Always questing

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One of the great joys of being an author of historical fiction is that I can spend a whole day on research – running off down all sorts of rabbit-holes – and still claim to be “writing”.  Today I have had two quests, both of which remain unfulfilled, but then that’s part of the fun: if it was easy to find this stuff, everyone would do it.

Quest 1: where was the station house (i.e. home base) for Division E of the Metropolitan Police when they were first created in 1829?  Division E operates in Holborn, and candidates for their station house location are Bow Street (although this was initially the home of Division F), Hunter Street (but apparently not until later in the century), Hatton Garden (but this was actually a magistrates’ court – did they bunk up together?) and George Street (although I can find only one mention of any police presence there).  I have been on police history forums and emailed all sorts of people – and this is just so that Sam can make a passing comment to Martha. He may have to think of something else to say.

Quest 2: a cover illustration for “The Notes of Change” (the novel formerly known as “Plank 7”).  I have found the perfect image – but the man who drew it has died, and the man who published the book in which it appeared as died, and I’m struggling to find anyone who has the authority to grant permission to use the picture.  But I’ll have to persist, as can you imagine the outrage – the scandal, darlings – should I be charged with a copyright offence concerning the cover of a novel about law and order?

At long last – and a longlist!

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The day has finally come: I am a full-time author.  Well, that’s over-stating it, but on 31 December 2021 I retired from my “day job”, and now I can spend more time learning about self-publishing, marketing my books, exchanging ideas and encouragement with other indie authors – oh, and doing some writing as well.  I found my last three months of work so busy and all-encompassing, what with planning my exit and providing “just one last training session” for so many lovely clients, that I have not even opened “The Notes of Change” (the final Sam Plank novel) since the end of October…  But now I can, and the first order of business is to read it again, from start to, well, not finish, but to “wherever I’m up to”, so that I can remember the plot.

Actually, that’s another over-statement, because of course the real first order of business was to turn my efficient business office into an equally efficient but much softer and more creative “writing den”.  My husband very kindly did the grunt work of removing a now-surplus second built-in desk and making good the walls, and then I scarpered while he and a neighbour manhandled the new “sofa of reclining reflection” through the house and garden and up the office steps.  It looks marvellous – and within ten minutes had been colonised by Maggie the cat, henceforward known in her new incarnation as “writer’s muse”:

Maggie thinking deeply creative thoughts – about dinner

And what of this longlist, I hear you cry!  Well, as if to welcome me properly to authordom, on 1 January 2022 I had a wonderful email from the sainted Helen Hollick (quite why she has not received a damehood for services to the self-published, I do not know – she’d certainly have no trouble finding a hat to wear to her investiture!).  Her review website for indie and self-published authors – Discovered Diamonds – has launched a new award.  The Richard Tearle Discovering Diamonds Award is named in honour of one their most prolific reviewers, who died last year, and “Portraits of Pretence” (the fourth Sam Plank novel) has been longlisted for the inaugural award, by dint of having been the Discovered Diamonds “Book of the Year” in 2017.  I can’t wait to see who will join Sam on the longlist, and then we’ll have to be patient until they announce the winner and runner-up in spring 2023.  What with a new sofa and the honour of being a longlist nominee for a new award, my new writing life is off to a flying start.

Another one bites the dust

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In my last post I mentioned that Heffers – my local bookshop, and the first physical one to stock the Sam Plank books – had changed its book ordering system and no longer places orders with small publishers, only through the large distributors.  This is a hassle, but one that I shall navigate in January.  And now I have lost another physical stockist: Daunt Books.  I was never in their flagship Marylebone branch – the one with the amazing oak shelves and gorgeous skylights – but the manager of the Cheapside branch did take a chance on me, reasoning that book-buyers in the City might be more interested in financial crime…  And indeed the books sold slowly but steadily.  I contacted the shop earlier this week, to ask if they need more stock for Christmas, and “my” manager has left and the new fellow wants me to collect the remaining copies he does have.  Ho hum.  So that’s two down.

What I need to do is work out what is going on.  The books did sell in Heffers, but I have now fallen foul of their new ordering system – and so the solution is for me to learn how to fit with the new system.  But if Daunt is returning their copies, I assume the books didn’t sell well enough, or quickly enough, to justify their shelf space (it is quite a small shop).  Again, I will wait until January and perhaps contact the chap to ask his view: is he purging self-published books in general, in readiness for (à la Heffers) ordering only from large distributors, or is it my books specifically that weren’t selling?

I’ll add it to my enormous – but exciting – list of things to do once I am a “proper author”!

All change!

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Hello everyone – just a quick update so that you know I’m still here and still (albeit very slowly) writing the final Sam Plank book (“The Notes of Change”, due out on 25 February 2022).  The life of a self-published author is never dull: just when you think you’ve got a grip on some part of the publishing process, it slips away from you.

