A plea from the Squid

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Right, everyone, I need your help.  Back in January I published a little non-fiction book called “The Solo Squid: How to Run a Happy One-Person Business”.  It’s based on my own quarter-century of doing just that, and focuses on how to enjoy working alone.  It’s not a “how to set up a business” guide, nor a “grow your business and take over The World” manifesto: it’s simply full of advice on how to work alone and be happy doing so.  But sales have stalled, as have reviews – the two are, of course, connected.

In my view, this should be a prime time for “The Solo Squid”: many more people are working from home for the first time, spending a good deal of working hours alone, and some of them will decide that they prefer it to being in an office and will stay solo once the pandemic is over.  I am trying to reach these people, with news about the book and also with hints and tips on working alone via the book’s Facebook page – I call it Squisdom (forgive me).  But it’s really hard to get to the right audience.

With my Sam Plank books, I know I’m looking for people who are interested in financial crime, or police history, or Regency stories – and they gather in various groups that I can find.  But “people who might want to work in a one-person business” is not an actual category.  There are entrepreneurs – but most of them want to turn their back-bedroom business into a gazillion pound empire.  There are small business owners – but many of them are looking for specific advice on tax matters or employment legislation.

So can I please ask for your help?  If you know anyone – in any type of activity, be it a hairdresser or a poet or a financial adviser or a tutor or a gardener or whatever – who works alone or is thinking of doing so, please could you point them first to the Squid’s Facebook page (so that they get the idea of what the Solo Squid is all about – you can follow the page so that you get a notification each time I post, which is about two or three times a week) and then to the book’s page on Amazon?  (The book is also available in high street bookshops – including via their online sales channels.) And if you have already read the book, please could you leave a little review on Amazon – without enough reviews, it languishes at the bottom of the business book pages. (You don’t have to buy a book on Amazon to be able to leave a review there.)

Many, many thanks to you all from the Squid and me!

My primitive brain

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Usually I am a very focused person: I find it easy to shut off from outside distractions and apply myself to a project, sometimes for hours at a stretch.  But in lock-down, my ability to concentrate has all but deserted me, with the result that I am making glacial progress with “Gregory 1”.  This weekend, for instance, I managed to write just under six hundred words – and most of those weren’t very good.  And to judge from the writers’ groups that I follow, I’m not alone.  With all these empty days and weekends and no competing attractions like meals out with friends or holidays in exotic locations (or even just down the road), we should all be writing fistfuls of books – it should be like NaNoWriMo on steroids.  But it seems that many people are struggling with their concentration and cursing themselves for it – and then I found out why.

An article in the New Statesman (I’m not a regular reader; I was searching for help with “why can’t I concentrate” and came across this piece) explains it all.  This is the key paragraph: “The basic science you need to know is that your brain’s prefrontal cortex (a chunk behind your forehead) processes ‘higher functions’, such as critical thinking, inhibiting impulses and, crucially here, the ability to focus.  ‘The prefrontal cortex has got this built in genie that causes it to weaken with stress signalling,’ Professor Arnsten says, ‘whereas the related stress chemicals actually strengthen the primitive brain systems.’  So essentially, when faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you.’  And that’s where we are now: we’re all faced constantly with an invisible, ongoing, potentially deadly threat.  We can’t resolve the threat so our primitive brains remain on high alert – and our concentration (a higher function) is buggered.

In the past I have always maintained that the most efficient way for me to write is to do it in large chunks of time – a half-day or day – to give myself the best chance of becoming immersed in the time period and in the vocabulary that I need to write Sam and now Gregory.  But this system has obviously been scuppered by current events and my grasshopper brain, and so I can either accept that I’m going to spend hours sitting in front of a screen and ending up with six hundred words and a great deal of irritation, or I can adapt.  And I have decided that for the duration of this focus-stealing situation, I will instead aim to write for thirty minutes a day – no more.  I reckon that even I can concentrate for that long; indeed, I might even break it down into two quarter-hour sessions if I’m struggling.  With daily exposure I should be able to get back into the 1820s groove reasonably quickly, and to make sure that I hit the ground running I am going to finish each time in the middle of a scene, or maybe even in the middle of a

A man of many words

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As I mentioned a little while ago, I am concentrating some energy on making sure that Gregory sounds sufficiently different to Sam – but when I get caught up in the plot and am steaming ahead with the action, there we are again with Sam.  So I have taken a little break and have been researching suitable Norfolk and military words with which I can make Gregory sound like his own man.  I don’t want to make him a comic figure – far from it – but a few choice words of dialect and we’ll soon having him sounding a world away from that metropolitan Londoner.

