Historical Fiction or Historical Novel?

All my books have been set in the eighteenth century, really. The first three were in a fantasy version – the Larus Series – but having found them difficult to promote, being untypical fantasy, I thought the obvious thing to do would be to move on to historical fiction and that is what I did.

So here I am, with my first historical fiction title scheduled for release this December. Wonderful. I loved writing the book; I enjoyed the research; it all went awfully well. Spiffing stuff. Then I began taking an interest (probably a little too late) in the historical fiction genre, and discovered a whole new can of worms, as they say.

To begin with, I find I’m unsure whether I’ve written historical fiction or a historical novel. A toe-curling admission, no? There seem to be boundaries, but no-one seems entirely sure what they are, least of all me. This sort of writing falls broadly into two camps: a fictionalised version of real events and real people; or a work of pure fiction –  invented characters, invented story, set in the past.

My novel falls squarely within the second camp; it’s all invention except the general eighteenth century setting. I’m not attempting to interpret or recreate history. I just find the past a quieter place to work in. I’d happily admit that I’m creating a past that probably never was. So have I slipped into historical fantasy, then? Well, no, I don’t think so. There’s nothing in the story that absolutely couldn’t have happened – much of it was inspired by the research I did. But it’s not real. It’s not based on historical figures or events. Now then, is that historical fiction, or a historical novel? Or even something else? Answers on a postcard, please…

 

Whales and Strange Stars

A stunning mystery in the tradition of Jamaica Inn. When a sea captain passes through the forgotten port of Wych Ferry and whiles away an hour at the Tradewinds Inn relating his traveller’s tales to young Rosamund Euden, he has no idea of the dramatic events he has set in action. Adventure, dark magic and betrayal in the marshlands of 18th century Kent.

To be published by Crooked Cat Books, 12 December, 2017

5 things you’ll love about the Isle of Larus

Off the beaten track. The Isle stands in the English Channel, just off Weymouth. Sometimes. It has a habit of disappearing suddenly, making it the ideal secluded holiday destination.

Old fashioned charm. Since Larus is set permanently in the 18th century, there is no traffic, no aircraft, no pollution, no crowds. The only way to get here is by sailing boat – the perfect relaxing start to your visit. Dig out your tricorne hat and join in the fun!

Excitement. For the more adventurous visitor, there is plenty to do. Strange events happen daily. Would you like to encounter a fleet of completely impossible ships? Or a pirate chased by a vengeful waterspout? This is the place to find them. You’ll never be bored on Larus.

Highly Recommended. Visitors tell us they’d like to stay here forever, and you can’t give higher praise than that. You won’t find us on TripAdvisor, but some people do leave lovely reviews on Amazon.

Great value. You can visit Larus for just £1.99. No queues, no crush, no passport necessary. Truly the perfect holiday. Smiles guaranteed.

Visit the Isle of Larus, the English Channel’s best-kept secret.

The Larus Series

Return of the Native

I wrote this piece a few years ago, but it seems appropriate it publish it now, with all the talk about Dunkirk and the new film:

I was reading, just the other day, about the gathering of former Little Ships of Dunkirk at Ramsgate. I read with more interest than most since a) I was born in Ramsgate, and b) I love boats. I looked online and discovered a list of many of the known vessels that took part, and, in scanning it, a familiar name jumped out at me; the New Britannic.

She was built, I read, as a pleasure boat with a very shallow draft, specially designed to take trippers out to the Goodwin Sands. It was just this attribute that made her so useful at Dunkirk; her ability to go right inshore and pick up troops from the beach and ferry them out to waiting warships. She plied back and forth for three days and two nights, I learned, rescuing around 3,000 soldiers. A most remarkable feat for a boat able to carry only a small  number of people at a time. It is hard to imagine the feelings of a soldier trapped in that awful place on seeing the friendly face of this steady, stable, south-coast pleasure boat with her reassuringly British name coming to the rescue. She must have seemed almost motherly.

After the war, the New Britannic resumed her old life, taking visitors out to the Goodwins, and that is when I met her. As a child, I went out on most of the local pleasure boats, and I clearly remember a trip on the New Britannic. Still steady, stable and unfussed, I can see her now, tied up at the harbour wall.

After that we went our separate ways, two Ramsgate natives, the boat and I, but our paths have since crossed – in different timelines. Both of us fetched up in Weymouth, strangely enough. Subsequently she moved on to the Scilly Isles, and seemed doomed to end her days there, mouldering away. But no, she was found, and towed back to the mainland, where she sank at her moorings. Again, she was rescued, and taken back to Kent by road in the end, to begin a long and painstaking period of restoration. The least that could be done, you could say, for a boat that had so thoroughly done her duty. Now she is back at Ramsgate enjoying a new life as a boat for the disabled, her kindly steadiness and stability paying off once again.

Will I, too, find my way back to Ramsgate one day? Who knows – perhaps. But if I ever do, there will be at least one friendly, motherly face awaiting me there –  the New Britannic.

