Newsletter – 13th Sept 99

Greetings from a bright autumnal Edinburgh.
I’ve not long returned from my summer holiday prior to which the Festival was going on here in the city. This of course included the Edinburgh Book Festival at which Dorothy was one of the opening day speakers along with her editor Richenda Todd. The bulk of this newsletter is taken up with a report of that event, taken from the notes I made on my palmtop computer at the time. Since I didn’t really have time to work on it until I was in the middle of the second week of the holiday, they may be a little disjointed, but I am well aware that it’s all too easy to fill in the gaps with what you think happened or with stuff you’ve heard before, rather than what was actually said so I’ve tried to resist the temptation to smooth it out too much and rather present it as my immediate if somewhat summarised impressions.

Dorothy and Richenda Todd at the Edinburgh Book Festival

The event took place in one of the many Book Festival marquees set up in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. It probably held about 200 or so people for the talk and although not totally full was not far off it.
The purpose of the talk was to give some idea of the relationship between the author and editor on a long multi-volume series. They started by looking at what type of books they were trying to produce, and said that they were trying to avoid the Hornblower type of story which has no overall plan but was a series of individual stories. Richenda felt historical fiction is the most difficult type to produce. Dorothy also felt that publishers were easier to sell to at beginning of her career.
She reiterated that Lymond was all planned out but that the sources were often not recorded (which is of course where Elspeth Morrison came in.)

Lymond was edited first in US, by Lois Cole and Bob Godfried. Richenda came in during the House of Niccolo on Race of Scorpions and had the manuscript dropped on her desk when she arrived – which must have been a pretty intimidating start. She had to quickly read the previous books to ascertain the style used before she could do any editing.

As we know, Dorothy was initially turned down by various UK publishers and was first published in the US. It was Alastair who suggested it be a series – Dorothy said “he was a newspaper editor ….and she was used to obeying” 🙂

Lymond was marketed in US as the next “Gone with the Wind” and amongst other promotional events 10 salesmen walked down the street in “Crawford tartan” ties advertising it. It was subbed to Cassell in the UK, which she was very happy with as all her school dictionaries were done by them so she felt they had a certain authority!
Cassell published Lymond then unfortunately in a change of direction ditched their fiction list altogether. While Dorothy was looking for another publisher Rosemary Cheetham of Century phoned her. She had read Lymond at the age of 12(!!) having been given the books by her mother and had grown up with the ambition of publishing them.

The US publisher wanted another series but Dorothy wanted to do individual books instead (like the JJs). She decided to go down that route but that first book turned out to be King Hereafter which then needed 5 years research. Having decided that continuing in that direction would mean only ever writing about another 3 books, she decided to go back to a series with Niccolo.

Returning to the Author/Editor relationship they said that publishers frequently change direction and have different ideas on marketing so it’s difficult to maintain a consistent style. Richenda was happy that they’d managed to keep the same jacket artist for all the Niccolos, and also the same proofreader and copy editor. (This is quite an achievement as there have been changes in Michael Joseph and Richenda herself is now freelance rather than working for them directly.)

During this section Dorothy mentioned that 3/4 hour earlier, before having to leave for the talk, she was in the middle of writing possibly the most dramatic section of the entire series. So if it didn’t turn out right it would all be our fault! 😉
They next discussed secrets and how to keep them. To avoid giving the plot away before people have read the book you need to look at things like maps, genealogical tables, ends of chapters, news of places that Dorothy has visited prior to writing each book, etc.

One book had a 15th Century “Cod War”. The artist produced a superb exploding volcano but that was not allowed on the cover as it would have given the game away. They came up with a cover in which it was hard to tell the difference between sand and snow! The map also had to be doctored to hide Iceland under the flap and it was skewed to accomplish that – despite the mapmaker’s protests that you had to have north pointing straight upwards.
Blurbs which gave too much away were often problems with a new publisher.

