Finding Rabbits Where Rabbits Didn’t Oughta Be

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I’ve been lost in a time warp this week trying to complete the research for part of my historical saga. The period in question is post-Napoleonic Brittany. I love doing my research – as a form of escapism it’s second to none-but of course the danger is that it’s easy to get lost in it; to disappear into a time-space continuum never to be heard of again.

So far I’ve read a Balzac novel relevant to the period, with the aid of a monumental Larousse dictionary; I’ve Googled ‘til my eyes popped and I’ve pored over maps until I could find my way around blindfold – which is just as well in view of the eye-popping hindrance.

My dilemma with research, as with life, is knowing when to stop. I have a feeling that only a small proportion of my Brittany research will feature (since it’s not the main locus of action)and yet it is essential to the storylines. Furthermore as and when (being positive this morning)the saga reaches its adoring public I worry about those readers whose faces become empurpled as they choke over their 3.5 minute boiled egg, who miss the 6.35 to Paddington and sacrifice a whole tree to produce, at one and the same time, a treatise on French currency and a refutation of my use of Louis d’or when everyone who isn’t a gibbering imbecile knows that Francs were the dosh of the day.

Fantasy and Sci-fi authors need to create a great story in a believable world for their readers. The historical novelist has to create a great story in a world that is believable and open to scrutiny by hawk-eyed readers ready to pounce on historical inaccuracy.

Historical novelist Bernard Cornwell wrote that whilst he knew there were no rabbits in Arthurian Britain, he wasn’t aware that snowdrops didn’t feature either until a kind reader pointed out his blooper. I’m not sure I am made of the stuff that can tolerate that level of nit-pickedness.

And yet, to be fair to my future history-savvy readers, I too have felt angst when reading of rabbits where there should be none; of reading words and phrases that were a few centuries premature – so who am I to moan?

So, back to my original conundrum – when is enough enough?

One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things

The title quote from Henry Miller is right on the money this week for me.

I started to pull together all the considerable research I’ve been doing for my book on the lost villages of Holderness. For once I’ve managed the research notes pretty well, even if I have to say it myself. One folder for each village or village cluster working from north to south down the coastline. Each folder contains my “visit” notes where I tried to locate the lost site without disappearing myself under a freezing North Sea –although I cut it fine once when I got the tides wrong and went home with a soggy bottom (soggy not saggy…and yet the mirror never lies). In addition there are notes from historical documents, copies of maps and photographs. By and large a goodly haul of data and now all I have to do is to turn it into something magical, readable and sellable.

Trouble is, once I started on the first of what is usually a zillion drafts, my ever sharp, incisive brain cell that has just returned from its holiday in La-la Land – noticed a theme emerging. I mean how many different ways can you say “Fell into the sea, 1413” “Went back to the sea 1172” and so on? Even old Roget the Thesaurus would be hard pressed to find sufficient verbs to describe falling, slipping, sliding, tumbling, going arse over tip etc all whilst keeping a reader’s interest. Ay, and there’s the rub – the whole saga (as I had conceived it) is mind-numbingly, eye-wateringly, jaw-breakingly bloody boring- just ‘words, words, mere words’. How could I have been so stupid? That’s a rhetorical question folks. One day a week for I don’t know how long, I’ve ventured forth bristling with cameras, notebooks, pens, thermos and water wings to search for evidence; all that time and effort for what?

But soft, what light through yonder tunnel breaks? (Those of you still with me will notice something of a Shakespearean touch this morning.) OK, so the plopping into the sea of thirty or so villages is a trifle tedious not to say repetitive, but what I also have hidden within my notes is a far more interesting story; it’s the story of the people and communities along the coast who, down the centuries, have lived with their hungry, briny neighbour lapping at their doorsteps. These communities have learned to adapt or perish and as far as this book is concerned, I think I have to do the same. Sorry Lost Villages – you’re only part of a much larger story – you’ll just have to exit stage left minus the bear.

(Altogether too much Shakespeare in the Park – Ed)

Seductive Synopses

Something from the motivational conference I attended earlier this week must have snuck into one of the spare rooms in my brain because I have shifted some work this week. For the first time ever I chose to put writing above the day job so I got a real feel for what life might be like if I ever give up the day job.

In line with my policy of trying to get a couple of articles accepted every month I have a queue of pieces all waiting in their allotted folders to be fully developed. The basic idea is there together with notes and research material. To get them all placed I sent out a half-dozen pitches and whilst I was at the conference two came back as acceptances…well one had a laconic “let me have a look” but ever the optimist I take that as a yes. Writing those two articles kept me full at it until the witching hour on Tuesday.

