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Thursday, 10 December 2015

My Recommended Christmas Reading List - mulled wine optional.

murderous affairExcellent murder mystery with larger than life characters and a tone in which you can tell the author is enjoying the telling of the tale. John Lovat, the bastard brother of one of Queen Elizabeth's courtiers and always second fiddle to his snooty brother, is employed to solve the mystery of the death of a Portuguese nobleman, and to hush up any scandal that might affect the court.
The author has researched the times thoroughly, with detailed knowledge of London streets, the theatres, the waterways and the politics of the day including the taking of slaves and the ruthlessness of piracy on the high seas. There are plenty of false leads and a surprising denouement. All in all an excellent read.

House of York
The House of York is loosely based on events during the era of the Wars of the Roses. It includes part of the plot of the Princes in the Tower (albeit updated) and this adds extra interest for history buffs.
The events are told from several points of view, mostly unreliable (!) and this family saga is part thriller, part crime, part intrigue, with a good dollop of psychology thrown in. This makes it sound complex, and it is, but it is also a seamless and entertaining read. The voices are clearly delineated, and each character convincing. Like the best historical sagas, Terry Tyler's books are about power. Who owns it, who wants it, and the lengths people will go to to get it. Jealousy, back-stabbing, manipulation are all a part of the game. The ending leaves enough intrigue for this reader to long for for the next instalment so I can find out if Elodie's egomania will finally bring down the edifice of York Towers! 

dangerous mourningA Dangerous Mourning is the second book in the William Monk Series, set just after the Crimean war, and full of Victorian atmosphere - the foggy Thames, and the complexity of the Victorian legal system. Both these outside forces are mirrored by Monk's mind - his amnesia and how he copes with it, alongside his determination to be better than Mr. Runcorn, his superior, who would be happy to get rid of him from the Force.
The plot revolves around the murder of Octavia Moidore, a wealthy aristocrat's daughter, who has been stabbed to death in her bed. Of course in those days there was no fingerprinting, no forensics, and the police force is full of ineptitude. Some of the time Monk is outwitting the system itself, as well as the perpetrator of the crime. Gripping, atmospheric stuff, with a great courtroom drama ending.

letters to the lostLetters to the Lost is a double romance set during World War Two and today. The plot is built around an empty house in which Jess finds herself after she escapes her violent boyfriend, Dodge. The letters she discovers in the abandoned house describe a sweeping love story that went wrong. At the same time, the airman of the letters is trying to find his long lost sweetheart and hopes she is still alive. With the help of her friend Will, Jess begins to unravel the mystery behind Dan and Stella's wartime story, and in doing so finds a love of her own. Our hopes for a happy ending propel the two narratives along, and anyone looking for an exceptionally well-written romance with true heart and poignancy will love this.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Lancashire Highwayman


Masked highwayman George Lyon held up the Liverpool mail coach by firing shots and forcing the driver to stop. Then, having robbed the passengers of their valuables, he retired to the pub at Upholland, where he had been drinking earlier. The distraught passengers arrived a little later, bringing with them their tale of robbery and their narrow escape from death, and Lyon must have been entertained by their version of events.

According to local legend, Lyon once tried to hold up a coach that was transporting wages to a coal mine. He was waiting by the side of the road, but it was pouring with rain and the gunpowder in his pistol got soaked. When the coach finally rounded the bend, his pistol failed to fire. The driver, seeing the highwayman, whipped the horses into a gallop and the coach sped by him, throwing up a wave of water,  leaving Lyon bedraggled and no richer.
Lyon's subsequent career involved more petty crime and burglary until he was eventually caught in 1815. His career ended after burgling Westwood Hall, at Ince near Wigan (below).

Westwood Hall
Unknown to Lyon, the landlord of the pub was an undercover constable acting as a 'fence', and the silver that  Lyon was trying to sell was easily traceable.

Lyon was hanged at Lancaster Castle, but was allowed to be taken back to his home village for burial. Usually it was the custom for executed criminals to be given to local surgeons to dissect, in the interests of medical advancement. Lyons' body was brought back in a thunderstorm, a suitably dramatic end for the Upholland Highwayman.

