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Thursday, 16 December 2010

BBC TV's "The Georgians"

Rousham House where Robert Dormer
kept tyrannical control over his wife
Just finished watching the BBC TV programme about the Georgians, and wanted to say what fantastic viewing it has been. The wonderful Professor Amanda Vickery is a presenter that never gets in the way of the material but presents it with insight and humour. Some of the stories from the diaries of the period would make great novels.

Today we were treated to the diary of poor persecuted Ann Dormer who was kept a virtual prisoner by her jealous husband. The fact that her house was a gorgeous mansion hardly made up for the fact that she was spied upon night and day, even in the gardens.

We were also treated to a close-up of the bane of the historical novelist's life - pockets. (If you put them in your historical novel, you get complaints from readers that pockets did not exist then, but of course they did, just not in the form they are today - and where else is a lady to store her whalebone comb, the key to her secretaire, her much-thumbed love letters?)

These two items were just a couple of the treats we were shown on tonight's episode - I hope they bring it out on DVD - I for one will be adding it to my collection.
The pocket picture is from the lovely blog titled the Gossip Guide to the Eighteenth Century, why not check it out -

Monday, 13 December 2010

Review - The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges is the story of Hans Memling, a fifteenth century portrait painter whose voice is masterfully brought to life in this debut novel.

In his newly-inherited position as portrait painter to the nobility at home and abroad Memling is privy to the lives of the rich and the powerful. He is also able to observe the political and personal machinations that motivate them. The story moves Memling from Bruges to England and includes insights into Memling's role in the War of the Roses and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

Talking of a portrait of the Madonna, Memling says the "red rose she wears at her breast is painted from a compound of alum and powdered wood, lye and urine. If you could smell it, the odour would be the stale of horses." He tells us that in the world of painting, "all is artifice", nothing is as it seems. And so it is too with the life and loves of Memling. He has his own dark secrets, and they are not just the secrets of the mixing of paint.

This is refreshingly unlike any other historical novel I have read. It has the scholarship of non-fiction combined with a character that will hold your interest as he tells his true story.

At the heart of this book is the loving recreation in words of Hans Memling's art. In one respect I found it frustrating not to have the illustrations there in front of me, but in another it allowed Morgan to do his job and create them through the writing - a job he does remarkably well. Morgan sticks rigorously to the known facts of Memling's life whilst introducing a plausible sub-text of Memling's own fascinating opinions of those he paints.

This book will delight anyone who paints, anyone who likes fifteenth century history, or indeed anyone who likes a period skilfully brought to life.

Friday, 3 December 2010

"Raining Men" and raining reviews

On Historical Belles and Beaus blog Ann Whitfield has posted a hilarious video of period beaus and belles set to a soundtrack of "It's raining men" -

And it seems to be raining reviews as well right now. Here's the latest for The Lady's Slipper on Reading the Past. You can also win a copy of the book by leaving a comment on the blog.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Lady's Slipper Interview on Goodreads, and Wellington Boots

Here's my interview with Jessica Donaghy on Goodreads in their December Newsletter.

And here is the view from my window today!

Just about managed to get out to my Tai Chi class in the neighbouring village, followed by coffee at Zeffirelli's Cafe. No Lady's Slippers for me only Wellington Boots.The snow keeps coming and going, so its a lovely excuse to light the wood fire and sit down to my third novel. I'm now in Chapter Three and buried under research books and notes.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Publishers Fake Reviews on Amazon

The Daily Mail had an article on Monday about how publishers are paying PR agencies to write favourable reviews and put them on Amazon. Nathan Barker of Reputation 24/7 offers a service starting at £5000. "We'd say we like this book but add a tiny bit of criticism and compare it to another book." Barker claims this is common practice in the publishing industry.

Well, I'm pretty sure none of my Amazon reviews have been paid for by the publisher. And I'm glad. If my publishers were to think the book so bad that they need to pay someone to write me good reviews then they can't have much confidence in the book!

I have the usual mix of reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Librarything - some love it, some like it less. This is normal as the public has idiosyncratic reading tastes. The women in my book group don't all love the books I do, even if they are well-written, thoughtfully edited and brilliantly marketed.

I usually click on the reviewer to see what else they have reviewed if I am reading a review. Some reviewers review up to twenty books a month. Are they reading all these? Big Warning Bell.

However - I am grateful to the readers who have made the time and effort to review The Lady's Slipper with their genuine thoughts, particularly in the US where I know not a soul. I am grateful for anyone who raises its profile and opens debate about it, whether the review is good or bad, and don't take it too personally. We can't all like the same books!

More debate on a similar topic can be found at a post by writer Eliza Graham at  Macmillan New Writers

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Househunting -Tanzanite's Castle Full of Books: Author Interview

You can find an interview with me at Tanzanite's Castle. I enjoyed answering Daphne's questions in between house-hunting and working on my next book. I think house-hunting must be like being a publisher - lots of possibles, some sound fantastic from the agent's blurb, but there's nothing I actually love yet.

The virtual world of Tanzanite's castle full of books has much more appeal than the houses we have seen so far! Not that we're after turrets or dungeons, but some period features would be nice - oh, and good views, bit of a garden, room for a campervan somewhere outside. And a library, and a writer's studio........

Guess I'd better start buying those books on how to write a best seller. (Do they help, I wonder?)

You can find out which historical figure I'd like to have dinner with in our new house, when we find one, on the link below

Tanzanite's Castle Full of Books: Author Interview - Deborah Swift

Video Review of The Lady's Slipper, plus Giveaway

Stacy from Chapter Chicks uploaded this review to Youtube. If you haven't heard of Chapter Chicks video reviews, check them out!