On the Scales of Gold shock ending – Richenda confessed to being poleaxed and said she sometimes feels dim. 😉
The main thing an editor does is checking on the shape, pacing and clues to the development in the story. Dorothy never discusses the story as she writes but once it is sent to the editors the first phone call in response is very important. For instance Bob Gottlieb contacted her about the Marion/Nicholas marriage, saying that for the first time he felt she had cheated him of a scene. He wanted to see a Marion/Felix scene to show Felix’ reaction and how Marion would deal with it. Dorothy wrote the scene in an hour. If there is a reaction like Richenda’s feeling poleaxed she has to look again at the clues that she has included to see if she needs to make things any clearer.

Fax machines came on the scene during the period of writing. On one occasion having just finished a book Dorothy went off to Arran on holiday to a chalet hotel which had one fax machine at the reception desk. Richenda sent loads of long faxes which Dorothy replied to standing at reception while guests gave her their keys or instructions about their meals etc. 🙂 Some of the faxes were somewhat explicit – they’ve never been back!

Richenda mentioned the Scales of Gold orgy scene – she had wanted to know what Diniz was doing? As a result he lost his virginity twice. She’s still embarrassed about it!

Not just sex but fashions have changed over the years. Cruelty to animals for instance is looked upon rather differently. Sentimentality is not allowable so much now either. Game of Kings is set in aspic, but the JJs are surrealistically in their periods. Readers have to be aware when the various books were written to understand how attitudes and fashions have changed.
Because of the unusual nature of the two series with the later-written Niccolos preceding the time of Lymond, Richenda, who doesn’t know what the ending is to be, has the flow going forward whereas Dorothy has it going backwards.

Consistency is very difficult. Regarding who does what, Dorothy assumes she will have to check history since she does so much original research which often hasn’t been tackled by historians. She also has to constantly work out what speed a camel goes at, how fast and where and in what conditions ships can travel, the speed of bullock carts, letters etc. She always tries to visit the scene to check the terrain.
As an editor – how much can you trust the author? A naval author who Richenda worked with got the ships bells wrong at one point and she started checking everything – it turned out that half of his historical and technical descriptions were wrong. Dorothy mentioned some racy French that was wrong but the US editor picked it up. The Latin tag for Lymond’s arms was wrong -she hadn’t used the accusative case – and the covers had to be redone.
US editors don’t have the same mores of the Europeans so there is a difference in how their editors and readers approach some passages.

Dorothy was given advice early on in her career that you must make your villain as strong as possible or the hero won’t be believable. Colleagues must also be top of their tree.

With time having gone all too quickly they moved to a Questions & Answer session

Q. Some characters we get very fond of but then you kill them.

A. It’s necessary because otherwise the last book would be massive. Endings should however be satisfying. Umar in particular was a turning point for Niccolo. A long series does something that only books can do – subtexts for instance.

Q. Spelling – how do you handle modern readers v period and UK v US

A. Dorothy mentioned that recently her word processor gave her the “too many spelling mistakes to continue displaying them” error message while writing Niccolo 8.
Lymond started using the original spellings but it’s impossible all through. An important difference in the two series is that while Lymond would quite often be speaking English or sometimes French, Niccolo is almost never speaking English. She puts in syntax to suggest the different languages. Scots is shown in a vernacular to suggest the language concerned.
Changed place names need to be supplied for the publishing team, e.g. Dubrovnik and Gdansk for the map maker.

Q. Any characters who won’t go away?

A. Not really. The main characters are fixed. Facts about minor characters do arise – Dorothy reads 20 different magazines on renaissance history.

Q. What are the relationship between UK and US editors?

A. Originally they were independent, but later they got together. Main thing is the structure and their different feelings about how clear things should be made. US editor now send comments to Richenda and she combines them with hers before asking Dorothy. There is a lot of time pressure as two years is a very short time to produce books of this complexity. These days there are PC issues to consider. One scene Bob thought was too literary though Richenda thought it was ok – it was eventually rewritten. Richenda jokingly suggested that they should republish with both versions of the scene and let readers decide which was the best!

Regarding sex scenes, one person thanked Dorothy for not making them explicit in the way some writers do. She replied that if you’re too explicit you run out of things to say whereas if you describe it as an act of love then there are always new ways to talk about it.