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The New Britannic, June 2016. (Photo: Foxy59)

For more information see the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships

Songs in Stone

It isn’t often that the Isle of Portland is completely still. It’s a breezy place, verging on the gale force much of the time, but on this particular evening it fell quiet for us. I had visited the Memory Stones a few weeks earlier and instantly knew that I had to persuade the other members of the Island Voices Choir to come and sing here. So here we were.

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Island Voices at the Memory Stones, Portland

This remarkable place on the lip of an old Portland stone quarry is an art installation, a gateway and an amphitheatre, and not long completed. The stones are still raw white and fresh, and each has a dual significance – in alignment to the sun at different seasons, and relating to Portland’s history, both natural and man-made. It’s a remarkable idea. Hannah Sofaer, the artist responsible, came along to take pictures.

This place already has atmosphere, but when the choir lined up in that still sunset and launched into our song Portland Stone, the great blocks looming over us suddenly had… presence. I can’t think of a better word. Their individuality became clear. They were part of the place, and so were we. I had thought from the first time I saw the Memory Stones that this song was made for them, but I hadn’t expected the connection to be so profound. I for one found it very moving.memorystoneslooking west

The only way to improve on this wonderful moment, for me, was for us to sing Island Voice. And we did. I wrote the lyrics for this twelve years ago when both the Island Voices Choir and my writing career were taking their first baby steps. We’ve sung it many times since in all sorts of places but it never seemed so right as it did in this place. “If only there were songs in stone…” I wrote, all those years ago. Well, just for a moment, with the blessing of the Memory Stones, there were. It was pure magic.

MemoryStones West

Beauty and the Book

The book and its cover – how often does the reality of the first live up to the promise of the second? The cover, of course, is a piece of advertising, designed to catch your eye and part you from your hard-earned cash. It can, and often does, promise you everything and anything. The book, when you read it, has to stand on its merits, not the hype of the cover. And that is when disappointment so often sets in.

I was thinking about this the other day when I bought a book purely on the strength of its beautiful cover, having barely glanced even at the blurb on the back. I don’t often buy books at the supermarket, but one look at this cover and I knew there was no way I was going home without it.

Book Covers Matter

As a writer myself, the knotty problem of what makes a good book cover is one I grapple with whenever one of mine is published. How do you sum up a complex story, interest potential readers and compete for their attention among the many thousands of books on the market? And all in the small space of a book cover, perhaps seen in the glimpse of an eye? It takes a special kind of magic to make this work. It’s probably true to say I’m a little more alert to the tricks of cover design than the average reader – but I fell for this beautiful book in an instant, and into the trolley it went.

Arts-and-Crafts Style

And yet this cover seemed to me to break all the rules. It’s intricate – fussy, even – you need to look at it a couple of times to see what it consists of. A closer look shows it’s part overwrought Victorian floral wallpaper, Arts-and-Crafts style, and part Chinese dragon; the title is woven in discreetly and is not particularly easy to read. This is far from the clear, simple, easy to understand design of the average modern book cover. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I suppose that breaking all the rules just works sometimes. This is one book that will have a permanent place on my bookshelf. It has certainly given me a few different ideas regarding possible covers for my forthcoming novel, which has an eighteenth-century setting.

The book, in case you’re wondering, and would like to see for yourself, was Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and I’m happy to report that I found the book itself every bit as rich and intricate as its cover. Have you ever bought a book purely for its cover design?

Peculiar History

The port of Rye, in East Sussex, is an interesting town with a strong medieval ambiance. I spent a few days there last month thinking it might make an interesting background for a future novel. It’s a fascinating place, and I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now here is a decidedly odd story I came across during my researches.

From early medieval times onwards Rye, as part of the Cinque Ports confederation, enjoyed various privileges in return for services to the crown. One of these was the right of the town mayor to preside over his own local courts.

In 1743 a local butcher with a grievance attempted to assassinate the then mayor. Unfortunately he made a mess of it and accidentally killed the mayor’s brother-in-law instead. The lIMG_7493ocal court was able to try the murderer and sentence him to death, too – presided over by his intended victim, the mayor. There doesn’t seem to have been any suggestion of a miscarriage of justice, but I believe it remains the only instance in British legal history where a judge was able to condemn his own would-be murderer.*

Fact, as they say, is sometimes stranger than fiction, and perhaps more so in a place like Rye.

 

*I read about this curious episode in Rye – A Short History by Kenneth Clark, available from Rye Heritage Centre, Strand Quay.

The Quirky Genre

My Aunt Bette was a decidedly eccentric lady. Well, I’ve never seen anyone else wear gold and orange sparkly stockings to a funeral, have you? She had a wicked sense of humour, some of which seems to have been passed on to me via the family genes – it’s got both of us into trouble at times. Auntie Bette would hold court at her local pub, seated beneath a portrait of the queen, gin and tonic to hand (her that is, not the queen) – and out would come the sort of stories you knew you shouldn’t laugh at, not really. But she was so funny you couldn’t help yourself.

I don’t think poor Auntie Bette had a particularly happy life, all things considered, but, like so many of us, she used humour as a prop to get her through the difficult times.

