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.

Me, myself and I

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Today I have been wrestling with the mechanics of writing.  I don’t mean printers or software, but rather the restrictions that a writing form places on the author.  As a reader – and I appreciate that this may be an unpopular and perhaps narrow viewpoint – I’m put off by experimental or (heaven forbid) “daring” writing styles.  For instance, I don’t like having speech without inverted commas, or without regular indicators for who is speaking.  I can cope with multiple narrators, as long as (a) there’s a good reason for it and it’s not used just to bulk out a word count by telling the same story from several points of view, and (b) again, it’s clearly indicated.  I really can’t stand stream of consciousness – although I know that many people love it, hence the enduring popularity of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  My position is that I read for entertainment, escape and/or education, and if I want a mental puzzle I’ll do a cryptic crossword or sudoku.  But I know many readers do like to be challenged, and books like Anna Burns’ “Milkman” (where no-one is actually named) win wagon-loads of prizes.

However, one of the many joys of being a self-published author is that I can write whatever I like and my publisher (me!) will accept it without nagging me to be more modern or adventurous or rule-breaking in my writing style.  And what I like is clear, crisp story-telling that follows the rules of style and grammar that have been developed to enable the reader to ignore them completely and wallow in the story itself.

When I started the Sam Plank series, I knew I wanted a first person narrator, with all the stories told from Sam’s point of view, using the “I” pronoun.  I liked the idea of revealing his thoughts and developing a writing style that was his rather than mine – although I have started to adopt some of his mannerisms, I find.  But first person narration has one big limitation: you can write only what your narrator sees, hears or knows.  So if you want a scene in which your narrator is not present, you have to work out a way for him to hear or read or otherwise learn about it – or give in and have him hiding round the corner or listening at the keyhole.  Luckily for me, a constable often does both of these – but I still sometimes have to rejig a plot because it includes scenes which Sam could never know about.  And oddly, given how much I dislike written puzzles as a reader, I quite relish them as a writer.

Retreating to the back bedroom

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Well hello.  If you are still sticking with this blog, when I am so rubbish at writing it regularly, I am very grateful to you.  Lots of people, like me, write alongside a day job, and the methods for doing that are as many and various as the writers.  Some people get up early and write for an hour or two before beginning their normal day.  Some (and I envy these people) carry a notebook or phone everywhere and can concentrate well enough while sitting at a café or on a train or between meetings to jot down a few sentences.  Some – and this is a bit more my style – devote a half-day or day a week to their writing.  My favoured method has always been the “dedicated day” in tandem with the “writing retreat”.  As I write historical fiction – rather than contemporary fiction, or indeed non-fiction – I find that I need time to relocate myself into the past, to settle back into the vocabulary and style of the 1820s, which is just not possible (for me, in any case) in short bursts of writing.  This year – the year of “Plank 7” and a pandemic – I have just about managed the dedicated day, but the writing retreat has had to adapt.

Usually – and yes, how lucky am I – I decamp to Switzerland for about a month, to sit alone in a small flat in an out-of-season ski resort, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, fresh air and really-awkward-to-get-at wi-fi (I have to walk uphill to the local tourist office and sit outside it to get any signal).  I can forget about home responsibilities, and what with that tricky wi-fi, and local telly restricted for me to re-runs of “The Royal” and “Heartbeat” on some peculiar English-language channel, I can immerse myself in the world of Sam and really crank out the words.  (And, perhaps more importantly, get a grip on the whole plot, which can be hard to grasp on that one day a week.)

But this year, no Switzerland for me.  And so I have had to improvise: for six weeks, I have planned my diary so that I work for one day a week, write for three days and spend the fifth day on research and other book-related stuff (like blogging).  My weekends will follow their familiar pattern: one day for exercise (long bike ride, usually) and one day for eating/reading.  I am of course extremely fortunate in being able to plan my own time like this, but I have learned the hard way that if it’s not planned and written in my diary, it doesn’t happen.  My aim – as with every writing retreat – is to have a good first draft at the end of it.  And as my current word count is only about 47,000, I have quite some way to go.  Wish me luck!

A good sort of writer’s block

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Goodness, these blog posts are now so infrequent that I am amazed to have any readers left at all!  But please do stick with me: my day job is taking most of my energy at the moment and any writing time I can carve out is being used on “Plank 7” rather than this blog, but rest assured that I am writing slowly and surely in the background.  With my plans to “retreat at home” over the summer, I am quietly confident of hitting my planned publication date of 3 December 2021 – so remember to buy “Plank 7” for everyone for Christmas!

My big news today is that I have discovered a marvellous writing tool.  When I am writing, I will often dart off to check facts – when did the term “big cheese” come into use? what sort of market was in Brick Lane in the 1820s? – and these lead me onto other websites, and before I know it I’ve spent an hour on vaguely related reading and not written a word.  I kid myself that it’s all helping, that I’m filling in the background so that I can write with more authority – but if I’m not actually writing, well, that’s just an excuse.  And then I read about browser blockers.  You can buy them with all sorts of bells and whistles, but there is also a perfectly adequate free one called LeechBlock (so called because it blocks those sites that leech your productive time).  You download an extension to your browser and then set the sites you want it to block, and for how long.  You can be ferocious (blocking everything by using *.com) or select your sites of greatest browsing weakness…. And when you tootle off to those sites during the blocked hours, you get a splash screen saying “The page you’re trying to access has been blocked by LeechBlock”.  I’ve been using it only for a couple of days, and my word count has shot up.  As always, of course, there’s no guarantee that what I’m writing is any good, but – my constant mantra – you can always edit something, but you can’t edit nothing.

