CASTLE of Park is bright pink. It rises out of the Scottish countryside like a sudden blush on the green cheek of rural Aberdeenshire. Driving up through the grounds, I imagine that this place was custom built as a refuge for budding romantic novelists like myself, the colour acting as a kind of beacon to guide us over the hills in our heightened state of distraction. But apparently it wasn’t.
It was built as a basic 16th-Century Z-plan stone fortalice, and it’s been restored over the last few years by current owners Bill and Lois Breckon. The new paint job wasn’t intended to welcome aspiring Mills & Boon writers (although that is a part of their business plan which also involves hosting regular wedding receptions and painting courses) but to reflect the castle’s place in Scottish history. Pink was the traditional colour of local Jacobite households, whose own romantic notions were savagely disabused at the Battle of Culloden 250 years ago and 30 miles west of here. This is the first thing we learn at Castle of Park, during Bill Breckon’s informative introductory speech over pre-dinner drinks in the wood-panelled drawing room.
“We hope you will find this an inspirational time, ” he says, standing in front of the fireplace and toasting his guests. “We wish for you whatever you wish for yourselves.” We have all assembled here for a course entitled Novel Writing: Release Your Potential’. Eleven paying customers – ten women, one man, plus me as an observer. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wish I could write the kind of books that lots of people want to read. And romance seems like a good place to start. According to the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA), the most popular authors can sell 10,000 copies of a book in hardback within a week of publication, and many more in paperback.
Last year, Cecelia Ahern’s PS, I Love You shifted around 400,000 (although strong public endorsement from Richard and Judy must have helped). I wish I understood how people write these books, and why. It can’t just be for the money. “Yes it can, ” says our tutor, Anita Burgh. “Of course it can.” Burgh (“Call me Annie, ” she tells us) is a best-selling, award- winning RNA author with more than 20 titles to her name, including Overtures, The Azure Bowl, and Love: The Bright Foreigner. “I don’t really consider myself a best-seller, ” she says cheerfully at dinner.
“I sell about 15,000 in hardback, maybe 150,000 in paperback. I should be selling 20,000 in hardback, 200,000 in paperback. The publishing business is a mess. The money men are idiots. They’re screwing us left right and centre by giving away all these discounts to all the major booksellers and supermarkets. Not just me, all middle-market fiction writers.”
And so, in our first lesson in the library the next morning, we learn that even romantic novels aren’t always written for romantic reasons. We begin by introducing ourselves and humbly confessing our literary ambitions. It is difficult, in the circumstances, not to think of the other students as characters in a story. There is Peter Watson, a retired economist for the World Bank, who has read many bad spy thrillers over many hours spent in airports and thinks he could “perhaps do it better”.
There is Babita Dubay, a chemical engineer from Trinidad, who believes that a kind of instinctive spiritual empathy exists between people of all cultures and religions, which she would like to write a book about under the title Deliciously Divine. Possibly as a result of this belief, Babita laughs almost constantly. Caroline Schiach is a haematologist who told me last night at dinner that she sometimes uses her patients as subjects for fiction. She belongs to a writing group in Manchester, which she describes as a “gentle, civilised little society”, a relief from the “barbarism” of working for the NHS. Given that she knows how unforgiving life and death can be, she’s surprised that her stories tend to have sentimental endings.
Elizabeth Garrett, from Aberdeen, has attended most of the recent writing courses at the castle, and helped to organise a few of them. A genuinely lovely woman with a lot of intelligent things to say, she writes constantly but has no desire to ever publish a single word. “I just don’t want the stress of trying to get published, ” she says. “It terrifies me. I like to write because it makes every little aspect of life seem more interesting. Call it therapy.” Mary Butler, a recently widowed local grandmother, is here to get motivated. “My husband died two years ago, ” she says. “He was a joyous companion. But I’ve got to get on with things. I’ve got the gift of life and I want to use it. I want to start writing.”
Anita Burgh listens to all of this with interest and sympathy. But she has no patience for our diffidence, our modesty, our vague embarrassment about wanting to write fiction, and wanting to make a living at it. “Stop thinking of this as a hobby, ” she says. “Writers write for money. I’m not ashamed of it. If they stop paying me, I’ll stop writing. You can start out with a dream, but that doesn’t last long.” Burgh herself started out of desperation. In the mid-Eighties, approaching middle-age, she ran a small Highland hotel in Lairg, Sutherland, and the business was failing.