She died in 2005, and I don’t know if she had much idea about the world of computers, much less the internet. But I’ve thought of Auntie Bette often as I’ve been playing about with my tired old blog and turning it into something more resembling a website – I believe blogsite is the favoured term – and I think she would approve. She certainly had an eye for the peculiar, offbeat and quirky.

The queen was sadly not available to cut the ribbon on this re-launching, so I’m picturing Auntie Bette, resplendent in sparkly stockings, gin and tonic at the ready, stepping in on her behalf. So here you are, ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Quirky Genre. Please do wander in and have a look around at this collection of favourite quirky things.

Extreme Reading

I have just finished reading James Treadwell’s Advent. I so much wanted to like this book; it has all the ingredients I usually enjoy and that lovely tagline ‘Magic is Rising’. Perfect, I thought.

I note that other reviewers have not been able to finish it, though, and I quite see why; it has one of the slowest starts I’ve ever encountered. 100 pages in, I was wondering whether to give up on it, too. But I’m made of sterner stuff, and I rarely give up on a book, so I ploughed on to the end.

I finished with mixed feelings. It’s a great story, but somehow it didn’t come to life for me. I found it hard to sympathise with the protagonists – indeed, I felt more sympathy for the ‘bad’ characters. By the end I’d lost patience with all of them.

Overall I found it an unsatisfying book, but it still got three stars from me for some stunningly good writing.

So, I ask myself, what is it that makes a reader give up on a book, especially one they’ve spent money on? I spent £1 on Advent at a book sale, so it wasn’t a great investment in cash – although at well over 400 pages, it was a considerable investment in time.

Is a slow start a crucial factor? Is it a lack of atmosphere? A lack of action? Unsympathetic characters? Sheer inability to believe the story? Or do readers pick ‘difficult’ books as a form of extreme reading and then give up on them?

How much of a book would you read before giving up in defeat, and why? As a writer, I’d just love to know.

The Right Way to Write?

Is there a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to write a novel? Some people say there is. Well, a lot of people say there is. And one of the things we are told is that we should write the whole first draft without stopping to edit. At all. The received wisdom here is that you need to ‘tell yourself the story’ – that pausing to edit as you go along is fruitless, since you may have to change the beginning of the tale anyway. I can perfectly see the logic of this approach. It adds a helpful elasticity to the writing process, which, goodness knows, is difficult enough however you go about it. Write the whole story, then go back and attend to the tidying and titivating of plot and prose. Makes perfect sense. It just doesn’t work for me.

The voice of duty says, “Do as you’re told. Everybody else can’t be wrong. Do it the ‘right’ way.”

The voice of recalcitrance says, “If your way works for you, stick with it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

“So what is this revolutionary method of yours?” asks the voice of interested enquiry.

Well, my way of writing goes like this: I get the beginning of the novel right, and then move on. The first ten thousand words, the ones that set the pace and feel of the book are the most important, I reckon. If you can get those right the rest of the book falls into place. I don’t expect to have them polished to perfection. But I don’t expect to make radical changes, either. I take my time over it. That firmly founded beginning provides me with a solid platform to explore the possibilities for the rest of the story. So that’s the way I do it.

I don’t expect this method to work for everybody (or anybody) else. It just works for me. I always say, and no doubt my friends are sick of hearing it, that there are as many ways of writing a book as there are writers to write them. So if the voice of duty tells you to do it the ‘right’ way, by all means give it a try. But if it doesn’t work for you, feel free to indulge in a little rebellion. Happy writing!

 

My Larus series are now all available in paperback. For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l 

On Serendipitous Books…

It’s always interesting when a friend puts a book into your hands and says, “Have you read this?”

It happens to me quite a lot, and I usually make the effort to read the book, even if it’s not the type I normally read – well, especially if it’s not the type I normally read. I regard this sort of happenstance as a message from the gods of helpful things saying, “Try this. It’ll do you good.”

As a writer, of course, words are my stock in trade and reading something outside my usual comfort zone gives me a fresh view on interesting ways to string them together.  It really is good for me, then – but I do need a serendipitous push to get me started. So when my friend Diane turned up at the Off the Cuff writing group waving an unfamiliar book, I made an undignified grab for it.

The book was P D James’ The Children of Men. Now this is a famous book written in the early 1990s, made into an even more famous film later on.  I had managed to miss it in both incarnations. If you haven’t met with it I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s one of those depressing visions of the near future that I generally avoid. I do like a happy ending, after all.

For all that, I thought it a wonderful book; harrowing, for sure, and especially so for showing many of its characters in ordinary, recognisable domestic situations. As you’d expect from P D James, it’s beautifully written: the unhurried prose, perfect pacing and sense of gradual realisation that comes over the reader feels effortless. As a writer, I know it isn’t.  It’s the kind of book you put down in reading to stop and have a think. I did. It’s not an easy read, and I don’t think I shall want to read it again, but I won’t forget it. Some books just stay with you, and this is one of them for me.

So do go and read something from outside your comfort zone now and then. It’s good for you. I certainly shall.

My Larus series are now all available in paperback. For full details of all my books, see my Amazon page: tinyurl.com/mygx77l