Lyon called himself a 'prince of thieves' and in time, because of this phrase, he came to be remembered as a Robin Hood type of figure - though there is no evidence at all that he gave anything back to the poor!
Lancashire beneath
Most of the information about the Upholland Highway man came from a great little book: Lancashire: Who Lies Beneath, by Elisabeth Ashworth, about the stories behind the gravestones  of Lancashire churchyards. The book is a treasure trove of fascinating characters and covers many Lancashire graveyards. Visit Elizabeth's website

And tonight, find out more about the history of Gentlemen of the Road, watch the BBC 4 programme,

Sunday, 1 November 2015

70th Anniversary of the film Brief Encounter

This year marks 70 years since Brief Encounter was made in 1945. It was one of my mother's favourite films, a real weepie, and one which seemed to touch the heart of a nation. Just why, is explored in this lovely documentary on Radio 4 which I listened to earlier in the week.

One of the reasons I am celebrating the anniversary of the release of the film is because I have published a book which features the filming of Brief Encounter in 1945.  The site of the wartime filming on Carnforth station is close to my home, and the Heritage Centre there has a wealth of information about the film and its stars. At the moment to celebrate the anniversary, the Heritage Centre has been featuring a free season of David Lean's films. Lean's many credits include quintessentially classic cinema experiences  - from Dr Zhivago to The Bridge over the River Kwai, from A Passage to India to Hobson's Choice. And of course Brief Encounter.
Brief Encounter
From Filmsite
Brief Encounter (1946) is director David Lean's brilliantly-crafted, classic British masterpiece. It is one of the greatest romantic tearjerkers/weepers of all time, with a very downbeat ending. Lean's film is a simple but realistically-honest, unsentimental, self-told social melodrama of the quiet desperation involved in an illicit, extra-marital love affair between two married, middle-class individuals over seven weekly meetings, mostly against the backdrop of a railway station. The romantic couple includes a wife/mother (stage actress Celia Johnson) looking for escape from her humdrum life and sterile marriage, and a dashing doctor (Trevor Howard in his third film). (Characteristics of film noir also abound within the film - unglamorous locations, rain-slicked streets, dimly-lit interiors and dark train passageways in a tale of doomed, unfulfilled and frustrated love.) 
The Guardian says attempts to parody Brief Encounter have failed:
Brief Encounter has survived such threats, because it is so well made, because Laura's voiceover narration is truly anguished and dreamy, because the music suckers all of us, and because Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are perfect.
The Radio 4 feature says that the timing of it, when so many men were returning from war, made the last few lines, 'Thank you for coming back to me,' particularly poignant. Do take a listen to the programme, it's only half an hour but very informative if you love the film.
In my novel Past Encounters, written under the pseudonym of Davina Blake, I explore and echo the same themes as in the film. In my book, my female character, Rhoda, has her own interior monologues. Peter, her fiance, is told with more distance as he fights for his survival in a German POW camp. Both endure emotional and physical hardships during their separation during the long years of WWII. Like the film I was looking for a certain restraint in the writing.
You can catch Brief Encounter at special screenings during this, its 70th year, and even go to a tea dance after seeing the film at various venues throughout the country.
And if you are interested in my novel, here it is. Past Encounters is the winner of a BRAG medallion for excellence in independent fiction.
About 'Past Encounters'
From the moment Rhoda Middleton opens one of her husband’s letters and finds it is from another woman, she is convinced he is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks her down, she discovers the mysterious woman is not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster. There is only one problem - Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.
Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out how and why her husband, Peter, has kept this friendship hidden for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime secrets she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For if they are ever to understand each other, Rhoda too must escape the ghosts of the past.
Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, this is a novel of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Betrothed Sister - an 11th century epic

I have read all of Carol McGrath's Hastings Trilogy, and have been entranced by this little-known period of English history. Her most recent novel features a woman about whom little is known, but McGrath's research into the politics, events and atmosphere of the time have filled in the gaps .
Betrothed Sister

Carol McGrath's beautifully detailed novel of the exiled Princess Thea is a treat for the senses. For much of the novel Thea is on a journey to find her Russian Prince Vladimir, and we are in her company as she braves the icy Northern waters in a Dragon boat, crosses the vast steppes and fights off pirates and brigands. We are taken with her to chilly monasteries, fortress castles, and the 'terem' the womens' quarters at the Rus Court.We watch her embroidering her 'rushnyk' - her ritual wedding cloth, and visiting the local cunning woman.
The characters in this novel provide the reader with plenty of tension - the jealous Olga, the faithful Gudrun, and the men battling for land, and lusting for power. The finale is a gripping and spectacular battle for a city besieged, and it makes a wonderful climax to what has been a great series.