“I remember I was watching telly and doing the ironing, ” she says, “and my son came in with a final demand from the bank. He asked me what we were going to do now. Just as a joke, to cheer him up, I said Don’t worry son, we’ll write a best-seller’.” In the absence of any better ideas, she actually gave it a try, bashing out a full-length novel in three weeks at a rate of 6000 words per day. And in simple economic terms, she failed. The book wasn’t published, the bank manager “wasn’t patient”, and the Burghs were forced to sell their home. But having enjoyed that first attempt, she wrote another book, and another. She found an agent, her manuscript landed on “the right desk” at the publishing house Chatto & Windus, and she became so proficient at turning out popular fiction that she is now more than qualified to teach courses like this one. “I do regret losing the house, ” says Burgh. “But I’ve had a lot of fun since then. You don’t get to the age of 50 and expect a whole new world to open up for you.” Spoken like a true romantic, I tell her.
“Ah yes, ” she says, “it’s like that in the beginning. When I first started writing, I would have carried on doing it for nothing. But the tragedy is that the more you publish, the less the excitement. It’s a bit like losing your virginity.” Burgh goes on to outline the nuts and bolts of writing “mass- market fiction, women’s fiction, romantic fiction, popular fiction, whatever you want to call it”. “Real books” as opposed to “literature”. Dan Brown as opposed to Michael Ondaatje. There should be lots of words, but a simpler vocabulary. There should be lots of dialogue, because dialogue picks up the pace, and “pace is all- important”. There should be a straightforward beginning, middle and end. There should be a clear theme – “popular fiction is always about something”.
“And there should be a definite comfort factor. These kinds of books are wish fulfilment, because we live in a terrifying world.” She makes it sound easy. Having read the opening chapters of a few of Burgh’s books, I’ve noticed that she makes it look easy too. Exiles, The Visitor, and The House At Harcourt set up their stories in the space of a page – a popular author nurses deep anxieties despite all her success, a flighty Victorian heroine flees from her violent puritanical father across a rainy heath, a little girl grows up in a big sad mansion after her poor mother is cruelly banished by another cold-hearted paternal figure. The dialogue is melodramatic, to say the least (“Blasphemer! Whore of the devil! Godless bitch!”) and the descriptive prose is often downright loopy, comparing the mountains above the Loire valley to “huge, comforting breasts” for example. Burgh herself admits that her first publisher thought her debut novel Distinctions Of Class was “absolute rubbish” even while he conceded that it would probably sell. The trick to this kind of writing has nothing to do with language, and everything to do with rapid engagement and entertainment.
“What we do takes a lot of skill,” she says. “The writing has to transcend age, class, and education and keep a lot of different people happy at the same time. That’s the difficult part.” And having tried, I can’t do it. Shortly before attending this course, I drew up and threw out a variety of possible story ideas, including a semi-pornographic plot based on a friend of mine’s real-life affair with an Italian plumber, a racy topical fantasy about a South American cardinal who refuses a nomination for Pope because of his love for a socialist guerrilla, and my favourite daydream about the powerful attraction between two rival journalists, which my girlfriend suggested I should call Column Inches. Each time, I began with the utter conviction that my book would shatter the hearts and detonate the genitals of a million readers. And each time I shrank back into despondency after less than a paragraph of clumsy pastiche, entirely doubting my abilities and motives. What do I know about romance, or romance novels? Who do I think I am?
My problem, Burgh suggests casually but kindly during my private tutorial, is that I have a literature degree. I am “too literary”, too hung up on words to be able to use them “instinctually”. “People without that kind of education, ” she says, “can just get on and do it. But you’ve probably read so many books that you’re afraid to even start.” Her diagnosis seems simultaneously flattering, worrying, and plausible. When she asks me what the theme of my novel will be, I get nervous and I can’t think of a clear or satisfying answer. When she asks what the theme of this article will be, I say “fear”. Fear is the word for the day – the thing that almost everyone on this course has in common, the thing that has prevented us from writing instead of just thinking about it.
