Can’t work? Who cares?

IMG_0192Authors are self-employed. Some of us have day jobs or part-time jobs to supplement our income … but I don’t.

This means no holiday pay and, more pertinently right now, no sick pay.

I’ve just had surgery on my shoulder. I couldn’t have worked for much longer without the surgery, even if I could have put aside the discomfort, as I was gradually losing the use of my left arm. Typing wasn’t too bad as the lower my arm was positioned the better it worked, but driving had become very difficult. I’d begun to turn down opportunities to talk or teach at venues more then a ten minute drive from my home as I knew I’d spend the journey wincing if I had to pull on the handbrake or put the car into reverse, stretching, resting my arm or thinking about the burning heaviness of it more than the road ahead.

Turning down work has an impact on income – but not half the impact of not working at all.

Post-surgery, the hospital gave me a sick note for six weeks. I could email from my iPad using my other hand so I contacted my accountant to say that I thought six weeks was a bit much and I should be fully recovered in about four. Should I send the sick note to him anyway?

He replied that I could send it to him if I wished. But Statutory Sick Pay for the self-employed ceased in April 2016 and I’d have to apply for Employment and Support Allowance, which is means tested rather than statutory.

There didn’t seem much point.

If I was still employed in an office  I wouldn’t have been able to go back to work full-time yet (19 days post surgery) but because I’m self-employed I am at least able to pick and choose tasks and so have begun planning the next book as I can do that by hand (I’m right handed) and it was a good opportunity for research (read: watching property programmes on TV and reading websites about estate management).I worked very hard to get my WIP to my agent before surgery, which at least takes pressure off. I can now type for short periods with painkillers. All this seems easier than filling in the ESA application and being told I won’t get anything because savings and partner’s income are taken into account.

StudyI’m not writing this post as a political statement or to gain sympathy. I’m aware that the erratic nature of author income means that receiving nothing into one’s bank account for a month or two is nothing new. It’s just that I’m freshly struck by the realities of being self-employed, that there is no one to think about holiday pay or pension contributions but ourselves. No one to cover our desks and do our work while we’re away. National Insurance contributions are statutory but sick pay isn’t.

Maybe we shouldn’t be called self-employed. In future I think I’ll call myself self-reliant, instead. (As well as self-starting and self-motivated.)

And now for something completely … old


Bute House, Charlotte Square (Edinburgh New Town) via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m enjoying myself. I’m having a go at something completely different. I’m researching an idea for an historical novel.

I’m not telling you what it is, because it’s a great idea (or at least, I think it is!), but I’m surrounded by reference books and I’m having a ball. It’s giving me sanction to read – because after all, it’s research. There’s something in my Calvinist nature that makes me drive myself quite hard, so allowing myself the luxury of spending an entire afternoon turning the pages of a novel, no matter how good, is rare. (For all disappointed fellow novelists reading this, I listen to a great many audio books and if I like them enough, I buy them in paperback also).

My novel will be set in 18th/19th century Edinburgh. It’s a great period – the


Sir Walter Scott, via Wikimedia Commons

Scottish Enlightenment, the time of Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart, of David Hume and James Hutton, of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. It was a time that Scotland was ahead of the game, amazingly so, when ideas flowed and talent abounded and men of vision found an eager audience for their ideas. I have reread the statement produced by the Edinburgh Council of the time, setting out their vision for ‘a New Town of Edinburgh’ – and it’s the most extraordinary, inspiring document. If only today’s local Councils were half as inspiring!

Will my idea work as a novel? I have no idea, yet. I’m having to learn so much – I can’t just describe a room, or what someone’s wearing, I need to check out the facts. Did they have this kind of wallpaper, that kind of undergarment, those carriages? How did they speak? What were women allowed to do? How did society operate? I know this is meat and drink to many writers (including a lot of my friends), but it’s new to me. Part of me is terrified I’ll get it all wrong, another part is


Hackney Coach c.1800, via Wikimedia Commons

thrilled by the challenge.

In September, I’ll be attending the HNS conference in Oxford, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m delighted to find that many of my RNA friends will be there, so I won’t feel strange. I’m hoping to learn a great deal, and perhaps by then I’ll have a long list of questions I can bounce off my more experienced friends. But that’s a great thing about being a writer today – there are so many forums for discussion, so many support groups, and the power of the internet to lead you in all sorts of promising (and distracting) directions.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Tongues will wag

I’m a bit late in putting up my post this week because instead of writing it last night I went to the launch of JoAnne McKay’s latest poetry pamphlet, You Are Not Here. It was a wonderful evening of poetry, wine, chocolate and chatter.

And now, I need to get my head down to prepare a series of press releases and publicity for a mini two-day literary festival in Castle Douglas. This is being organised – a loose term – by Dumfries & Galloway Writers’ Collective aka WagTongues.

I live in Dumfries & Galloway in the south west of Scotland. It’s a beautiful place with glorious countryside, forests, hills and miles of sandy beaches. It has lots of lovely little towns, many boasting independently-owned shops. It has excellent cafes and restaurants, which offer menus based on fresh local produce: seafood, salmon, beef, venison, game. It has more artists, craft makers, and writers than you can shake a stick at, galleries galore BUT a dearth of independent bookshops – despite being home to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town.