If you like well-researched historical biography with a wealth of period detail, you will love this. Highly recommended.

Find out more about Carol and the other books in the trilogy on her website

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Book Blog Tour - Spirit of the Highway

Here is the schedule for the blog tour for Spirit of the Highway
Big thank you to all historical fiction bloggers participating, and to Amy for organising it.

Monday, October 26
Guest Post at Passages to the Past

Tuesday, October 27

Review at Book Nerd
Spotlight & Excerpt at Let Them Read Books

Wednesday, October 28
Review at History From a Woman’s Perspective

Thursday, October 29

Review at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book

Monday, November 2

Review at The Maiden’s Court

Tuesday, November 3
Spotlight & Excerpt at Brooke Blogs

Thursday, November 5
Review at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf

Friday, November 6
Review at Bookramblings
Review at Just One More Chapter
Guest Post at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf

Please do drop by to support these bloggers. See you there!

Thursday, 8 October 2015

New Anthology of Historical Essays

My post at English Historical fiction Authors this month is on the plunder of Basing House in the English Civil War. Read the post here.

The Plundering of Basing House exhibited 1836 Charles Landseer 1799-1879 Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859

Basing House inspired some of the events in the Highway Trilogy where I imagined the occupants of Markyate Manor might have suffered a similar fate. The painting above is The Plundering of Basing House by Charles Landseer, 1836, courtesy of the Tate.

Another related post which features in their new anthology, Castles Customs and Kings Volume II, is about what happened when soldiers came to stay. Find the original blog post here. During this period, if soldiers were billeted on you, you had little choice in the matter, and their stay could be dangerous and destructive. 

This whopping new anthology features several more articles from me, and also great articles from all your favourite historical fiction authors. Whether you like Romans, The Wars of the Roses, the Tudor Court, or Victoriana, there'll be something in here to tempt you, and much food for thought.

Castles Customs Kings II

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Interview with Victoria Delderfield, author of The Secret Mother


I first met Vicky on the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster, and loved the premise of this book, which she was working on at the time. Now, at last, two children and a whole lot of work later, The Secret Mother is finally out, and getting the recognition it deserves. Winner of the Hookline Competition for Book Group reads, this is a book that will make you ask questions about your cultural expectations, your relationships with your children, and what it is to be a mother.

What inspired you to start a book set in China?
The novel emerged out of a short story I wrote featuring a Chinese factory worker called Mai Ling. She wouldn’t let me go until I’d written more of her story. Mai Ling is one in a million – or several million – but her life became special to me, I think because I wanted to understand what it might be like growing up in a culture so vastly different to my own. For me, an exciting part of writing – and reading - is making journeys through time and place that everyday life precludes.

I felt strongly that the best way to explore China’s massive social change would be through the life of an individual whose life was also in a state of economic, social and emotional flux. Whilst researching the novel, I was personally moved by the many stories of women, like Mai Ling, who leave homes and families and undertake physically exhausting work in factories in order to earn their own living and support their families. Mai Ling’s journey – both physical and psychological - from peasant girl to dagongmei (‘working girl’) and eventually mother is particular to China and the era in which it became a market economy.
The novel developed into a story about overseas adoption when I realised that the global significance of Mai Ling’s life exceeded pure economics.

