Jill McDonald-Constable says, ‘Howdy!’

Posted: May 18, 2012 in Friday Guest
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
I’m a disabled grandmother, with tangerine hair,
and I shoot outlaws!

Well, now I’ve got your attention, this is my story.

I have been writing since I first picked up a pen. I don’t have blood in my veins, I have ink! But it has to be black, I can’t write in blue. I was encouraged in my reading and writing by my Dad and Paternal Grandad. Mum was only ever really interested in her animals, and seemed to see reading and writing as a complete waste of time! In later years, a rather strange ‘coincidence’ made her change her mind!

Since then, I have had a variety of poems and short articles printed in various papers, anthologies, and magazines. Some were paid but not many. The very first one I saw in print was in our local paper, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. My poem was a long one about the Vietnam War, the paper did a 2 page spread on the war, and put my poem on the same page. I still have the very ragged cutting!

The moment I saw that, something deep within me started restlessly moving. One day I was going to be a published author with a hardback novel to my name, I just knew it. Poetry is good for the soul and I used it mainly for its cathartic nature. Every time I received a rejection letter for another short story, or even for a novel, I resorted to poetry.

They say ‘write about what you know’ don’t they? Well, for years I totally ignored that, and wrote what I thought would sell. If only I’d written about what I knew, I might have been published much earlier.

I went to College as a ‘mature student,’ and achieved A levels in, Arts and Crafts, Art History, and Photography. They led to an Honours Degree in Cultural Studies, level 2 Counselling Certificate and a teaching Certificate. Then, I decided I enjoyed the whole College scene and, with a little nudging from various people, especially husband Chris, I went on to achieve my Masters in Writing Studies (a combination of Eng. Lit and Creative Writing). I loved it. And again, one of the things I learned was, ‘write about what you know’. But still I wrote what I wanted to and sent out poems, articles, stories, and even novels, all of which came right back to me. I started calling them ‘frisbees’ as, every time I received one, I’d spin it across the room in disgust!

I then started teaching Arts and Crafts and Life Skills, to people with special learning needs, and Creative Writing, in both evening classes, and Open College classes, for the local FE College. I also led workshops for the local library on a regular basis for a while. I was in my element! I still love gabbing on about the wonder of writing, to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen!

As a child, we had lived on farms (where I ran wild in the fields, riding the beautiful Jersey cows, and herding geese) and in pet shops (with fierce ferrets, grumpy gerbils, savage skinks, and pesky piranhas) and in poodle parlours. So, chances were very strong, that I would be an animal person when I ‘grew up’ — and I am.

After Chris and I married (we met in a field, of course!) we moved to Kent, where we renovated an old farm cottage, long before ‘doing up’ was fashionable, turning the land around us into a smallholding with animals and poultry, as well as crops, I also used the tons of wild, free food that surrounded us.

As well as the two Westerns (published this year by Robert Hale), I am now working on my autobiography, stuffed full to bursting with stories of my animals and of our lives on our tiny smallholding, where I had the chance to keep ponies of my own, at last. It will probably run into 3 books, as there are so many stories, some of which are funny, some tragic, but almost always concerning animals.

I know a fair bit about horses. I had been riding since I was 3 and have spent all my spare time with horses, for around the last 20 years. I know a fair bit about Native Americans and have had a passion for their culture since I was young. For me, even as a pre-teen, I felt they knew how to live with the Earth, and make use of all the free resources which surrounded them. They knew how to be at one with Nature. I wanted to be an Indian. I grew up watching lots of cowboy series, and movies, Laramie, Bonanza, Stagecoach, Lone Ranger, Champion the Wonder Horse, and so on — you get the picture. So, cowboys, Indians, horses, where do you think this is going?

And then… stay with me, it really does have some bearing on the whole picture, honestly! My husband Chris had grown up with no knowledge of his real father; his mother married when he was 7 and never told him about the man who had sired him. He had often mentioned to me that he wished he knew who his real father was, and where he was from. His mother had died without revealing her secret, but left some old sepia photographs of men in uniform in the back of a drawer. No-one in the family knew who they were but, for some obscure reason, they were collected by Chris’s sister and put in a box, along with their Mum’s other papers. How grateful we are that she didn’t just throw them away.

Knowing how much it meant to him, for his 65th birthday I bought Chris a DNA test, to try and settle it once and for all, thinking this might be the last chance we would have, as his father would then be quite old, or even deceased. The results were posted on the Ancestry web site. A mere couple of weeks later, another result came up on the site, which bore a remarkable similarity to Chris’s. We sent e-mails back and forth, and then I thought I would ask if we could send the old photos, on the off-chance someone might recognise them.

The photos were e-mailed to California and, the next day, the reply came, beginning with the words, ‘We have a Match’! One of the men had been recognised by two family members separately. He was their uncle! So Chris and Stuart are cousins. Unfortunately, his father had died some years previously, so Chris never did get to meet or talk to him, but we are in constant touch with the ‘new’ relatives. Thank goodness his sister had kept those photos. Now he keeps a picture of his real father, and grandparents, beside his bed. He wanted to take the name of his real father, so we added it to the name which he grew up with, and now we are double barrelled!

Cousin Stuart and his partner came to England from California last year, and visited with us for two days. For Chris to be able to shake hands with his real, blood family at last was quite an emotional moment. But for me at least, the very best part of the story is, they are the Great Great Grandsons of a Chippewa chief. Their ancestral home is in Wisconsin, a densely forested area, right at the edge of the Great Lakes. So, from being crazy about Indians for so long, I am now actually married to one!

