Love Letters To Libraries

Love Letters To Libraries is a week-long series for Scottish Book Week. The Guardian is hosting examples by well-known writers, including Alexander McCall Smith and A L Kennedy.

I like this idea. Here’s mine (sort of).


One of the first things every student does when they arrive at university is collect their library card. Unlike most of the others, however, I didn’t just pick up my card on the first day and head off to the Guild for a beer.

I wanted to see what was on the shelves.

I took the lift up to the floor with the archaeology books. I stared in amazement at the neat ranks of PhD theses in hardback bindings, rows upon rows of bound research papers, and past copies of magazines such as Current Archaeology, Antiquity, and the near-mythical journal of The Palynology Society.

It felt like I’d discovered Buried Treasure.

Not yet, I told myself. You have years to discover all this.

Instead, I made my way to the floor where they kept archive copies of British broadsheet newspapers, hunting for a specific item.

A small notice in the Times, November 1922.

The earliest reports of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb – a tiny paragraph of cool politeness and understatement.

Remember, at this point Howard Carter had been looking for sixteen years. Lord Carnarvon was on the point of giving up.

There was nothing to suggest that Tutankhamen was anything special, either.

In 1922, Tutankhamen was just an obscure name in the King Lists, a short reign sandwiched between the outrageous schism of Akhenaten‘s new religion and the dynasty which gave us the many pharaohs named Ramesses.

The reports from 1922 speak of promising signs that the tomb had not been disturbed. There were few hints of the treasure we know now.

I stood in the university library living the moment of Carter’s discovery, sand beneath my shoes and a hot desert sun in my eyes.

My thoughts?

“Oh, world, you do not know what’s about to hit you.”

I closed the newspaper and replaced its file back on the shelf. All those years I spent in the library, not once did I go back to re-live the thrill of that moment.

But whenever I think of my time in university, that enchanted hour alone amongst the archives stands out for me as clear as a candle thrust through a hole in a sealed tomb:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly… For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and… unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
Howard Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamen

University of Birmingham Library at

University of Birmingham Library. No, I don’t know who those people are either.

P.S. as an added bonus, have a look at Library Etiquette over on Redbrick.

N.B. See Reason No.1

Recently (so I’m told) there’s been a lot of discussion on the web amongst writers about the difficulty of making a living as a writer.

I’ve not been a part of this, for at least two reasons:

1. I think I’d be better off writing (the WIBBOW test); and

2. I’m a long, long way from making a living as a (part-time) writer.

This, currently, does not trouble me.


I have a day job which provides just enough impetus to force me back to the writing desk when the working day is over (see Reason #1 above).

I have a long-term plan for my writing, which focuses on improving my craft with every novel I write (see Reason #1 above).

And I have a supportive partner who encourages me to focus on the dream of being a novelist, while reminding me how I can work towards achieving that goal (see Reason #1 above).

Maybe I’ll never be hungry enough to write with the prolific speed of the pulp masters.

Maybe I’ll never be good enough to write a masterpiece that endures.

Maybe I’ll never learn how to make characters people like, instead of ones whom readers hate.

Who can tell?

But one thing I do know: having finished SHADOWBOX this summer, I’m one step closer to that body of work.

Very Short Update

I am writing. Have added another ten thousand words to the work-in-progress.Why must edits be so easy to put off?

I know I’m 70% of the way through the edits – I have that sensation we all recognise:

This is crap.”

Hey, I’m 70% of the way through!

And now I’m looking forward to completing the edits, having it proof-read and formatted, laid out and finally published. By the end of the year, if I can get my act together.

So I can start on the next one. Which is, as we all know, going to be BRILLIANT!

(or at least better than this one).

Published in: on November 12, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Love Leads The Pilgrim

Edits proceed apace on the current novel. I’m up to 40K words now: just over halfway.

One of the reasons I was able to write three novels last year was the ability to schedule writing time in my lunch break at work. I’d find an empty table, unpack my headphones and spend some time getting my characters into trouble.

Not so this year.

Some time in early Spring – probably just after I exhausted myself with work-related training – I noticed an increase in the number of my colleagues. The canteen seemed to fill up and spill over into the rest of the building, and an empty table became harder to find when I went looking.

