The Addiction Of Non-Fiction – the pitfalls of writing history….

I’m doing quite a lot of work at the moment on a non-fiction book, a biography of Sir John Arundell, “Jack For The King” – the man who held Pendennis Castle for the King, aged 70, against everything Thomas Fairfax and the Army of Parliament could throw at him.
He’s an absolutely fascinating chap, and the main thing I’m discovering is that there’s an awful lot of rubbish written about him.

As an instance: one source has him down as having five sons, three of whom died young in the service of the King.
Another one has him down as having four.
A contemporary sexton’s account has one of John’s sons as an ensign who died at the battle of Windmill Hill, in Launceston, in 1643, and being buried there.
One of his sons turns up recorded as a brother in some accounts.

And all of that’s interesting – it’s fascinating – to unpick, but the problem is that when I’m not unpicking the tortuous genealogy of the Trerice Arundells, I’m a novelist.

So okay. I’m assuming, if you read my blog, you either read or write historical fiction, so I’ll give you a scenario.

Three members of a family die within eight weeks, one long summer: a mother, a son and a daughter.
Plague is reported in neighbouring parish records, but mortality bills aren’t kept in the parish where they’re buried.
Father is away at the time with two of his other sons, about twenty miles away in a castle under siege.

Now you could extrapolate a number of things from that. You could interpret it to mean that one son hadn’t gone with his father and his brothers to the castle’s defence, and that perhaps the family were intending to not put all their eggs in one basket, leaving at least one of the male line on the family estate to make sure that no roving Roundheads settled themselves there while all the handy Arundells were locked up inside Pendennis keep.
You could interpret it that all three died of the epidemic that we know was rife in the locality (although we don’t know what it was.)
You could interpret that after burying her eldest son and her daughter in the space of a month, unsupported by her husband and her other sons, worn out by war and worry – Mrs Arundell died quietly two weeks after her firstborn.

You could, and a novelist probably would, and a historian can’t.

It’s interesting to try and keep a narrative in your head when you’re writing a biography, but it’s also tempting to attribute thoughts and feelings to the people in it. (We assume that Mrs Arundell loved her husband and her children, and that their absence, and loss, would have grieved her. We don’t know it, because we have no evidence to support it: none of their correspondence survives. Although the fact of six children implies a degree of familial affection, doesn’t it?And again, with my novelists’s head on, I interpret a lack of correspondence to mean that he didn’t spend prolonged periods of time away from her, if he could help it.)

It’s out there. The information that’s going to make up a coherent whole is out there. It’s just piecemeal, and the trick is to find the pieces that are in the original jigsaw, and not the pieces that have been put in two hundred years later by someone with an agenda of their own. And I know what the picture looks like.
At the moment, it’s as if someone’s jumbled up two or three separate jigsaws, all equally interesting. (Little brother Thomas. And that’s all I’m going to say. Little brother Thomas deserves a monograph of his own, if only to blow a particular persistent myth about the Civil War in Cornwall right out of the water…)

I think I’ve got the corners. I think I’ve got eight corners, actually – John and little brother Thomas – and that’s all right, because let’s just say that you’re not going to mistake one for another in their particular avenues of activity during the 1640s.

Thomas’s picture is significantly different than John’s, and that’s going to make things easier, too.
But for now, it’s back to looking for straight edges.

To Free, Or Not To Free

I have an interesting ethical dilemma.
I read a lot of dialogue between other indie authors about whether it’s ethical to offer your books free.
The argument goes, this is a job. This is how we make a living. To give away our work for nothing devalues what we do: it saturates the market, and it creates an expectation amongst the reading public that they can expect a something for nothing.
And then there’s the counter-argument to that, which is that free books generate publicity for authors and allow readers who might otherwise not want to make a financial commitment to trying a new writer, give him or her a trial.
And I can see both sides of that one.
Every year, I write a free Christmas story, and I will continue to write a free Christmas story, because that’s my Christmas gift to all the people who’ve bought my books throughout the last twelve months. And if anyone wants to attack me for being unethical on that front, well, bring it on.
And sometimes if I’m feeling as if my sales need a bit of a boost I’ll put one of the books on a brief bargain-basement few days, just to raise their profile again, but then they go back to be being full price – and, you know, I do often find that readers pick one up at discounted and then go and pick up the others at full price over time, so that works for me.
But.
Here’s the thing.

I’ve re-edited, and put a new cover on, the first book of the Uncivil Wars series, and it’s being re-released through Rosemary Tree Press rather than under my personal account.
And it’s going to be free. Forever.

