Killer Clothing…

Mary Ann Cotton
One of the things I like about writing historical fiction is doing research. Well, I’ll clarify that a bit – the thing I really like is looking at pictures. Trouble is, finding images that will fire the old imagination ain’t that easy, so sometimes it comes down to good old fashioned reading.

I mentioned in a previous post about my current bit of research reading (for my middle-grade novel ‘The House That Wasn’t There). The book is set in Victorian Edinburgh (1897 to be exact) and centres on a series of child disappearances.

Although my main areas of research have been around Victorian villains, such as serial kidnapper Amelia Dyer, what I really wanted to know is what these people looked like and what they wore. In Ruth Gordon’s book ‘How to Be a Victorian’ I’m currently on the section about clothing, and rather surprisingly, I discovered that the most authentic-looking Victorians (in terms of dress) were the villains.

Photography was still very much in its infancy, so most folks only got near a camera if they had a photography-mad relative, or if they sought out a professional in a studio setting. Given that having your photo taken would’ve been a special occasion, people dressed up for it (often in their Sunday best), resulting in a less than accurate portrayal of everyday wear. Conversely, the folks who were more likely to be pictured in their actual clothing, were generally snapped following their arrest for whichever underhand activity they’d been nabbed for. Not having had the opportunity to go off and have a wash, fashion a new hairdo and – most importantly – get a change of clothes, they presented themselves as they really were.

Husband-killer Mary Ann Cotton’s photograph (above) is reminiscent of Ms Dyer’s and it’s perhaps only the fact of knowing who she was (and the detached way the shot is set up) that gives us any clue that she’s anything but an ordinary woman.

As a writer, I naturally want to know something about my characters and having a photo of a real person can be helpful as a starting point. The only difference between the real villains and my imaginary ones, is that I don’t want any of my characters to be all bad – there has to be something in their makeup that allows them to give a little, to slip an extra slice of bread to their victims, or simply to acknowledge that if things were different, it could easily be them tied to the chair, locked in the cellar or chained to a post.

More Deadlines, Schmedlines…

Back in October, I wrote a little post about deadlines and how, in true Douglas Adams style,

‘…they go whooshing by…’

The book I was working on at the time was ‘Mortlake‘ (book 2 in my ‘Maps of Time’ series). Somewhat surprisingly, I managed to hit that deadline in a week-or-two-either-side sort of way, which is fine, but since then I’ve found my affinity with Mr Adams’ experience has doubled, tripled and maybe even quadrupled. In other words, by deadlines are out the window.

But I know the problem. The problem is twofold:

1. I’m working on two books at the same time

Actually that’s not quite true, because for a while I was actually working on three books at the same time (one of which has been published), but in any case the result is the same – less time, more work, goodbye deadlines.

2. I must be slowing down

This isn’t so easy to address. Essentially, I still write every day and I still work on one or both of those books most days. But while it feels like I’m writing the same amount, it seems as if it’s taking me longer to get to where I’m going.

Which means that those two books I was (naively) thinking I’d easily finish by Christmas, are still awaiting those final chapters.

Actually, there’s another reason:

3. Stress

Yes, I admit it, I’m stressed about these deadlines and I don’t like it and yes, okay, I know it’s contributing to my overall inability to get on with the tasks in hand and so here’s how I’m going to sort that one out:

To Name It is to Get Rid of It. Right? Well, let’s hope so. Okay, now we’ve dealt with that one…

And finally yes, yes, yes, I know some authors spend years writing a single book, but come on, who the hell wants to immerse themselves in the damn thing for that amount of time? Not me, mate! No, I want to spend a reasonable chunk of time on a book and then move on to the next one (or whatever), because the way it works for me is that I need to be excited about what I’m doing and the longer it takes to finish, the less excited I get. (Stevie King wrote Cujo in a week. Yes, I know he was off his face at the time but still…)

So I suppose what I’m saying is that unless there’s a really good reason for tightening the bolts on our self-imposed deadlines, maybe we should just do what needs to be done in the time it takes and be cool with that?

‘Oy Yew’ by Ana Salote

Oy Yew copy
Oy Yew
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Nabbed by waif-catchers in the alley where he spends his days sniffing bread and dreaming of floury loafs, Oy Yew is dragged in front of the wiry-haired Mrs Rutheday who sets him to work at bench 54. Oy meets Linnet Pale, a colour-drained girl who becomes his first friend. But assembling unknown items intended for nameless people is not destined to be his lot for long and the new boy is soon recognized as a perfect specimen for Duldred Hall.

Peopled with strangely-named characters like Alas Ringworm, Raymun, Mrs Midden and the hateful Master Jeopardine, the waifs of Duldred are assigned duties around various parts of the big house (‘Drains’, ‘Ceilings’, ‘Stairs’ etc), and expected to perform their tedious obligations out of sight of the Master and his upservants. Oy learns about the strange hierarchy of the place, the peculiar regularity of ‘accidents’ and the habitual ‘measuring’ routine where children must reach the perfect height of 5 thighs 10 oggits in order to escape the everyday graft of the Hall. But if escape is so wonderful, why are the details kept under lock and key? And what strange secrets are hidden in Rook’s Parlour and the Bone Room? Gradually, with Oy’s help, the waifs begin to educate themselves and their discoveries lead to revelations that will change their lives forever.

Ana Salote’s first book in ‘The Waifs of Duldred’ trilogy is, she says, a crossover fantasy for ages 9 to 90, and I can well believe it. The world she creates is original and yet familiar, with its wonderfully Dickensesque settings and a host of intriguing characters. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next book in the series.