But the big thing this week was a nibble from a publisher and very pleasant it was too. In a rush of enthusiasm, on spec I had submitted a 150 word general summary of the book The Uncertain Coast via the publishers’ website. Just in case you’ve forgotten the Uncertain Coast is an illustrated light-touch history of the towns and villages lost to the sea on the unstable Holderness coast and of some of the people who lived in them. On Wednesday the publishers came back and asked for a full synopsis.

Yikes – this presents something of a problem. They want details of word count, how many photos/piccys, chapters and chapter summaries, markets and market sizes, hat and shoe sizes – no I made those up just to check you’re still awake. The problem is I simply don’t know. I’m about a third of the way through the research and have just the first chapter written plus two others.

I’m not great at planning out a structure, chapters and content before I’ve completed the research. When I judge I’ve got all the material I can access together, then I start to fit the pieces and the book evolves. So collecting up some emergency rations – fruit, energy bars and sport water – what? Who wrote that? My emergency rations come in the form of choccy, cashew nuts and a fruity red wine. I went into conclave with my co-author i/c photography and we knocked something into shape. I was elected to turn that something into a persuasive, seductive come-and-buy-me to the publishers.

I’m currently on version 5, weary, wordless (well almost) and most telling of all, I’ve realised that seduction is not my forte.

Y’all have a good weekend now.

Crime Doesn’t Pay

I’m dividing my writing time between a perhaps overly ambitious family saga, “Ravensgill” – conceived as a trilogy but who knows how many tomes it will actually fill and a work of non-fiction, current title “The Uncertain Coast”. Probably I should focus on one or t’other but then I’ve never been someone who takes much notice of “should”.

The thing is I like the mix and I flatter myself that what wits I have are kept honed by the variety of fact and fiction, research and imagination.

The Uncertain Coast is a joint venture with a photographer friend and documents the lost and disappearing villages of the eroding Holderness Coast in East Yorkshire. We fossick up and down the coastline digging out (sometimes literally) the stories of people who made their mark on this landscape and the places they lived.

I have already introduced you to Drogo, alleged wife murderer and East Yorkshire big-wig back in the days of Billy the Conq. Now perhaps, you should meet Adam Alvin, aged 25, man servant, lover and priest killer.

In 1708 Adam was a man going places;an opportunist with an eye for a fortune. He declared his love for Mary Sinclair the eldest niece (and heiress) of his boss, the Rev. Enoch Sinclair. She returned his affections and our Adam decided that something must be done about Uncle Enoch since the Rev. was proving an obstacle to both his leanings for lucre and his love. The something was murder – carried out with the connivance of both Mary and her younger sister who also shared Sinclair’s household.

The deed done, the three of them put it about that the Rev. Sinclair had gone visiting on horseback. Later his horse was found, fully tacked up but sans rider. Despite an extensive search no trace of the Reverend was found. The marriage of Adam and Mary took place soon after these events.

However, the locals were a suspicious lot and, Adam, Mary and nameless younger sister all fled to London to escape the gossip. They lived there for 4 years – probably waiting for a loud knock on the door at midnight.

When the younger sister was taken ill, fatally so as it turned out, before expiring her last she ‘fessed up about the murder and the knock on the door finally came.

Rev. Sinclair’s body was recovered from a ditch near the house and Adam and Mary arrested and tried in York. Mary was acquitted but Adam was sentenced to hang. During the preaching of the condemned sermon Adam loudly declared his innocence. Scarcely had he done so when the preacher, a Mr Mace, dropped down stone dead. Not one to miss an opportunity, Adam shouted out that the hand of God had shown itself in support of his innocence and almost convinced the congregation that it was so. However, sanity returned the following day and Adam was hanged, confessing his crime at the very last.

The church, the vicarage and the village Owthorne where the dastardly deed was done have long given themselves up to the sea and the murder of Rev. Enoch Sinclair is merely a footnote in time.

A Tale of Two Editors

One aspect of the feature and article writing I do is research –not just subject research but also market research. At the moment I don’t receive many commissions so I have to pitch most of my work to an editor, once I think I’ve found the right market for it.

Four months ago I sent out two pitches. One went to a specialist magazine, the other to a more general one with a countryside theme. Both have about the same circulation figures although different reader profiles. I read back copies of each mag; I obtained their writers guidelines, followed them to the letter and even phoned up to make sure I’d got the editor’s name correct – they do seem to change fairly frequently.

Editor no.1 – the generalist replied to my email within a week.
Yes he was interested and could I supply photos?
Yes I could, how did he want them?
Email and at 300dpi minimum.
OK. Good – job done. The proofs came through ten days ago and the article appears next month.

Editor No. 2 – the specialist magazine
When I phoned in to check his name and email I actually spoke to him. He said: ”I’ll look out for your pitch coming through my email.”
Great. Six weeks later not a peep from him. Do I/don’t I send a reminder?
I wait ‘til the eight week mark and then send a polite note –“ hope you got the pitch, wondering if you have been able to make a decision?”
Sixteen weeks later still nothing.