I am also at Historical Tapestry today with my post about the character of Richard Wheeler. Thanks to Marg for hosting me.Click over there for details of the giveaway.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Lady's Slipper Wild in America

David Isaak has spotted The Lady's Slipper in the wild in Barnes and Noble in California.

Thanks so much to David for his recce into the wilds of the Californian Superstore!

You can check out David's book, and also his great post Historical Accuracy...and the Joys of Inaccuracy on his  fantastic blog Tomorrowville

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Big Box of Books from the Big Apple, and Giveaway news

The Lady's Slipper is out today in the US and the lovely big box of books has just arrived!

You can see that my cat Tabby was fairly impressed by the whole thing and has begun to read it already.

To coincide with the launch two lovely bloggers are featuring my book:

An interview about my writing life at Tanzanite's Castle

and a competition and giveaway at Historical Fiction to win a signed limited edition hardback (open worldwide).

Thanks to Daphne and Arleigh for posting today.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

My love affair with historical fiction

This interview is reproduced courtesy of the Macmillan New Writers Blog. Aliya Whiteley asked me how I came to write historical fiction.

Before I came to write The Lady's Slipper, most of my writing was contemporary. I read a lot of contemporary fiction as well as historical fiction. A few years ago I would have been surprised to find I had produced a historical novel. So why write one?

The answer is that it wasn't a case of me deciding on a period and then setting the novel there, it was more that my characters demanded certain conditions to flourish and tell their story. I started with a character who wanted to paint an orchid - I had seen the rare lady's-slipper orchid myself and wanted to write (initially) a poem about it. This desire was subverted into my character's desire to capture it in paint. From then on the character grew and developed. I thought for the flower to have impact I needed a time when ideas about botany and images of flowers were new and fresh. Perhaps a time before mass printing, a time when herbs and flowers were used for healing. This led me to the 17th century when herbalists such as Nicolas Culpeper were just making their mark on history and the science of botany was in its infancy.

The idea of the medicinal use of the lady's-slipper then sparked the character of Margaret the herbalist, whose views on "the web of the world" were a very different religion from the conformist view of the time. I am interested in the different ways that faiths have shaped the world and this tied in nicely with the burgeoning Quaker movement, viewed in the 17th century as radical and dangerous. I couldn't resist having a Quaker character, so Richard Wheeler was born. In addition, the Quaker movement started close to my home in Westmorland, and visits to the still surviving historical sites fascinated me.

I was also keen to exploit the enmity between two men, and needed an atmosphere of unease where people felt unsafe so that the developing plot would be credible. The English Civil War where the King had been beheaded by his own people supplied the background disturbance I needed.

My second book, The Gilded Lily (on the editors desk) is set in the same period through necessity as it features Ella, one of the characters from The Lady's Slipper. It is a very different book as it is set in restoration London, a choice made so that I could exploit the desire for wealth and luxury which is a part of Ella's character. I will have to apologise to readers though, as the book features the Thames frozen over, which in fact happened in 1662 and not in 1661 as my book would suggest. This is because I didn't know I was going to write The Gilded Lily when I began The Lady's Slipper and unfortunately I cannot bend history - only apologise when I have had to do so.

The one I am working on now will be set in a different period. As with the first two I am looking for a time and place where my characters and ideas will collide in the most satisfying way. At the moment that seems to be turn of the 16th century in Spain. I can't tell you much more about it because I want to keep the excitement about it inside and not let it dissipate until I have a first draft in front of me.

Now though, I find I enjoy the researching period such a lot, and the wonderful excuse it gives me to hang around museums, historic houses, art galleries and libraries. And I have discovered some fantastic writers in the historical fiction genre, who have given me further insights into our rich heritage. So I cannot imagine that I will run out of ideas from the wealth of our history, and I guess that will keep me writing historical fiction for a while yet!

Aliya asked how I communicate my passion for the period to the reader, but I've really no idea. I just loved writing about the seventeenth century, and my revelling in it I hope will somehow be transmitted, maybe through the language of my characters.

Thanks Aliya for your questions.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Deborah's Historical Fiction Blog Tour

To celebrate the launch of The Lady's Slipper in the US, I am doing a blog tour the week before and the week after the launch on the 23rd November.
The following beautiful blogs are going to be a part of it:

and last but by no means least,
Thank you to them all. If you love historical fiction, these are my favourite sites, why not check them out. More details about the posts soon. See you there!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Book Piracy Update

When my publishers copyright department checked out the site advertising free downloads of The Lady's Slipper, they discovered that the site is hosted in Moldavia and registered in Russia. It appears to be a malware site used to infect unsuspecting visitors machines rather than a genuine book download site i.e. there is no copyright infringement.
However, what that does mean is that anyone trying to download the book for free may end up with a nasty surprise! Ho ho ho.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Thoughts about my new Kindle

Whilst at a conference another writer showed me her Kindle, and its lovely hot pink leather cover. Initially attracted by the aforesaid lovely cover, despite my dyed-in-the-wool technophobia, I went over for a closer look. At that point another writer (male) then whipped out his coverless Kindle, and began to outline the advantages of e-reading, its functions and features, gadgets and buttons. I let him try to explain the ins and outs of downloading, whispernet and so forth, whilst dying to ask, does the cover come in other colours?

Anyway, the upshot of the three-way conversation is that I now have my own Kindle (complete with burgundy leather cover). The first thing I noticed when shopping via Amazon was how different the top 100 books look in the US and the UK. In the US - thrillers, cook-books and erotica. In the UK, reprints of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Great Expectations, Sense and Sensibility, The Iliad by Homer, and Mrs. Beeton's Household Management. This is I'm sure more to do with what you can download free than anything else, but it painted a wonderful picture of the States as full of thrill-seeking, hedonists who enjoy a good meal, whilst the English are sensible but with great expectations, a penchant for latin, and with households that need managing in the Victorian manner. (Could there be some truth there, I wonder?)