As regular readers will know, the very first bookshop to stock my physical paperbacks was my beloved Heffers, the university bookshop here in my hometown of Cambridge.  Their crime buyer – the renowned Richard Reynolds – is a great champion of indie authors, and he was kind enough to take a chance on “Fatal Forgery”.  It obviously sold well enough for him, as he took all subsequent books, and even invited me to take part in various crime fiction events at the shop – where I met people who (entirely unprompted by my pleading or their pity) called themselves “fans”.  Over lockdown, of course, things halted in the bookshop world, and when Heffers finally opened up again my books were (through no fault of their own – it’s a system thing, going purely on how long it is since a copy sold, and very little sold during lockdown) deemed to be “aged stock” and put into the sale.  No problem, thought I: I’ll simply get another order and take in some new copies.

But no.  In a bid for greater efficiency, Heffers has streamlined its book-ordering system and now does not allow its booksellers to make arrangements – like mine – with individual authors or small publishing houses.  Instead, all orders must be placed through the big book distributors, such as Gardners.  Now, I have jumped through the many hoops required to get my books listed on Gardners, and what happens is that a bookshop places an order in response to a customer order, Gardners passes the order to me (as the publisher of record), and I then fulfil it.  I know this, because I have once done it for Heffers – and “fulfilment” entailed me jumping on my bike and cycling it over to them.  I believe I fulfilled the order within an hour of it being placed, which surely is a record.

So come January – when I am a more full-time author – I will go into Heffers and find out exactly what I need to do to keep my books on their shelves: I want them to have stock all the time, waiting for casual purchase, not just when a customer orders a book.  I think it means changing my settings on Gardner, which will require a gathering of strength, a cold compress to the head, and industrial quantities of Jaffa Cakes.  Wish me luck!

Hear ye, hear ye!

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After something of a gap owing to other commitments (including working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, darlings! Only the best for us!), our wonderful audiobook narrator Guy Hanson has just started work on the third Sam Plank book, “Worm in the Blossom”.  Guy has the perfect voice for Sam – warm, mature, humorous and gently London.  And having read both “Fatal Forgery” and “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”, he’s also a dab hand (throat?) at adjusting his voice to encompass Martha, Conant, Wontner and all our other regulars.

If you’ve not yet sampled audiobooks – ideal for car/train/plane journeys, and good company when gardening/jogging/dog-walking – did you know that you can get a free 30-day trial to Audible (the audiobook arm of Amazon)?  With a free trial you get:

  • One free audiobook of your choice – which you can keep even if you cancel after the trial (and if you’re an Amazon Prime customer, you get two free audiobooks during your trial)
  • Unlimited listening to the Plus Catalogue, which contains thousands of Audible Originals, podcasts and select audiobooks (including mine, of course)
  • After the 30-day trial, you can download one book a month, with unlimited access to the Plus Catalogue, for £7.99/month (which renews automatically)
  • And you can pause or cancel your membership at any time.

(In the interests of openness and transparency, I should tell you that – should you take out a trial or membership through my link – I get what Amazon calls a “bounty”.  Sadly not a yummy coconut chocolate bar, but just some ordinary money.)

So if you’re tempted to meet Guy/Sam and make a Sam Plank novel your free starter audiobook, here are the links: “Fatal Forgery” and “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”.

We have a title!

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We have a winner!  Thanks to everyone who voted in our title poll, and “Plank 7” is now officially “The Notes of Change”.  I like all the hints that this gives – change, of course, plus also banknotes, and promissory notes, and change from a transaction, and alterations of all sorts.  Here’s hoping the book itself lives up to that!

Many of you will know that I have been ill for more that a week with covid – a mild case, just utterly exhausted – and I have been very thankful that I had already decided to slow down with “The Notes of Change”, otherwise it would have been one more thing to feel guilty about.  As it is, I am enjoying getting used to the new title, and counting down the days until I am a full-time author from January onwards.

My next task – if something so enjoyable can be called a task – is to start thinking about the cover image.  As you may know from earlier titles, the cover of a Sam Plank novel has three main elements: title (done!) in bespoke font, suitably vintage-y colour (to leave to the cover designer, as my artistic sensibilities are nil), and figure in outline.  This last is my domain, and I know that I will spend many happy hours looking for the right person – right age, right historical period, right appearance.  At the moment, I’m thinking croupier or auctioneer…

Slowing down, for good reasons

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I’ve just had a five-day break in Norfolk.  For those of you not from the UK, Norfolk is one of our more traditional counties, for which we love it – you can visit seaside towns that seem much as they must have done in the 1950s, and the simple pleasures of bird-spotting, cake-eating and countryside-walking are Norfolk’s selling points.  And what inevitably happens on a Norfolk break is that you slow down and take stock – you step back from daily routines and pressures and wonder why life can’t always be this relaxing.

