Historical Writing – Fact or Fiction?

How to be a VictorianWriting about times long past can be great fun, but how accurate do authors need to be with historical fiction? While most readers expect authors to just ‘make stuff up’, a bit of good old fashioned research can make a world of difference.

I’ve always believed that writers should use their imaginations – after all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, being creative? However, sometimes the imagination isn’t enough and a bit of historical accuracy can really bring a story to life.

In my children’s series ‘The Maps of Time’ which mixes 1630s London with a bit of time travel, I didn’t do much research, though I did spend many hours poring over maps of the city and used dozens of the original street names in my books (Bellyns Gate, Spittle Feyldes etc). I also delved into the marvellous diaries of Sam Pepys to help me get a feel for the place, especially relating to the Great Fire of London.

However, with the second book in my Edinburgh-set Christie McKinnon adventure series, I wanted to include more details about everyday Victorian life, such as the kinds of food people ate, both in the working classes as well as wealthier families. Details of washing, bathing, dressing and even visits to the toilet add a touch of realism to proceedings (though the stark reality of the ‘privy’ might be less appealing to my readers).

One particular book, which covers all of the above and much more, is Ruth Gordon’s ‘How to be a Victorian’. There are chapters on men and women’s clothing (including undergarments), as well as cooking, going to work, school attendance (for the lucky few) and leisure pursuits. Gordon’s writing is fresh and exciting, resulting in a very readable volume that I’m sure will appeal to anyone interested in the Victorian period.

Having said all this, of course, does not mean that my books will, from henceforth, be crammed with characters that get washed, eat breakfast and go to the toilet every five minutes. My aim is simply to create writing that is more realistic and believable – an objective I’m sure the Victorians would delight in.

Deaths and Other Surprises

Lemmy Bowie Rickman

What is it that makes us who we are?

In the space of a few days, the world has lost three wonderfully individual and very different men: Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman were all hugely significant in their own artistic spheres and massively influential in my own personal sphere, too.

It’s strange how the passing of three people I never met (though I got pretty close to Lemmy a few times), can have such an impact. And while I’m generally not one to cite this or that person as having an influence on my life or what I do, these particular three were all part of my life and helped me grow into the creative person I am today.

As a teenager, I thought it might be quite something to emulate the poet Shelley – write tons of beautifully romantic poems and then die young, leaving a huge body of outstandingly creative work to the world. Of course, I soon realized that dying young doesn’t really allow a whole lot of time for having fun, or being creative, so maybe that version is best left to Hollywood.

What always strikes me with the death of any great artist, actor or musician, is that usually they’ve done a hell of a lot of stuff. And quite often, that’s what made them great – that they seized their opportunities and ran with them, doing everything they could to explore their artistic interests, ideas and passions. And though I’m not planning to kick the bucket just yet, it makes me very aware of how little time we all have.

And so, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be doing a lot of writing.

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

The Good Son McVeigh
The Good Son
5 stars copy

Ten-year-old Michael Donnelly has a dog called Killer, an almost-telepathic relationship with his sister Wee Maggie, and a bit of a crush on the girl down the street. He’s also got a father who breaks promises and a bullish older brother who calls him ‘gay’. When Michael finds a gun in the dog’s kennel, it throws a bit of a spanner into the puberty vs childhood bag of worms he deals with every day.

Paul McVeigh had me at the first sentence of this wonderfully witty and highly original book. His characters burst with truth and authenticity and his dialogue had me laughing out loud (which doesn’t happen often). For a first novel, this is a pretty mean achievement and I can’t help wonder what Mr McVeigh will hit us with next. Whatever it is, it’ll be good.

 
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Getting the Word Out

As mentioned in my previous post, one of my tasks for this year is to get folk interested in my books (and ideally, buying them). As there are several ways to do that, I decided to tackle a couple of things I’ve been putting off:

The Mailing List
ReviewsDevil's Porridge2

But before doing that, I thought I’d take a leaf out of Sacha Black’s book and make my Twitter images a bit more consistent, like including my website and such like (as in the pic opposite).

After prevaricating in this fashion for a while I got around to dong what I was supposed to be doing.

