Its the characters innit? Sometimes a person or group of people come to life from the keyboard and demand more. Sometimes a set of characters can demand another book as in ‘Assured Attention’ the follow up to best selling ‘Our Best Attention’. Murrays, department store of distinction, simply couldn’t be shut down. Luckily, the books’ format of linked short stories meant that they could be read in any order. Basically, they consist of what amounts to 33 short stories some longer than others. Some characters run throughout the series of stories some don’t.
Writing short stories is an art. Its a discipline. They have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. There has to be internal coherence. Additionally, there has to be something else. Something intangible called satisfaction. The reader has to think ‘ah yes’ at the end.
Short stories are often a useful lead in to writing longer books but are valuable in themselves. Feedback from readers of my books so far often includes how much people like the format: they can read a chapter on the bus, or at night and don’t have to worry about ‘losing the thread’ of a longer narrative. They can be addictive too. One reader told me that she stayed awake all night just reading one more then another and by 6 am the book was finished- and so was she!
Magazines like the People’s Friend know the value of short stories and publish many of them every week as well as three weekly ‘specials’ and pocket novels. 200,000+ weekly readers around the world can’t be wrong! Luckily, I enjoy writing short stories for them and mine have included topics as disparate as call centres, grumpy policemen and gallus grans among many others. As ever, its the characters innit!
There was a busy Autumn session including a presentation on ‘Disappeared Department Stores’ at ‘Previously- Scotland’s History festival’, Loanhead’s wonderful new library, Stockbridge’s wonderful old library, Barnton and Cramond Community club and a double page feature in the Sunday Post. I’m just about ready to face 2018!
There’s a new Murrays story in the People’s Friend January Special out on 24th January and two more submitted. Fingers crossed.
Changing direction slightly, I’m now working on a detective story featuring a recently demoted female detective constable. Its set in the West Highlands and I’m hoping it’ll be as much fun to read as it is to write!
Well the Autumn session of talks and events has kicked off in style. A cheerful evening at Juniper Green WI set the scene. Lots of nice ladies with happy memories of the old stores.
To Morningside next week for another talk then a session at the Portobello Book Festival in their historic fiction slot the following weekend. Its all go.
Meanwhile People’s Friend have published another of my stories. U3A keeps me busy in various groups and, in my other life, I still run my groups for late diagnosed men and women with Asperger Syndrome.
In the hiatus before the publication date of ‘Assured Attention’ I’ve been researching some of the old department stores of Edinburgh. What a lost world! I’ve looked at the long lists of departments that used to be considered necessary. Looking at the image above of the disappeared J& R Allan store on South Bridge, for example, its clear that mourning was a major consideration for businesses back then. The appropriate dresses , hats and gloves vital purchases for the serious mourner in those days.
When was the last time you bought a ‘mantle’? I don’t think I ever have! Moving on into the 20th century I was surprised to see ‘Smoking paraphernalia’ included as a specific department in one large store. O tempora. O mores!
I’ll be presenting my findings at The University of the Third Age meeting on 19th July and once again, perhaps in an extended form (as I keep discovering more!), at ‘Previously- Scottish History Festival’ in November.
The attentive reader will have noted that the first book in this series: ‘Our Best Attention’ featured a variety of animals: an embarrassing dog, a quiet cat, some cheeky monkeys (always the best!), chinchillas, quail and a Mynah bird. The little monkey draped over the title was a clue to the inclusion of animals.
In Book 2 ‘Assured Attention’, there are cats again, one, Bluebell, is Miss Murray’s own pet but a new visitor to Murrays ‘Department Store of Distinction’ has a chapter of her own. This time it is she who adorns the title of the new book. Look out for the little Birman. Not all the staff at Murrays will have only two legs by the end of the book.
A dog features too. This time a rather depressed collie. Sad you might think, however, he has a starring and unexpected role in a staff selection dilemma. Warning- its not what you might expect!
‘Assured Attention’ is available for pre order on Amazon Kindle and will be released to coincide with the official launch on 31st July.
Well its been a long winter for me and my knee. Thankfully, things are improving and I’m now out and about again. In fact I think I’m back in a big way. My latest book ‘Assured Attention,’ a sequel to ‘Our Best Attention’ is almost ready for publication. There have been sneak previews on Facebook and Twitter. The People’s Friend have published five stories, some of which are set in Murrays (department store of distinction,) others are in more diverse settings including a call centre, a sports centre and a school. More are to follow. My hibernation has been productive.
Requests for talks and author events are coming in a steady stream and already the diary is filling up. Fine by me. I always enjoy these events and love hearing people’s reminiscences of departed department stores.
