave her very bad advice, obviously having assumed her guilt, and neglected her proper defence and even robbed her of money.

I eventually realised that modern rules on forensic medicine would have blown out the forensic evidence presented here as ‘proof’ of her guilt. At one point to enable a re-examination, the viscera of one ‘victim’ they  dug up out of the bare earth where they had been buried in the doctor’s garden. Unreliable evidence indeed.

And then there was this very big gun was imported into the case in the form of barrister Sir Charles Russell (see my footnote *) made the long journey north to mount the prosecution of this bold, pretty woman, this outsider in a very tight old-fashioned village where deaths were common from the diseases of poverty, including the scourge of typhoid.  

So it dawned on me that by modern standards of justice this case was at least unproven.

A Woman Scorned makes the case that Mary Ann was probably not guilty but rather was the victim of rising hysteria in the region and in the country, creating a powerful and enduring myth which put on a false cloak of hard truth.

I know from response from my readers that the novel has changed a few other minds too. Perhaps you might like to see what you think?

Mary Ann On Kindle Now

And in my heart I hope the film makers incorporate a fresh   perspective on the fascinating case of Mary Ann Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton

To give you a taste of the story here are two excerpts.

The story is told through the eyes of Victoria Kilburn, niece of Doctor Kilburn the doctor central to the story. She is visiting her uncle from London and is delighted and eventually horrified at what she witnesses in this small Durham village. Like Mary Ann she is an outsider and it is she who witnesses the runaway injustice visited on this unusual and charismatic woman. 

Excerpt One:

Victoria encounters Mary Ann

 … The porter had taken my hand luggage and settled me in the solitary First Class carriage. I was sitting there in secluded splendour when the door was wrenched open and a pale-faced woman peered in. She pushed a heavy bag and a basket onto the floor of the compartment and lifted a fragile boy of eight or so into the carriage. Then she leapt lightly up the steps herself and settled into the corner opposite to me. I choked for a second on the scent of fruitcake and almonds, with some kind of back-smoke of lavender and honeysuckle. She filled the whole carriage with her perfume and earthy warmth.
I turned to stare out of the window, but not before I’d taken in the image of a woman of thirty or so, of taller than average height with thick glossy black hair under a rather becoming bonnet. She wore a surprisingly fine paisley shawl and - finely polished although stitched and mended – small button boots. Instinctively I pulled my own boot, with its built- up instep, further under the hem of my skirt.
Staring at the puffs of steam dissolving into trails of vapour that streamed past the window I wonder at the audacity of this unlikely woman in entering a first class carriage. Then her voice, low and surprisingly well modulated, cuts through the air between us. ‘And how have you been these past days, honey?’
In the silence that follows I realise that the woman is talking to me. I turn my gaze to meet the darkest blue eyes, large and shining in a perfect oval of a face. Now I see that she is actually quite beautiful, despite the workaday clothes. I want to smile and my cheeks feel hot.
‘Well, honey?’ she says….

Excerpt Two:

Here is Victoria having tea with a new acquaintance Kit Dawson:

… After the usual pleasantries about the weather (gloomy) and our own health (blooming), Kit Dawson tells me a tale about his day sitting at Mr Chapman’s elbow in the local magistrate’s court, making notes regarding a case about two women in West Auckland who came to blows over the abuse of a washing line, and renewed the battle again in court only to be fined five shillings each and bound over to keep the peace.
He thinks this is very funny, but I am concerned at the fine. ‘That would mean such a lot of money to these women. Two week’s wages for Lizzie, my aunt’s maid.’
Kit Dawson is entirely indifferent about this. ‘If they care about that, they shouldn’t start bashing each other. They’re barbarians, every last one of them.’
I shake my head. ‘Mr Dawson. To be poor is a misfortune, not a sign of barbarism.’ I regret the primness of my tone but mean what I say.
To my surprise he laughs. ‘Ah, you live a protected life, Miss Victoria. You should see what I see in court! Drunken miners, low women, thieves and vagabonds, wife-beating husbands, husband-beating wives. For me it’s like that first, most absurd circle of Hell in that courtroom...’