So, reviews – I had already managed to garner a couple of reviews, but just before the end of the year I got a lovely one – for ‘How the World Turns (and Other stories)’ – from sci-fi writer Stephen J Carter, so that was a nice little boost of the old confidence thingy. However, I haven’t actually tried very hard to get reviews as such, so thought it was about time I got my proverbial finger out. Again.

I’ve sent out seven queries today so far and have already had a response to one, which seems like a good result – I’m working on Bryan Cohen’s advice which goes along the lines of:

If you want 100 reviews, sent out 1,000 queries.

Okay. So only 9,993 to go, then.

As to the mailing list, I’ve been getting to grips with Mailchimp (or Monkeypost as I call it). Although I like to think I’m fairly sensible when it comes to IT stuff, it did take me a while to work through some of the sections (ended up going onto good old YouTube for advice at one point). However, I got there eventually, and I now have the relevant links and responder emails set up. All I need now are actual people to sign up. (You can see my initial form by clicking here).

Of course, having spent so much time on this stuff, I haven’t done any work on my current book (Ariadne 7) for a couple of days, so I really should get back into that routine asap. And while I didn’t exactly take a load of time off over the festive season (spent New Year’s Eve working on the mailing list), I still feel as if I’ve been a bit lazy. Which I haven’t, but still…

So tomorrow it’s back to the Day Job. As Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to not say:

Hey, hey, hey – let’s be careful out there and get that damn book written.

 

Resolutions and Other Irritations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As my mate John Lennon used to say (when we were in The Beatles together), “Another year over – a new one just begun”.

So as the New Year approaches, I’ll be making a few resolutions. Or not, as the case may be. In fact, what I’ll actually be doing is making a list of those things I can accomplish, rather than a catalogue of ridiculous dreams and fantasies that ain’t ever going to happen.

During 2016, therefore, I’m aiming to work towards the under-mentioned Achievable Tasks:

Write More
Easily achievable, since I already write every day and am more than capable of hitting 5,000 words per day should I so wish.

Stand More
Having taken on the ‘standing desk’ routine at home (which you can read about in a previous post), I’ll be realizing a similar set-up at work, allowing me to burn more calories, put less strain on my back, and no doubt feel more energized and creative generally.

Drink Less Coffee
Hmm.

Eat Less Red Meat
Again, easily achievable, since I’m pretty much doing that anyway (although Christmas obviously had an over-indulgence impact that will no doubt take a few days/weeks/months to wear off).

Hit More Deadlines
Last year was a bit hitty-missy with the old deadlines, so I’ll have to be more circumspect in order to avoid having to move things around. It’s part of knowing what I’m capable of, and what I’m not. By creating realistic deadlines, this should be a relatively painless process.

Get the Word Out
Okay, so I have been a bit lax in promoting/marketing my scribblings, so this is a major task that’ll necessitate a bit of thought.

Explore
There’s a few areas I’d like to get into that’ll likely take up a big chunk of time – pod-casts and video are the way forward and I don’t want to get left behind. Keeping up with technological changes, fads and fashions isn’t always easy, but as we indie authors know, you can’t simply do things the way you’ve always done it and expect the world to respond. As David Bowie used to say: “Everything ch-ch-ch-changes.”

This Year Winding Down Now…

Dylan Thomas

Misquoting Dylan Thomas is as good a way as any to start one of my final posts of 2015. As the year draws to a close, it’s always useful (I like to think) to look back on all my achievements in the last twelve months.

Naturally, I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t achieved anything, so it’s just as well I’ve managed to add a few notches to my literary bedpost.

So, to sum up my wordish year…

Eeh – Books

At the end of July this year, I took the plunge and uploaded the first of my children’s novels ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ to Smashwords. Of course, I had to spend a good chunk of time familiarising myself with how everything works in the land of eBooks, but it wasn’t so difficult and I now have 4  Children’s novels, 3 Stage Plays, 2 Short Stories and a Collection of Short Stories to go with my non-existent pear tree. Oh, and a non-fiction volume about writing.

Stories

Continuing the theme of publishing success from 2014, this year has seen seven more of my short stories in literary mags, including most recently, ‘Magic Man’, my working-class tale of a failed magician. The story appears in ‘Fresh Ink Volume 1 and is available as an eBook published by Oxford Waters.