Anyway, what the Kindle is good for from a historical novelist's viewpoint is that you can download obscure out of print historical documents and books that you might need for reference. On my Kindle I now have an etymological dictionary (downloaded free), several plays by 17th century playwrights such as Kyd and Middleton, (bought for pennies) Pepy's Diary, some obscure papers on sword fighting, and various other research PDF's downloaded from various universities. It is much nicer to do my research with them all loaded neatly onto the handy slim screen, and I can carry most of my research, including the stalwart Wikipedia, now in one volume. What I miss is being able to browse, and the fact that I can usually remember whether a line I'm looking for is on the left or right page as I am reading, thus making it eaier to find.

The Kindle is useless too for those lovely illustrated non-fiction books which show you things like how a flintlock pistol works, or pictures of costume or art and architecture. But for text, I have to say it is easy to read and has some great features like a built in dictionary so you can click on a word you are unfamiliar with and it will give you a definition.

And won't I look cool when I finally get my pebble glasses and zimmer frame and can use an e-reader instead of carrying great sackfuls of Large Print books around!

The cost of e-books is a hot potato right now. In my previous post on piracy I wrote that you can already download a pirated version of my book. In this post from the Guardian, you can see that readers want their books as cheaply as possible, and have been giving expensive e-books by well-known authors 1 star reviews in order to protest at the cost of books for the Kindle. These readers may turn to pirated books if the ebook prices remain as high as they are. But I can guarantee that none of those readers are also writers!

So far apart from out of print or classic works I have downloaded "The Wilding" by Maria McCann at almost the full price of a paperback, for the convenience of having it there whilst travelling. And I have no doubt that if I like it, it will get 5 stars and a good review from me on Amazon. I, like everyone else, want cheap books for my Kindle, but not at the expense of living writers whose work and creativity I am prepared to pay for.

As I am new to the Kindle, any tips, tricks or thoughts will be much appreciated, provided they are in plain english and not in technojargon!

Monday, 1 November 2010

My book has been pirated!

I suppose it was inevitable, but it is pretty disappointing as a writer to find that "The Lady's Slipper", which is barely out of nappies - still in its pristine hardback edition in the uk - has been copied and is now available worldwide for people to download free from the internet. I the writer, can do absolutely nothing about it, and will of course receive no royalties from them at all.

When I got on the 'get books for free' site, I was astonished to find I could download lots of just-released pirated books, and yes, it looks tempting to a bookaholic like me to have all the latest books available for nothing.....

Of course in the end, if people download the books, (which are probably of varying quality) and they therefore don't sell in an official version, then publishers will not be publishing them, or supporting their writers.

Those that do get books this way for free are slowly strangling the publishing industry. But we've seen this before, haven't we, with the music industry.

I have to say it is frustrating when the US Kindle edition is still a few weeks off, but also I suppose its flattering that someone could be bothered to copy and upload it.

Tell you the name of the site? You must be kidding.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

More snippets from the Historical Novel Society Conference 2010

One of the best things about these sort of events is the opportunity to network with other writers and readers. During lunch the hubbub of conversation was almost deafening, and a few people escaped the noisy dining room for the bar, myself included. There I got chatting with some women from Yorkshire who are all at various stages with their historical works-in-progess and with a history teacher who is writing a novel set in the Civil War. We exchanged notes over our pizza, quiche and bread rolls, and heard a little about the ideas behind our work.

Sometimes you can end up a little drunk on other people's unwritten stories and enthusiasm!

In the afternoon we were treated to "A History of Violence" with panellists Harry Sidebottom, Doug Jackson, Robert Low and Ben Kane. There was general agreement amongst the panel that violence was a thrill that the adrenaline-junkie male sought through his reading in this somewhat sanitised society, and that combat and war are subjects that are somehow "sexy" at some visceral level.

Members of the panel were keen to point out the particular stresses of combat with its "to the death" theme can make for a very human story. It was these tales that the panel thought they were telling - the stories of one individual against the big canvas of armed conflict. The panel were asked whether women writers were equally able to do this, to conjure up the vast battlefields and set pieces of conflict, and several mentioned Robyn Young (author of The Brethren Trilogy and the new Insurrection.)

In times past, life was altogether more violent and this difference can alienate readers. Difficult areas that challenge readers are (unsurprisingly) rape scenes, and those featuring violence to animals. One of the panel said he had had complaints about a scene involving dismembering a dog although readers were happy to accept the same if the victim was human. In early cultures, particularly slave cultures, rape was endemic, for example in ancient Rome. Rape in any case was less about sexuality and more about status - i.e. it was acceptable in Rome if you were the rapist, but to be the victim was seen as dropping status. After hearing the all male panel dicuss this, it was a contrast to hear from the softly-spoken writer for young adults, Ann Turnbull.

Ann Turnbull writes historical fiction for young adults - a booming market which she says used to be almost invisible. Her books are set in the seventeenth century and focus on the Civil War, the Plague Years and the Great Fire of London. I have to say that to write of these subjects was probably a smart move as all these are on the standard history curriculum, although for younger children, and that her books seem to be doing very well despite somebody saying earlier in the day that the 17th century was difficult to sell. Ann's talk entertained us with a powerpoint presentation of maps of old London, engravings of a 17th century printers workshop, and forbidden Quaker meetings. Originally a writer of books for younger children Ann was delighted when her publisher suggested she should try writing historicals for Young Adults. Each book is 70-80000 words long, so each takes considerable research. But there is no doubt that there is a market there now for historical fiction for young adults where there wasn't one before.

