A Week in Scotland

 North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

Twenty seven years ago, I did my study abroad in Stirling, Scotland. I’ve been wanting to go back for more than a decade. This year, it finally happened—I just spent a week in Edinburgh, with side trips to Falkirk and, of course, Stirling.

A lot has changed in the last twenty-seven years, and I forgot a bunch more, too. Like the fact that Edinburgh is almost all hills. Stirling, too, is a giant hill. Falkirk wasn’t exactly flat, either. On one day in particular, I climbed the equivalent of 18 flights of stairs. No wonder everyone looked so good in tights back in the day!

I stayed in the Old Town section of Edinburgh, in a hotel just down the street from the train station. Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, the National Museum of Scotland—all were mere blocks away from my hotel. Across the bridge from my hotel was the New Town section of the city. But the name is really a misnomer—it’s not all that new. That part of the city dates back to the 1760s. I did some exploring there, too—especially Princes Street Gardens.

 The Kelpies

The Kelpies

I loved being surrounded by old buildings and old cobblestone streets, but my absolute favorite site that I saw was the Kelpies. The Kelpies are giant metallic horse-head statues. They’re in Falkirk, part of a giant park complex called The Helix. The statues honor the horses that used to pull boats through the Forth & Clyde Canal, which borders the park. They are amazing to see in photographs—and even more impressive in person. They’re the one thing I would love to go see again.

I’ve posted more pictures from my trip—castles, churches, and palaces—in the gallery here.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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The best book I read this month was another edition of “our Founding Fathers were jerks”—this time about George Washington. The book, Never Caught, tells the story of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by the Washingtons who successfully escaped to freedom.

As history books go, this one was relatively short—about 200 pages, not counting the copious notes and acknowledgements at the end. It was an easy read, too, thanks to Dunbar’s plain-spoken style.

What is remarkable about Judge, beyond her escape from the home and control of the president of the United States, is the amount of information available about her—including her own words. We have very little record of any enslaved persons from that time period. But not only have George Washington’s records and letters referring to Judge, we also have two interviews that she gave later in her life. (If you get the paperback version of the book, it includes transcripts of those interviews. They are not included in the hardcover edition.) It was because of these sources that Dunbar was able to craft this narrative. And as many historians do, she filled in the gaps with conclusions and inferences based on available data.

Dunbar does not sugarcoat Judge’s experiences, either, whether those experiences were working for the Washingtons or trying to survive as a fugitive free woman. Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the risks and dangers Judge faced, Dunbar gets repetitive. But that was a small price to pay for the story of such a strong, determined woman.

Goodbye, My Darling

There’s a fabled piece of writing advice attributed to William Faulkner: “Kill your darlings.” It means, “get rid of the parts of your story you love most if they aren’t serving the story.” Tonight, I killed a darling. In fact, I killed my favorite darling.

 Me, trying to hold onto my darling.  Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Me, trying to hold onto my darling.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Five years ago, the main character in my current WIP (work-in-progress) introduced himself to me. I could see him vividly. His voice was crystal clear. His surroundings, sharp.

I was working on another novel at that time, so I fought him off. Told him to wait his turn. But he’s an ornery one and kept yapping at me, kept insisting I tell his story. When I finally sat down to do just that, that introduction became the first scene in my novel.

As the WIP developed, that scene stayed, draft after draft. I tweaked it as the story changed. Trimmed this. Added that. Traded this word for that one. But essentially, the scene remained the same.

For the last month, I’ve been working on Draft 6 of my WIP, what I hope will be the last draft before I start querying literary agents. As I’ve worked on these revisions, I’ve realized that that darling, that scene, that whole first chapter, was slowing down my story. It had to go.

I love that scene and that chapter—they’re my darlings!—so I resisted. I tried to find ways to change them to make them work. I tried and tried and tried, as relentless as Wile E. Coyote hunting Roadrunner and with about the same success rate.

Tonight I realized there was just no way that chapter would work—except maybe as an extra here on this blog when I finally get the book published. So I took out my scissors and snipped off the whole thing. My darling, killed. The whole first chapter, GONE.

I’m a sad little murderer tonight, mourning my dead darling, but my story is feeling much better. And that’s what really matters.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

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The best book I read this month is one I'm still reading (shhh...don't tell!). It's the latest in Peter Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks series, which is set in the fictional town of Eastvale in Yorkshire, England.

In this latest installment, called Sleeping in the Ground, Banks and his team must solve the mystery of a mass shooting at a local wedding. As I read, I'm learning a lot about U.K. gun laws. And, yes, there was the mandatory reference to the epidemic of shootings in the United States.

The book is the 24th in the series. (I started the series at book 10.) What keeps the series fresh is Robinson's treatment of his characters. In Sleeping in the Ground, recent changes in Banks's life have him off-balance. He was recently promoted, and he's not entirely comfortable with his new rank or his new office. He is also mourning the loss of a childhood friend while at the same time, dealing with an old flame who reappears in his life. Through these twists and turns, Robinson is forcing his leading man to grow and change.

Banks's supporting cast is equally engaging. In fact, I like two of them--Annie Cabbot and Winsome Jackman--more than I like Banks. Both feature prominently in this story (Jackman is one of the victims of the shooting), and I enjoy how they, too, have grown as the series has progressed.

The story (so far, at least) stands on its own, so it's not necessary to read the whole series to understand and enjoy this one book. But I am enjoying it more because I know the history of the characters and can see layers in their interactions as a result.