Are there any Chinese images from your novel that have particular resonance for you?
I was very inspired by the photographic work of Polly Braden, Michael Wolf and Edward Burtynsky when writing The Secret Mother. Their work documents the lives of workers, like Mai Ling, caught up in the largest migration in human history as it occurred in China in the early nineties. I was haunted by their visual depictions of the mechanisation of the female body that’s required to support mass production and consumerism: factories teeming with identical uniforms, workers seated in grid formation - all carefully spaced and monitored to ensure maximum productivity. I liked the idea that Mai Ling’s pregnant body is in revolt against this homogeneity.

Photo Credit: Polly Braden 'China Between'

You started this book before having children of your own. Has being a mother made a difference to how you view Mai Ling as a character?
I have an incredibly close relationship with my mum and this undoubtedly influenced Mai Ling’s characterisation, especially the fiercely protective and tenacious nature of Mai Ling’s love for her daughters. Letting go of one’s children is something all parents do to varying degrees and at various ages and stages so I hoped this theme would resonate with readers. Mai Ling must face the heart-wrenching decision of who will care for her babies, but she never relinquishes the emotional bonds. Mai Ling’s predicament is all the more poignant now that I’m a parent. I also appreciate more fully the absolute horror and fear that Nancy (the twins’ adoptive mother) feels at the prospect of losing her girls.
Motherhood and family are themes I am sure to return to because my own family relationships are so personally significant.

Secret Mother
I loved the way the twins were so different. Which was the easier twin to write, and why?
I’ve breathed my sixteen year old self into both girls – sixteen is a fun age to write about because characters are naturally evolving and identity is in flux. The twins definitely change throughout the course of the novel as their sense of identity matures. Jen is exceptionally smart, hard-working, brave, curious, sensitive and caring. Ricki would probably call her the goody two shoes of the family. I chose to write certain chapters from Jen’s point of view to show what was going on beneath the surface: her uncertainties, fears and deep desire for acceptance – especially from her twin. Jen has been learning GCSE Mandarin and wants to reconnect with her cultural heritage. Her openness is contrasted with Ricki’s seemingly stubborn refusal to confront the past. Ricki has internalised a lot of her hurt and confusion concerning her Chinese birth mother and I wanted her to heal. The scene featuring Ricki and May towards the end of the book was one of the most moving to write, but writing about characters with intense emotions is never easy because there’s always a big risk of tipping over into melodrama.

What is your favourite book club read, and why? Can you recommend a book to read as a companion volume to The Secret Mother?
I love my book club – we’re a small group of friends that spend half our time getting passionate about books and the rest catching up on life and sharing our laughter and troubles over tea and cake. The books that we read have become special to me because through them I can chart the ups and downs of our lives. Our most recent read was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. We heard him speak at Manchester Central Library the day after its publication. This greatly helped our understanding and appreciation of the novel – which is enigmatic, imaginative, ambitious and very moving. He is a writer I have long admired for his thoughtful ability to re-invent genres.

A good companion to The Secret Mother might be Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel which also depicts the tenacity of a mother’s love for her child, albeit in very different circumstances.

find Victoria on her website or chat to her on twitter @delderfi

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Twenty First Century Tudors - The books of Terry Tyler

I've been reading the novels of Terry Tyler, whose books thrust the plots of Tudor history, particularly the Tudor Court, into 20th/21st century big business. In the first book we meet Harry Lanchester (HenryVIII), owner of Lanchester Estates, and his six wives.

In the second, after his death, we see the machinations for the 'throne' of Lanchester Estates. I really enjoyed the first one, but the second one is superb.

What Terry Tyler does really well is to get the reader into the characters' heads, and by providing us with contrasting personalities this never becomes claustrophobic. I enjoyed experiencing being the dull wife Amy, the neurotic, unbalanced Isabella (in love with the ghastly Philip Castillo of Spain) and the sad teenage monster Jaz.

And I loved them all. On the surface the characters might seem unlikeable, but I defy you not to understand their point of view, and this is what Tyler does so well, eliciting reader empathy.

The boardroom battles for control of the business ring true too - complete with the freeloaders, the over-ambitious, and the people who just want a quiet life. Tudor fans will find the links to history give an added level of interest to what is already an excellent book.