The final presentation was from Jean Fullerton, whose immensely popular London based books are impeccably researched. "Ground your fiction in Fact" was the title of the session, as Jean is a firm believer in doing your homework, and goes to great lengths to make sure everything is as accurate as possible. She told us to look beneath the surface of the usual view and unearth the lesser known facts, for example that there were many black Victorians in London, but these images are not ones we would usually associate with Victorian London. She has the advantage of living in the place she writes about and has used her local contacts and the local studies archives to uncover exactly what was on the streets she writes of, so she can feature real pubs and shops. She even researched what grades of coal were on sale during the period she was describing.When challenged that such detailed research might be wasteful as it hardly features in the book, and time could be better spent writing, Jean took the view that if the writer knows the detail, then this will convey to the reader even if not in the most obvious way. And I have to say I agree - the confidence that comes from knowing your stuff helps the writing process and gives a flavour of veracity.

Jean finished by saying we will never be able to get it all right - there will always be something we miss and kick ourselves over once it has gone to the printer, but that is inevitable. The main thing is to have done the research the best way you are able.

In the gaps between the sessions I was able to network with other writers, both published and unpublished, and have the "writerly" conversations I am so often starved of at home, so my thanks go to the organisers and to the speakers. I look forward to next time!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Snippets from the Historical Novel Society Conference

The venue for this year's conference was the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, a solid edifice with an imposing stone staircase and walls full of prints and ephemera from the history of the Trades Unions.

Unfortunately I couldn't be in two places at once so I had to make choices about which speakers I would listen to. The first was Mary Sharratt - seated in amongst us at a round table around which we all squashed ourselves - she was a very popular speaker and rightly so. Her talk on "The Daughters of Witching Hill", her new novel, was exemplary. She gave us plenty of historical detail about the religious and social background to the book -  how the Reformation changed attitudes to Catholicism, how the 17th century beliefs in spirits and the power of the cunning woman were repressed during the rise of Puritanism. Her extracts were well-chosen, and we all got to hear her read a little of the voices of the characters, during which you could hear a pin drop. She had photocopied some chapbooks and documents of the time which she referred to, and these added a note of veracity to what was a very well-planned and interesting session. And "The Daughters of Witching Hill" sounds like a great read.

Robert Low was next, talking about Reportage, Re-enactment and Fiction. A very imposing-looking man with a plaited beard, he looks as his readers might hope he would. His lively talk ranged across his experiences as a war reporter and re-enacter. As he pointed out, historical fiction is a genre with no awards, no specific shelf in a bookshop.

And for myself, probably my affinity with Viking, Roman or other so-called Sword and Sandals fiction is about the same as my affinity with Crime or Chick-Lit - i.e they are novels, but that's about as far as it goes. One end of the genre can feel miles away from another, separated by aeons in both time and writing style. So it always feels a little odd for us all to be lumped together in one genre.

But as a novelist Robert had some great things to say about the writer remaining invisible, listed with great good humour. My favourites were "Never open with the weather - the reader is looking for people","Try to leave out the parts readers skip", "If it sounds like writing, re-write it."

He said whatever the accuracy of our research in the end our "only obligation is to be persuasive," and I have to say this seemed a very good argument.

The Panel Discussion, "Where next for Historical Fiction?" chaired by Doug Jackson with Jim Gill (United Agents) Marcy Posner (Folio Literary Management) began by looking back to see where the current revival in interest in HF has come from, and traced it back to the rise of interest in historical  non-fiction, particularly Simon Schama's History of Britain, and books such as "Longitude" - non-fiction narratives which then paved the way for fiction. Readers like the "added value" of entertainment plus education that some HF provides. However, we need to be wary that we don't become so concerned with being accurate that we forget to write a novel! Story is key.

The conversation ranged over the power of the cover (8 seconds to make your choice in Tesco) to the fact that contrary to most writers' opinions, interest in the Tudors shows no sign of waning. On the contrary, readers like to read books where they already have a smattering of knowledge. Periods the reader has scant knowledge of will fail to sell. The English Civil War, although it has a lot going for it in terms of dramaic action, is apparently a difficult period as readers do not understand the complex causes of the conflict and therefore have no "in" on the subject. (Shame, as that is my period!)

Marcy Posner said there was absolutely no market for WWII novels in the States.

She also said that since the rise of ebooks and self-publishing it was interesting that no less than five new independent bookshops have opened in New York, indicating that the public are wanting a more informed choice and a personal service. Good news for all of us whose books are somewhere in the mid-list.

Both Jim and Marcy agreed that the job of the novelist includes being "out and about", although there is no hard evidence to show (certainly in the States ) that readings and tours work to sell more books. Generally, facebook, tweeting, blogs etc do not necessarily increase your profile as there is so much "information static" drowning out the potential to connect with readers. This was contested by some members who thought that they had successfully used these media to sell their own books.

In the afternoon I listened to a Panel Discussion on A History of Violence" and Ann Turnbull talking about Love and conflict in the 17th century. This was followed by Jean Fullerton's presentation "Ground your fiction in Fact." I also had a very entertaining lunch, and a discussion with two other writers about the benefits of the Kindle.More about these in my next post.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Gilded Lily to be published by Pan Macmillan

I am delighted to announce that my second novel, The Gilded Lily will be published by Pan Macmillan, date of publication to be confirmed soon.

The Gilded Lily is a companion volume to The Lady's Slipper, but can also be read as a stand-alone novel.

The Gilded Lily

a Winter of Snow and Ice 1661

Timid Sadie Appleby has always lived in her small village. One night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella, who has robbed her employer and is on the run. The girls flee their rural home of Westmorland to head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in hot pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse begins.