Glorious Galloway

Authors – whether traditionally published or independent – have little opportunity to sell their books locally over the counter – over any counter. Even the annual Book Festival, held in Wigtown, provides little opportunity for local writers to sell their books unless they are in the main programme. A small number of the 60 or so local writers might be in the programme each year but it leaves the vast majority invisible to the many visitors to the book festival.

Some of us felt visitors (and locals) should be aware of the amazing writing talent there is in the region. Instead of bemoaning our fate some of us decided to do something about it and so, WagTongues was born to provide outlets for authors through a series of bookshops which pop up throughout Dumfries & Galloway several times in a year. It is a bit anarchic – no constitution, no committee, no bank account. All published writers living in the region can sell their books in the pop-up bookshop. WagTongues takes no commission so authors receive the full sale price for their books.


Part of a WagTongues pop-up bookshop display

The first pop-up bookshop happened in Wigtown almost three years ago, on the last day of the book festival. Authors were invited to read from their work and it proved so successful the pop-up bookshop idea morphed into a mini literary festival. People who would never in their wildest dreams have attended a poetry reading are enticed in and discover poetry can be fun, witty, and entertaining. Novelists read from their latest book or are interviewed about their work.

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Poet David Mark Williams on the left with artist and poet Hugh Bryden turning life moments into poems.

Another feature of the WagTongues experience is ‘The Poet Is In’. Visitors can describe a momentous event in their lives, drop it in a box and one of the resident poets immortalise the memory in poetry.

As WagTongues has become more widely known we’ve been invited to attend festivals including Dumfries’s Nithraid, Carlisle’s inaugural Book Festival, the Big Lit Festival in Gatehouse, Wigtown Book Festival and Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival.

It’s as part of the Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival WagTongues will be popping up this month, on Friday, May 27 and Saturday 28 in an old newsagents shop. I’m being interviewed by novelist Sally Hinchcliffe on the trials (and there are many) of turning a blog into a book, JoAnne McKay will read from her new pamphlet, debut novelist Lucy Cameron and crime writer Graham Smith are putting on a Blood Murder double bill, Janet Walkinshaw is launching her latest historical fiction – and there’s much more to entice, amuse and enlighten.

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WagTongues popped up at the first Carlisle Book Festivel. Dumfries & Galloway authors left to right Vivien Jones, JoAnne McKay, Mary Smith (me!) and Margaret Elphinstone.

WagTongues is growing and is proving to be a fantastic showcase and sales point for the writers who live and work in Dumfries & Galloway and provides an opportunity for writers and readers to interact.

Are there any similar book-selling collectives out there? It would be great to compare notes.

Holding out for a hero…

The red haired hero - a much maligned man

The red haired hero – a much maligned man

I’ve been thinking about heroes this week. Partly I think it’s due to a new television ad featuring the classic rock ballad ‘Holding Out For a Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler. The ad has slowly crept into my consciousness… despite the fact that I don’t watch much TV.

The other thing that has crept into my consciousness this week are old episodes of CSI Miami –featuring the taciturn –but oh-so-sexy hero – Horatio Caine, played by David Caruso.

Horatio has risen above a great handicap to become a hero. He has intelligence and strength, moral fibre and sexy voice, but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he has….. whisper it please … red hair.

When I first started writing, I was told that heroes don’t have red hair. In fact, some editors have been known to make a writer change the hero’s hair colour.

Why is this?

There are many, many heroines with red hair… from Nicole Kidman to Maureen O’Hara and Jessica Rabbit – flame haired screen sirens have men falling at their feet.

Red works just fine for a smart and sexy heroine.

Red works just fine for a smart and sexy heroine.

Red is fine for a side kick, like dark-haired Harry Potter’s carrot-top friend Ron Weasley, but not, it seems, for the hero.

Scarlett O’Hara may have thought she loved Ashley Wilkes, who tended towards ginger (at least in the movie), but he was never going to win out over Rhett Butler in the hero stakes.

Leslie Howard really didn't stand a chance.

Leslie Howard really didn’t stand a chance.

Hair does not make a hero. A hero has to be so much more. Give him strength. Give him honesty and kindness. Give him flaws, a troubled past or a limp. Give him a killer smile and listen to Bonnie Tyler who says he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight. (And check out her video here – an 80’s classic)

And then give him red hair. Go on. I dare you!

In my days as a news reporter, I worked with an elite police task force – intelligent and tough, but also thoughtful and honourable. They put themselves in harms way to help others. That’s the stuff of heroes… and every single one of them had red hair.

Bonnie might sing ‘Where have all the good men gone..?’ but my question is, where have all the red-haired men gone.

In The Wild One – my second Coorah Creek Book, I had a red haired hero. In fact, in my mind, he looks a lot like Horatio Caine.

So come on Bonnie – how about a rock song for a red-head.

And in case you’re not sure – here’s Horatio again. And there must be others. Who is your favourite red-haired hero?

What that man does for a pair of sunglasses!

What that man does for a pair of sunglasses!