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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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According to retailing and publishing experts and the Media, it seems that the future of the high street bookshop is at best uncertain. They say that bookshops can’t compete with internet retailers who offer cheaper prices and greater choice. I don’t know enough to argue with them, and nor can I claim to write on behalf of readers and authors as a whole, but I can give a personal perspective on the issue, for what it’s worth.

As a reader I would miss bookshops.  I’m not a great fan of shopping, but bookshops are one place I’m happy to be. I love the smell and feel of books. I enjoy exploring new titles and genres that I might not otherwise have considered – and you can’t do that in the same way with virtual books.

Discovering a new book should be an enjoyable experience in its own right, yet sometimes all the choice that the internet provides  seems to make choosing books, more like hard work. The better bookshops remind me how it felt, as a child, armed with a book-token or some cash, and the excitement of choosing from all those books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as hypocritical as most and often buy books and ebooks on the internet, but I do try to follow the mantra – If I actively browse and find what I like in a bookshop – I buy it in that bookshop.

But it’s as a writer, that bookshops mean so much more to me.  As a relatively new author I know how difficult it is to get a book noticed and to reach readers. Hundreds of thousands of new books are published every year. In a presentation at the Digital Book World conference in New York on 25th January 2012, the author and “futurist” David Houle, said,

“There were more books published this week than there were in all of 1950,”

And that’s without all the classics and the bestsellers of past years, and the back-catalogues of well known writers still in circulation and popular. It’s hard for unknown writers to compete with the Big Names. Most new writers will never be reviewed in national newspapers or magazines. Most publishers have limited promotional budgets for new writers. So the unknown writer increasingly has to self-promote to find readers and hopefully generate word of mouth. And every new writer is in the same boat, trying to get their book known in a crowded marketplace, trying to use the social media to promote. (One tip here for new writers – If you want an online presence that makes a difference – start building it long before your book comes out!)

The Internet is wonderful though.

This week I watched a couple of sessions from the “Author (R)evolution Day” conference streamed live from thousands of miles away in New York. One talk in particular impressed me. It was a joint presentation by Eve Bridburg (founder and director of the “Grub Street” writers centre) and publishing industry guru, Porter Anderson. They presented a scatter diagram with some of the many ways an author could promote themselves and their book. The sheer number of avenues for promotion was staggering. Some were familiar to me, others I had heard of, but didn’t fully understand or didn’t have the necessary expertise to exploit, some I had never even come across. The promotional band-waggon moves at one hell of a speed and is constantly changing. Facebook, twitter, blogs and websites are really only the tip of the promotional iceberg, and that’s without thinking about methods of generating or manipulating on-line traffic. Some have used them extremely effectively, but the vast majority (like me) I suspect have barely scratched the surface.

It was what Eve Bridburg said in conclusion though, that really made me think. It was like a moment of calm in a blizzard of concepts, initiatives and innovations. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but this is what I took away from what she said in terms of self-promotion:-

  • Don’t feel you have to do it all – it’s not even possible nowadays.
  • Set goals, but do what makes you feel happy.
  • Strive for balance between writing and promotion.
  • Manage your expectations and don’t get sucked in by the hype.
  • Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, and what is achievable.
  • Never lose touch with what it is you enjoy about writing,
  • Remember why you started writing, and what your goals were then.
  • Decide what really matters in your writing, and who you want to reach.

And

  • Celebrate the achievements that have really meant something to you.

My book, “Avon Street” was one year old this month. The book is set in Bath and my publisher (The Mystery Press) recommended right at the start that I should call into the main Bath bookshops and introduce myself.

It was good advice, though I was nervous initially about strolling in and introducing myself. My first visit was to The Oldfield Park Bookshop. They did not have my book in stock, but said that they would order it. They also made me feel welcome, boosted my confidence and gave me the encouragement to try other bookshops.  Toppings bookshop was also welcoming, as was Mr B’s Emporium. Toppings had copies of the book which they asked me to sign (a strange feeling) and they also took the couple of posters I offered them. Waterstones were less welcoming, saying (probably quite rightly) that I should have made an appointment to see the relevant person.