I assume that the guy is not interested – fine. I understand :-
– the pitch might not have suited – either through content or style;
– the editor might need to take all submissions to an editorial panel and that slows down the process;
– the concept of “busy” and “overwhelmed with emails”. When I had a “ proper” job 50 emails a day was not unusual and I’ve had clients who topped the 100 per day but still managed to answer them, however briefly;
– the pitch might not have reached his desk…but did lightning really strike twice?

Truly I do understand all of that but what I can’t get my head round is complete silence. I cannot believe that with the electronic bells and whistles that abound these days, it is impossible to send a quick, automated “thanks but no thanks” email.

The question is what do I do next? Shall I be passive and leave it a while longer – but how long? Or shall I start again, find another potential victim and revamp the outline? Should I send him a free copy of my book Time for Your Life – there’s lots in there about managing emails and other “stuff”?

There is some small irony here, in that this specialist magazine, without naming names, is aimed at newbie writers and is packed full of good advice about what to do and not do when approaching an editor with a pitch. What it doesn’t tell you is what best to do when your pitch appears to have fallen into a deep black hole.

I just got Kindled

Yesterday my first book got Kindled. When I got the email to say it was ready I confess I got the shakes a bit. There’s no going back. It’s not a huge 100,000 word blockbuster rather a modest twenty-odd thousand words of self-help type but it’s mine and I’m proud of it.

I’ve lived with this book for more than six months in between the day job – first in the research and then the writing. Sometimes it flowed easily; sometimes it was sluggish. But the most fiddly part was the editing and like the guy in Camus’ The Plague I got stuck writing and rewriting the same sentence. Then I was gripped with this fear that I might have inadvertently nicked someone else’s words or phrases. The subject of the book – making time for the things you want to do in life – is by no means original and the internet is larded with articles, blogs and references. I know I’ve read some of them. I spent last night checking over the mss for possible copyright breaches – for the third time.

All that is left now is for me to write a few persuasive sentences for the advertising blurb and decide on key words for searches. Despite all the anxieties and neuroses it’s brought out in me I feel…not exactly satisfied – I’m never that – but perhaps elated. I’ve done what I set out to do, as well as I could do it. Whether it burns with a bright flame or fizzles out remains to be seen.

I’m also relieved that I can move on. For sure I’ve got work to do in marketing and selling the book but my head’s stuffed full of other ideas and projects all crying to get out.

Clearly I can’t give my Oscar speech since I ain’t sold a single copy yet but I would like to publicly thank Steve at http://www.kindlepublishmybook.co.uk for his support and help. I gave him the worst possible example of a mss for Kindle – full of formatting, tables, illustrations – all the Kindle no-no’s. He took it all on the chin and worked his magic in no time at all.

Now, I need 5 or 6 sentences to promote the book – how hard can that be?

Research is what I do when I don’t know what I’m doing*

Yesterday I took myself off to a local landmark called Spurn Point – a sliver of sand and grass hanging off the southernmost edge of the East Yorkshire coast. I went there, not because I wanted to skive off but because I needed to experience the atmosphere. I wanted to understand what it felt like to stand on this sand spit, with an angry sea on three sides, the wind howling down all other sounds, rain and sleet lashing at my face. I’m no masochist and nor do I wish to die for my art – I just like to research my writing and sometimes the only way I can do it is to experience what I’m writing about.

I enjoy doing the research – apparently many writers don’t. But I love where it can take me, what I can learn and how it can add that touch of authenticity to my work. I divide research into two types – outward bound like yesterday and deskbound when I’m on the PC, reading or in a library.

My outward bound research covers observing, doing and interviewing. So, I visit places, museums, country houses, gardens and so on. I take a camera and notebook and, most important, a list of questions for which I need to get answers. Sometimes I’ll interview an expert and it’s amazing how people will give of their time. For example, recently I’ve interviewed a poker champion, a lady who trains animals for TV and film work, an expert on Daphne du Maurier and my GP to get some medical info. On the same lines I’ve spent a day on a grouse moor working as a beater and done a stint with a hill shepherd during lambing time. All of this gave me some great material for magazine articles and short stories.

Deskbound research, particularly on a cold, snowy February day is an attractive proposition. The quantity of information off the Net can be a bit daunting and the quality of some of it throws up warning signals. However, I find the real risk with www. is the way links lead to links and to more links and I lose myself in a mass of fascinating yet irrelevant facts and figures. For all of that it’s a million times preferable to those readers they used to have (maybe still do) in libraries. I remember spending hours bent over one reading old newspapers to get material for some work I was doing on the Luddites. I blame my poor eyesight on them.

Research offers added value too – not only does it open a window on worlds I know nothing about, it also provides ideas for more writing and prods my sluggish imagination into action.

Now where did I put my specs?

*Title quote from Werner von Braun