Footnote * 

Interestingly in1889, seventeen years after this case, Sir Charles Russell, Mary Ann’s prosecutor, defended the middle class Florence Maybrick against a charge of poisoning her husband with arsenic. Amongst other legal strategies he touched on some of the arguments employed by Mr Campbell Foster in the Mary Ann Cotton case. Russell seemed to be on the verge of securing an acquittal when Maybrick destroyed her own case by making a statement admitting a degree of culpability. Unlike Mary Ann, Maybrick was not hanged. She served fifteen years in prison and lived to an old age in the United States. Russell later became an MP, then Attorney General in Gladstone’s ministries of 1886 and 1892, ending up as Lord Chief Justice of England in 1894.

The case has had its historians. Arthur Appleton, in his book, Mary Ann Cotton 
 concluded that Mary Ann probably killed 14 or 15 people. Tony Whitehead, whose well documented account Mary Ann Cotton, Dead But Not Forgotten is presented in rigorous style but in the end – in my view, unable to deny the power of the myth - he almost drifts to the conclusion that Mary Ann was probably guilty in three cases.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

My Notes on Ian McEwan’s Views on Writing

I thought I would like to share with you my notes on watching Melvyn Bragg’s conversation with Ian McEwan on the South Bank Show Originals series. In the interview Melvyn himself comments on Ian’s ‘focused zeal’ for and on writing. I was struck again by how relevant his words are for any experienced and aspiring writer in the modern world of writing and publishing..

Here are my notes verbatim

‘Writing tells you how the writing it fitted into the novel.’
(Melvin comments on McEwan’s ‘focused zeal’.  They talk about ‘the facts of the streets.’)

Ian talks of being the only student on the first Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. His weekly tutorials consisted on meeting Professor Malcolm Bradbury (‘a superstar professor who gave me a sense of readership.’)Bradbury would read this week’s story and simply ask Ian for the next. 

In this year Ian McEwan wrote twenty five short stories* which were the launching pad for his literary and professional success.

Ian mentions, in later times, of ‘writing himself into a corner.’ And ‘having closed down for years.’  And feeling ‘locked down’. He mentions ‘writing myself into silence.’ And 'The act of writing demands that one ‘Engages with the world.’

 In later years he began to free his voice in writing libretti and screenplays before beginning his more recent novels.

Writer and critic DJ Taylor shares his views in the programme. He says - talking of the short novel Yesterday’ - ‘It’s quite an old fashioned book – an issue novel.’ But he admires his writing. ‘He writes brilliant sentences.’

Some brilliant thoughts from Ian McKewan on Writing

 ‘Happiness and anxiety rubbing along together.’
‘How does matter become conscious?’
He speaks of the material view of life being rich and human.  ‘In the material view of life there is a beauty and grandeur.’
‘It is the actual, not the magical that should be challenged.’
‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’
‘Even poetry cannot tell you what it’s like to be an individual moving through time.’’
‘Think of novels like minestrone soup…’

*One would like to see such high literary productivity among the students emerging from the plethora of Creative Writing MAs now being commodified and pushed across Britain these days.  One hears troubling accounts of the lack of literary product in the maze of sub-Eng Lit exercises, and of promising writers who stop actually writing their short stories and novels for years after completing their degree. Of course the graduaes might ‘teach’ Creative Writing, or nibble the edges of literary journalism with reviews and criticism. Good luck to them.
But I think Ian McEwan had a much better deal, sitting in the pub talking to Malcolm Bradbury knowing he had an audience for the next short story. And the next.

My Own Advice to Aspiring Writers Regarding Further Study
Option One
I do encourage writers to study for further degrees if they fancy that. But urge them to make it history, politics, art, physics: any field that makes it an authentic academic experience that toughens the mind and develops the senses.

During that time, I will say, you can write your novels and short stories in the evenings and week-ends. After a year or so you will have a Master’s Degree in a valid subject with substantive content which could inspire a body of creative work that reflects your unique writing self and will find its readers.

Option Two.
Equally I might say to these aspiring writers - go off and work on a building site, in a factory, in a café in a forest or a bank. Or go travelling for a couple of years. And still write your short stories.  poems or novel at the evenings and weekends. In this way you will have enriching, valid experiences and a body of creative work that has substantive content emerging from your working life.  This will reflect your unique writing self and will find its readers.

There is a good argument for each of these options.

Option One will furnish you with an alternative career while you are making your way in the challenging world of writing and publishing. It might make a hole in your bank balance but ultimately it would be worth it.