As some of you will know, I am retiring from my full-time paid work at the end of this year – for many and complicated reasons, but it’s the right decision at the right time and I am looking forward to spending much more time on writing and book marketing.  However, when I announced my plans to my clients, I was (very flatteringly) inundated with requests for “just one more training session before you go”, and my diary for the last three months of the year is now jam-packed with bookings.  The net result is that I am further behind with “Plank 7” than I would wish – and I was getting panicky about meeting my own deadline (mildly important) and also finding the actual writing a chore rather than a pleasure (hugely important).  And after looking at it from the distance of Norfolk, I have decided to postpone my publication date until 25 February 2022.  (My late father’s birthday, so always a significant date for me.)

I am aware that we are in the middle of our title poll – many thanks to those who have already voted.  I can’t see me changing the plot elements significantly or changing my short-list of titles, so the decision of that poll will simply carry forward – and it will be lovely to stop calling the poor thing “Plank 7” and give it a proper name instead.

And to those of you who suspect that this is all simply a ruse to spend a couple more months with Sam and Martha, well, I couldn’t possibly comment…

It’s title time again – please vote!

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Wouldn’t you know it – I’m silent for weeks, and then when I do reappear, it’s to ask you for something.  Typical.  But it might please you to hear that I am finally at the stage where I can start thinking about a title for “Plank 7”, and that’s where you come in.  As regular readers will know, I am terrible with titles and so I fob off the responsibility onto you: I tell you a little about the plot and then ask you to choose your favourite from a short-list of five possible titles.

(Just to refresh your memories, in case it affects your choice – the six Sam Plank novels so far are: “Fatal Forgery”, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”, “Worm in the Blossom”, Portraits of Pretence”, “Faith, Hope and Trickery” and “Heir Apparent”.)

So, “Plank 7”.  It’s the final one in the Sam Plank series, taking place in late 1829 (“Heir Apparent” was set in spring of the same year).  It covers the launch of the Metropolitan Police in September 1829, with Wilson joining them, and Sam’s decision about what to do next.  The crimes they are investigating involve the passing of counterfeit notes through gambling clubs and horse sales, and concerns about organised crime infiltration of the “new police”.  We also see a final showdown between Sam and his nemesis – the man in the canary waistcoat.  The key concepts I would like to indicate are therefore: counterfeiting; gambling; change; just desserts; and the future.

Given all of that, the five possible titles I have devised are listed below, as a poll.  I’ll keep the poll open until the end of Sunday 24 October so that you can mull it over, and we’ll see which one triumphs.  (And if you can think of an even better title, please let me know – we can always do a run-off.)

Time catches up with us all

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Regular readers will know how exciting this is for me: today, for the first time in about eighteen months, I have been able to go into the University Library without an appointment and walk freely around the stacks – and then return to my very favourite desk, on North Front 5, among the German books which I cannot read and so am not tempted to browse, with a view of King’s Chapel (you might just spot its four towers):

I am, of course and inexplicably, hopelessly behind with “Plank 7” – no writing retreat for me this year, but you’d think, with the endless months of lock-down, I’ve have written at least three more novels by now.  But there it is, and I am making some progress: today’s task is the assembling of the timeline, as so far all references to time-frame are in square brackets, like this: “Goodness, is it really [[three weeks]] since I last spoke to him?”  As “Plank 7” sees the arrival of the Met Police, there are certain dates to which I must adhere – passing of new legislation, swearing-in of new constables, first cadre of men out on patrol, etc. – and it’s a pretty tight schedule (from passing of legislation, via recruitment and training of a thousand men, to first patrol was just over three months!).  So my ambition today is to check that it is physically possible, given the Met timetable and the other constraints on life at the time – journey times, court schedules, etc. – that my characters can actually do what I am telling them to do.  And you thought only modern life was time-pressured!

Founts of wisdom

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I spend a great deal of time on research – no, don’t feel sorry for me because I simply love it.  But sometimes even the most diligent research leaves holes in the information, and when that happens, you can be sure that someone – a real-life person – will know the answer.  And for me, one of the joys of writing has been to discover how enormously helpful experts are with their information.

Last week I mentioned to someone that I am planning a series of books whose narrator will have a military background in the Peninsular Wars, but that with no military service in my family (my grandad worked in an aircraft factory but that’s it), I am something of a novice and find it rather confusing.  Ah, he said, I did an MA on the history of the cavalry and can probably help with that – would you permit (permit!) me to take the skeleton character details and create for you a credible military history and timeline for your character?  Would I ever!  And then yesterday I contacted a man who has just published a book on the two men who were the first Commissioners of the Met Police, to ask if he had any details about the swearing-in ceremony for the first cohort of officers, and he has responded with all sorts of juicy specifics (it involved parchment).

I already try to pay it forward by sharing my own research in my monthly “behind the scenes” updates, but I shall have to up my game and make sure that I am always as generous with my own research as other people have been with theirs.