Ella is soon obsessed with the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift. But nothing is what it seems - not even Jay Whitgift.

Can Sadie survive a fugitive's life in the big city? But even more
pressing, can she survive life with her older sister Ella?

Set in London's atmospheric coffee houses, the rich mansions of
Whitehall, and the pawnshops, slums and rookeries hidden from rich men's view, The Gilded Lily is about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.

At the same time as I was celebrating my own good news I heard that Terence Morgan, a fellow Macmillan New Writer and author of historical fiction, has signed a similar two book deal with Pan Mac. Check out his recent book, The Master of Bruges. His new one will be entitled "The Last Plantagenet."

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Historical Fiction paperback designers

The final design for the US paperback of The Lady's Slipper arrived today and it looks absolutely gorgeous with its lovely gold embossed writing. I am always really interested in visual things, having spent a lot of years working in the design field, so I looked up the designer and illustrator on the web and it is interesting to see the other excellent book designs they have produced.

So first up - the designer, Jason Ramirez. Click on the name to follow a link to other excellent book covers he has designed.

Next - the cover illustrator, Larry Rostant. His work is extremely popular at the moment for historical fiction, and also for fantasy, being a skilful combination of photo-manipulation and illustration. His illustrations for historical novels keep the period costume whilst making the female protagonist seem a little more contemporary. On his website I notice that my friend Gaby's book, published in the UK His Last Duchess was also illustrated by him, so obviously he must work internationally.

So many thanks to both of them and the team at St Martin's Press for such a great design.

And I was just chatting to my editor today about the UK paperback design which is also underway, so I'll post about that cover too as soon as I have more information.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Macmillan New Writers blog interviews begin

My love affair with historical fiction - my post telling you about this is on the MNW blog here, along with quesions for the fantasy writer MFW Curran, author of The Secret War and The Hoard of Mhorrer.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A thousand request The Lady's Slipper on Goodreads

More than a thousand people in the US entered a giveaway for The Lady's Slipper on Goodreads. This was such a great response that the publishers have offered another 48 copies. You can enter this free draw by going to Goodreads, the offer is open to US residents only.

Doing research, and Macmillan New Writers blog

I'm busy researching my next work in progresss and I'm out and about in Museums and libraries looking at non-fiction books and 16th and 17th century objects. I'm lucky in that I live in a very historic village next to two old towns - Kendal and Lancaster, both of which have castles. Kendal castle is a very scenic ruin and Lancaster Castle featured in The Lady's Slipper as it is also (still) the town gaol.

Last week I was in the museum at Lancaster, (see picture left) which tells the history of Lancaster, its Georgian heyday in the days of slave-trading and sugar, as well as its Roman artefacts.

In Kendal this week I went on a guided walk of Quaker sites (It being Quaker week), past the old burial ground, the sites of the soup kitchen during the famine, and the typical Kendal octagonal summerhouses. Kendal was a town with many well-to-do men who were Quakers, so their influence is very evident in the town. Most were involved in the woollen industry or in banking - Quakers were renowned for their fairness in monetary transactions. Below is Sepulchre Lane, the route to the old Quaker Burial Ground.

At the moment I am following my interest in the 17th century, but recently I have had a feeling I would like to go further back to the end of the Elizabethan era for my next book, so I am picking up books about the turn of the century and also collecting a store of visual images. I am investigating the period in Spain when England entered the thirty years war, and looking into the moorish influence on philosophy and religion in Spain, not to mention on architecture. Most of this I am doing through books and online, but I'm planning a visit to Spain soon!

If you want to know why I write historical fiction and why I choose the periods I write in, you can find out this week on the Macmillan New Writers Blog.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Meditation and Writing

My second book is waiting for the editor's verdict and I am in the glorious research period of the next. Nothing is set in stone yet, so my mind can range free over a multitude of possibilities. It's a great excuse to curl up on the sofa with a pile of good non-fiction books, a cat (hopefully) purring on my lap and a cup of tea on the windowsill behind me.

During this phase I seem to do a lot of daydreaming and free-thinking, writing down ideas on a large spider diagram, looking for concepts or characters that seem to fit together. I use my intuition in this "fitting together."

Research I'm doing at the moment is based around Spain at the turn of the sixteenth century, as I am fairly sure some of the next book will be set there, but I also have books on Stuart Cookery, The Lives of the English Rakes and The Book of the Sword on the go, as well as a great Taschen picture book on Alchemy and Mysticism. And that is only the top of the pile. So how does all this input become output?

For me, one of the answers is meditation. I have been a meditator for more than 30 years. Those of you who are thinking I have this meditation-thing taped after all this time would be mistaken - it is still a discipline to sit, and to still the mind every day, and not to jump up going "I must get on with the writing/washing-up/filing/whatever else needs doing."

But the length of practice means I know from experience that it is the antidote to the chock-a-block mind, that it provides a creative space for the less obvious to appear. Whilst the thinking mind is working out things on the surface, the meditative mind perceives the undercurrents, the subtleties, maybe not even the things I can instantly put into words, but the sense of direction of the ideas I am working with, what I sometimes call the "true north" of where I am going and what I am doing.

Many other writers have a repetitive activity such as running or swimming that they use to quieten the mind. Others use the process of writing itself. There must be thousands of people writing the recommended "daily pages" of The Artist's Way, in order to put themselves in touch with deeper aspects of themselves. For most writers, writing itself uncovers the self, and because of this it can feel as if you are baring the soul.