Now Chris will be an Elder of the tribe, and has been bestowed with a Native name ‘Waa-Bani-Noo-Din’, which means ‘The Wind That comes from the East’, as our voices are sent to them over the airwaves from the East of them. As his wife, I have also been bestowed with a Chippewa name – ‘Nii-Gaan-O-Se-Kwe’, meaning ‘Woman Who Leads’. I love it, and am so proud to have it.

Then, in 2010, our lives changed quite drastically. In June I had a heart attack. I was in hospital for a week, and told to take it easy for a year after I got home. Then, in the August, just to prove he could do better than me, Chris had a stroke. He was in hospital for a month and now has to use a wheelchair, cannot use his right hand (and he’s right handed) and has difficulty communicating. He had another, smaller stroke in October last year, which affected his swallowing. So I never did get my restful year and am left with angina and arthritis. I hide from the world in my writing. With that, it doesn’t matter what goes on around me, I am in another place and, when I can have a good day on my writing with no interruptions, I have a sense of a job well done.

My writing then took a very strange and different turn and I began at long last to write what I actually knew about; horses and Indians, and cowboys. A little while after all the DNA story had been sorted, I had a dream, possibly started by Chris’s family story, or there might be another, spookier reason – read on. The dream gave me a title and almost the whole plot for a Western novel.

I had never even thought of writing in that particular genre, which, given my childhood interests, is probably a bit strange. I wrote the book, which took me about 6 months. I did have to do some research, but most of it was deeply embedded in my brain from my childhood. I sent it to Robert Hale, the only publisher of Westerns in the UK. I didn’t expect too much as they receive hundreds of manuscripts a week and only publish a few. One report has actually said, that I had two Western manuscripts hidden under my bed when Chris found his ancestors. That is definitely not true, I did have manuscripts under the bed, but Romances, not Westerns!

Within a couple of weeks, my book was accepted, contract signed, advance paid, and I was well on the way to becoming a ‘real’ author at last. When I told my Mother, she asked me what kind of book I’d actually written and, when I told her, she was stunned. Her father, my Maternal Grandad Harold, had only ever read Westerns. There were never any other kind of books in the house! He had died long before I was old enough to notice what he was reading.

Was it Grandad Harold who had given me that dream? I like to think so. Since then, my second book has been accepted, number 3 is with Hale now, and I am working on three others. And, I don’t care how strange you think I am, I really do believe that it is Grandad Harold who is guiding my pen, as he used to write a lot himself. I write the Westerns straight into the computer, which I have never done with any of my other work but, once I get started on one, my brain goes so fast that my fingers just seem to fly.

Now, after all these years, and all those horrible, depressing, rejections, I can say that I am a published author, with 2 hardback novels to my name so far. And it really does pay to write about what you know. Lesson learned, at long last. But I am still writing my Romances too. Just as a point of interest, there are only four women Western writers published by Hale, all in the UK, and all writing under male names!

Our local paper came to do an article on me this week. I think the photographer had the contrast on his camera wrong — the hair is auburn, but in the paper it shows up as tangerine! Still, I suppose it stops the eye and makes people want to read about the mad tangerine headed witch!

The latest article of mine, which is not about Westerns, will be appearing in a magazine called ‘Doll’s House and Miniature Scene’ in August. It’s about a Tudor, wood-framed, doll’s house, which Chris was building from the ground up, using real wooden joints, real stone flag floors, and so on. Then he had the stroke so, now he cannot complete it, we are hoping that someone will read the article, take the house, and love it to completion for us.

I have set up my own website where I am placing anecdotes from my life, excerpts from my books, and other works. Please, do take a look, and leave me a message or feel free to contact me if there is anything you think I might be able to help you with. You can reach me on Facebook too, at JillMcD-C Author, or on Twitter, @JillMcD-C. If you would like me to come and talk to your group, or lead a workshop, and you are in my general area, please do contact me.

Thank you for reading, folks!

  1. Great story honey 🙂

    Really enjoyed reading all about you Jill 🙂


  2. A truly unique and fascinating story, Jill. It is wonderful (and a bit spooky) that you have found success and personal fulfilment through the connections with your grandfather and your husband’s new found family. Very best of Luck to you.

  3. Carol says:

    Interesting and unusual story Jill. Good luck with the story still to come!

  4. Elaine Everest says:

    A lovely story. Good luck with your books.x

  5. elizabethducie says:

    Great story, Jill, and so inspiring. Good luck with the sales.

  6. Sue says:

    Jill, I’m interested to know – did you decide to publish under a man’s name, or was it the publisher’s idea?

  7. Carol says:

    That’s a good question from Sue. I often wonder why writers change their name. I understand when they are writing in different genre but wondered if it’s felt westerns sell better if written by a ‘man’.

  8. Hello all, and thank you for your lovely comments. In reply to Sue and to Carol re- the name. It was me not the publisher who came up with it, but I think it is the general belief that Westerns sell better if written by a ‘man’. I chose my name as it is an amalgam of my great grandfathers first name and my husband’s great grandfathers surname. I am keeping that name for my Westerns, but when/if I sell in any other genres I will have to think of another name for them.

  9. Madalyn says:

    I’ve started to read, The Ghosts of Poynter, and I can’t put it down. Already I love the story, the atmosphere and the characters, especially the tall dark and handsome Chase Tyler.

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