Noise levels rose. I took to the secluded areas where there were no tables or chairs. I went outdoors in the bright summer sun and sat on the grass with a paperback in one hand and a sandwich in the other.

And I quit writing during my lunch break.

One of these days I’ll write about my corporate Day Job, and the changes I’ve seen in the last twenty years of bleak, open-plan office spaces. But not today.

Sometimes you have to build your own cubicle. It helps hide the tunnel you’re digging…

Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Love leading the Pilgrim (1909) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Free Fiction: Who Pays The Piper

To celebrate this Friday’s crease in the year (Hallowe’en, for those using the Gregorian calendar), here’s a slightly creepy short story I wrote over ten years ago. This blog post will be archived after a week.

UPDATE: As promised, this post is now archived. The short story will be available in a collection early next year.The Sorceror of Trois-Frères, Ariège, France, by Henri Breuil. Image at


Who is this bright stranger, filthy as a tinker, who walks our streets unashamed?

I served my apprenticeship charming the trees and rocks of the forest, the ever-changing waters of mountain streams, wild beasts more wild at heart than I.

In return I learned the songs they sing, unknowable and fey, and adapted them to my limits.

(c) Lee McAulay 1997-2014

(The illustration is of The Sorceror of Trois-Frères, Ariège, France, by Henri Breuil. Image at, an online resource for the study of Palaeolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology)

The Woman, Unfolding

Whenever I read a discussion of the need for ambience in writing, in my head I have a picture of a woman undressing – only she isn’t removing corsets and clothing. Wooden slats and packing-crates, hinged and nimble, unfold until she’s there in her shift, in a home of her own surroundings.

The woman’s unfolding.

I have the feeling I’ve seen this in a film or an animation. It isn’t Seraphine or MicMacs. But it’s close. (If you know what I mean, let me know in the comments, please).

This image of the wooden woman unfolding, almost like a beachcomber’s hut, the house by the sea in David Copperfield, the shack with a boaten roof – I can’t place it, and likewise I can’t shift it.

Peggoty's Cottage, Holme-next-the-sea, Norfolk. Photo (c) Wendy Long

Peggoty’s Cottage, Holme-next-the-sea, Norfolk. Photo (c) Wendy Long

A homeless (?) bag lady who carries her armour on her back, it’s no less effective when turned into a fort.

She unfolds her armour to mend it.

She unfolds her armour to permit us entry.

She unfolds her armour to let herself breathe, and expand, and remember what freedom is like.

Some have compared the need for ambience for writing to a space in the woods, or Rheims cathedral.

It’s finding a place we know we won’t be disturbed, that enables us to enter the liminal state of creation, fast or slow, deep or shallow.

My earliest space of my own was an oak so broad it hid me from the house – and thus from chores and homework.

When I was older, I made a den out of old doors and scrap wood. Under trees, in the lee of an old stone wall, lit by candlelight, with incense burning and food I’d bought with my own money, there I made fantastic adornments from shells and sea-torn rope and coins crushed by trains; there I kept my railway lamps and interesting bits of wood.

But the places I write now – the places other people identify as where they write, whether that be in the home, in the studio, or like me, anywhere you can – those places all have the same underlying quality – sanctuary.

It isn’t the sanctuary of cloisters, nor of other cells. It’s a quality we bring to the place – or rather, bring out in the place.

The woman unfolding.

Watch an embroiderer at work, or a quilter, and you’ll see the woman unfolding. She settles into the space and unpacks her tools and materials, the silks and cottons and needles and fabric, the pattern held in her head or on paper, the stretcher frame made to be handheld and portable. By the time she’s placed all her accoutrements around her the statement is clear: look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.

Writing is unusual in that it doesn’t actually take much space.

Writing takes only a pencil, and paper. Chalkmarks on slate. Toes in wet sand on that beach where the boat-roofed house sits.

The only thing I can think of that takes less space is song – all song needs is air, and a voice.

But what we do when we set up a workspace, or create a ritual, is make for ourselves that sanctuary.

The preparation is all we need, and then:

“I am in my writing-chair, and therefore I am writing”.

The space needs to be somewhere we won’t be disturbed, that’s all. Whether that’s in a café, or on a boat, or a studio or a house or while travelling, the sense of controlling access to your space is what’s needed. It doesn’t need to be a physical space – it can be a mental space, a sanctuary of the mind, created with ritual and awaiting the arrival of magic.