And it’s not about channelling traffic, or boosting sales, it’s … well, Red Horse is, was, remains, my bestselling book to date. Over 1000 downloads in its first 12 months, in fact its first 8 months – it tipped over the thousandth download at the August Bank Holiday in 2015, having been released in the January. And that’s probably now coming on for 2,000 copies of that book that my readers have paid money for: and then I’ve taken it off sale to give it a – admittedly very nice – cover, and re-edit some of the bits that have been bugging me since I released it.

Basically, I’ve gone back and made the Rosie Babbitt of Red Horse, the same Rosie Babbitt as he is at the end of The Serpent’s Root – not a swivel-eyed self-destructive revenge tragedian, but an ordinary man having a run of bad luck. It’s not massively different, it’s different enough that I wrote THE END with a sense of satisfaction, because it was right. (That feeling of rightness when you get it on the page what it was in your head, you knowto ask ?)

But that’s 2,000 people who bought it. And it seems sort of unfair somehow to tell them it’s a brand new book – which it isn’t – or to make them have to buy it again to find out how different. And possibly that’s a betrayal of my fellow authors that I’m giving away two years of work for nothing.

On the other hand, it feels like more of a betrayal of my readers to expect them to buy the same book twice, with different covers.

What do you think?

 

A Plain Russet-Coated Author

For reasons which are not mine to speculate on, the Historical Novel Society is no longer undertaking indie book reviews at the current time

And a very dear friend of mine has suddenly become a Kindle bestseller.

It’s rather given me food for thought – because, you know, I’ve never achieved more than mid-list success (albeit consistently – that’s not a complaint!), the reviewers are not beating a path to my door, there’s no possibility of a Rosie film.

-There’s the distant possibility of A Cloak of Zeal making it to the silver screen, but that’s different.

The most successful, most widely-shared blog post I’ve ever written, even more so about the one about being mental, was about a bloody Royalist.

My publisher says I’m a good writer, but he’s not keen on the historical definition.

And yet…

That’s what I am. That’s what I do.

My thing is the period 1608 to – currently – 1681. I know it, I occasionally live in it, I can tell you about it easier than I could tell you the Top 10 music charts. (Do we still have a Top 10? Is Dowland still in it?)

I like the 17th century. It is, if you like, my abiding fire.

I’ve done the research. I know people would rather read about the Napoleonic wars – which, frankly, bore the arse off me, line on line of regimented redcoats ordered about like toy soldiers – or medieval mayhem. And historical romance is where the bulk of the historical readers are, and God knows there’s precious little of that going on in my books, not in any traditional boy-meets-girl sense.

And yet I’m still stubbornly writing, and even more stubbornly selling books.

And I think that’s the thing. I love that people discover them – and I get, absolutely, that I am a niche thing and an acquired taste – and most of all I love that I have enough people buying my books that I can put fuel in the car and keep the cats in biscuits, but that I pretty much know my readers.

Not only demographically, but I can poke one and say – hey! Ms X! What do you actually think about…

I can put people’s dogs into my books – Tinners and Malley, they’re real, they were loved – and their people know.

I reach a lot of new readers on Twitter. I do use Twitter a lot.

I am, I think, one of the reenactment world’s writers of choice, especially the Parliamentarian end of the proceedings, because I know what it’s like doing the operational stuff, and they know it. (I’ve marched the march, for want of a better word.)

I’m in various wonderful supportive Facebook groups and we have a laugh and we cover each other’s backs but…not sure they sell books.

And on balance, I think that’s kind of okay.

I enjoy what I do, but although in my head I’d like to rock up to a book-signing and sell out, I’m not sure I actually would. I think not knowing my people – not being able to call my readers friends, even in the loosest Facebook-chums distant sense  – would make me a bit sad. I think I’m happiest where I am: a plain russet-coated author who writes what she knows, and loves whereof she writes, than that which is a bestseller and nothing more.

And I think that, if anything, is what I’ve learned about writing. Know what it is you want to get out of your work – and be comfortable with it.

Ambition, Madam, Is A Great Man’s Madness

This is kind of a hard post to write, but a friend shared something with me earlier and I think maybe the time has come to step out and say it.

This is me. And I am…not, entirely, wired up right.

Russell, in his wall-eyed thousand yard stare moments, the moments when he is so convinced that the world would be a better place were he not in it: Hollie putting all his weight on a broken wrist to not cry for the loss of his friend, or charging the guns at Edgehill in the hope of ending it all and taking as many of the bastards out with him as he can – they are not just the product of an empathetic author.