It seems that the Norfolk dialect – sometimes called Broad Norfolk – is itself a blend of many influences.  Several words still in use today – such as spink, meaning finch (the bird) – are Anglo-Saxon.  Others – staithe (landing place), flag (yellow iris) and grup (shallow trench) – are Danish in origin, left over from the Viking occupation of East Anglia in the ninth century.  Still others have entered the dialect from the continent, brought in by the seventeenth century influx of Protestant refugees from Flanders and France.  A good example of this type of word is plain, which in Norfolk is used to signify a town or village square. The same word (spelt slightly differently) is found in exactly the same context in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and in Beziers in France.  More useful perhaps for Gregory’s everyday life will be blar (to cry or weep), loke (a blind alley) and – my favourite – fumble-fisted (clumsy).

Perhaps understandably, most of the period-specific military slang I have unearthed concerns insults, alcohol and army life.  The different branches of the forces had a friendly rivalry: the cavalry called the infantry foot wobblers, while the navy called soldiers being transported on their ships shifting ballast – and everyone called the Grenadiers bacon bolters (it seems to be a reference to their greed).  Drummers were sheepskin fiddlers, ensigns were rag carriers, and anything French was parleyvous.

It seems that my usual glossary at the end of each book is going to be a mixed bag, with words from the Regency period, and from Norfolk, and from the military – I shall have to devise a code to avoid confusion (of me, I mean, not of my savvy readers – and there’s another word from French).

Decisions, decisions

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Sam Plank was not meant to live as long as he has done.  When I first wrote “Fatal Forgery” he was only a bit player, but I liked him so much that I rewrote the whole thing from his point of view.  And then I loved him so much that I turned it into a series.  So the Sam in “FF” was a bit accidental: whatever characteristics I gave him there, almost unthinkingly, I then had to carry on into subsequent books.

But Gregory is different.  He already knows that he’s going to have five stories, so he’s in it for the long haul – and so the choices I make now carry much more weight.  I already know quite a bit about his background – his age, where he’s from, what he did before coming to Cambridge – as these were part of my initial research into whether writing about a university constable was even practical.  But as for his life in Cambridge, it’s still all to play for.

Where did he work?  Now, I know what you’re going to say: he worked at the university as a constable.  But that was only a part-time job: constables did most of their work in the evenings, making sure that “junior members of the university” (undergraduates) were safely tucked up in their colleges by 10 pm.  So what did he do with the rest of his time?  (Spoiler alert: I’m fairly sure he’s an ostler.)  And where did he live?  Whatever I decide now, he and I will have to put up with it for at least five books.  It’s nail-biting stuff.  But I think we’re there.  And one enormous, unforeseen benefit of working on Gregory rather than Sam is that – even in times of lock-down – I was able to go out on my bike yesterday and gaze at the house where he lived.

(My husband has just looked over my shoulder at my to do list: the last entry reads “Decide where to find the body”.  That will teach him to be nosy.)

Every book starts with a single paragraph

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The good news is that my plan has gone, well, according to plan.  I did my last bit of general, background, “I don’t know quite what I’ll need but this sounds interesting, and oh, that’s good too, I’d better read that just in case” research on Sunday.  I tell you, those Victorian chroniclers were a gossipy lot – so much so that it sent me off down a rabbit-hole researching defamation law!  Surely you can’t say that, I kept thinking, but apparently they did.  Symbolically I have moved the towering pile of research tomes off my writing desk and onto the floor and will now rely on the notes I took in Scrivener (my research and writing program).