Those readers who remember Dallas and Dynasty on TV will love these, as will Tudor fiction fans, lovers of Jackie Collins blockbusters, and anyone else who loves a good read.
Terry's Amazon Page
Terry's advice for indie writers
Follow Terry on Twitter

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Ghosts of Markyate Manor - Hermit, Heiress, Highwayman

Markyate Manor - scene of many hauntings, is the setting for the Highway Trilogy: Shadow on the Highway, Spirit of the Highway, and Lady of the Highway.

The name Markyate is derived from the Old English words meac  and geat and means 'the gate at the boundary', presumably between Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. In the 12th century, with the consent of his abbot, a monk went out from st Alban's and into the woods to seek a place to make a hermitage. God apparently guided him to Caddington, not far from Watling Street. There he lived a solitary life, until a woman came to him, Christina, in the firm belief that she too was called to a silent life of contemplation. He duly fastened her into an adjoining cell, where she was walled in for for four years!  She saw nobody in all that timeonly coming out to walk at dusk when she would see not a soul, supporting herself through her exquisite needlework. She was (unsurprisingly) taken over by heavenly visions, and when the original monk died she had gathered quite a following and was allowed to set up  a priory under Benedictine rule. The seal of the Priory can be seen above, and more about Christina's extraordinary life can be found here.

The Priory did not fare well during the dissolution because it had become run down, and there were charges of corruption and lack of chastity brought against the nuns. The Priory was eventually demolished in 1537, and Markyate Manor was built on its footprint, although it is still sometimes known as Markyate Cell -  George Ferrers retained the name when he bought the land in 1548. The Ferrers family controlled this land when Markyate Cell was the home of Katherine Ferrers, also sometimes known as The Wicked Lady, a title I am hoping to overturn!
Markyate Manor BBC

The Manor was left to Katherine by her mother, but it was soon in the control of her uncle, Simon Fanshawe, and she was forced into an arranged marriage with his nephew, Thomas Fanshawe.  After that, the story gets even more interesting as the legend credits her with being a notorious highwaywoman. She lived in the house through the years of the turbulent English Civil War, much of it alone as her menfolk were away fighting. She finally died there, having been mortally wounded trying to rob a coach on Nomansland.

Her ghost has been seen dressed in highwayman clothes riding her horse at full gallop, and in 1840 part of Markyate Cell was destroyed by fire, and the blaze was blamed on Lady Katherine.  Whilst helping to put out the fire several locals said that they felt a ghostly presence and that they were being watched, by the ghost of Katherine. But Katherine is not the only ghost that haunts this building - in the late 1850s workmen repairing a wall saw the figure of a nun. Perhaps this was the anchorite Christina. The nun has been seen several times since, walking in an avenue near St John's Church.

In 1957 the bypass around Markyate was being built. A night watchman was sitting by his brazier one night when he looked up and saw someone warming their hands by the fire. The figure was that of a young man who promptly vanished as the night watchman was looking at him. Was this an appearance of Markyate's legendary Phantom who may also haunt Hicks Road and the High Street?  Luton Paranormal Society

So it Spirit of the highway final ebook coverwas not just Lady Katherine Fanshawe that haunted Markyate Manor. There was also a young man.

There has always been  a mysterious figure, Ralph Chaplin, associated with the legend, although I can find no trace of him in historical records. That gave me fuel for thought, and led to the story-line for 'Spirit of the Highway'.

Like to know more? check out this article in the Daily Mail for a summary of the life and legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers (Fanshawe).
Spirit of the Highway is out today, published by Endeavour Press. It is suitable for teens 14+ (and adults too!).
Amazon US Amazon UK

Friday, 11 September 2015

Female Mystics in Fiction

I have just finished 'Illuminations' by Mary Sharrat, about Hildegard von Bingen. A reader might be surprised that there could be so much plot in a book which is essentially about a woman enclosed firstly as an anchorite, and later as a nun. However the enclosed nature of her life brings Hildegard into conflict not only with her 'captors' but also with those with whom she shares her religious life, and this provides Sharrat with the meat of the novel. It is also a fascinating glimpse into how difficult living the monastic life actually is. There is Cuno, the jealous Abbott, Volmar her conflicted friend, and the young novices she rescues who later turn to bite the hand that feeds them. 