Music on – headphones attached, earbuds inserted – and coffee placed in front of me like a shield against the other people in my local coffee-house – I’ve paid to be here, in this space – my work in front of me like a reason – look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.

And as I write I become the woman, unfolding.

Last Sunrise Before Winter

Sunrise 101

Since the weather turned towards autumn and the nights creep over the land of daylight, I have more energy for writing.

In summer the garden’s siren call of silence lures me out, to sit with tea and watch the bees amongst the oregano flowers and purple chive blossoms, the sweetness of the sun’s warmth still captured in the stones beneath my feet.

But after the autumnal equinox the light fades early. The sun rises later than I do. My window looks out on glowing skies for a brief month until they, too, submit to darkness.

I’ve made good progress on this novel. Starting with a blank page again, I’m stitching together another tapestry of words, building another cathedral.

The work is stronger than when I originally drafted the story a year ago. Since then I’ve written and published SHADOWBOX, and the month-long series of posts on this blog to herald the novel’s arrival. I’ve learned about my own writing habits a little more – and learned not to ignore the patterns within those habits.

One of those patterns is the ebb and flow of energy I have for writing.

Another is the time I spend outdoors, another the demands of a Day Job, yet another the quality of sleep made simple by long hours of darkness*.

I’m learning to own my writing habits as much as my style and work with them, not fight ‘em.

Winter’s coming. And the nights are painted bright with story.

*Not as long, nor as dark, as further north. But in December we only have 7 hours of daylight.

Published in: on October 15, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Finally, progress

Finally, progress has been achieved on the current novel. It’s been tricky.

A lot of things weren’t working. Many of these have been ditched.

Some of them have been parked in Scrivener to be resurrected in one of the follow-up novels I plan to write next year, or the year after, and having those elements in the storyline of the current novel just made the whole thing hard to follow.

And if I found it hard to follow – when I know what’s meant to be going on – I’m sure any reader would find it damn near impossible.

Rule #1: Do not cheese off your reader(s).

More next week. TTFN.

Published in: on October 8, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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We have wordcount!

Just a brief post this week to say: we have wordcount!

The WIP is undergoing a complete overhaul and in the process has gathered another few thousand words. I’ve come to accept that these things don’t grow on trees, and only I can do this.

For inspiration, I was reminded of posterity – or at least a potential future Me looking back at all this kerfuffle.

What would Future Me say to Current Me?

“Get your finger out, lady, and make sure it brings the other nine with it onto the keyboard. You have work to do!”

On another note, how’s this for posterity?

past horizons - the wonderful rubbish of the gilf kebir desert provided inspiration for The English Patient

(The picture links to “The ‘wonderful rubbish’ of the Gilf Kebir desert”, an article on Past Horizons. More fascinating pictures can be found at the marvellous image database belonging to the Frobenius Institute, Germany, named after and founded by German ethnographer Leo Frobenius).



Published in: on October 1, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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My WIP has a blip

Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed: I have not been posting about my writing output lately.Why must edits be so easy to put off?

There is a reason for this.

My current work-in-progress is seriously dicky.

Not so ill-disposed that I’m plotting the death of a novel like the one I abandoned back in April. Just a little… awkward.

Needs a bit of work.

Actually, needs more work than Guedelon Castle.

First off, I realised I was telling the wrong story. The thrust of the novel follows one character through a series of trials and tribulations to a solution which directly leads to a couple of other novels I have planned for later in the series, and I need to make this novel work in her favour because it sets up the route to those two sequels.

However, right now the main focus seems to be on the other character, who just trundles along having her own catastrophes and disasters, none of which will lead to a follow-up novel* (or even two).

So while I have my requisite 70,000 words – that’s the point at which I usually consider my first draft complete – those 70K words are not all working in service to the story.

And they must.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve a wheen of work to do on this novel before it’s fit for publication. This will probably take me up to Yuletide, but if I’m lucky I might sort it by Hallowe’en.

And at that point it will be a true Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from the ripest parts and hopefully able to stalk off into the world on its own…

* There is a parallel story behind this one, which I had planned to write in October-December this year. Ain’t happening. Yet. Egad, I so prefer writing to editing!


Published in: on September 24, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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