The Smell of Smoke – a true story….

It wasn’t one of our better days, yesterday.

My son was at a party, and he was messing about with one of his rowdier mates. Fell off the stairs and hurt his foot, and by tea time he was crying with pain, couldn’t put his weight on it.

And then next thing my mum’s on the phone, asking if we have any butterfly plasters because she’s fallen over the vacuum cleaner and split her head open, and she’s bleeding heavily. (Mum’s 75, not always great on her feet. It happens.)

And having sorted out the mess all round, when all was quiet bar the laundry, and little ‘un was in our bed having woken up with nightmares at 2am, I decide this is the absolute perfect time to have a panic attack.

Again – it happens, I’m a lady of a certain age, I do this stuff. But the last thing my sleeping boys – the big one and the little one – need, is me shaking hard enough to rattle the bed under them. So I get up, and go and sit in the bathroom in the dark.

Oh – and the toilet started leaking last night, as well.

But I’m sitting there, very gingerly on my leaky khazi, in the dark,while the house sleeps and settles around me.

And I start to smell smoke. Cigarette smoke.

We don’t smoke. I used to, gave it up ten years ago. Husband is an asthmatic and a very passionate anti-smoker. Little un’s six.

Can’t smell it in our bedroom at the front of the house, so it’s not someone passing on the road outside. Just in the bathroom.

And that means it’s downstairs. Someone is, or has been, smoking cigarettes downstairs.

It’s two nights before Halloween. The night when the dead come back to watch their beloved living.

It’s not the anniversary of his death. It’s nothing so obvious. But I sat in the dark, smelling smoke, and stopped shaking, and went back to bed.

The toilet stopped leaking. Little un’s bruised his foot, but he’s all right. Mum stopped bleeding within a few minutes.

We’re all right, dad. We’re good.  

You can go back, now.

 

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?

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.