I am lucky that I know a group of other women who meditate and once a month we get to each other's houses to sit in silence together and then have tea. We are of all different persuasions, christians, buddhists, quakers, atheists, not-quite-sure's, yet we find a value in this silent coming together. When we sit in silence it is as if we contact all the other silences - for silence is silence, is the same silence.
This is one of the reasons I chose to write about the Quakers, as sitting in silence is their core activity.

The picture shows some of the women's meditation group at the launch of The Lady's Slipper outside Townend. I'm the one in the middle!

For those beginning writing and interested in meditation and the process of writing I can recommend "Writing Your Way" by Manjusvara and "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg.  These books contain a wealth of ideas and exercises to get you started, and are a great resource for Creative Writing tutors.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

"not a spark of literary talent"

This was what they said about poor "Poet Close" who in desperation to be a published writer decided to set up his own stall on the shores of Lake Windermere by the steamer pier and sell his books and pamphlets to passers-by. Those who bought a book were rewarded with praise, and those who did not were richly abused! Shoud I not find a publisher for my latest novel, I am tempted to do as he did - get out my stall, print off a few copies, and add to it what seems to be the contents of my attic or garage, and follow his example. I understand completely his desire to have someone read his work, and whether it is "good" or not never diminishes that desire to comunicate with the reader.

Close (the bearded man on the right having a well-deserved rest after all that pen-pushing) was an extraordinary publicist, sending unsolicited copies of his books to the rich and famous, and then later sending them a bill - he did this to clergymen, dukes and even Queen Victoria. If they failed to pay they were reviled or featured in his next book of poems. This was spamming Victorian-style, but his ruses worked and he did become truly famous (or is that infamous) in his day. He died in1891, and now his doggerel verses are much sought after as collector's items, despite the Dictionary of National Biography describing him as having "not a spark of literary talent."

"Who is it moves with such a grace,
with glasses 'cross her lovely face,
so like an Angel in this place"

was a typical offering made to flatter a local lady and persuade her to open her purse! Her heirs will now be glad that she did.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Editing - Knowing when to stop

My editing is done for now, and my new novel The Gilded Lily, companion volume to The Lady's Slipper,  is with my agent. She has read it, loved it, and thinks it is ready to go off to the publishers. It has taken me over six months of editing, fiddling and re-writing to feel confident enough to send it to her, and even now there would be more work to do if I didn't decide to over-ride my over-active perfectionist and just stop somewhere.

So how did I know it was ready? I suppose the changes I was making were becoming smaller and smaller and it had become obvious that any changes I made were not going to affect the overall premise or structure of the book. And now it needs an editor's eye to look at that premise and structure to see if it works for him or her. After that I expect there to be more editing, as if it is accepted for publication I will be going through the whole thing again with a fine tooth comb. Isn't it a good job I love editing, and have to drag myself away.

This second book has been harder to write although very enjoyable as I have been much more aware of the crafting process, having learnt from the editorial advice I received for the first. It has also involved much more complex research methods as it is set in London and living in Cumbria I could not just pop down the road to check out my facts! Thank goodness for the internet as least a quarter of my editing was done because of things I discovered whilst checking my research.

But I guess the thing that made me the most aware it was time to stop was when the next book began to occupy more and more of my thinking time, and new characters and a new time and place started to grow in my thoughts. So irrespective of whether The Gilded Lily is any good or not, it is time to let it go, and begin the next.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Noms de Plumes, multiple personality disorder!

My post on how Martyn Baines became Tania Carver overnight can be found here. So far the author with the most names (seven) is.....(click link to find out!)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Art Of Storytelling

I've just come back from a weekend camping at the West Coutry Storytelling Festival in Devon. I managed to survive sleeping on a sloping airbed that was gradually making its way out of the tent, into the field full of cow pats and two bored-looking rams. I also got used to sitting for long hours on a camping mat whilst I listened to tales long and short, told by the acknowledged experts in their field (excuse the pun!).

Hearing stories told live is a great way to remind yourself of the power of language. Totally ephemeral, the words are gone as soon as they are spoken, so that unlike the written word a story told live relies on the linking of powerful images to guide you through the plot, and to remind you of where you have been. In this spoken language the sound of the words is very important - many storytellers use alliterative devices or rythmic repetition to delight the listener, some stories include passages of poetry or verse. Contrary to popular belief, this is a very sophisticated art form these days, with the tellers carefully crafting their language for maximum effect and impact.

We forget that the novel is a mere three hundred years old and that before that all stories were passed on orally, as a way to transmit wisdom or new ideas from generation to generation. As such, many were teaching stories designed to enthuse a new generation.

At the festival I heard a fair few of these, but also some wonderful performance poetry by Matt Harvey, a word-wrangler whose wit and delivery quickly won him a new legion of fans.

Over the weekend I was privileged to hear Hugh Lupton's well-researched story about poet John Clare, "On Common Ground," in which he posited the idea that if you become disconnected from your land or your roots you are being literally taken "out of your mind." Cleverly weaving some of Clare's own poetic lines into the story, this was a treat to hear. John Clare's life is fascinating coinciding as it does with the Enclosures Act in England which radically and permanently changed our landscape.

By the way, I have several of Hugh Lupton's tales on CD, including The Iliad and The Odyssey which I highly recommend. Greek myths dull? Not told this way they're not.

A great presence at this festival was the traditional tellers including the enthusiastic Clive Fairweather who knows over 400 traditional tales by heart, and who told us a 600 year old story that has recently been translated from old english and had its first airing since that time at the festival.