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‘Fatal Forgery’ by Susan Grossey

Fatal Forgery
Fatal Forgery
5 stars copy

Long before the days of online banking, a big part of any banker’s working life was trust – but not all bank employees were able to resist the lure of hard cash. In 1824, respectable banker Henry Fauntleroy is arrested on charges of forgery, leaving Constable Samuel Plank to find out exactly what’s been going on, and why. However, Plank finds himself with an apparently impossible task, for even with the threat of the hangman’s noose waiting for him, Fauntleroy is set on pleading guilty. With single-minded determination, the constable begins to pick away at the evidence and soon discovers the apparent forger’s private life is not all it should be. Nevertheless, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, it’s only a matter of time before Fauntleroy faces the ultimate sentence.

Inspired by the real-life arrest and court case surrounding banker Henry Fauntleroy, anti-money laundering expert Susan Grossey’s first foray into fiction might well have been a little dry and lacking in the thrills department. But I’m happy to report that apart from leaving me a mite confused over some of the financial aspects of the case, I thoroughly enjoyed the first of Constable Plank’s adventures. The attention to detail and realistic depictions of the prisons at Newgate and Coldbath Fields, as well as the trial itself at the Old Bailey, place the reader right down there in the thick of it.

Susan Grossey’s writing is sharp and clever in her portrayal of the world she’s created, with a knowledge and feeling for her characters that brings them to life as clearly as if we were sitting down to tea with them. I’ll definitely be grabbing a copy of her next book in the series – ‘The Man in the Canary Waistcoat’ – in the very near future.

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‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections
The Corrections
5 stars copy

All Enid Lambert wants is to have one last Christmas with her family round her. She and her husband Alfred are getting on a bit and the reality of their lives together has reached a point where the words ‘fractured’ and ‘awkward’ may be the best they can hope for. At times, the relationship appears almost irretrievable: with Enid’s need to have the whole world think everything’s fine while she struggles (still) to change her husband into the man she thought she’d married, and Alfred’s inability (in and out of the bedroom) to give his wife the level of intimacy he knows she wants.

Unsurprisingly, the lives of their three grown-up children are no less troubled, with each one facing his or her own series of mini-catastrophes as the book charts their lives over the years. While the timescale jumps around quite a bit, the narrative was easy to follow and I found myself drawn further and further into this family’s general need to make right its mistakes.

Given the history of Mr Franzen’s writing career in relation to this book (such as his infamous ‘feud’ with Oprah Winfrey), and his various derogatory comments about women readers, I can understand why so many people hate it – the characters are deeply flawed, miserable, whiny, vengeful and most of the time deeply, deeply irritating. And to be fair, any other book with so many annoying people in it would have ended up on my Did Not Finish pile, no trouble at all.


The modern obsession with what to do with our old folks is the central theme, and I have to say, I found the siblings’ approach to dealing with their parents by turns hilarious, painful and intensely moving. Jonathan Franzen writes about being human as if he knows exactly how I feel, and that’s not something that happens very often. He also uses big words, gets into technical jargon that occasionally lost me a little, and really, really likes long sentences – there were a few I thought might never end and I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if the book had turned out to be one long sentence. Nevertheless, the writing is superb, masterful and wonderfully real. If I could write like this guy, I’d be very happy indeed.

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When is a Blog Not a Blog?

When is a Blog copy
The answer is of course – when it’s also a book. We’ve all heard stories of writers who’ve had their blogs turned into books in one of those rare incidences when some savvy publisher realised its potential and decided to grab the proverbial by the thingumajigs. And before you can say The New Harry Potter, it’s hitting the literary headlines as the Next Big Thing.

But no, I’m not talking about those. Neither am I rabbiting about the many We’ll-print-your-blog-as-a-book-for-only-$$$ schemes. No, what I’m referring to that magic moment when an author realises that bookifying his or her blog might be an easy way to add another title to their bibliography without spending a year writing a new book.

The lovely Jane Friedman doesn’t entirely agree. In her post Please Don’t Blog Your Book, she cites several reasons why you definitely shouldn’t do this, including the habit some writers have of just piling the whole thing into book form without so much as an edit, proof or a how’s-your-father. And, as with all Jane’s advice, it’s good, because naturally, not every blog is going to be a great read in book form. Some, clearly, will be dire, turgid, unnecessary and boring.

So, taking Jane’s advice on board (or rather, ignoring it with my usual yes-but-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me attitude), I nevertheless wanted to try something out. And that’s all it is – just a try-out. To see what happens.

‘The Watson Letters’ which The Watson Letters Vol 1 5_25x8_Cream_110 NEW COVER copyhas been on the go for several years. The first book The Watson Letters: Something Wicker This Way Comes So the blog I’m talking about is my Sherlock Holmes/Doctor Watson spoof series is a 23,000 word introduction to my other world, featuring real, imaginary and literary characters in a not quite Post-Victorian, steampunk parallel universe, where the intrepid is that I do the usual ‘buy my damn book’ ranting and find nothing happens for weeks on end. This duo continue their fight against crime, along with a generous spoonful of adult humour, fart jokes and dodgy trousers.

The book has only been out a few days and the way these things usually go for metime however, something changed. In little over 24 hours, I’d sold four books. Okay, okay, I know that’s pretty pathetic, but for me, it’s a sign. A sign from that great consulting detective in the sky that what I’ve done is alright.

So we’ll see.