Ignore the date on the bottom of this post. I’m writing a new introduction for today the 19th of March and it’s my birthday so instead of asking you for gifts, I’m giving you one! I know many of my readers already have my ebook short story collection, Looking For America, but for anyone who doesn’t, it is free all day today in the Kindle store. (That’s till midnight in Pacific Time so it will be free till tomorrow morning at 8 in the UK, and goodness knows when everywhere else!)
And before you all rush off to Amazon, you’re going to learn a bit of geography and since of the stories in Looking For America are set in the Shetland Isles, where I originally come from. Even in the UK, people get confused about where they are, so a while ago I wrote this article Where Are The Shetland Isles? Shetland (which is actually how Shetlanders refer to their home) is a group of islands over a hundred miles beyond the very north of the UK. One reason there’s so much confusion about the islands’ location is because on maps of the UK or Scotland they are often tucked away in a box somewhere off the east of Scotland.
Another reason is because Scotland is also home to two other groups of islands: Orkney and the Hebrides. (Like Shetland, people talk about Orkney in singular.) Orkney is just off the northern tip of Scotland, so it’s not far from Shetland, and there’s quite a bit of connection between the two. When I was a student (a while ago) people from both used to hang out together. The Hebrides, is off Scotland’s west coast, and it is where most Gaelic speakers live. Your average Shetlander and Orcadian cannot speak a word of Gaelic. (Well, apart from Coca Cola, because it’s the same as in English!)
Shetland is very far north, its northernmost tip just shy of 61 degrees. So we’re talking the same latitude as parts of Alaska, Northern Territories of Canada, Siberia. Because it’s a bunch of islands instead of a land mass, and because the North Atlantic drift flows from the Gulf of Mexico up past the west coast of Shetland, it doesn’t get severely cold in winter. But it does get dark. In December it is still dark at nine in the morning, plunged back into night-time by three o’clock. I haven’t lived in Shetland for more than half of my life, but I do go back to visit family several times a year – usually in summer when there’s still enough daylight enough to read at 11pm, or in spring when the world is full of promise. My dad used to hate the dark winters and loved the long summer days and I guess I inherited that from him. The long dark winters were partly why I left.
So what’s it like living there? My paternal grandparents hardly ever left the island they grew up on, and there were many others like them. On the other hand, my maternal grandfather was a sailor, and my grandmother, in her youth, worked “in service” (working as a maid) in north east England. They met in England, and I’m not sure when my grandmother returned to the islands, but my grandfather was at sea till he was seventy so most of his life was spent away from home. Again, since the islands didn’t have the resources to support its population, their stories were not unusual. Nowadays things are less extreme: unlike my paternal grandparents most people do go “south” from time to time – on holiday, on shopping trips or sometimes for hospital treatments. And although it’s still relatively common for young men to go into fishing, fewer men sail the world’s oceans and those who do get home a lot more often than my grandfather did. (My uncle was 4 before he met his dad!)
Sometimes when I tell people where I’m from, they wax lyrical about its beauty and peace. They don’t need to have visited the islands to do this – though sometimes they will have spent two weeks there some glorious June. Other times people talk about how harsh and remote it is. The truth is somewhere in between. These days it’s not so hugely different to other places – most people have televisions, mobile phones and the internet. Even if the phone coverage is patchy and the internet connection is slow – last year a BBC murder mystery series set in Shetland (imaginatively titled Shetland) made a big deal of mobile phones losing signals at crucial moments. There’s to be another series sometime this year. A review in the Telegraph gave last year’s series 2 stars. Most Shetlanders agreed with that rating, largely because the show was full of misconceptions about the islands – and it wasn’t the unrealistically high murder rate that Shetlanders objected to. That’s expected in a murder mystery!
Shetland’s crime rate is low and its murder rate is extremely low, but that doesn’t mean it is without problems. Alcoholism is high as is heroin use and other drug addiction. And of course, if you have been my series of blogs posts about the time I was attacked, you will know that crime has been around a while. I guess that seeing guys I grew up with lose their lives to alcoholism had an effect on me, and A Few Luxuries, one of the stories in Looking For America deals with alcoholism and its effects on a family – even after the alcoholic has got sober.
The other stories explore different themes – two of them are interlinked Tea and Cocoa and Shell Shocked, with characters in appearing both. In Tea and Cocoa, an old man is looking after his sick wife and thinking back to when they met. This old man was inspired by my father who died last year. Like most men of his generation, World War II had a huge impact on my father and when I was researching this story, Dad gave me a lot of information about what it was like returning home after the war. Tea and Cocoa is one of my favourite stories in the book, probably because I learned so much about my dad when I wrote it. Dad also inspired the main character in His Grandparents’ House, a gentle story about an old man and his dog. This character is in his seventies and thinking about giving up farming – my father went on until he was past eighty. While this dedication was part of my inspiration, it was the way Dad described his delight every year at seeing the miracle of life when new lambs were born that really made me have to write the story! (And yes that’s my dad in the photo with one of his beloved lambs.)
The title of Agnes Angus PhD, MBE probably suggests humor – and indeed that story is one I had great fun writing! Like me Agnes was a bit of a fantasizer as a child, but, unlike me, her fantasies ended with a rather large bump in her teens! I wrote that story because teenage pregnancy was fairly common in Shetland when I was growing up and I wanted to explore what might have happened to the girls from my class who dropped out of school.
As for the title story: when we were kids on of our favourite things to do was to stand on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and look west, imagining the lands on the far side. In Looking For America a small girl’s confusion is compounded when her grandfather tell her she should be able to see America. This was my first ever published story. All the others apart from Shell Shocked have also made it into print collections or journals.
If you haven’t yet got a copy of Looking For America then click the link and head over to Amazon.com to get your free copy now! Here’s the link for the UK store. And Australia. For any other site just change the .com to your country’s suffix. The rest of the url remains the same.
Yvonne Spence is the author of two e-books: a novel, Drawings In Sand, and a short story collection Looking For America. The stories in Looking for America have previously been published in anthologies and magazines , and she is a past finalist in the She magazine short story award.