Option Two will not leave you in debt and allows you to live in the real world as you develop your writing. You will move among people outside the slightly precious world of acadême. It’s always a good thing for a writer to get inside the lives of people different to yourself.  As Ian McEwan says, ‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’

Any of these experiences will develop your material view of life. As Ian McEwan says   ‘… the material view of life [is] rich and human.’ And also:   ‘In the material view of life there is a beauty and grandeur.’


Sunday, 20 September 2015

'Writing a cookery best-seller is easy.' Maybe.

I  have remarked here several times that  the art of writing a novel or short story is close cousin  to
 the art and craft  of painting. Now, after a delightful week spent in the company of  the very creative @licked spoon  I would include the art and craft of gardening and cooking for their  relevance to the art of writing fiction.

And now I feel this even more so, having read Jane Middleton's visionary Guardian article    Want to write a best-selling cookery book? Don’t worry about making it any good.

Middleton is very good at irony. To quote her directly: Above all, remember that anyone can write a cookbook. Writing a cookery best-seller is easy. Why else would there be so many of them? But writing a good and original one – well, that would just spoil the fun for everyone else.'

Much of the witty critique in Middleton’s article seems to me to apply directly to the sometimes bizarre situation today in the world  of modern fiction.

I think all fiction writers, whether they cook of not, would relish the implications of this article by a great cookery writer for their own writing.

What do you think? 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Paradox of the Continuing Attraction of Fiction Inspired by World War One

Iconic Image of World War One

Like many of us, this year and last,  I’ve had World War One on my mind. Like many of us, as a child growing up in the after-shade of World War Two, I absorbed the heroic legends of the First World War into my inner story-scape to the extent that I ‘knew’  the truth of that war and this second World War,

As time went on, this possibly illusory inner certainty was hauled into balance by my political and historical studies of the first half of the Twentieth Century - to the extent that my first properly researched published adult novel Riches of the Earth involved both the home front and the battle front in those First World War years.

The fact that my own grandfather was killed in that war gave me a personal link that I share with many writers of my generation. The blood in our veins helped us channel experiences both at home and in France into rivers of fiction.

World War One continues to be an area of fiction that continues to fascinate both

French Soldiers in Eastern France

readers and writers, not least because we still have to work out what we feel about the nature of war that still seems to permeate the air  around us. These days war is not being slogged out blow for blow in mud and blood in nearby France and Belgium. Still, broken bodies and despairing families stare at us from our screens. There in the comfort of our sitting rooms, as well as seeing innocent victim of war, we witness 
graphic images on our TV and computer screens, of soldiers who have fought in our name in the Middle East,  physically and sometimes mentally disabled by devastating war experiences.

As an aside: Pat Barker’s Booker Prizewinning novel Regeneration, as well as being a top-notch novel in literary terms, taught the reading public a great deal about the devastating nature of what was then known a Shell Shock, and what we now label as Post Traumatic Stress  Disorder. We continue to learn.*

For some there can be a self-generated light at the end of the tunnel. One of my
lifetime highlights was the day I spent at the 2012 Paralympics where athletes with disability  – some of them ex-military - proved themselves equal to mainstream athletes in sporting dedication, discipline and supreme ability.

The Reading Groups

So you will see from all this how inspired I felt to agree when Dorothy Mason, Durham City ex-librarian asked, me to lead two discussions at Belmont Library on World War One fiction with two writers’ groups to discuss World War One fiction on October 21st and October 22nd.

My idea is that these discussions will not just be a critical introduction and discussion of one novel. Rather it will be a wider ranging discussion of the approaches of many writers to devastatingly rich inspiration of the events and backgrounds to those years
between 1914-1918

I feel that readers can bring to this discussion their reading of any novel that reflects their feelings about World War One. In the process we will all gain new insights,

The List

To make this happen Dorothy and I got together and made a list of forty possible novels that will be available to readers  at Belmont Library in Durham City. You can see the list HERE if you are curious. Our  list includes English, American and European texts and includes remarkable examples of children’s fiction.

Questions for Discussion.

Our idea is that those coming to the discussion will have read at least one of these novels  so they may add their opinion to the discussion which could circle around certain  questions:

Why is World War One such and ongoing theme for writers?

What do these varied novels have in common?

What do the writers have in common?

How does their writing  differ?

Do you recognise World War One Stereotypes in these novels.

What role do they play in the novel(s) you have read?

Do we focus too easily on the Engish experience of this war?

Other questions will apply of course. If you yourself have suggested questions let me have them here and I will add them into the mix.
If you have any other views on this generic and ever-lively theme, you can comment and share here.