Q. Why do the supporting characters have little faith in hero?

A. It makes the books longer!! 😉 The reader should be also unsure about him.

Q. Any prospect of a new series?

A. No. Too much work, but more importantly there would be too many other people dependent on her and she feels that wouldn’t be fair to them.


After the talk, which started around 5pm, and once Dorothy had spent some time in the signing tent, a group of us went with Dorothy to the Caledonian Hotel for drinks, and I had the pleasure not only of meeting Richenda for the first time but also the bonus of meeting Elspeth Morrison, also for the first time. The four of us later attended the Book Festival opening party. While some of the conversations must remain under wraps I can tell you that Niccolo 8 is going to be even longer than expected. It also looks as though it will be later than we’d hoped, although I hope to have word of the official publication date soon. The title still hasn’t been released and is known to only a handful of people (not including me!) but again that is expected soon.

The Companion

There has been some speculation from people with US publishing contacts that Vintage may be about to release a first US edition of the Dorothy Dunnett Companion. I’m told that they have been in touch with Dorothy about it but although she gave them Elspeth’s contact details they have not been in touch with her yet, so don’t expect too early a result on this. Personally I have mixed feelings about such an edition. It was always hoped that there would be a revised edition once the Niccolos were finished but I can’t see there being sufficient potential sales for both a reprint and a new edition, and I would much rather see the latter myself.

New “Answers from Dorothy”

I’ve uploaded some more “Answers” to the web page, including a very long one about Groa which Heike Meyer in particular should find interesting.

Hexagonal Brooch in Game of Kings

Q. Is the large Hexagonal brooch in GK based on a real piece of jewellery? ‘A vast, hexagonal brooch set in ebony and diamonds shouted into the sunshine in a cacophony of light. The thing was enormous. Crouch, sitting within yards of the bed, could see the centrepiece was a heart set with pointed diamonds: around the heart and attached to it by foliated gilt wire were crystal plaques, each bearing an angel’s head, bewinged and carved in onyx: the plaque below the point of the heart was joined to it by a scroll, and on the scroll in diamonds were the initial letters H and D, entwined. It was the most expensive-looking jewel Mr. Crouch had ever seen in his life…. “H for Henri, D for Diane de Poitiers!” cried Mr. Crouch.’ Anyway, what struck me about this description this time around is that it sounds like an actual piece of jewelry that DD might have seen somewhere.

A. “Without my notes, this sounds like a description of a piece actually owned by Diane de Poitiers, presumably now lost, or I wouldn’t have introduced it. At a guess, I got it from an inventory of Diane’s jewellery in one of the many books written about Diane and the French court she lived in.”

The fourth and fifth in a series of King Hereafter questions from Heike Meyer

The House of the Grey Sandal-hose

Q. In p.4, ch.3, Lulach says to Crinan junior: ‘Three Kings, two Ediths, and the House of the Grey Sandal-hose.’ We had a rather heated discussion about the meaning of this, especially ‘House of the Grey Sandal-hose’. Is it the English translation of a family’s name, which is originally in another language , e.g. Gaelic? Or is it a reference to the descendants of someone known for his funny trousers, e.g. Ragnar Lodbrok ? My theory – which may be totally off the track – is, that the whole passage refers to the forthcoming events in 1066; the three kings being the three rulers of England in that year (Edward, Harold, William), the Ediths the Queens of Edward and Harold, and the House of the Grey Sandal-hose a reference to Ragnar Lodbrok’s descendant Harald Hardrada . Are we all wrong ?

A. “I have been waiting twenty years to be asked this question. One of the kings is Henry I, as above, who also accounts for an Edith. All the answers have to do with an unnoticed connection with Scotland. And the key to the whole thing – wait for it – is Tarzan.”