Celebrating three achievements that have really meant something to me.

  1. I was amazed when, later that same day, I walked past Toppings bookshop again. There in the front window were copies of “Avon Street” complete with posters. In a couple of hours they had built a window display for a local, unknown writer.
  2. A few months later, in the summer, I walked into Waterstones and “Avon Street” had a glowing staff review card under it. It was displayed cover-outwards and was included in their “Buy Two – Get Second half-price” promotion. Again, a largely unknown writer was sitting beside national bestsellers and household names.
  3. Just before Christmas, my daughter texted me to say, ‘Hey dad, I’m in Oldfield Park Bookshop and your book is in the Top Thirty.’ –   I can’t claim “Avon Street” is a national bestseller – but in Oldfield Park it was – and that felt good.

And OK, most bookshops in Britain won’t even have heard of “Avon Street” let alone stock it. But looking back on the year, these are the 3 achievements that have given me the most joy – and they all came from high street bookshops. I’d just like to say a big thank you to all the bookshops in Bath, including the ones I haven’t mentioned. You’ve all helped and encouraged. And to all the other bookshops wherever you may be – Keep up the good fight.

So, Bookshops

Who needs ‘em? 

Writers do!  

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Like many writers, I found it difficult getting published, but then even giving yourself permission to think of yourself as a writer can also be difficult. We often think of writing, like art or music, as something other people do. It wasn’t until I started an evening course on short story writing that I realised how important writing had been in my life.

Writing had been a big part of almost every job I had ever done. I had even written a calypso for a Christmas party when working at the WALES Tourist Board. Yet though I had always read a lot and told myself that one day I would write a novel,  I had never really thought of myself as a writer. That first evening course made me realise how much I enjoyed writing, and how much there was to learn. It got me into the habit of writing regularly, gave me that permission to think of myself as a writer.  I began searching for my voice as a writer and thinking about what I wanted to say, what I needed to write.

One of my short stories won a prize in the Wells Literary Competition.  It was an amazing experience to hear it read by a professional actor on local radio. Knowing that others liked my writing gave me more confidence about taking on a novel. Another short story I wrote gave me the idea for  ‘Avon Street’

When the first draft of ‘Avon Street’was completed I began sending it out to publishers and Agents. Slowly, because that seems to be the way the Book industry works, the rejections began piling up. Most were standard letters that said little other than that they were not interested. the rejections eat into your confidence, confirm the thinking that writing is what other people do. Yet every now and again came a response with actual feedback. These were like gold. They recognised merits in my writing, gave me some hope, told me I could write. Occasionally they even made suggestions as to how the manuscript could be improved.

I tested the opening chapters on two websites where writers review each other’s work. The chapters did well and the comments I received helped in sharpening the dialogue and improving the pace of the story. The book was spotted on one of these websites and I got my first publishing deal. The book was edited, proofs were checked, a cover designed and my novel appeared on Amazon.  But getting published can be a rough ride. Sadly, six weeks before ‘Avon Street’ was due to be released the publisher went into liquidation and it was back to the drawing-board.

Eventually I found a new publisher. ‘Avon Street’ was to be the first book in the second year of a new crime fiction imprint. But again it never made it to the book shops. The first year did not go as well as the publisher anticipated, the imprint was cancelled and my book was returned unpublished. I kept going and found a third publisher.

This time it made it.  On February 11th 2012 I received the first printed copy of my book from, The History Press. I had known for months that ‘Avon Street’ was going to be published, after all, I had signed a contract, checked the proofs, seen it for sale on Amazon. But it was only when I held a copy of the book in my hand that I allowed myself to believe that I was a published writer.