Of course what sustains Hildegard is her relationship with the Divine, and her music. What sustains the novel is the fact that we empathise with Hildegard almost immediately - who could not, when she is a child walled up against her will? From the very beginning we follow her through her long life as she strives to build her place within Christendom, and finally founds her abbey.

From a spiritual perspective, the novel is not overly preachy, but rich with quotations from Hildegard's songs and writings, used appropriately through the text. We witness the 'greening'of her life as she becomes more accepting and less resistant to her lot, and as she grows in maturity casting off the selfishness and egotism of material concerns. Highly recommended.

Other novels I have read that feature diverse women and their spirituality are:

chymical wedding    Evensong  
 Mists_of_Avalon-1st_ed    Red Tent
The Chymical Wedding is about alchemy as a way of spiritual transformation and is set in Victorian England. Evensong picks apart episcopal ministry in a small Virginian town in the USA. The Mists of Avalon explores Arthurian legends and how the Pagan Priestess Morgaine copes with the new religion of Christianity. The Red Tent is about women's mysteries in the Bible, told through the life of Dinah.
These are all excellently-written books which will provide a great plot, plus spiritual depth and food for thought.
Please do recommend more in this vein,  that you feel I would like. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Importance of Presence for a Writer

As a writer I have been encouraged by my publishers to meet my readers online. When having an online conversation I am often talking to a small square icon or thumbnail, yet this picture is very important to me as an idea or representation of the essence of the person.

Recently I went to a writing conference and looked for all the people I had met online. One by one I managed to identify each person from their thumbnail, but unsurprisingly the real person was always radically different from the person I had constructed in my mind from the online conversation. The icon, along with the typed conversation, flattens out the persona so that it is hard to get a sense of who is actually there, behind the words. 

When confronted with a real individual though, it is easy to hear the music of the voice, see the posture, appreciate the energetic or listening quality of the personality. In these days of online relationships it is easy to forget this presence – the most important part of the person.

Presence implies a deeper more connected awareness of the world around us, and so the ability to be a vehicle for what needs to be done. I believe words can carry presence if the writer is aware whilst writing; and that words can carry a certain intent. After all, without the written form so few religious or spiritual ideas of the past would have survived.

Yet to look at writing only as a way to preserve ideas, i.e. the end result, is to miss the point, and to forget the importance of presence. Writing is a form like any other artistic endeavour where the process is as important as the outcome. 

Becoming a Writer
Click to read PDF

In her classic book, still in print since 1934, ‘Becoming a Writer’ Dorothea Brande says that excellent writing has ‘innocence of eye’ and ‘freshness of response’. To create these qualities we must discipline ourselves to stop ‘doing’ and spend more time ‘being.’ From stillness of mind and body united, a new perspective can arise. 

To maintain presence in writing is to cultivate space in oneself to let new ideas emerge, but more importantly it is to maintain a space for the response from the reader. After all it is not only the writer, but the reader who has to imagine the book. Skilful writing is not only about what to include, but more often about where to leave things open.

I have been a meditator all my adult life, and that is how I find presence in my life. Other people find it by walking in nature, by using mindfulness techniques, or practising yoga. Do feel free to share how you nurture this aspect of your writing.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

UK Independent Publishers - a 'Do they add value?' check


I meet regularly with other novelists to critique our works in progress, drink tea, and discuss the various merits of the biscuits. Recently at one of my novelists group meetings we were discussing independent publishers who might publish a full length novel. I argued that there were not that many, but one of the other group members recently emailed me to say that the Independent Publishers Guild UK ( have a staggering 580 members!  

So why do I say there are not that many ?

The answer is, because in my opinion very few add value for a novelist, and some add so little value that they are in fact proxy self-publishing. 

There are of course loads of independent publishers that publish everything from memoirs to military to experimental.(eg local-to-me Cicerone Press that publishes mountaineering guides) And a lot of other so-called 'independent' publishers that are actually assisted self-publishing companies e.g. the well-respected Troubadour, Silverwood. (But these self-publishing services will cost you - and rightly so, for the various services they offer.)

But in fact there are very few independents that publish full length novels, don't charge the author anything at all, and do add value.

