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My ‘date’ this time is with a Scottish writer who has lived for more than a quarter century in Australia. Cathy Donnelly lives in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula in the State of Victoria. Here is her description:
“It is a coastal city about an hour from Melbourne and is a great place to live. I am fortunate to be able to walk on the beach almost every day. When I was in Scotland I bought all the waterproof gear so I can walk even when the waves are thrashing against the rocks and the sea wall. Everything I need is no more than 15 minutes’ drive away – the bay, the library, the shops, where I attend the local writing group and lovely botanical gardens.
I love working in my garden and feeding the many species of birds that come to visit. They used to come for dinner in the evening but now it is breakfast and a snack during the day as well. It always makes me smile to see them lined up on the decking rail, singing their hearts out, or just waiting patiently until I notice them. The kookaburras take the food from my hand and the magpies bring their babies and leave them while they go off and do what they do. They obviously trust us not to harm them as they are known to attack anyone who gets near their young.
We get the different seasons here, which I love. It can reach 40 degrees sometimes in the summer but not usually for weeks on end. You know relief from the humidity will eventually come. The area also has a reputation of having all four seasons on the same day.
Nevil Shute, the author of A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, used to live here. Some of the scenes in the movie version of On the Beach were filmed around here and there is an old photo of Gregory Peck standing on the same station I caught the train from every day for the 15 years I worked in Melbourne.”
Despite her long sojourn in Australia, it is Scotland and its history that inspires Cathy’s writing.
“I moved to Australia when I was forty and although I have lived here for 26 years now, Scotland is still home. I visit my family every two or three years and its beauty still takes my breath away. My sister, Linda, and her family live in the house I was brought up in.
It is so special to still be able to sleep in my parents’ old room and visit the village where I went to school and grew up in. I love the familiarity and the memories.
I was checking with my other sister, Wilma, on Skype the other night about the time it would take for one the characters in my new novel to travel by car from one of the tourist hotspots near her, to Edinburgh. The route is mostly two-way roads through villages. She said it depended on the ain’t thats. You could be driving along the road doing the speed limit when suddenly the car in front of you slows right down, causing all the cars behind it to put on their brakes. The locals call these drivers aint thats because they know at least one person in that car is pointing out of the window and saying “ain’t that beautiful”. It happens all the time. I am sure everyone knows that the Scots are well known for their calm demeanour.”
Like Kate Mosse, Cathy uses the idea of reincarnation and other time-shifting devices to take her protagonists to different historical periods.
“I have always been fascinated by the concepts of past lives and time travel. They open up such possibilities from a personal point of view, and more so when it comes to telling a story. With my first novel Distant Whispers, I was able to combine quite a few of my interests – reincarnation, the Knights Templar, Alexander the Great, religions – using these concepts. I thoroughly enjoy the scope it gives me in my writing.”
I asked Cathy about the lessons that could be – and perhaps have not been – learned from the many conflicts that feature in Scottish history.
“History was one of my favourite subjects at school so I knew even as a child that the English and the Scots had always fought amongst themselves, and against each other, throughout their ancient history.
The kings and queens, nobles and gentry, could do what they wanted in those days. It could be that they were just bored with their daily lives or easily offended, but no matter what the reason, one side would do the wrong thing and it would be “round up the peasants” and off they went to pillage and destroy.
I used to think all this history was just that – something in the past, but for some reason the Scots, as with the Irish, do not forget easily. They can carry a grudge for a very long time. I listened to some of the debates and discussions about Scotland independence. I am a very patriotic Scot but I had to ask myself – why do we need it?
We may share the same island and have the same royal family, but the Scots, the English, and also the Irish, all have their separate identities.
I have never considered myself anything but Scottish.
I have noticed that Scots do not seem to mind if their accent is mistaken for Irish when they are overseas, but God forbid if someone asks if they are English. I do not think there would be many Scots who do not have English relatives.
In the lead up to the vote for independence, I asked a friend, who is a fierce, obsessive, Scottish Nationalist, how would it work regarding pensions, health care, borders etc. Her answer was “just let’s get independence and we can worry about all that later.’
On the English side, I do not think they care one way or the other. They recognise we are Scottish and they are English and we both have pride in our heritage.
So, the answer to your question. There are still many people who have repeatedly failed to learn any lessons from the past, but I do understand that it is an emotional issue and you cannot knock being proud of who you are and where you come from.”
Cathy has only recently begun using a computer for writing:
“I have an office area set up at home with my computer and files, but I find I get more inspiration from writing by hand. I wrote my first novel, the majority of my second one, and most of my short stories by hand on the train journey to work, or in bed at night. It was quite an adjustment for me to try to put it straight onto the computer, but when the house is quiet and all I can hear are the words going around in my head, I am getting used to it. I still look forward to taking my notebook to bed and just letting my thoughts wander.”
I usually ask my subjects to tell me which writers they most admire but I already know from a previous interview she did with Millie Slavidou that she is a fan of David Mitchell and his book Cloud Atlas. What was it about that book and its author that so affected her?