So what did I learn from the storytellers that I can transfer to my own writing?
  1. First - no rambling. If a live teller rambles we soon get bored and begin to shuffle on our camping mats!
  2. The more odd and unlikely the image, or the more beautiful, the more it sticks.
  3. Recap any particularly salient points, but not in the same words as before.
  4. Use plenty of dialogue and keep description to one or two well-chosen images.
  5. Vary your voice (or in the case of writing aim for a variety of tone)
  6. The audience likes to be surprised, to expect one thing and be given something different.
  7. It is alright to use a refrain, an image or words that return again and again.
  8. Language is infinitely flexible, the human being will try to make sense of even the most nonsensical statements, so be bold.
  9. Characters must be individuals, whether prince or wolf or stupid Jack, each one must have his own particular idiosyncrasies and not just be a mere cipher.
  10. The ending must fulfil the promise of the beginning of the story, with a twist.
And the other thing I learnt? To make sure I read my novel out loud, to feel the taste and texture of what I have written.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Will e-readers change our writing style?

"I recently had an editor ask me to cut down my paragraphs into four, maybe five sentences. To find a break point in ones that were longer and limit the number of sentences. The reason – they play better on an e-reader. The size of the screens is conducive to shorter paragraphs rather than longer ones. So instead of describing a room in terms of sight, sound and smells, I needed a separate paragraph for each. It made sense in that context but it made for a change in my writing style."

This was a quote from Regan Taylor a writer of historical romance. (Read her whole post The long and short of reading and writing here)

With the Kindle arriving in the UK and more and more people choosing e readers, I thought this was an interesting point for writers. When we all began writing emails, the indented paragraphs disappeared in favour of a line space because this made it easier to read on screen, and Arial became the font of choice as opposed to Times New Roman. Most of us have nearly forgotten how a letter used to look, and most documents now are laid out "email style" rather than with old-fashioned paragraphs.

Those of you who possess e-readers might like to give us writers a few tips on what works well on an e-reader and what doesn't. And have any other writers changed their style to adapt to new technology?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Mary Beale - 17th Century artist

On Hoydens and Firebrands you can find my post about the first woman artist to make her living from painting. A fascinating independent spirit, her paintings hang in the National Gallery.

Friday, 20 August 2010

"His Last Duchess" by Gabrielle Kimm - Review

This is the sort of book to take away with you on a wet weekend as it immediately conjures a sense of the hot sun of Renaissance Italy.

One of Gabrielle Kimm's strengths is that she is able to convey that heat and light to someone like me, sitting in Cumbria with the grey rain sheeting down outside. Her other strength is in describing the minutiae of life in a Tuscan estate, including a wonderful description of the kitchens, the intricacies of falconry, the manufacture of lime, and most of all the lost art of fresco painting.

'Flight of Aeneas from Troy', fresco painting by Girolamo Genga, 1507-1510, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.

Impeccably researched, the history is woven fluidly into the plot so that you never feel as if it is slowing the story.

The plot is fast-moving and unfolds from the poem with inevitability, but there is a twist in the tale which is very satisfying to the reader - I shan't spoil it for you though.

Lucrezia comes across as a sweet-natured heroine, out of her depth in a marriage to the sinister and controlling Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. In many ways his conflicted character drives the book, and the reader is both fascinated and repulsed by his developing psychology.

In terms of the poem, Gabrielle Kimm has managed to make sense of the hidden story behind the monologue, and I doubt if I will ever be able to read the poem again without remembering this book.

One word of warning though for parents and teachers who might buy this book for a child who is studying the poem -
best read it yourself before giving it to younger readers - not just because it is an excellent book, but because you might want to check out the adult nature of the themes before passing it on.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the character of Francesca, Alfonso's whore, is one I look forward to meeting in Gabrielle's next book, The Courtesan's Choice.

My Last Duchess

That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
"Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
"Must never hope to reproduce the faint
"Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men good! but thanked
Somehow I know not how as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech which I have not to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
"Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
"Or there exceed the mark" and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,
E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Why do writers reach for the past?

There is a great article on the guardian blog about historical fiction and historical accuracy, for example whether accurate equals good.
It also says that much of today's fiction is actually historical fiction in that it is set before the writer's lifetime. Most fiction that attracts me is set either in the past, in a foreign country, or in an alternative past.
So what is it that makes so many writers reach for the past? For myself it is a combination of factors - first that history is in one sense fixed - i.e the technology and social history can be pinpointed to one or two decades. I can research the particular time in the confidence that it will not suddenly shift about. A contemporary fiction writer has to deal with the fact that technology is moving on in ever quickening leaps, so that the type of gadgets we have now maybe obsolete in two years time, thus immediately dating their "contemporary" book. One example is how forensics for crime writers has made  baffling jumps in biological science. Keeping up with it is only for those who have a similar obsessive scientific interest.

For me another appeal of writing historical novels is that a wide range of writers have usually already written about the period and I can therefore indulge my love of books and writing - not so for the contemporary fiction writer whose research will be first hand, and quite possibly out of date by the time the book hits the shelves.

I love to read biographies of famous figures of the time, but also the literature of the period. There is a great joy for me in discovering (and even on occasions using) English words that have passed out of common usage. I enjoy the history of our language, and own many etymological dictionaries and also a wonderful Victorian thesaurus which gives me unlikely out-of-date synonyms for common words.

I have to confess I did not deliberately choose to write historical fiction, I just chose to write about a subject that interested me. But now I find I am more and more interested in the past and how its mysteries have shaped us. To me the past is a foreign land, full of people who I would expect to know but somehow don't - our ancestors have views quite alien from our own. Only a few days ago I was reading that one of the main entertainments for people to watch on feast days and at village fairs in the 17th century was the torturing of cats by holding them live over a bonfire. This was considered hilarious sport by our forbears. Clearly a society in which this was a suitable spectacle to entertain young children was radically different from our own.