These days most publishers of  fiction offer e-books as a matter of course, (and some only e-books) so lets assume that as a given, that they will at least upload your book to Amazon. Publishing is easy these days, so publishers have to do more than just upload an ebook and offer a badly-designed POD paperback to win my vote.

So what exactly do I mean by 'add value?'

a) Offer distribution of physical books to bookshops (ie I don't have to carry my books to my local bookseller myself)

b) Offer proper editing, proof-reading, interior layout and typesetting (i.e not just an edit through an online programme such as Autocrit, or reproducing your Word Document as a book)

c) Offer a print run (however limited) that is not just Print on Demand such as CreateSpace. By the time the publisher adds their cut, it makes the books too expensive in comparison with other traditional publishers, and therefore they fail to sell. Who will buy a £12.99 paperback when similar titles sell for £7.99?

d) Offer an individual marketing strategy for your book, including promoting it to bookshops and libraries, in other words not just bunging it on their website and newsletter and hoping for the best.
I reckon many  independent publishers fail on one or more of those counts. They rely on you to sell your books to family, friends and your network, and then take royalties for the very little effort they have put in, which usually just involves adding a cheaply-designed cover and uploading your word document as a book to kindle, POD and their website. I admit these things take time, and incur costs for the publisher. But in most cases you would be better off self-publishing than giving this type of publisher a substantial part of your royalties when they add so little value to what is in the end your product.

There are many 'independent' publishers that look convincing, but are actually not that good for the author. Eg take a look at this fairly typical independent publisher  It looks great, until you read under their submissions guidelines: 'Depending on how many we think it could sell, we offer varying levels of contract. About one in ten of the titles on the list have a subsidy from the author, directed either towards more editorial or marketing work than we can normally provide.' Non-fiction sells well, so perhaps 1 in ten is actually most of the fiction, but of course you wouldn't know that if you were the submitting author.

or this one: 'A traditional partnership agreement entails the same benefits as a mainstream agreement. However, as the writer you may be asked to cover part of the cost of publishing the book. We follow all traditional industry etiquettes with regards to the promotion and marketing of the title in addition to all other avenues involved in the process.'

From another niche Independent Publisher website: 'We believe that as an author it is your responsibility to ensure that your work is of a reasonable standard before submitting to us. We can recommend a proof editor if you wish but that would be outside of our arrangement with you and you would contract them yourself.'

If you are going to pay, why not self-publish or use openly assisted self-publishing like Silverwood Books?



Of course I am not negating the psychological value of having your work accepted by a publisher. After receiving a lot of rejections (and we all get them!) it feels brilliant to have your book accepted by somebody. Anybody!  A friend of mine recently had her novel accepted by a small independent publisher. She was over the moon until she read on Link'd In that her commissioning editor had just left school, had never worked in publishing before, but had done  two weeks work experience for a book promotion company. So if literary validation is important to you, don't forget to Google who is reading your manuscript and whether they are actually more qualified to make a judgement on your work than your local newsagent.

However, there can certainly be psychological (and monetary) value  in accessing a like-minded community. If you have a book that suits a niche audience, then there can be value in a niche publisher and in becoming part of that network, but check the network is not just other hopeful authors like yourself.

a) See if the books from that publisher have won any prizes or been nominated for an award (or sold millions - we wish!)

b) Check whether any of the books been endorsed by writers or critics you have actually heard of, not just 'Brilliant' - Amazon Reviewer

b) For niche markets, eg horror, fantasy, experimental, check that the publisher seems to have good networking links with their community. Eg Do they blog? If so, check out their blog.

OK, so you are technologically inept, and it's much easier to hand it to a publisher and let them do it, if they accept your submission. But if it doesn't get edited or properly laid out, if it has a bad cover, if it only reaches a few other writers who go to their website, and if it is too expensive to be attractive in bookshops, the convenience soon becomes inconvenient. You haven't the control to do anything about it, the way you would have had if you had self published - and you are still paying them via your royalties.

However, for full length commercial/literary novels I can safely say the following independent print publishers do add value - not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order. They all have beautiful websites and beautiful books that you sometimes see in bookshops - a good sign.