The most important things I’ve learned on the roller-coaster ride are to hang onto the sense of joy that writing gives,  to value feedback, and to trust in your writing. Trying to get published can be (though not always) a very negative process.  But writing can give you so much. It gives you the chance to create, to communicate, to look at the world from new perspectives, and to explore and enjoy the beauty of words. And it’s great when you write a story, or poem, or article, or book, or even a sentence, and you just know – It Works – and others enjoy it.

Another lesson I learned is not to pose a book next to a cup of coffee. The one pictured above is now heavily coffee-stained.

Most of this post was hosted on Caroline Smaile’s Blog on 26th March 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too.

Caroline is the author of several succesful novels.  Her latest e-book is – “99 Reasons Why”

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Many authors have produced their own sets of Writing Rules. The longer version (below) by Kurt Vonnegut is fairly well known and remains one of my favourites, though it was aimed more at short story writers than novelists. I think it’s a good guide because it is less prescriptive than many, yet in a way it is far more demanding.   Vonnegut’s “rules” look at writing predominantly from the reader’s perspective. The writer is simply fulfilling their side of a two-way contract between reader and writer; the book, a bridge between the two.

The Long Version

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut’s “rules” don’t seek to provide a guide to writing a bestseller or a book which will attract critical acclaim. Instead they emphasise the need for the writer to empathise with and respect their potential reader,  to acknowledge the work a reader has to do if the book is to work for them. He had in fact drawn up an earlier list which was even more succinct:-

The Short Version

1. Find a subject you care about

2. Do not ramble, though

3. Keep it simple

4. Have guts to cut

5. Sound like yourself

6. Say what you mean

7. Pity the readers

Like any good writer he opens and closes with his strongest messages and maintains a strong thread between the two.

The opening point relates to the true freedom of the writer as Vonnegut sees it. For him, freedom lies not in style, or the ability to write as you want, but in the choice of subject matter and how it is communicated.  And if the writer doesn’t care about their subject, why should the reader?

The final point though, to my mind has the greatest impact. Vonnegut explained it like this, “They (the readers) have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately…Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient writers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”

Perhaps he should have added – or at least trying to.

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The demands a writer makes on a reader are quite incredible. Embarking on a new novel the reader is expected to suspend their own life, to ignore their surroundings, and to use their imagination to enter the writer’s imaginary world – and the world of the novel is constructed entirely of words.

Every sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, is entirely imaginary. Each emotion the reader feels is triggered (or not) by imagined experiences. Every character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. There are no actors, sound-track, special effects, atmospheric lighting, or carefully directed camera work to assist them, simply words arranged on a page. And the reader has to translate those words into moving pictures and see them from a new perspective, to empathise with the characters, to care about what might happen to them, and to react to what does.

Yet no two readers will see that imagined world in quite the same way. They will often see it differently than the writer intended, bringing their own perspectives and expectations and experiences to bear. And while it’s naturally exciting to see my book published,  I have also come to realise that the world of “Avon Street,” that I spent so long creating is no longer mine. Now the book is out there I have no say in how it should be read, or what people should think of my characters, or their stories, or my ability to convey them.

The use of plot, sub-plot, pace, characterisation, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, style, and use of language are all finalised now. They are set in print and cannot be changed. Whether I have got the balance is right is for the reader to judge. I just hope that those who read it, enjoy it; and that the world of “Avon Street”  and its inhabitants feels real, and stays with it’s readers, at least for a while.

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It hardly needs saying that many people do judge a book by its cover, particularly nowadays. But unless the author is well known, their book is likely to be marketed as belonging to a particular genre or category of fiction, rather than as an individual novel. As a consequence, the chances are that the cover will be very similar to lots of others in that particular genre.

So the potential reader turns to the back cover in search of recommendations. But again, unless the writer is an established name they are unlikely to attract reviews and recommendations from other well-known writers or the mainstream media.  And the blurb will often do little other than to confirm that the book fits neatly again with what is expected of the genre.

