Spring, and tulips

I know it’s only January 2nd, but that’s all right, here in west Cornwall it’s almost half past four and it’s still daylight and I have seen the sun today, so as far as I’m concerned it’s spring.

Next month I will be in Brugge, in pursuit of the Russells. (And, in passing, in pursuit of a young Hollie Babbitt in Amsterdam. I don’t know quite how he’d feel about the Kalverstraat now. When he lived there – and he lived in Amsterdam for a goodly part of his adult life, poor lamb – the Kalverstraat was the flesh-market, it was the place you went for the spring and autumn beast sales. It was where he bought his black horse Tyburn, as a two year-old, for a ridiculously small sum of money. Yes, Tib was bought as meat on the hoof. It’s the posh end of Amsterdam now – the touristy end.)

It’s a funny thing: one of the things that grieves me about modern gardening is how low-maintenance it is, one can either have scent or beauty but not usually both, and everything is meant to be easy to grow and easy to care for, and in the days of Tulipmania men sold small wrinkled bulbs for the price of a small estate , and it was the work of a team of gardeners to care for them as if they were babies. (The tulips, that is, not the gardeners.),

tu971

This beauty is Amiral de Constantinople, one of the only two varieties of parrot tulip to survive from the seventeenth century.

p_sip943412

And this is Zomerschoon – and this is the painting by Balthasar van der Ast of the Zomerschoon tulip of the height of Tulipmania.

balthasar_van_der_ast_the_zomerschoon_tulip_d6048390g

And this – the Tulip Museum – is where I’m headed for an afternoon in Februar.

Wish me luck….

 

 

The Eye Of the Beholder

You will notice, if you read my blog or follow my Facebook page, that I will do almost anything but post photos of myself.

And, you know, you might think that’s a silly female vanity, the authorial equivalent of “does my bum look big in this?” – an affectation.

And you might also think well, hang on, this lass writes about a romantic lead with a conspicuous facial disfigurement, with a degree of authority. I wonder if that’s significant?

Once upon a time, you see, there was a girl who was pretty, who had perfect porcelain skin. And attracting men was a sport – “the night I pulled ten guys one after another in the Ritz Ballroom”. I didn’t have to be kind, I didn’t have to be thoughtful, I didn’t have to be clever or considerate or thoughtful. I was just – pretty. First thing in the morning, I was pretty in smeared eyeliner. Last thing at night, I was pretty and glamorously raddled.

I was not kind.

I didn’t need to be, because I was pretty. I could have all the attention I craved, just by having big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

I don’t think I ever didn’t get – even if only briefly – a man I wanted. I think it would have done me the world of good if I had. It would have taught me a little humility, I think: that just looking the way I did, did not guarantee me any preferential treatment.

And then one day I wasn’t. All the things I took for granted – that I could go out to a nightclub with a pound in my purse and no cigarettes, in the sure and certain knowledge that someone else would buy my drinks: not bothering to be on time,because the pleasure of my beauty was enough, or to be particularly civil to people I didn’t like – I suddenly had to learn all those things, fast and hard. People had always wanted to be my friend, not for the pleasure of my company, but because of how I looked. Being the friend of the most beautiful girl in the world has its perks. Being the man who dated the most beautiful girl in the world… Well, you get the idea.

And then suddenly this girl who had never had to conform, had never had to learn to please or flatter or charm, had to grow a personality.

Which I did, and it’s not a bad one: it has a certain wry dark humour that it had not previous, a degree of self-mockery that would have outraged that proud beauty.

The irony of rosacea is not lost on me: old age wouldn’t have troubled me – doesn’t trouble me – I still have good bones, and big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

Even a tragic disfiguring scar like Russell’s would have its own ruined glamour.

Instead, it’s spots. Blisters and rawness and a burned-looking redness, patches where the skin is dry and it cracks like plaster next to teenage zits.

Sometimes it looks okay, sometimes I can cover it up with makeup and people don’t think they can pass remarks, no matter how sympathetic, about that girl’s poor face. (Which is not burned, and nor does she have chickenpox.)

Sometimes it gets so miserable and sore that I have to take antibiotics, and it’s itchy and infected and so swollen that those lovely cheekbones I still have disappear.

So – no, there are no photos of me, if I can help it. I don’t mind that I’m not the same beautiful as I was. I’m different- pretty now: I built that new personality quicker than Redrow Homes, and it’s in the charm, now, and the smile and – yeah, it has wrinkles about the eyes and a laugh that can strip paint off walls but what of it? It listens, it’s funny and literate and intelligent and witty and loving.

But you can’t see that in a photo.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Help! There’s An Ironside In My Bath!

he hero of my current WIP is a disfigured English Civil War veteran who’s now an Admiralty intelligencer under Charles II. (He sounds spectacularly dull and worthy, but he’s not. He’s a sweetie. Anyway.

The thing is, when I started writing the Drowned Books, I didn’t know very much about the Restoration Navy. Other than Samuel Pepys. Everyone knows Pepys. I knew a lot about the English Civil War, but the events of twenty years later were a bit of a blank.

And that blank made it quite hard for me to delineate the development of my characters.