Q. To create your Groa, you blended the persons of the historical Ingibjorg Finnsdottir and Macbeth’s Queen Gruoch. Now I’m no adherent of the ‘Macbeth is Thorfinn’ theory, and the main reason for this are their respective wives. They obviously lived at the same time, Gruoch in 1032, at the death of her first husband, already was mother of a son, and she is mentioned about 1050 as a benefactress to the Loch Leven monks. Ingibjorg was already married to Thorfinn at the time Rognvald was killed, which is estimated about 1045. But she can’t have been born much before 1030, because the genealogies give her as the granddaughter of King Harald’s full brother. Even if this brother was born at the earliest possible time, about 995/6, this would make him a very young grandfather. And Ingibjorg bore at least three children to Malcolm Canmore, which would be possible, but not probable, for a woman high in her forties, as Gruoch would have been. To give Groa a birthdate about 1015 AND call her the great-niece of King Harald is – no offence intended – rather improbable. So is this a case of poetic licence, or did you discover something during your research for KH to support a theory that Ingibjorg and Gruoch are truly the same person ?

A. “Well, not poetic licence, as five years in the salt mines will testify! But as is maybe evident, 99 per cent of the evidence for both the traditional interpretation of this reign and for mine is circumstantial, which makes it hard to answer simple questions in less than three weeks. Disentangling Macbeth/Thorfinn has to be followed by disentangling the wives, which is much more difficult, partly because the dates you quote can’t all be trusted. (Many Scottish historians have believed, for example, that there were two people, mother and daughter, called Ingibjorg, and King Malcolm married the daughter). The Historiographer Royal for Scotland, who followed all my research, pointed out that my theory would solve the whole problem and allow Thorfinn’s wife to be young enough to bear children to Malcolm (actually only one son, Duncan, is fully authenticated: Donald and Malcolm are not). A lot depends on the Icelandic sagas, but oral-based history is awful for dates. They all sat round the fire chanting their family trees, which are usually handed down in brilliant order, but dates are generally absent or wrong. They have to be independently corroborated.

Deep breath. Queen Asta married twice. Her first offspring included St Olaf, born in 993, if I can understand the only notes I have to hand. By her second marriage, date unknown, she had several children, including King Harold Hardradi (supposedly born 1015) and Halfdan father of Bergljot mother of Ingibjorg. Halfdan was older than Harold. If Asta got off her mark and remarried as soon as she was widowed, Halfdan could have been born, as you say, in 995/6 which, if he were a fast developer, would mean that Bergljot could have been born in 1011 and had her daughter Ingibjorg about 1024. This has to be checked (and I can’t just now) against the other known dates, if any, of Bergljot’s marriage and childbearing range. But if it’s all true, it means that Asta had a procreation period from about 991 to 1015 with a potential gap of 20 years between the first and last children of her second marriage.

Which makes something awe-inspiring of Snorri’s tale of how St Olaf took his half-brothers Halfdan and Guthorm on his knee when his youngest half-brother Harold was three (thus presumably in 1018) to compare the two boys and their brother. For this scenario, Halfdan would have to be born no earlier (to be kneeworthy) than 1012, which would make Bergljot born 1028 plus, and Ingibjorg 1041 plus, too late to marry Thorfinn whoever he was. So back to the drawing-board, remembering that at that time people had two wives at once, and what do we know about Queen Asta anyway?

My conclusion, wading through all this porridge (and this is just the bit I remember) was that the sanctifying of St Olaf had led to a lot of cleaning up in the background; that Halfdan’s dates and even parentage were shaky, and that there was no proof that Ingibjorg couldn’t have been born about 1015-17. This, if she became Gruoch, would make her a (very) young mother of Lulach, and later of Thorfinn’s two sons, followed by a Queen Asta-like gap of about 23 years (medical reasons? political reasons? children we don’t know about?) before she bore Duncan to King Malcolm in 1058 at the earliest.

Lastly, Gruoch qua Gruoch. As with Ingibjorg, there are no records to tell when she was born, what she looked like, or when she died. In all history, her name appears only once: in the record you mention where the Irish-trained Culdee monks of St Serfs monastery in Loch Leven in Alba attest to a gift of land called Kirkness, made to the monastery between 1040 and 1057 by ‘Machbet son of Finlach, and Gruoch daughter of Bodhe, King and Queen of Scots.’ The attestation itself is thought, because of anachronisms, to be slightly faked: the monks are known to have rewritten their charters before protesting their rights to a later King. This King was probably David (1124-53), and the occasion was likely to be the dispute over Kirkness (see above) between the monastery and Robert le Bourguignon.