Paperback Writer

My Autumn Project was to move into the world of paperbacks, and to this end, nine of my books are now obtainable via Amazon as actual physical, get-your-hand-on-em books!

Not everything has gone to plan, of course, and I’ve found that even though I’ve been able to maintain a pretty rigorous writing regime, there are still a couple of things I had fully expected to finish, that remain, er, unfinished. The follow-up to ‘The Hounds of Hellerby Hall’ will now not appear until March, while my first thriller (for grown-ups)  ‘Ariadne 7’ will be out in February.

Lastly, though the numbers aren’t exactly stunning, I am actually selling a few books. Which is nice. So, as Del-Boy likes to say “This time next year…”

(If you’d like to hear Dylan Thomas reading the poem misquoted above, click here).

Blackwater Lake by Maggie James

Blackwater Lake3-stars

Back from his idyllic life in Crete, Matthew is somewhat disinclined to spend time at his family home – with a house chock-full of junk and rubbish, his mother’s hoarding habit holds only negative memories. Inevitably, he can’t avoid it forever, but discovering his mother is dying, turns out to be only the first of several shocks: her personality is horribly changed and the apparently nonsensical ramblings are unsettling. However, when the couple disappear and apparently commit suicide, Matthew is forced to face the dread of clearing the house, and soon finds there’s a lot more to his parents’ past then he’d ever imagined.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book – it’s a little slow to get going but once it does, the tension builds nicely and the denouement is unexpected. Having said this, the first couple of chapters almost stopped me reading – two or three phrases were repeated so often that it was like reading a first draft. Thankfully, Ms James got her act together and the rest of the story was highly enjoyable. The three-stars are due to those poorly edited first chapters, though won’t put me off reading more of her work.

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Paperback Writer – Making Books

While thousands of Indie authors get published via the eBook route, thousands more are venturing into the world of paperbacks. Over recent months I’ve been seeing more and more blog posts about one of the popular options – Createspace – so I thought it was time I found out a bit more…How the World Turns and other stories COVER 4 150x

Createspace is an Amazon company, so I was a little bit wary, not wanting to be persuaded to go down the ‘exclusivity’ route, but to my surprise that wasn’t an issue (as it can be with their ebooks). I already have a few ebooks on Amazon, although Smashwords is still the top favourite in terms of listing my complete bibliography (due to being able to list books as ‘free’ for as long as I like).

I began looking at Createspace with a view to knocking out a paperback copy of one of my shorter books – ‘How the World Turns (and Other Stories)’. My initial explorations proved two of my main anxieties to be groundless:

How much is it going to cost me?

Will it be time-consuming and/or technically difficult?

So the cost question is probably the one I was most fearful of, but Createspace use a model that relies on my new pet phrase – ‘Print On Demand’. This means that there’s no cost to the author at all (unless you choose one of their design options). Once you’ve formatted your book files, sorted out a cover, checked the proofs, completed distribution, pricing and other relevant info, the book is then made available on Amazon (Amazon.com, Amazon Europe, Createspace eStore etc) so it only remains for customers to order your book. At that point, the book will be printed and shipped. Easy-peasy.

As to the degree of technical difficulty, I suppose that rather depends on how well you know your way around a keyboard, and how familiar (or comfortable) you are using image software, PDF’s and the like, though you’ll only need to go down that route if you’re designing your own cover. (There are several options for adding your book’s cover, such as paying the design team, uploading a front/back PDF from your own design, or using Createspace’s software to do it yourself).

In terms of the content of your book, the process is similar to formatting for ebooks, though as physical books do have to fit a specific size, there are issues around margins, blank space and font size that are maybe a little more important to get right than with ebooks. There can also be problems with certain fonts if they aren’t embedded in the original document.

When you’ve done everything else, it just remains to agree the proofs. You can do this online, though they recommend you order an actual printed proof to be sure. This is especially important if there are concerns about printing on the spine of the book, if you’re unsure about glossy or matte for the cover, or if images/text have been reduced to fit.

No doubt the cost to readers, as with ebooks, will always be an issue – none of us want to price ourselves out of the market, but finding that perfect price vs royalties figure is never going to be straightforward.