Life is full of surprises it would seem. Librarian hath spoken unto librarian with the result that I was invited to view the Jenners archive at the Central Library in Edinburgh. Obviously, my novel, ‘Our Best Attention,’ is fiction but its location in a large department store was inspired by my time working in Jenners in Princes St, Edinburgh. I loved working there and it has long remained in my memory. However, the memories contained in the archive went back many, many years before I was born.
Among the items I looked at was a complete inventory of the building from top to bottom. I was intrigued to find the ratio of shop floor space to the building as a whole to be really quite small. Only the first two floors were open to customers. The other four floors contained the staff bedrooms ( I found 102 of these!) staff dining rooms and a three bed sick room and medical room along with many workrooms and rooms with various other uses. Although this was a professionally produced inventory carried out by a London firm, it was unfortunately undated. Very frustrating. However, by careful cross referencing it looks like it must have been produced about 1906.
I also loved looking at the Christmas catalogues which dated back to 1902. There was so much to look at in the archive that I plan several return visits.
I’m going to be talking about my novel and the background to it at the Central library “Edinburgh Tales” session on 21st September. Look out for further information on the Eventbrite website.
Fashion was always a priority for ladies at Murrays of Edinburgh, department store of distinction. Various departments catered for different aspects of this from Lingerie and Corsetry to that holy of holies -Model Gowns with all varieties in between from Swimwear to Outdoor Clothing and even, for an unfortunate time, Furs.
In my best selling book , ‘Our Best Attention’, Mr Da Costa, the straight talking star of Model Gowns, dresses down Edinburgh ladies before dressing them up again in outfits that do them more justice than those they might have chosen for themselves. In the end the ladies actually revel in his rudeness and vie to be most insulted by him.
Of course this is just a story but reality can be surprising too. In the course of my author events I’ve enjoyed hearing ladies’ experiences of their time working or as customers in the old department stores. One lady told us all about how her grandmother was a model. This meant something different in those days: ladies didn’t try on clothes themselves, they would sit and watch as models paraded the clothes for them and those they chose would be made up for them in their sizes. No changing rooms for the ladies of old! In that particular store, the sewing rooms were located as far as possible from the kitchens to prevent contamination of the precious garments by cooking smells even those from the chocolate kitchen (yes there was one!) Those were the days!
Well who’d have thought it? Not me anyway. I just wrote the stories as stories. However, at a recent author event where the reminiscences came thick and fast from the audience, it was pointed out that ‘Our Best Attention,’ my novel set in a department store in the 1970s, was social history.
The book described a setting, a staff group and customers that are now, sadly, long gone. The loss of the whole ethos of service to customers and care for and about staff seems to have disappeared almost without trace in our modern world of minimum wage, zero hours contracts and, of course the internet.
Specific aspects of the book were pointed out to me. For example, the legion of ladies left without potential husbands after the first world war: no families, children or grandchildren for them. So sad. Miss McPherson in the chapter, “The Bequest,” is really a tribute to these often very kindly women. The concept of “Model Gowns,” the unquestioning ubiquity of a “Furs” department, and the employment of war disabled staff have all disappeared. No one starts their “wedding china” off any more with the hope of adding to it throughout a long married life. Can staff members simply arrange for a family member to be employed these days? Mrs Da Costa could in “The Square Peg” and Mr Soames did in “Operation Limelight”. Even the language has changed: no one is asked to “Come forward Miss Glover” as in “Storm in the Teacups” or even to always refer to each other so formally as always to use surnames.
Life for staff in department stores of the past was very different from now. At the time of the 1892 fire in Jenners store in Edinburgh, Scotland (one of the stores which were the inspiration for the setting of ‘Our Best Attention’ my bestselling novel), 120 staff lived on the premises. On the third and fourth floors were the bedrooms for lady assistants along with Reading and Drawing Rooms. The young men had rooms on the fifth and sixth floors with a spacious Reading Room and a splendid Smoking Room en suite. There was a manager for this accommodation who occupied a suite of apartments on the third floor. As time moved on, and space was required for expansion of the business, any staff requiring accommodation were moved to a spacious hostel purchased by the company until only a handful remained and other accommodation was found for them.
As late as the 1930s there were clear standards for staff to maintain. Dress was a matter for female staff to provide for themselves but this had to adhere to a set style and hem length. Male staff were issued with a box of 12 starched collars: six to last the week and six to be sent to the laundry. They were expected to work long hours-almost a 12 hour day in some cases but there was fun too.
Despite the hard work, staff could join a wide variety of leisure activities. There was a golf club, a tennis club and a dramatic club. Shakespearean plays were performed in the gardens of Charles Jenners’ house at Duddingston.
It’s hard to imagine the all-encompassing nature of employment in such a department store in these days of self service and automatic checkout systems and, of course, internet shopping. For staff in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, our modern way of shopping life would have been every bit as unimaginable!
(Information from ‘Jenners: A Short History 1838-1988 and from ladies attending author events)