FAQ for The Observations

Is The Observations autobiographical in any way?

Not much in the novel is drawn from autobiographical sources. However, I don’t think I could have written this novel without having worked as a kitchen maid, chambermaid and maid-of-all-work in France while I was travelling/figuring out what to do with my life.

How did you come up with the voice of the narrator, Bessy?

Bessy’s voice is a mixture of several voices, all Irish. There is a bit of me in there, of course. But I mainly based her on three Irish women of my acquaintance: my mother, my aunt and an old friend whom I don’t see much any more. All three women have (or had) a great sense of humour and incredibly inventive use of language. None of them were educated beyond school, yet their rich vocabulary and fabulous use of metaphor meant that they were all very entertaining to listen to.

I was also inspired by the contemporary slang in Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang and Colloquial English in Ireland by Bernard Share, and in A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Captain Francis Grose, (1811).

Where is Castle Haivers situated?

Castle Haivers is not set in any exact real-life location but the main part of the novel is meant to take place somewhere in the vicinity of Armadale and Bathgate, just off what used to be the old Glasgow to Edinburgh Road.

Did you invent the newspaper clipping in Chapter 8 of The Observations?

The newspaper clipping that appears in Chapter 8 (concerning a missing person, Agnes Faulds or Crawford) is only slightly adapted from one that appears in an edition of The Glasgow Herald in the early 1860s. Such listings appeared on the front page in those days. Old editions of The Herald can be consulted in microfiche format at The Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Their VirtualMitchell website is also invaluable.

Glasgow Herald from November 1861

Why did The Observations take so long to write?

For one thing, I’m a very slow writer. I spend a long time in research not only before but during and even after the writing process. As for The Observations in particular, I ended up stashing it in a box, unfinished, because I wasn’t sure where the story was heading. Meanwhile, I got side-tracked into screen-writing for several years and had to earn a living by editing scripts and acting as a script consultant. Ultimately, when I came back to the novel in the box, I realised how much I loved the character of Bessy and her voice, and so it was relatively easy to settle back into completing the novel. In the interim period, I had also learned a lot more about narrative (or plot) and that also made a big difference to how I approached the work.