I self-harm – I have self-harmed since I was a very little girl, banging my head on radiators because I’d hurt someone and “sorry” wasn’t a big enough word. I self-harm because words are pretty meaningless set beside actions, and sometimes the people you want to hurt don’t deserve the hurting because it’s not their fault they pissed you off. Because sometimes the world is pretty much shit, pretty much all the time, and that can’t be helped. Because sometimes your own hurting is too bloody big to be contained, it is too big and too hurting that you can smile and say, well, never mind, eh?

When I was a teenager – when I wanted to do stuff, when I wanted to be an archivist, when the world was big and exciting – I realised that for reasons that aren’t mine to disclose, I wasn’t going to be allowed to do that. The peas were not going to be allowed to get their heads above sticks. And I very deliberately started to put myself in situations where someone would spare me the active effort of harming myself.

And then none of the things they promised happened, nobody murdered me when I was hitch-hiking, or assaulted me and threw my body into the canal, and I realised that this was what there was and I was stuck with it, and so I made choices – again deliberately – because I wanted to be Just Like Them. I wanted to have what everybody else had. And it made me appallingly unhappy – again, for reasons which are not mine to disclose – no tragic romantic story. only possibly a little mundane one, and the bizarre experience of going to work in choker necklaces to cover a half-hearted attempt at hanging yourself, and weeping on the way to and from work because you didn’t want to go home but you couldn’t bear to be at work either.

And then one day I went to the doctor and he sent me to hospital with a sealed envelope saying “please admit bearer” and that was the point where I thought fuck this: fuck this right off. I can carry on trying to please everyone all the time – don’t notice me. Don’t be angry with me. Don’t make me conspicuous – in a miserable agony, feeling responsible for everyone else, blaming myself for other people’s behaviour.

Or I can run away, and reinvent myself: a new name, a new life, and very,very carefully, the beginning of a new hope.

Well, I’m forty-four now. I am what I am, half nurture and half nature, the mildly fucked-up child of alcoholic parents. I have no idea of spontaneity, and that which I cannot prepare for frightens me. I live on lists, and yet I have a vicious contempt for convention. I’m not a joiner, not a team player, not a socialiser.

And that’s what I am.

So there it is. And it’s not a glamorous story, or a triumph over adversity story, or an inspirational one. It’s just… that’s me, not unbreakable, not quite, but holding. A little tattered, a bit ragged round the edges.But all right. Upright, wi’breeches on.

Not proud of it, not wearing it like my own cloak of zeal, but – it’s all right, you know?

It’s better than the alternative. Being a mad writer is overrated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Soon Is Too Soon?

It must be said, I am a fairly prolific author.

(I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who encourages my profligacy, too.)

I have promised myself no more than two books a year – one Civil War, and one Restoration – or I’m going to run out of battles and that will make me very sad indeed. Almost as an aside, I cannot bear the idea that there is ever going to be a death scene for any of the characters I love. The idea of setting a book in, say, revolutionary America featuring the further adventures of Hollie Babbitt’s descendants – and it’s been suggested – I couldn’t do it, because that would be like admitting that Hollie does, at some point, die.

So I’m currently twiddling about with a pregnant Thomazine, her other half, and Aphra Behn, waddling over on the boat to Holland to indulge in a bit of mild chicanery c. 1666. (That’s book 2. You know about book 2.)

And I’m excited about it. I’m getting quite into Aphra Behn (but then again, who hasn’t? – says Thomazine) I’m planning a trip to Bruges, maybe, I’m poking about with 17th century ships and seamanship, and spying under the Commonwealth, but – here’s the killer – the first book’s not even out yet.

Part of me’s thinking, no, hang on, you’ve got to give your all to promoting the first one, you can’t be talking about writing the next one already. And part of me’s thinking well, no, people want to know that there is a next one, they want to know that there’s not going to be a thing at the end of Masthead that says…. To Be Continued. Not a matter of loose ends, but people – readers – are fond of the Russell household. I suspect I am not the only person who would be more heartbroken at the death of some of my characters than at the death of Little Nell.

(Not your sister Nell, Thomazine. I have her marked down for one of Drew Venning’s boys, eventually, but I think she will have a pretty comfortable life with the heir to the Diss salt-fish empire, and do little of bookworthy note.)

So readers, how do you feel, at the end of a book? Onwards and upwards – or, in the case of the Uncivil Wars books, on with the body count? Or – phew, I can relax, now, I know what’s happened?

I’d love to see some of your thoughts!