The really good news is that I have indeed started the actual writing.  Well, to be fair, it’s only one paragraph – but it’s a whole paragraph!  This means that I have settled on the outline plot for the first Gregory book.  It’s set in 1825, because that’s the year of the Act for the better Preservation of the Peace and good Order in the Universities of England – which gave Oxford and Cambridge universities the powers to appoint constables.  The Act was passed in July 1825, but my story is starting in February of that year – and that’s all I’m telling you.  Except that valuable artworks, books and bottles of wine are disappearing from one of the colleges…

And the bad news is that no-one has bought a single one of my books – or even downloaded the free guide to the Sam series – since last Thursday.  Here I am, slaving away, wearing my fingers to nubs writing whole paragraphs (well, one whole paragraph) and no-one cares.  Harrumph.

Those were the days

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Beware flashes of inspiration!  I am a demon for making sure that my plots make sense in their time-frame.  (Indeed, one of my most treasured reviews comments that “[Sam and Wilson] do not crack the case in a matter of a quick fortnight, but weeks, months, pass with the crime in hand on-going with other, everyday things, happening in the background”.)  For the Sam series, my main concern was to ensure that things happened in the right order, and that big events did not pass without comment.  But for the Gregory series, my goodness, the calendar takes on the most enormous significance.

Cambridge in the 1820s was a very religious place – the town, and especially the university.  As a result, church high days and holidays were observed without exception, and other events were timetabled to fit in with them.  I found a wonderful – and enjoyably quirky – guide to the university year published by a former university officer in 1854, and I thought, I know, I’ll quickly work my way through it and create a handy ten-year calendar for the 1820s.  Oh the naivete – it has taken me most of the day.

There are certain events whose date is fixed from year to year: there’s Christmas Day, of course, and the Michaelmas (i.e. autumn) term always started on 10 October and finished on 16 December.  But many things move from year to year.  Some are pegged onto other dates – for instance, the Proclamation of the Markets always happened on the second Saturday after the start of the Michaelmas term.  And many depend on Easter, which in turn dictates the start and end dates of the Lent (i.e. summer) term.  Some of these make your head spin.  Have a go at this one: the annual sermon in Burwell was given by the Vice-Chancellor on (wait for it) Midlent Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday after Ash Wednesday.  I am now going to lie down in a darkened room with a cold flannel over my eyes.

Rotten to the cor(poration)

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Everyone advises having a routine during lock-down, to manufacture a feeling of achievement and progress, and mine is quite simple: in the morning I do my normal job (these days it involves using Teams or Zoom or Webex to deliver training to people – and take a peek into their lounges at the same time) and in the afternoon I work on the Gregory series.  My plan is to draw a line under my main research this weekend, and – taa dah! – start writing on Monday afternoon.  We’ll see.

But with the current focus on the excellence or otherwise of our public institutions and political structures, I thought a reminder that “t’was ever thus” might offer some perspective.  In 1833, the British central government became sufficiently concerned about the poor standard of local government to set up the Municipal Corporations Commission.  In The Times of 16 November 1833, an article was published commenting on the enquiry of that commission, and specifically on its findings in Cambridge: “Probably no judicial investigation into a public trust ever brought to life more shameless profligacy or more inveterate dishonesty, more bare-faced venality in politics, a more heartless disregard of the claims of the poor in the perversion of funds left for their benefit, or a more degrading subservience to the views of the rich when they appeared in the shape of patrons or distributors of places, a more insatiable cupidity in the corporate officers to enrich themselves with the corporate property, or a more entire neglect of their duties and functions as magistrates, than are presented by the evidence now before us.”  No pussy-footing around in those days, was there?

There’s no denying that there was room for improvement in Cambridge – it was the most rotten of rotten boroughs.  At the time, the municipal affairs of a population of over 20,000 were controlled by 158 freemen, of whom forty didn’t even live in Cambridge.  In the fourteen years leading up to the enquiry, the Commission found that the local Corporation had spent £480 for public purposes – and £1,300 on slap-up dinners.  One alderman had bought Corporation land worth £150 for one guinea (that’s £1.05); another had paid £40 for two acres in Hills Road, which he sold a year later for £400.  And a councillor told the Commissioners rather indignantly that he thought that the Corporation members had every right to expend their income on themselves and their friends: “As it was only Corporation property I would not make the same calculation for a stranger as for a friend.  I would make a little difference, and sometimes a great difference, in favour of a friend – because it was only Corporation property.”