“Cloud Atlas took the theme of reincarnation to a completely new level. It was a complex story in so many ways and I was blown away by the writing, the characters, the locations, the timelines. I read it a second time immediately after the first reading, and have watched the movie three times. I can say without hesitation that this will always be my favourite story. You ask what I would hope to learn from David Mitchell if I spent time with him? I am really not sure if it is possible to learn genius.”
To date Cathy has not used a professional editor:
“My background is proofreading of Cabinet and Ministerial briefings so I assumed I would be okay with the grammar and spelling components of writing. Obviously, that is not all that is needed in writing a novel. I was fortunate that a couple of people offered to read my first novel before publication and a friend who is a Scottish history expert read the second one. Thankfully they all picked up things I had missed and made very useful suggestions for which I was very grateful. It is all a learning curve and I hope to get some beta readers, and also a professional editor, for my new novel.
I think a first novel is very precious and there is always the fear that if you get someone else to read it they might come back and say it is awful. I am over that now and realise the benefit of having the opinion of others.”
Many independent authors find marketing the hardest part of the business of writing. Cathy has succeeded in getting her books stocked in the heritage sites that feature in them, something I’ve tried myself. I wondered what other marketing techniques she has found useful.
“For me, marketing is definitely the hardest part of the business. I am learning as I go. I am fortunate that Wilma, pushes me along. She took my Scottish novel There is a Place to the VisitScotland tourist shop in Aberfoyle, which is near the main location in the book, and asked them if they would consider stocking it because of the local interest.
As a result, they invited me to do a book signing when I was there last year. It was not as scary as I thought it would be. I am going home again next year and they said to let them know and they would arrange a signing for the new one.
I would also say that being part of the Indie Author Support & Discussion Facebook group has given me more confidence to put myself out there. The members share what they think works and what does not, and their support has helped me move outside my comfort zone. When I release my new novel, I will make sure I have a clear plan on how to market it.”
Cathy is currently working on her third novel and she revealed a little about it.
“Memories of the Night Sky is the story of Catriona, an author who begins to dream stories she feels compelled to write. It is set in Scotland in the present day, the 9th century and in 1307 and involves Druids, Knights Templar and forbidden love. I enjoyed being able to incorporate my interest in different spiritual traditions and pagan rituals.
I am working on the first edit at the moment and hope to have it ready to publish by the end of the year.”
I like to conclude my ‘dates’ by asking my subject to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their readers. Here’s Cathy:
“For decades I thought of joining a coven and training to become a witch – a white witch, of course. I have lived and worked in various places around Australia so I kept putting it off until I settled. When I did settle in Frankston I thought the time was right, but do you know how hard it is to find a coven? I thought they would be everywhere but alas, no. I am now in my sixties. I wonder if it is too late? Perhaps not.”
My ‘date’ this week is a Manchester United supporting woman from Colorado who writes gritty, emotionally charged mysteries. I began by asking her about her home state and why she prefers soccer and Manchester United to her local NFL team, Denver Broncos.
“Colorado is such a varied state. I know many people who hear Colorado and envision Aspen, of course that is one central sliver of the state, but not the majority. I was born on the western edge of the state in a desert surrounded by mountains. It’s an isolating place full of people who’ve lived here for generations. Colorado means home to me. It’s where I’ve grown up and where my memories of my grandparents are.
As to the Broncos, I’ve always loathed the slow pace of American Football, and as I played soccer throughout my formative years that was what drew my interest. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Renaldo, were much more exciting to watch then men lining up and pushing each other.”
Her books feature settings a long way from Colorado and include France, Scotland and Greece. She feels it is important to have her protagonists undertake a journey in order to discover their inner strengths.
“I think the US serves as a good starting point for the novels. I have been fascinated, from an early age, with the idea of adventure (i.e. Bilbo Baggins). The protagonist enjoys his/her home but longs for more; they leave, and grow and are strengthened in ways they could not have imagined. Scotland is near and dear to my heart and it is in fact my family’s favorite holiday destination.
I do not choose the destinations lightly. In The Clouds Aren’t White Emmeline MacArthur goes where her education and training are able to get her employment. My great-uncle did live in Paris, he was a cosmopolitan, and so that city was almost fated for him.
Now Greece is another beast altogether for me.
I wanted to push myself beyond my comfort zone and to immerse myself in another culture.
It hasn’t been an easy feat but Google Earth helps a lot with describing the setting (I already live in an arid place and so know what it’s like to hike up a mountain in the middle of the day in the summer).”
Her latest novel, the one set in Greece and due for release on April 2nd, is available to pre-order now. It is her third release in a little over two years although it turns out that the first was finished more than a year before publication. Even so, three books in three years is impressive, especially as politics features in her Amazon biography as one of her interests. It turns out that she is highly organised, working to a strict schedule around caring for her daughter.
“I spent a much longer time writing my first novel than I have with the successive novels. I have a beautiful pen on my desk that my husband got me to commemorate when I finished the first book—in 2014. My level of political activism is limited these days, alas, but I’m fortunate to have writing be my sole occupation right now since my daughter is in school. I manage the work rate by planning out my entire year:
each month has a specific goal (or three) and then I break that down further so that I know what I need to do every day to stay on track.