You see, I know Major Thankful-for-his-Deliverance Russell (ret’d). – or rather, I knew him as a scatty lieutenant in the Civil War, and I know him in the first Drowned Book. But married, with a son, and up to the elbows in smugglers off the coast of Kent, and trying to solve the mystery of a missing person?

Tricky. We’re on unknown territory, here.

So I’ve taken to asking him out.

This evening, we shared a bath. Last week, we had pizza.

Now you’re probably thinking – what? Playdates with a fictional character? Eh?

But it works.

With Russell in 1665, on Romney Marsh poking smugglers, I’m easily distracted. What’s going on politically in Europe at the same time? How does it affect my plot? What does a smuggler’s boat look like? Would everyone be wearing those appalling wigs? – and it’s hard to think any further than those things, getting bogged down in the minutiae of historical accuracy. The characters can only develop, in my head, in response to the stimulus of the plot.

And that’s a one-way ticket to stilted dialogue, cardboard people. It’s precisely the opposite, in real life. We respond to situations, we shape circumstances, as our characters dictate, not vice versa; shy people suddenly discover inner resources when their families are threatened, or strong people have a fatal weakness. Sometimes it’s the drama that brings out those characteristics, but if we were no more than “… The stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them” we would be no more than the sum of our pasts. And this is how we develop those fascinating characters – the odd quirks, the kick in the gallop that makes them memorable. The unpredictable something that the reader doesn’t expect, can’t work out, isn’t logical – but makes your characters somewhat more than a vehicle to carry a plot from Point A to Point B.

I give you Matthew Shardlake, C.J. Sansom’s crook-backed Tudor lawyer. Within the confines of the books, of the plot, he’s a magnificently drawn character, full of power and pathos. But all his development is within the confines of the plot: he has no surprises, no inner life other than a malcontent bound by his disability. You ever heard Shardlake laugh? Know his mother’s name, or his favourite food? Me neither, because those things are not relevant to the narrative.

But he has a mother, presumably, and he does laugh, and he does eat – and so they are relevant. Because if it’s at the back of C.J. Sansom’s mind that Matthew Shardlake laughs at bottom jokes, then he knows all that worthy dourness is a front for a man with a low sense of humour, who maybe likes to hang around inns and stableyards to have his funnybone tickled. Who maybe one day is going to slip up in polite company and chortle “he said bum!” – and maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s going to stay worthy and dour in company forever. And maybe it’s going to be a delicious little hinted private joke between author and reader, a tiny intimate strand so slight that most people won’t even realise there’s a joke to be in on. It just feels real.

Which leaves me with the Ironside in the bath. Does he sing? What does he sing? Is he a soaker, or a scrubber – will he use all the hot water, and leave the wet towels in a heap? Is he going to leap on the possibility of hot running water with zeal, or will he cower behind the washbasin suspectjng devilry?

Because he’s on my turf, now. I’m not worrying about periwigs or plague fleas. I know what a bath is, how it works. He doesn’t.So, presented with a situation I see every day, and he’s never seen before in his life, how’s my boy going to react? You write best what you know. Me, I had a bath this morning, but what about my 1665 hero? Does he even like baths, or is he a little bit stinky? Is he going to fight shy of bubble bath, and claim he had a stand-up wash last week – is he going to be frightened by the novelty of indoor plumbing, or is he going to jump in with abandon, or is he going to poke everything to find out how it works first? Is he maybe going to turn sneakily sensual, and languish in the tub till the water’s cold, or is he strictly practical – will he suddenly develop a streak of ruthless cleanliness?  Or is he an opportunist: scrub, shave, hair wash, the whole nine yards, while he’s got the chance? He may be a good and godly man of staid and sensible years, but if he thinks no one’s listening is he going to break out into dodgy drinking songs?

Does he, in fact, sprawl in the bath sloshing water over the sides, and stick one of his toes up the tap just to see what would happen? – well, we’ve all been there.

And if he does any of those things, I know what manner of man he is. And it doesn’t matter what century he’s in, or what circumstances. They’re the set-dressing. The sort of chap who’d unscrew the taps to see how they work, is the same pantser sort of guy who might try and sail a fishing-boat across the English Channel, working out the practicalities of it on the fly. And a guy who can’t get the taps back together after he”s done it, is the same kind of guy who’d sail blithely into the sunset and rediscover America…

The current thing for writers seems to be character interviews, and they’re fascinating,  but they can feel artificial, sometimes. They don’t always stretch the author. “James Alexander Malcolm Fraser. Favourite food: porridge. Likes: travel, bagpipes. Dislikes: Redcoats.” A little bit teenage magazine. An author can just pick such out of the air: it’s not grown, it doesn’t develop, it doesn’t necessarily contribute anything to the character – other than a bit of free publicity. (I have no idea what Russell’s favourite food is!) Put him – or her – into a situation you know well and they are strange to, give them free rein, and I can promise you the results will be rewarding. A 1640s cavalry commander loose in the supermarket on Christmas Eve. Now that was fun to imagine.

Go on, take your characters out of their comfort zone and into yours. They won’t thank you for it – but your writing will.

The author would like to be very clear that at no point has she ever watched Thankful Russell in the bath. Nope. Not ever. Certainly not within his wife’s hearing.