Things had to change.  In came the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which had the effect in Cambridge of reducing the number of aldermen to ten and increasing the number of councillors to thirty – all whom were to be elected by locally-resident rate-payers.  It surprised no-one when, in the first elections after this, every alderman who stood for re-election was defeated.

Sign up, sign up!

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I know, I know – I’ve been distracted again!  But this time – rare for me – this post is actually topical.  I was reading about the history of Cambridge and I came across several stories about when the bubonic plague hit town in the seventeenth century.  Well, it had been there before, but the seventeenth century was bad, with dangerous outbreaks in 1610, the 1620s, 1630 and then the big one (the Great Plague, as we all learned in primary school) in the 1660s.

Now I’m baffled as to why more of you don’t sign up for my monthly updates – which elaborate on the historical details behind the books – so this is a bit of a teaser.  The update that is scheduled to go out on 1 May is all about plague and pestilence in historical Cambridge, but I won’t tell you much here, apart from a couple of taster highlights:

  • The expert at the time was a German “plague doctor” called Dr Milne
  • Windows were removed from churches to allow fresh air to blow through
  • Forty pest-houses were built on Coldham’s Common, which is still a green area and presumably home to lots of skeletons.

If you’re keen to know more, sign up for the monthly updates!  (And if plague is not your bag, the June update features a hot air balloon and a water velocipede – my research is nothing if not wide-ranging.)

Paying it forward

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I know that in my last post I said that I would be stopping research for a while, but I did just want to remind you that when you are doing your own research, it is always worth asking for help.  I was searching for any documents on constables in Cambridge in the 1820s and came across an advert for a talk about proctors and bulldogs (that’s the slang term for constables) that had been given some years ago at a local historical society.  The speaker had an unusual name so was fairly easy to track down; I sent her an email and she agreed to talk to me.  (She actually lives only a few streets away but of course we cannot meet in person for the time being.)

She said at the outset that she was more of an expert in late Victorian Cambridge, and that she knew very little about the university constables, but she was so generous with her suggestions and book recommendations and views on Cambridge history that I now have several new avenues to explore.  I have ordered a couple of old books (it’s the only shopping I can do these days, apart from food) on the history of the town because – thanks to this conversation – I now realise that I need to have much more of an understanding of the relationship (often but not always vexed) between the corporation, the university and the townspeople.

So if you come across someone who has written an article or given a talk that is even only tangentially relevant to your research, do email or call them – you never know where their knowledge might lead you.  And one day, you’ll be the one sharing your research and paying it forward.

The approach of Gregory

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It’s nearly upon me…  One day soon, I am going to have to stop noodling around in the name of research and start writing the first book in my new series.  What is different this time is that when I wrote “Fatal Forgery” I didn’t know it was the first book in a series – I thought it was a standalone effort, if I even gave the distinction a moment’s thought.  And so when I came to start “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” – the second Sam book – I realised that I would have to continue with Sam as I had, with no planning, created him for his first outing.  I re-read “Fatal Forgery”, making careful notes of anything I had mentioned, carelessly, about his appearance or family or opinions, so that I could be consistent.  And with every book, I added to his biography – always dreading the day when I made a mistake and a scar appeared in the wrong place or he gained a sibling.

This time it’s different.  I already know that Gregory Hardiman – fairly sure about that name – is going to appear in five books.  This means that he needs to be rounded and interesting enough from the outset to make readers want to learn more about him, and that I will have to drip-feed what I already know.  With Sam, information was drip-fed by default, as I created it.  And this past weekend I spent several hours thinking about how I want Gregory to sound – literally and on the page.  I know he’s a country lad, Protestant, and that he served in the army in Spain – all of those will inform his diction, vocabulary and views.  I’m also conscious that I really don’t want him to sound like Sam, and so I am thinking that I will make him something of a poet – moved by beauty and nature.  Sam was moved by bustle and activity and being part of thriving city, but I think Greg will be a country mouse by comparison.  And as for appearance, well, I’m thinking stocky and sturdy (as a Norfolk farmer’s son would have been), handy with his fists, and self-conscious about his facial scarring.  Yes, he’s definitely on his way…