At least one of David’s charters was witnessed by someone called Macbeth son of Thorfinn, who was probably the same as Baron Macbeth of Liberton who gave land to several churches about 1141. The monks may have attributed the gift of Kirkness to the earlier royal Macbeth to strengthen their claim. (And I checked the dates. Macbeth died in 1057. This Macbeth son of Thorfinn is not a direct descendant, but the conjunction of names is rather interesting).

The monks knew the name of Gruoch from two registers in their possession, later lost. The historian Wyntoun, who was prior of St Serfs in 1393, is believed to have found the name there and used it in his account, unique to him, of how Macbeth ‘killed King Duncan his uncle’, and married ‘KingDuncan’s widow, Dame Grwok.’ Wyntoun’s history is the only other place where the name is to be found.

Historians have found one other possible reference to the Lady’s family (but not to her) in the Annals of Ulster for 1033, which say that Mac meic Boete meic Cinaedha (Kenneth) has been slain by Malcolm son of Kenneth. This may mean either ‘the son of the son of Boete’, or ‘the son of MacBoete;’ and the premise is that Boete is the Bodhe mentioned at St Serfs. There were several Kings called Kenneth, and several Boete’s, giving rise to many possibilities. Gruoch, who is not mentioned anywhere, might be descended from one of the King Kenneths, and the Boete son of Kenneth killed by Malcolm (King Malcolm II, it is suggested) might be an unknown brother of hers. Nobody knows. But this idea, followed through, could make her Irish, royal, and with a claim to the Scottish throne which (it was thought) would explain why Macbeth married her. But he was already King Malcolm’s grandson, as Duncan was.

Take your pick. But I plumped for the Moray/Norway alliance as being the most compelling reason for marrying. Also, Professor Munch (Chron Man), is on record as saying that ‘Gruoch’ is an Irish scribe’s rendering of the Norse/Icelandic name ‘Groa’. Renaming was not only common but virtually compulsory on switching cultures, and led, for me to the likelihood of an Ingibjorg/ Margaret/Meregrota evolution. And if you want to speculate further, Bodhe and Bergjlot are not all that dissimilar.

The evidence on both sides is weak, and a decisive answer may one day turn up. But meanwhile, I rather share Thorfinn’s fondness for Groa. I am only sorry that we know nothing personal about her whereas we know exactly what Thorfinn looked like, for example. Whoever she was, for us she can only be fiction.”


Other Books of Interest
For those of us who like to read anything on the background of Dorothy’s books, I’ve just added to our Scottish pages a recently announced book from the excellent Tuckwell Press which might well be of interest.

The Rough Wooings: Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1551
Marcus Merriman
Tuckwell, Winter 1999
hdbk, 186232090X UKP25.00
The period in which both England and France sought to capture Scotland by a forced marriage of the child Queen Mary is amongst the most colourful and interesting of our history, and had repercussions that are still felt to this day. This study promises to be a major contribution to our understanding of it.

Edinburgh 2000
There are still a number of places left on the Edinburgh 2000 Gathering, for anyone still interested. The form is still on the main Dunnett page on the website and can be downloaded.

This is now quite long so we’ll leave it there for now. It strikes me that I haven’t given you any “Confessions of a Dunnett Reader” recently but that’s been partly because my own reading time has been so limited and partly because the newsletters have been fairly full of other things and I now have others like the Scottish Books newsletters to write as well. There has been much discussion of children’s books on the discussion groups recently with many of you buying Harry Potter from us. Some of you may like to have a look at the new Children’s pages on the website to see what else is happening in that line in the UK.

Must go and do some more reading – while I got a fair bit done on holiday I promised myself I would finish the Niccolos and leave enough time for a Lymond re-read before N8 appears, and I’m already behind schedule and the chess season is almost upon us. There’s just never enough time!

Best wishes to everyone

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