Thank you to James Robertson, Ringwood Publishing and everyone who came along for a wonderful evening on Wednesday 17 March. I really enjoyed chatting about bringing women’s stories into the light, exploring 17th-century Scotland, and walking the path between fact and fiction.
You can catch up on the launch event here and order What You Call Free direct from Ringwood Publishing here or as an ebook here. It will soon also be available from other outlets.
The National Museum of Scotland opened in Edinburgh in 1998, a new home for Scotland’s treasures. Straight out of university, I was fortunate enough to be part of the team creating the displays. What a privilege, to get up close and personal with the real objects which were handled by generations past, and what a gift to the storyteller too.
Some objects, like Mary Queen of Scots’ jewellery or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s picnic set, were famous and had always been on display, but there were also objects among the collections about which we knew very little. One of these was a gown made of sackcloth which had been donated to the museum in 1806 by the minister of West Calder parish. The description given at the time was: ‘a sackcloth gown, anciently made use of in the Parish Church of West Calder, as part of ecclesiastical discipline.’ (Archaeologica Scotica III p90)
That was it: no more information.
How would this ugly object fit in The Church gallery, alongside gleaming communion silver, pews and hymn boards? We needed to know more. And so it was that one day I went along to the National Records of Scotland, and I met Jonet Gothskirk.
Her story was buried in the records of West Calder kirk session. I’ve been back recently to check the records, and because they have been digitised it’s all done on screen, but at that time I turned page after page handwritten by the seventeenth-century session clerk. I followed Jonet’s story, not knowing how long it would last, not knowing what had happened to the man with whom she was said to have committed adultery, and not knowing, at first, that she was pregnant.
Jonet’s story and surrounding research helped us to display the gown in a meaningful way, and I wrote up our findings in an academic article for Costume journal in 1999. I moved on from the museum in 2000, but Jonet and her story stayed with me. Now, more than two decades later, she has become one of two protagonists in my novel What You Call Free, which will be published by Ringwood Publishing on 17 March.
Jonet’s story left me with so many questions, and also with a strange and slightly uneasy sense of responsibility! She was a real person. Those months when she was forced to parade publicly in front of her community wearing that gown must have been deeply traumatic, but had been long forgotten until I unearthed her story among the records. Now her name once more was on display for millions of visitors to the museum, albeit hopefully in a more sympathetic era. I did a bit of digging among genealogical records, and although I couldn’t establish anything with real certainty, there was a strong possibility that Jonet was just a teenager. My desire to give her a story was growing stronger.
In writing historical fiction the question at the forefront of my mind is always ‘what did it feel like?’ We can see and even touch the objects, we can read the archives – but what did it feel like? It took decades for Jonet’s story to emerge in its right form, intertwined with the story of another historical woman from late seventeenth-century Scotland, Helen Alexander (more on her another day). We know far more about Helen’s life from her own words, but like many men and women of her class, Jonet is remembered only for her ‘sin’. The story I have given her is therefore fictitious, my interpretation of what might have happened to a woman faced with Jonet’s circumstances. It is structured around the timeframe of her weekly punishment. I did consider making up a name, but it seemed important to give honour to the real woman whose ordeal inspired What You Call Free.
The museum is of course closed just now because of lockdown, but when restrictions are lifted you can go along to The Church gallery and see the gown for yourself, and remember Jonet and many others like her.
What You Call Free will launch online on 17 March. I’ll be posting details of how to register once they’re available, but in the meantime I’m really excited that the brilliant author James Robertson will be taking part in the evening.
‘In this wonderful debut novel, Flora Johnston prises open a forgotten window to give a rare view onto the lives of women in one of the darkest periods in Scotland’s history.‘ See James Robertson’s full review here.
Throughout February I’ve been enjoying myself having a virtual wander round some of the locations that feature in the novel. You can catch up on my #WhatYouCallFree on location series on twitter, facebook and instagram.
Exciting news – What You Call Free is now available to pre-order from Ringwood Publishing, ahead of the launch in March.
Cynthia Rogerson, award-winning novelist, said:
‘Flora Johnston has written a literary page turner about one of Scotland’s most turbulent and least talked about periods …. It’s a bleak story because it’s a bleak time, but the characters retain their warmth and humanity. All in all, a compulsive read. As addictive as chocolate, and as nourishing as a bowl of Scotch broth.’