Bloomsbury*, AlmaMyrmidon, Honno Press, Parthian Books, Myriad Editions, Allison and Busby*, Serpent's Tail, Valley Press, Canongate*, Legend, Salt, Cinnamon Press, Accent Press, Cillian Press.

Some of these require you have an agent right now to submit (those marked with asterisks), some don't, but for a bigger list of  small independent publishers check out Nottingham Writers Studio. If you want to see a list of other small presses, check out Lollipop. And here's a complete list of UK publishers competing in The People's Book Prize.

Anyone who can recommend more excellent independent publishers to add to this list - please do!

Thank you to crime noir writer Tess Makovesky for prompting this post. Find her at

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Editing historical fiction, my way

I am in the middle of edits for two of my books, one a young adult novel and one a 400 page adult novel. These are the edits I make before I send out to my agent, a publisher, or in some cases the public. There will be other edits later, but as some publishing houses edit very heavily, some hardly at all, it pays to be picky with your work.

Recently I have seen a plethora of writing books suggesting that you should edit in 'one pass'.

This does not work for me because of the amount of research I need to check. So here is my editing process. It takes as long as the actual writing of the book.


I always work with a printed copy of the manuscript, and initially I am editing for story. 
I read like a reader and not a writer, to identify  whether the nuts and bolts of the story work. At its heart, story is about change, so if it's getting static, alarm bells ring. I mark parts that are slow or boring with a big red pen. Though sometimes boring does not mean cutting stuff, but adding more detail to make it interesting and bring it to life. 

Usually the first time I print out the draft it needs a lot of re-working -  new chunks need to be written and others lopped off. At this stage I do extensive re-writes. That copy is then like an old rag covered in scribble and crossings out and is re-cycled onto our log-burner!

After more work on the computer to streamline the story, I'm ready for a more detailed edit. Usually I send this newer version out to some readers so I can incorporate their comments when I work on the next edit. One way of speeding it up is to mark all the pages that need edits with sticky post-its. I use the same manuscript and just go through it with different colours for each editing pass. Then with the copy next to me with its rainbow fringe, I trawl through the manuscript a page at a time making all the necessary alterations. At this point I am usually fuelled by coffee, a looming deadline, and a desperation to get it finished and move onto the next book.

Here are the passes I make:
  • edit for character. Go through each major character's arc of action and emotion. Check what they are doing in the scenes where they are absent, and try to refer to these actions in the scenes where they are present. Get a sense of their daily routine - for example how long it takes them to dress, their relationship with servants or 'betters', and their class in relation to other characters. Check how they are feeling;  that it is consistent, and that it has development.  Make sure their attitudes are consistent with the period.
  • edit for theme. Highlight any themes that drive the novel, make sure sub-plots echo these themes. Look for metaphor, symbol and meaning. Try to find parallels with today, and highlight  them. They will be useful when you have to promote or tell people about your book.
  • edit for time-scale. In historical fiction it is particularly important to get dates right, and for the narrative to fit within certain fixed parameters or historical milestones. Check travelling times - horseback and boat are very slow, but mail can be surprisingly quick.
  • edit like the most eagle-eyed historian. I have made small errors in my books, (really sorry ) but not because I did not care - I did my best to make the history right! Often it is little things (like the taking for granted of walls and hedges before the enclosures act) that catch you out. Question everything and double check your research. Keep notes in case someone queries your sources. Make notes about where you have changed, bent, or ignored  supposedly 'known facts', and why. Two books down the line you might not remember why, but an expert reading your book is bound to write to you and ask.
  • edit for anachronistic dialogue, and for dialogue that fits the character. It is easy to slip into modernism in dialogue, and the quickest way to lose your historical atmosphere. Seemingly innocuous phrases like 'Oh my God' have taken on a distinctly teenage flavour since OMG!
  • edit for good English - cut out uninteresting language, spelling mistakes, faulty grammar and typos, or get someone else to proofread it.
My novel grows about 10% during this edit as I re-work dialogue, fill plot loopholes and deepen character.
What is your editing process? Do you have any tips or tricks?