The Books

I have read a number of the novels on the list and look forward to hearing from other readers about novels with which I am not yet acquainted.

At present I am re-reading some or my own preferred titles and fresh reading others. This week my choice is One of Ours by Willa Cather and The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

More about these two novels and writers in my next post.

*NB Avril Joy and I are looking forward in the Spring to running writing workshops in Durham with army veterans under the auspices of the war veteran’s charity Forward Assist.

Happy Reading


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Wonderful Reviews: The One True Path

I could not resist sharing with you these two Amazon readers' reviews of The Pathfinder. It is very touching to find  readers who can so well access the heart of one's story as well as the unique challenges of writing a novel.

1] Amazon Five Stars 'The one true path' 4 Sept. 2015

 ...'I have just finished this spell-binding book, rationing out the pages towards the end, so that I could savour every word.

Wendy Robertson is a consummate practitioner of the crossover novel, one foot in the 'now' the other in the 'then' but with this book she has planted both feet firmly on the same historical path and the results are wonderful.

'The Pathfinder' has allowed me to bury two of my reading bête noirs. One is that I don't like historical fiction, the other is that I avoid books that make me cry. However this book has confounded both of these prejudices. I loved the story, part fact, part fiction and I was genuinely moved - not manipulated- by the beauty of the writing and the incredibly sad but uplifting ending.

I don't hesitate in giving this book five stars. I'd give it more if this were possible! Other reviewers will give you in depth details of the story but if I were you, I'd just read it (very slowly) and enjoy every single moment.'...

2] Amazon 5 Stars. What a Remarkable Book!

Find on Kindle or in Paperback

' ...The past has never felt so real as in the last days of Roman Britain and the uneasy peace between natives and conquerors portrayed in Wendy Robertson's 'Pathfinder'. Heroine Elen is a beautifully drawn character uniting natives with the conquerors.

Pathways lead in two directions and fey Elen's 'honeycomb' mind leads back centuries into the mists of time. But she is young and resourceful and her ordained path leads from her beloved coastal marshland of West Briain into Roman Gaul when the Roman leader of Britain Magnus Maximum falls I love with the native girl, drawing her father and warrior brothers into his military schemes.
The book is filled with believable,fascinating characters. including Aunt Olwen a drowned spirit, song-writer brother Lleu, and Quin the faithful Roman devoted to both Elen and Magnus Maximus.

It is a delightful, thought provoking read and I could not put it down. So many questions answered, so many tantalisingly left. Elen has a future in her homeland and I want to know more.
 I love it. What a remarkable book! ...' 

The Pathfinder:  

PS I have written HERE before about the importance of reviews. The  commentaries above  show how readers' words  can lift the heart of a writer, inspiring her  to continue to produce original, authentic stories for insightful readers.


Monday, 31 August 2015

The Granduate: On a Very Special Relationship

Friends Now 

The girl on the couch, unwell
Are you expecting? I say.

The anticipated storm of temper

A slight smile from him. 
At least,  he says, I'll see him grow  
in my lifetime 

Through the years he drove the boy
to and fro from school, putting him
through his paces. 

He watched the boy catch the egg,
kick  a  rugby ball through high posts,
wield a mean cricket bat on the field. 

He saw the boy off in his father's car
laden with high hopes, books,
and essential technology. 

He imagines the boy -white-coated - 
working with 
phenomenally powerful magnets. 

And now, today, he sees him
in cap and gown, 
beard trimmed, hair clipped. 

The boy throws his cap into the sky
and has  very special smile
for his grandfather. 

July 2015

Friday, 21 August 2015

'A Rare Breed.'. The significance of reviews.

Newspaper reviews can be as rare as hen's teeth, so it's great to look back at my newspaper reviews and hope that my new novel The Pathfinder will find such appreciative readers 

Would you like to review it? In the press or on Amazon?

Here's a sample of reviews of my writing: 


‘A terrific read. A world on the cusp of change and we experience intimately.’ Historical Novels Review.

 ‘A powerful writer.’    Mail on Sunday.

 ‘Wonderful…Robertson deftly intertwines two time periods, slowly absorbing one into the other through the remarkably likeable protagonist.’   Booklist USA.

‘A great storyteller… she weaves another tale with ideas that still resonate when the story’s over.’ Northern Echo.

‘Wendy Robertson is a rare breed – a writer with an exquisite gift for creating vivid, relateable characters.’ Scottish Daily Record.