The bard and the Mess

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To an outsider – and certainly to me before I became a writer – publishing can seem a rather gentlemanly industry.  Surely what happens is that an elegant, erudite, well-read and softly-spoken chap in a tweed suit reads your work and then takes you for a quiet lunch in an oak-panelled bistro, promising to bring your oeuvre to the reading public to the mutual benefit of both writer and reader.  Of course it’s not like that at all, and publishing – like any other industry – is built (and depends) on profit.  And as such the decisions of publishers are sometimes enormously, bile-inducingly unfair.  In a fair world, well-written books would be published and lauded while self-promoting, celebrity-endorsed drivel would never see the light of day – but, as we were all told by our parents from the age of about three onwards, life is not fair.

Today I read that the Eton Mess – our current Prime Minister, whose name is not spoken in this house – was rather distracted at the start of the pandemic by his need to meet a publishing deadline.  Now, he has a former life as a journalist and has already published several books (mostly significantly discounted on Amazon, which gives me great pleasure), so I am not surprised that he is planning to write more.  But given that his previous books did not much trouble the bestseller charts, why has Hodder & Stoughton promised him an advance of £250,000 (with £98,000 already paid) for his proposed book about Shakespeare, “The Riddle of Genius”?

Industry insiders report that the Mess’s book about Winston Churchill sold about a quarter of a million copies – but that’s a book by a politician about a politician.  Are people who are interested in politics going to want to read about Shakespeare?  And are those who are interested in Shakespeare going to care what a politician thinks about him (particularly one not known for his close relationship with historical accuracy), when there are far better qualified Shakespeare scholars out there (presumably being given much less generous advances for their books)?  A cursory search suggests that publishers expect to keep about 10% of the cover price of a book – after paying the author, printer, distributor, bookshops, marketing costs and all the rest.  If “The Riddle of Genius” appears in hardback at £25 and paperback at £15, and is quickly discounted, they’re going to need to shift hundreds of thousands of copies just to break even.  From a commercial point of view, it seems a bad deal for everyone except the Mess himself.  Although you have to laud his interest in the subject: mistress Jennifer Arcuri confirms that he would recite passages from “Macbeth” as foreplay during their encounters.  I can only assume he chose “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.  If that doesn’t put you off your porridge, nothing will.

Picture this

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Here I am, indulging in my weekly writing immersion.  I’m afraid my own plan of writing for thirty minutes a day came to nothing: I just can’t get into the right frame of mind at the start of the working day, with so many things to attend to.  So it’s back to the old pattern of thinking about Sam all week and then spending one day at the weekend in his company (whichever day the weather is worse, as we like a day out on the tandem as well).

And today I have a little tip for those of you writing historical fiction, particularly set in Europe (and perhaps America).  When I am describing a new character, I like to be able to visualise them.  And of course I need to make reference to what they are wearing – breeches or trousers, greatcoat or cutaway, bonnet or hat.  If you do searches on, for instance, “London men fashion 1828”, the results are plentiful – but they are all “fashion plates”, showing the very height of fashion.  It’s a bit like someone assuming that we in 2021 all dress like the models in recent issues of “Harper’s Bazaar” and “Vogue” magazines.  It’s hard to find pictures of real people in everyday outfits.  But what I do now is go to the website of the National Portrait Gallery and, in the search box, put the year I am looking for.  The results will be paintings, sketches and sculptures “issued” in that year, and although many of them will show people dressed in their finest (or wearing togas), there will be many others that show people in much more workaday outfits.  And it’s perfect for seeing hairstyles and whiskers.  I am about to describe a fellow called George Young, who ran a horse bazaar in London in 1828, and there are no portraits specifically of him.  Instead, my George will be a combination of a Methodist minister called John Stephens and the chemist John Hope – they look the right age, with a healthy lack of concern with fashion.  Just make sure you click on the details of the sitter you’ve chosen, to guard against modelling your character on a well-known eccentric!

I have a plan

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Hard to believe it’s been more than a month since I last updated you on my (lack of) writing progress, but it is.  Oddly, I find that time during lockdown both seems endless and speeds by – most peculiar.  But I have finally grasped the nettle and set my writing deadlines for the remainder of this year.

Given that I am still working full-time (and seeing other people’s struggles to maintain an income during the pandemic, I am grateful to be doing so), I realised that it was unrealistic to plan to have “Plank 7” ready for publication in mid-October.  September is a busy month for me with my day job (people always want training in that month – I think it is the muscle memory of the new school year and an attendant determination to leap into new learning).  And counting backwards, as self-published authors must do, to allow for the linear tasks of beta reading, editing and cover design, there’s simply not enough time.  I have therefore reset my publication date to 3 December 2021 – which is my mother-in-law’s birthday (guess what she’ll be getting this year…) and just in time for the Christmas rush.  (When I published my first book, “Fatal Forgery”, I actually thought there would be a spike in orders before Christmas – it’s now simply a running joke in the family.)

One exciting development is that I have managed to reinstate my writing retreat.  No, I’m not planning my usual escape to Switzerland – the last thing I need is to have my trip covid-cancelled at the last minute, or to be stuck up a mountain if Switzerland locks down again.  My husband has just retired, and something he has wanted to do for ages is go on a long bike ride, camping in the wild.  Given my fondness for feather duvets and bubble baths, I’m not tempted by this “holiday” – and he has agreed to disappear on his own for three weeks in July.  So I will be retreating at home.  To do it properly, I will lock my office (in case the day job tries to interfere), set up my writing laptop on the dining table and turn off my phone from 0800 to 1700 (as I do in Switzerland), and fill the fridge with M&S ready meals.  To maintain the illusion, I make even take to greeting those I see on my post-lunch walk with a cheery “Bonjour”.