The picture is from the classic poetry myspace site -

Thursday, 5 August 2010

"His Last Duchess" Interview and Giveaway

I've just posted an interview with Gabrielle Kimm on her new book here

Pop over if you would like a chance to win a signed copy. I've just started mine, review soon!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Writer's journey through a lost landscape

A map of seventeenth century England.
If you click on it, it will open in a bigger window.
Note the little hunting horns dotted all over the map, these are forests. Notice how few roads there are and that none of these are straight lines, but seem to enclose the forests between their net.

If you were to ask the average English person for the names of a forest or two, he might come up with Sherwood Forest (legendary home of Robin Hood), or the New Forest (home to herds of wild ponies) or if pushed maybe the Forest of Dean or Epping Forest. But beyond that, it is hard to bring a single name to mind. Of course we have woods - but these are not the dense tracts of trees I mean.

For our forests have gone, and with them the truly wild places, and with them perhaps, the dark places of our imagination.
In 1658 the Royal Forest of Needwood in Staffordshire was 92,000 acres and contained 50,000 trees, not counting holly and underwood. Of this forest few trees remain, but this area would have been dwarfed by the forest of Hatfield Chase in West Yorkshire which was 180,000 acres. A chase was, as the name suggests, a place for hunting deer. In the seventeenth century England was essentially all forest.

In the book I am working on my 17th century characters make long journeys and it would be easy to forget that travelling would take them through acres and acres of dark woodland, within which lurked the wild beasts hunted by generations of kings and princes ; the classic five beasts of hart, hind, hare, boar and wolf.

Although records show wolves were extinct in England by the 15th century, they still roamed in Scottish forests until the 18th century, and by all accounts the fear of them in England lasted much longer than that. In Derbyshire there is a legend of a creature that is reported to resemble a normal wolf, but which moves at fantastic speeds and covers great distances in a single bound. It is unclear whether the wolf is a physical entity, but the nearby village of Wormhill (amongst many others) claims to be the location where the last wolf in England was killed in the sixteenth century. Even today Dendrophobia is a very common phobia surrounding the fear of trees or the forest.

The fear of getting lost was a major concern. My characters might have to pay a scout to show them the way, ride for miles on horseback seeing only the upright trunks of oak and ash, birch and willow. They would be canopied by a dense sky of moving leaves in the summer, rattling twigs in the winter. Each journey meant moving far away from human habitation into the land of the hunter and the hunted.

At night the dark would be complete.

For my travellers every journey would be fraught with uncertainty, a feeling of venturing into a silent wilderness. It is hard to imagine a world so afforested  "that a man could scarcely goe alone in the beaten paths," where outlaws may appear at every turn, and where it was not even safe to tread for fear of adders, the sudden savagery of nature made manifest.

Recently I heard an interview on Radio 4 by somebody investigating how some downtown areas of Chicago have been abandoned, and are now being reclaimed by nature into something like the wild forests of yesteryear. Inhabited by packs of feral dogs, these are the nearest a city dweller will get to a natural, rather than a man-made wildness on their doorstep.
But for a writer, the forest is still there, buried in the imagination, in folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, and in the work of other writers who have used its beauty, mystery and wildness to say something about the forest within.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

London Lunch

On Monday (12th July) I will be in London to sign books at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court. Many famous names (and quite a few Macmillan New Writers) have been through their doors to put their name to their first editions. I will no doubt pause on the threshold to imagine the other more famous writers that have stood there before me. I will be really happy to have a chat with anyone who might come along, as being a northener, I know hardly a soul in London. I will be there from about 12.30 for an hour or so. Known as "the collector's bookshop" it is a lovely shop so well worth a browse. And what a good excuse I have to indulge my passion for proper bookshops. Nearest tube - Leicester Square.

Giveaway of The King's Mistress by Emma Campion

You can enter this giveaway free at Passages to the Past

Friday, 2 July 2010

Undressing a book

My post about covers and costume design can be found over here

Winchester Writers Conference

Imagine if you will, a massive exam hall, lofty, lit by fluorescent strip-lighting, and containing 60 small square desks set out in rows. Now put a nervous writer in front of each one, holding a sheaf of paper or a dog-eared manuscript. Behind each desk sits an agent, an editor or other industry professional. For fifteen minutes they talk - or should I say shout, before the chairs scrape back, the writers reluctantly leave and are replaced by another eager batch.

The noise is the first thing that strikes you, as exam halls are usually silent. The noise is deafening as everyone tries to make themselves heard against the other 59 conversations. Outside, there are a team of counsellors waiting, for those who get given a hard time by the agent they were sure would love their novel.

But this is a serious business, both for the writers and the agents. Books do find their way to publication here - since last year seven writers have been published. I talked to one man whose opening pages I had admired in a workshop, and he was delighted to report that an agent has asked for his complete script.

Over the weekend I met a lot of other writers and at least a third of the people I introduced myself to said they were working on an urban fantasy novel featuring vampires! I naturally thought that Stephanie Meyer must have something to do with it, but no, all claimed they were working on theirs since before Stephanie Meyer. I also met quite a few crime enthusiasts including one lady who told me the best way to cosh people is to use a few hundred pound coins swung in a sock. I met very few other historical novelists, which was a shame, but I did meet with Judith Allnatt who was lovely and gave me good advice about my second novel . Her book, A Mile of River is now on my bedside table.

The workshops I attended were excellent, and as a way of thanking those writers whose workshops I enjoyed. the illustrations here are of their books. The writers are Julia Bryant (Shape and sharpen your novel), Debby Holt (Character) and Alison Habens (Fairy Tale and Story) Even when you have been published there is still a lot to learn from other writers who have been at it longer than I have. My quote of the weekend (if I couldonly remember her exact words) is from Alison Habens, who said that writing has to be transparent, so that the reader looks through it to the real life behind.