Note:: In The Pathfinder I have taken the available material and archaeological history of late fourth century Britain and addressed the powerful pre-Arthurian myths of Macsen Wledig and the British princess Elen. My intention is to weave a story that has hope, truth and justice at its heart.’  W.

Here's an extract which tells how and why Elen is a Pathfinder

[..] Elen:  You should understand that as well as being born and trained as Seers, members of my family have always been pathfinders – my father, Eddu, his father, Caradoc, and the grandfathers and grandmothers before him, going back seventeen generations. I learned the names of these ancients by heart - first at my father’s knee and later at the Seer School in the Green Isle across the water. They were famous across all the island of Britain.
It was they who found the paths that criss-cross this island and the lands across the sea. I have learned that a thousand generations ago the pathways were slight, mere shadows in the grass, reaching out and up to the horizon. As time went by our people started to mark them properly with stones, to raise them with the trunks of fallen trees, and to line them with small stones and pebbles. Then we planted thorn hedges to stop people and animals – tame or wild - destroying our road. Along the way, we would build small temples in stone and wood to shelter the rituals and protect the tributes to the gods that blessed the track and kept clear the way to the next high spot.
I have to say that in these times the pathways are all made. There seem to be no more for me to find. And yet, because of my family heritage, I am still known as a pathfinder.  [...] 
Read The Pathfinder  

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Chocolate Truffles & Your Friend E. A Writer’s Commentary.

The Occasion

Last night we braved buckets of rain and long traffic hold-ups to cross county lines and get to the Howick launch of writer Anne Ousby’s new novel Your Friend E.

The charming Howick Village Hall was crowded with Anne’s friends and fans and furnished with wine, an exquisite buffet and specially made chocolate truffles. (Truffles play a somewhat menacing role in the novel – read the novel to discover why.)

And so the scene was set for an excellent book launch,

The Author

Buy Anne's Book 
Anne, whose plays have been performed across the North and whose short stories have been broadcast on the BBC, has now turned her hand to writing novels to some effect, having published four novels since 2010. She has moved from the stern beauty of her Northumberland home to the dusty heat of contemporary South Africa to set three of the novels - most recently Your Friend E.

Her daughter Catherine, who was at the launch last night, (very proud of her mum) has lived with her own family in South Africa for eighteen years and Anne, who visits her daughter frequently, has become fascinated with that country,

Your Friend E, like Anne’s other novels, demonstrates her detailed interest in this ever-changing country: she is clearly inspired by her experiences there and brings an outsider’s eye to that complex environment. As I said to Catherine at the launch, being the stranger in a community is a good position for a writer. She takes nothing for granted and notices what may be overlooked by an insider’s eye.

The Story

Evie, the central character and the narrator of this psychological novel, is doubly obsessed.   She is experiencing the trial and sentencing of one murderer and struggling with the dark memory of another. She is walking into a complete breakdown before our eyes, her life and identity crumbling beneath her. Her own crucial family narrative, past and present, entwines itself around her present perspectives on the two acts of murder. Her reliability as a narrator fluctuates in the reader’s mind compelling us to drive on right to the end of the novel.

The Place

And always – as in Anne’s novel, Patterson’s Curse - the South African landscape with its exotic flora and fauna plays a fundamental role in Your Friend E. This underpins and authenticates the universal realities of the contemporary world, where fundamentals like prejudice, sibling rivalry and domestic violence are a commonplace.

The Writing

There was some discussion at the launch as to whether it is possible or desirable to have an unsympathetic main character. The implication was that Evie with her obsession and vengeful determination is an unsympathetic character.

Well, I didn’t find Evie the least bit unsympathetic. I empathised with her in her stressful family situation and I sympathised with her desire for resolution, even revenge. The writing helps this by skilfully holding the balance between the past and the present. And the clarity and non-judgemental style here allows us as readers to tolerate the destructiveness of Evie's despairing emotions as she pursues her vengeful quest. It encourages us to root for Evie’s survival and hope for her return to some kind of normality.  For me Evie is not at all an unsympathetic character.

And Anne Ousby treats us to a perfect surprise at the end - an end which is another universal beginning,

Highly recommended.

Writer’s Note

This is a short novel – sometimes now called a novella – very popular these days. However it is perfectly structured to tell this whole story and has the weight and significance of a much longer novel. It strikes me also that it would make a very good film. Any film makers out there?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...