I’m also horribly competitive, if you ask my husband, but when I’m writing a first draft I keep a spreadsheet of my progress – how long I wrote for, how many words, and words per minute. I’m always trying to write more in a shorter amount of time.
Juggling writing and responsibilities has gotten easier with time. Writing is essential for me. I take the weekends off and by Sunday night I’m twitching like an addict.”
I’m writing up the first draft of our interview as it is snowing outside, something I think would please Rachael.
“I’ve always been very jealous of those writers that say, “oh I write at night when everyone’s asleep” or “I write before everyone gets up.” I’m not a morning person. I’m not a night owl. I’m an 8am-10pm person. I drop my daughter off at school, workout, eat, shower, then I sit down at my desk which faces the bay window in my bedroom. It used to belong to my grandmother and I re-painted it navy and gold. Then from 9am-2pm I work. Some days are better than others but my favorites are when it’s snowing and I can sit at my desk with my feet on the heater and watch the world turn white.”
Her books revolve around the solving of mysteries. The protagonist in her soon to be released novel is a police detective. She describes herself, among other things, as ‘a police wife’. That is something she finds extremely helpful in her writing.
“There is no greater assistance to my writing than having a bona fide cop in the house. We have discussions on police tactics, how one enters a building, how one holds a gun, how one avoids bullet spray – while we are on DATES. His office is down the hall from my desk so often I’ll trot over there and ask him an out of the blue question about some detail or other. He never laughs, just gives over the answer and I go back to my desk.
As a former police wife I have a set of memories that are very specific to that group. Long nights, waking up to an empty bed when your husband should have been home four hours ago, never spending an entire Christmas/Thanksgiving/New Years/4th of July etc. with them because of shift work. I also went on a host of ride-a-longs with him while he was serving which opened my eyes to how hard his job was. I actually helped catch a wanted felon on my birthday one year — from the safety of a squad car — it was thrilling nonetheless.”
Another influence is her early life living with a narcissistic mother, an experience she shares with one of my previous ‘dates’, Lucinda Clarke. Both welcome my introduction; as Rachael puts it, “one always feels connected to those people.”
“Yes, my mother, from whom I am estranged, has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It’s a terrible disorder and I am only now processing the years of abuse and trauma.
Just as being the wife of a cop gave me insight into a different kind of life so did my childhood with an abusive mother. It does not take much imagination to place myself in my character’s mind when they are living with a narcissist—it was such a central part of my formative years. It has also made me desperate to tell stories about people I can relate to. I want a reader who has a loving caring mother be able to see what a blessing she has in her life when she reads about a character that is tormented by his/her parents. I also want a reader who is currently living with that pain to recognize that others have trod the path before her and there is a way out.
At the end of the day, what I really create is a collection of pages that is stuffed with my heart and my pain and experience and dreams. I hope to heaven that my readers see themselves in it.”
She is highly appreciative of her editor and a trusted team of beta readers.
“Where would I be without my editor? Nowhere. I do have a trusted team of beta readers. I have a good friend in Australia who is my Alpha Reader. I send her the (truly horrible) first drafts and she tells me if what I’m doing is good or not. These amazing wonderful people are indispensable.”
She has strong feelings about the often conflicting advice given to authors.
“Recently I picked up a book on writing advice. But the horrible thing gave authors a list of rules and then authors who followed said rules and then authors who didn’t follow said rules. I wanted to scream.
But the one I hate the most is: write what you know.
Excuse me but Tolkien had never been to Middle Earth. C.S. Lewis had never been to Narnia. Tolkien was a master linguist and C.S. Lewis was a master theologian. They took what they knew whether that was languages, or stories, or the Bible, and they turned it into something new and different and unique.
I’m not a male police captain living on the island of Lesvos. But I know people. I know pain. I know how a police officer feels at the end of the day, how on some days he hates his job because it feels like he’s not making a difference at all. I know that. I think that’s the true meaning of ‘write what you know’– find your strengths and then create something new and exciting.
The advice I love? It’s what my husband said to me when I was struggling writing my first novel and feeling like it was ‘too me.’ He said every single author pours themselves in their books. Every page is full of them. That and write for yourself. Write what makes you happy. Happy writers are happy readers.”
Given her penchant for organisation it comes as no surprise when she asks if she can list her favorite writers by categories.
- “Fantasy: Tolkien and Rowling. Absolute pillars.
- Literature: I’m a diehard Austen fan. The way she chastised her whole society without anyone even realizing is pure magic. Gustave Flaubert-Madame Bovary
- Mystery: Donna Leon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rowling again — Cormoran Strike is perfect.”
As usual I end by asking her to tell us something abut herself that might surprise her readers. She comes up with a Shakespearian connection:
“I’m descended from King Malcolm III of Scotland and the Clan Chiefs of Clan MacKay through my paternal grandmother.”