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.

Getting Ahead Of Yourself

Getting Ahead Of Yourself

So it’s like this.

There is now a third book in the series. You know how it is….

I do actually have a timeline of my characters. It’s not a helpful one – could I tell you Thomazine’s actual birthday? no, no more than I could tell you her father’s – except that she was born in the early spring of 1644, while the aforementioned Colonel Babbitt was up to the backsides (as he would put it) in mud and arsy troopers at Nantwich. That particular revelation’s in “The Smoke Of Her Burning”.
And Russell had just turned twenty-one when he was blinded at Naseby, in June 1645 – and so the summer of 1645 is the first time he and Thomazine meet.

Yes, mathematicians, he is nineteen years older than his wife, and yes, she has been fairly consistently attached to him since she was all of eighteen months old. Give or take a wobbly patch after the Burford Leveller mutiny, when he disappeared without trace into the interior of Scotland and came back promoted, with an ADC with a suspiciously Lowlands accent, and a tertian fever. That’s beside the point. Hapless was born in mid-June 1624. Somehow I think the idea that he was a summer baby makes his early life that much the sadder…

But knowing birthdays makes it easier. I now know that Charles II created a Board of Customs in 1671, which would make our Hapless forty-seven at the time of its creation.
(“What? Me? Gerroff!”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m a bloody sheep-farmer, tibber! The hell has wool-smuggling got to do with me?”
“Think you just answered your own question, bright-eyes…”)

Makes Thomazine twenty-eight, too.
And means they’ve been married for six years.
(“No, Thomazine. Just. No. No. More. Babies. Three is a sufficiency. No.”
“Going to sleep on the floor, are you?”
“No! But – no! You are not a brood mare, to be put to – no!”
“I like babies, Russell.” There’s a pause, in which the author is going to discreetly look the other way, having known Thomazine’s ability to wind her stern, dignified husband round her fingers since – well, since around 1645. “I like your babies, Russell.”)

And now I know where I’m headed, in 1671, with the Board of Customs.

Essex. Mersea Island, to be specific.

 

 

Now our revels all are ended?

Masthead cover
Well, actually, they’re not.
Our revels are only just beginning.

However, it’s been a bit of rollercoaster.
I finished A Broom At The Masthead. My original intent was that Masthead should go to a publisher, and the Uncivil Wars books would stay with me, and – well, I only really meant that Masthead should be a standalone adventure.
Yeah, right it would. Thomazine Babbitt, meekly saying yes, of course, I will go quietly into domestic obscurity – and more to the point, the rest of that ill-assorted brood she’s acquired going with her? Ha! I say.
So, there will be a second, and it will be called An Effusion Of Blood, and so far it seems to be about the battle of Dunbar and the Scots prisoners of war and the horrible things that happened in Durham cathedral, and more to the point what happened to them after Durham. Deported, or dead, or worse.
(There seems to be something of a theme of women who will not quit in my books, because Mara Gillespie wouldn’t give up, either.)

And the fact that there are two, and one is Masthead and one is – what it is – well, it’s a series, now.  Which means, of course, that there has to be a name for the series, and that’s where it got tricky.

Russell – who does possess a sense of humour, when he’s allowed to – used to sign his letters from furrin parts as ‘Caliban’, in reference to his disfiguring scar. So I wanted to reference that, but at the same time it had a certain science fiction feel to it that I didn’t care for. So I dismissed the Caliban Papers as a bit too Dr Who. Likewise, the Tempest Papers and the Sycorax Papers – Caliban being, of course, the monstrous hslf-human son of the witch Sycorax in Shakespeare’s play.

Thomazine’s Classical nickname in the books is Penthesilea – Queen of the Amazons –  but I can’t spell that twice the same way, so that was out.

 

And then someone said,  Russell refers to himself as Caliban, but is he also his own Prospero?

Well, at the end of The Tempest Prospero means to drown his books and renounce magic.

And poor Russell means to renounce his intriguing – no, he does, really, he does –

So my series has a name.

The Drowned Books.