Generally, though, I’m pretty impressed. Indie authors rock!

The Mangle Street Murders by MRC Kasasian

Mangle Street Murders Kasasian
The Mangle Street Murders
4-stars

When March Middleton goes to live with her guardian, the ‘personal’ detective Sidney Grice, she is faced with two problems: firstly, how is she ever going to live in the same house with a man so annoying, so irritatingly contrary and so stuffed with self-importance that she can barely get a word in edgeways? More significantly though, how is she to persuade the detective to take on the case of a young wife who has seemingly been stabbed to death by her quiet and unassuming husband?

This is a wonderfully grimy detective story in the tradition of Holmes and Watson, though with more grime, a sprinkling of sexist policemen and a distinct lack of meat at meal times. M. R. C. Kasasian paints a vivid portrait of Victorian London, complete with beggars, blind match-sellers and wig-wearing Italians. The writing style was at times a little disconcerting – seeming to jump about a bit, but that’s probably just me, and in any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will definitely be reading more by this talented author.

 
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First Drafts and Other Hurricanes

Hemingway Draft copy

Ernest Hemingway once said,

“The first draft of everything is shit.”

Maybe it is, but it also depends on what you term to be a First Draft. As my approach to writing has changed a bit over the years, I no longer write and edit as I go along, but instead, simply write until I get to the end and then start the process of re-writing/editing/correcting.

So is a first draft simply the first version of the finished novel? Maybe, maybe not.

The first novel I attempted to write without worrying about spelling, grammar, editing etc, was Mortlake, book 2 in my mid-range children’s adventure ‘The Maps Of Time.’  During the writing process I found myself feeling a little unnerved by my new regime and consequently began to make a few ‘rules’ to keep in mind, that I hoped would make life easier:

Don’t wait for the right word/phrase
Normally I strive to find the exact word or phrase that I need. Finding that word or phrase can, of course, take time and any time spent looking for it means time not writing, so what I do now is to write something that sounds like the sort of thing I’m looking for, so I’ll know what I was thinking about when I come back to it later. For instance in this passage I wanted to describe a puppet show, but wasn’t clear on what sort of puppets I had in mind or how to describe it. In my first draft, I wrote something like:

Charlie stops to watch a puppet show, distracted by the colours and stuff.

The first re-write sounded like this:

He stands for a moment, as the young puppeteer begins to run through his repertoire

with one of the marionettes. The gaily-coloured toy dances a jig on the grimy

cobblestones, oversized wooden feet clattering and tapping an infectious rhythm.

Don’t delete the beginnings – yet:
Sometimes it takes a few goes to get into a new novel and that first couple of paragraphs may feel right at the time, but won’t necessarily work later on. In the past I’ve tended to delete anything that doesn’t seem right, but now I’ve learned to just leave it – even when I’m fairly sure it’ll end up going the way of all flesh. Why? Because it might be useful elsewhere in the novel or it might shed light on my thinking about a particular character or scene. So even if I do get rid of that original opening eventually, I’ll leave it until I’m absolutely sure it doesn’t work, just in case.

In terms of ‘Mortlake’ my original first scene related to what happened at the end of the first book, but it got the old heave-ho because I realized I needed something that would grab the reader’s attention, whether they’d read the previous book or not.

Leave the damn mouse alone:
I’ve never been one for using those pesky little pads on laptops to negotiate my way around my screen – no, like Walt Disney, I prefer the mouse. And because I prefer it I tend to hang on to it, cling to it almost, and consequently highlight anything that isn’t perfect and immediately re-write/edit/delete as appropriate. Since this is simply another interruption to my writing, I’ve discovered that standing up to write (see my earlier post) is a great way to avoid this habit, as I can’t reach the mouse from my new standy-up position. (NB Since posting this, I now use a standing desk where the mouse is within reach, so I’ve trained myself to ignore it!)

So not using the mouse means I write faster and less episodically, leading to a finishing-post that’s in sight, rather than a mere dot at the end of a long, long, tunnel.

By the way, the Hurricanes mentioned in the title of this post obviously don’t exist, except for those rather windy tumbleweedy thoughts that clog up my brain when I’m trying to write. Just in case you were wondering.

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