My classmate Annie Murchie told me earlier that she’s been putting it off for over 20 years, keeping busy as a hotelier and caterer “as a kind of constant displacement activity”. “Anything to avoid writing, ” she said. “Fear of failure, that’s all it is.” “Fear, ” sighs Burgh, “stops so many books from being written. But if you pack it away and just relax, something magical will happen, I promise.” Walking around the castle grounds in the afternoon – as well as restoring the building itself, the Breckons are having the 36 acres of surrounding woodland replanted to provide a serene backdrop for just this kind of self-consciousness – I try to clear my head of all its associations relating to romantic novels. “If it helps, ” says Burgh, “just think of them as relationship novels. We do have an image problem as romance writers. Barbara Cartland has become a bit of an albatross for us. We’re labelled as middle-aged, middle-class mums, when we’re actually a very broad church. A romantic novel might take the form of science fiction, or a crime story, or anything you like.” Eventually my mind goes blank. Which reminds me of snow. Which makes me think of the Antarctic. Which strikes me as an utterly thrilling backdrop for a tale of romance, adventure and ecological warning that will stop your heart, freeze it, and then smash it with an axe!
(Before stitching it back together again for a nice tidy finish, a process which Burgh calls “gathering the sheep”). Within a couple of hours I have fully outlined the relationship between Sir Hugo Purcell, a dejected scientist and explorer who has exiled himself to a one-man research station in Antarctica, and Louisa Del Fuego, the Argentinian polar landscape painter who thaws the frozen flame of his passion. They will be separated by the sudden catastrophic shearing of the continental ice shelf, but be reunited in a dramatic climax on the bloody deck of an illegal whaling vessel.
“It’s a magical idea, ” says Burgh, over sherries in the drawing room, looking genuinely pleased with me. My doubts return. She is obliged to say something nice. This story is patently ridiculous. The global warming element is heavy handed, the ice metaphors are extremely laboured and there is, still, an atmosphere of parody surrounding the whole thing. “Oh yes, maybe, ” says Burgh. “But any romance writer will tell you that conflict and resolution are vital to a story. “And with your concept, you’ve got the really dangerous and unpredictable element of the weather, as well as the conflict in the relationship itself.” It was fun to come up with, I admit. “Then it will be fun to read. I do hope you go away and write it, because I will buy it.”
I’d rather stay here and write it, to be honest. Another few weeks at Castle of Park might have given me the confidence to finish it and send it to publishers. Not under my own name, of course. Fear of failure isn’t so easily beaten. (On my way down the driveway, Annie Murchie tells me that this course has convinced her she will never be a writer, and she’s going to treat the rest of her stay as a holiday instead). But if you’re curious, you’re welcome to read a couple of extracts from the first rough draft of Hearts In Antarctica by Stephanie Fielding …
AN EXTRACT FROM MY ROMANTIC NOVEL NUMBER 1
When Sir Hugo Purcell first set eyes on her, she was just a shape in the distance, two kilometres away, across the blue ice of the glacier. Sir Hugo had not seen another human being in months, and hadn’t seen a woman in years, but he was not pleased at the prospect of meeting this unheralded stranger. On the contrary, he was bloody furious. His solitude had been intruded upon. Approaching as briskly as the terrain allowed, he could see that he was dealing with another of these damned Antarctic tourists, a polar landscape painter, facing away from him with a canvas and easel set on the edge of the frozen valley. When he came closer, he was momentarily disarmed to see that this artist had perfectly captured the cold colours and unearthly stillness of the scene. And when Louisa Del Fuego turned to face him, her warm smile shining out from beneath a heavy furlined hood and enormous black snow-goggles, Sir Hugo felt a sudden crack in the wall of ice around his heart.
AN EXTRACT FROM MY ROMANTIC NOVEL NUMBER 2
“Go back to Buenos Aires then!” he shouted across the white waste as she crunched awkwardly away from him on her snow shoes. “Back to your art gallery and your tango school and all your other little hobbies! While I stay here working for the benefit of mankind!” She turned back, her face hot with tears and rage. “Ha!” she cried. “What do you care about mankind? You came here alone because you cannot face any kind of relationship with another human being!” At that moment, there was an awful and monumental grinding as the ice-shelf suddenly shook and split. Within seconds there was a mile-deep chasm between them as the shearing continent pushed them apart.
AN EXTRACT FROM MY ROMANTIC NOVEL NUMBER 3
“What time will the helicopter come for you?” asked Sir Hugo, as they stood in the blood and blubber, gazing heavenward at the sinuous green ghost-light of the southern aurora. “0600 hours” said Louisa unhappily. “Oh Hugo, I don’t want to leave.””Then don’t, ” he said, softly, but commandingly. It was the final thaw she had been waiting for. They could not kiss, because the sub-zero temperature would seal their lips together, freezing their fluids into a hazardous, agonising glue. So they made their vow by rubbing noses, like Eskimo lovers from the far distant north.