Jenni Calder, novelist, poet and literary historian, said:
‘Flora Johnston tells a powerful story, steering a sure-footed path through perhaps the most complex and divided period in Scotland’s history in a way that resonates with many issues today.’
Scotland’s creative writing centre, Moniack Mhor, is a very special place. I’ve stayed there twice in the last few years, and those two weeks were hugely influential in the writing of What You Call Free.
I’ve been working on this book for a very long time! I began writing it in 2013, although the idea had been there for much longer. In 2016 I entered it into the Bridge Awards’ Emerging Writer Award and was delighted to be ‘highly commended’, and to receive a grant towards a Moniack Mhor retreat as a result.
The format for the tutored courses is a perfect combination of workshops, one-to-one tutorials, evening readings, and as much thinking time, writing time, good food, good wine and good conversation as you could possibly want. With some trepidation, I chose a historical fiction course led by Isla Dewar and Margaret Elphinstone, and travelled to Moniack. Although I am used to having my non-fiction words published in different forms, my fiction writing had always been a private and solitary enterprise. I had never done a creative writing course or joined a writing group, and had rarely shared or spoken about my work. I learned a great deal on that course, but I think its real significance lay in giving me permission and confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer. It was a completely new experience to speak the language of fiction with other people and to discuss my writing and my dreams. The book I was working on – at that time called Sackcloth on Skin – was a bit of a sprawling, multi-strand, multi-timeframe mess, but my first visit to Moniack Mhor encouraged me to believe not just in the book but in myself as a writer.
Eventually I was ready to send it out. There were some positives – a couple of longlistings for example – but then came the stream of rejections from agents and publishers. If you have ever put yourself through this you will know how completely demoralising and destructive it is. By the end of 2018 any confidence I’d discovered at Moniack was fast disappearing. And yet, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on this story. I still believed in it, but something needed to change. My choice seemed to be either to self-publish the book as it was or to change it drastically. I decided to try removing everything but the 17th-century storyline, and rewriting it as a historical novel.
It should have been devastating but it was actually quite cathartic! By the time I had cut out everything I no longer wanted, the book was about half the length. It was much easier to see its weaknesses, and where the historical story needed development. Around the same time the Moniack programme for 2019 dropped into my inbox. I hadn’t planned to go back, but a course on ‘Finding the heart of your novel’ led by James Robertson and Cynthia Rogerson caught my eye. Could Moniack work its magic a second time?
I signed up, and then left the book aside until June 2019, when I returned to Moniack with a mutilated half novel! I was worried the course might not live up to my first experience, but it was a wonderful week. As before, the setting, the people, the generous help from the tutors and the encouraging atmosphere all combined to help me to understand how to take the book forward.
I spent the rest of 2019 rewriting, and by the start of the year was ready to begin the daunting prospect of sending my novel – now What You Call Free – out again. But this time I had more experience, and the support and advice of writer friends made on that course. In summer 2020 the book found its home – with Ringwood Publishing, an independent Glasgow based publisher who publish an exciting range of Scottish fiction and non-fiction. It should come out early next year. There’s still a long way to go, but I will be forever grateful to Moniack Mhor for helping me firstly to believe in myself as a writer and then to understand the book I was writing.
This has obviously been a really hard year for Moniack Mhor, but they continue to offer online courses and opportunities. Check them out, and support them if you can!
During the course of the summer I received the wonderful news that my debut novel is to be published by Ringwood Publishing next year.
I’ve shared a bit over the years about the progress of this novel. I began working on it years ago, alongside my freelance writing and heritage career, and it has been through many drafts! There were some really encouraging early moments, including being highly commended in the Bridge Awards Emerging Writer Award and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Award, but there have been so many disappointments too.
The decision I took 18 months ago to move to a different part-time job, giving myself time to focus properly on my fiction, has proved to be really important, as was my second visit to Moniack Mhor in June 2019.
After a drastic rewrite, which included removing an entire storyline (around half the manuscript!), What You Call Free (yes, new title too) has at last found its perfect home.
This was an interesting project I did a few years ago – researching the lives of the two founders of what is now Stewart’s Melville College. The results have just been put online on their Digital Archives site which has some fascinating material. I haven’t done any work like this for a while now, having moved from freelance research and exhibition work to a part-time job which allows me a day a week for working on fiction, but it’s nice to be reminded of my former life!