So the reader thumbs through the book to get an idea of whether they like the style of writing. Some readers even have a particular page number that they turn to and read. But however a reader chooses a book they will almost certainly read the opening line.

These are a dozen of my favourite opening lines of novels – Not only because they draw you in to reading the book, but also because they manage to give a strong flavour of what is to come. There are of course many more  – and long before Creative Writing Courses and the boom in Marketing and Promotion, the Great Writers of the past recognised the power of the opening line.

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  3. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
    -George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
  7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  8. “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  9. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  10. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  11. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  12. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

The opening line of my own novel, “Avon Street” is – “Thomas Hunt left his home in the early hours of that February morning in 1850 and made his way through the maze of Avon Street alleyways.” -perhaps not up there with greats, but I hope it draws some readers in and gives them a taste of what is to come.

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“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

George Orwell

It sounds a little harsh, but anyone who writes will recognise at least some truth in what Orwell says. To an extent writing is vain, if only in having the belief that you can write something that is worth reading. It is certainly selfish. Writing is a totally absorbing activity. You can be sitting in a room surrounded by people you love, but when you are writing your mind is somewhere else and you are cut-off, in your own world. So why write?

Orwell  identified four reasons as to why writers write, and what determines how they write or what they write about. Again he didn’t mince his words:-

  •  “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one…
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story…
  • Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  • Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Having just had my first novel, “Avon Street” published, perhaps it’s an odd time to wonder why I write?  But at the moment I’m trying to publicise my book and wondering how far I want to go, and how much I’m willing to let my goals change, when all I really want to do is get on with the next book.  But family and friends keep asking how the book is doing, and it’s made think again about what people expect – and what I expect?

Much as I admire George Orwell, I think his list, perhaps intentionally (to make a point) ignores many other motives . Some writers, also feel a basic need to form bridges of communication with others to overcome the feeling of “separateness” that comes from being an individual human being. For others writing is a coming to terms with what has happened in the past.  For many, writing is a form of exploration, of challenging their own perceptions, of trying to empathise with others and to understand a complex world which sometimes makes little sense – and to define for themselves what it is to be a human being with a sense of consciousness.

Perhaps Orwell was too noble-minded to identify money  in his list of motivations, or perhaps times have changed, but it  cannot be ignored nowadays, though many see writing as a more spiritual quest, in search of the Muse, or God, or some higher purpose in our nature. For others it is a way of exploring thought processes and the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind. And let’s not forget the sheer sense of enjoyment that the process of writing can bring.

Other writers have their own definitions. Monica Dickens said,

“Writing is a cop-out. An excuse to live perpetually in fantasy land, where you can create, direct and watch the products of your own head. Very selfish.”

Some write, because through writing they can build new worlds, worlds in which, at least for a while, they have some sense of control. As John Fowles said,

“There are many reasons why novelists write – but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.”

There is also the question of when are you entitled to call yourself a writer. When I started writing fiction, I honestly had no interest in being published, yet as soon as I had finished the first draft of my novel it seemed pointless simply leaving it in a drawer, so I started sending it off to publishers and agents. Slowly publication became almost an obsession, and so my goals and expectations began changing. As Lee Child asked,

“If you write a book and no one reads it, is it really a book?’

Yet if you write, you are a writer and publication is often just a matter of luck or fortuitous circumstance. As Kate Mosse said,

“There’s only one difference between published and unpublished writers and it is this – the first group see their work in print on the shelves of Waterstone’s or Tesco or online at Amazon; the second group are yet to have physical evidence of the hours, weeks, years spent fashioning words into their patterns.  You are already a writer.”

Perhaps some or all of thes motives for writing (above) are common to every writer, but the strength of their influence will be different from writer to writer and they will rarely remain the same. Orwell was right when he said,

“It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”

Each individual writer’s motivation is complex and personal – and it changes over time as expectations change. In truth there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers – and writing will always have something new to say, or find a new way of saying it. But it seems important to remember why you started writing and what you expected then, rather than chasing new rainbows.

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