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Posts tagged ‘writing’

A civil war with Mark Turnbull

Mark Turnbull is a young English author who lives in the seventeenth century.

Well, he would if he could. He’s a passionate enthusiast of seventeenth century history. When he’s not writing or researching, Mark enjoys battle re-enactments and visits historic sites.

Mark’s here today to tell me about his fixation on all things English Civil War, a period of great interest to me. Many decades ago I read Margaret Irwin’s novel The Stranger Prince.  It’s the story of the romantic Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and that led me down all sorts of paths back to the 1600s.

I even once visited Linz on the strength of it. The Linzer Torte made it well worth our while!

Great to speak with you, Mark. I owe my interest to Margaret Irwin. How did you become interested in the War of the English Civil War?

When I was ten years old, my parents took me to Helmsley Castle, in North Yorkshire. I’d had a love of history from an early age. Like any child, I was eager to see what the gift shop had in store, eventually landing upon a pack of cards. But this was no ordinary pack. Each card featured an image of a monarch of England, along a short biography of their reign.

After flicking through many tombstone effigies, my eye was caught by Van Dyck’s portrait of King Charles I at the hunt. The colours, clothes, the beautiful artistry, as well as the King’s pose – imperiously looking at me as if I’d interrupted him – all drew my interest.

I was shocked to find out that he was publicly executed in the name of his people. Like a murder mystery, I now wanted to know who did it, when and why. Back then, of course, there was no internet to help with such questions.

How much research is involved in your writing?

My research is almost daily. Noting down observations, descriptions, or facts that I can use. I list historical characters’ movements as I come across them, jot down plot lines, or simply read about the period. It is constant research, although it’s all a pleasure. I feed my interest in the period, and that, in turn, feeds my writing.

Why are you the perfect person to write your books?

My friends tell me that I was born in the wrong century!

I really love the period I write about, and find the historical characters and events fascinating. They inspire my imagination.

For me, it’s the small details or snippets of personal facts that bring a person, event or an era to life. After reading and writing about the civil war and re-enacting it in The Sealed Knot as a pikeman, I feel as if I live and breathe the era when I write. Thirty years of passionate interest has helped me get to grips with the 17th century world and I stay true to the history.

What was the first book you bought for yourself?

Not long after my interest was sparked, I watched the film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness (not historically accurate, but is wonderfully visual!). This led me to purchase Cavaliers and Roundheads by Christopher Hibbert to expand my knowledge of the period. It’s timeless, and I have re-read it numerous times. It takes you through the war and skilfully brings it to life. I was hooked by every detail.

The book survives to this day, sitting on my bookshelf like a proud grandfather amongst the array of civil war books that followed it!

Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull

Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull

Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?

A bit of both. I map out a chronology of factual events and then weave my story around that. I find that this brings my characters to life and grounds them in the history, motives and risks of the day. Consequently, the national events direct the life of my fictional characters – as they would have directed those who lived through this pivotal part of our history.

I also find that the storyline takes on a direction of its own as my writing progresses, and I really enjoy that; it’s great to see the plot come alive and to feel transported back in time to become part of it as I write. When writing Allegiance of Blood, one fictional character ended up meeting their maker, even though I had not planned for this to occur at the outset.

What would be a dream come true for you?

Ultimately, to be able to become a full-time writer, fully indulge my passion for the civil war period and entertain readers with books that transport them back to an overshadowed 17th century world.

Perhaps even to have a book adapted into a drama series, like the ones we see that are set in the Tudor age!

Now that would indeed be the pinnacle! Why is writing important to you?

Writing started as a hobby but is now part of my life. I believe we all have our own passions that can help us focus, get through tough times, give us both pleasure and challenge us, but also help us learn. This is mine.

I enjoy creating and crafting; whether it is a novel, non-fiction, short story, or a post for my blog and hope that my writing, along with that of other authors, helps play a small part in keeping the era and the people who lived through it alive.

What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

Keep writing. In my own experience, writing – whether it is a novel, short story, or an article – has not only helped me find the style I enjoy, but it helps me improve and develop.

I recently read Andrea Zuvich’s inspirational story. In 2010, she bought a novel set in the 17th century on her way home from work, and at the time she, too, dreamed of writing one set in the period.  Ten years on, she is an established author of fiction and non-fiction and has just published her sixth book, which has been reviewed by none other than the well-known author of the book she bought all that time ago.

She is truly amazing, and now advises on television and film set in the period! What is your writing goal for the next twelve months, Mark?

I am currently finishing off a non-fiction which looks at the early stages of the English Civil War and am working on a sequel to Allegiance of Blood.

I’d also like to start compiling a book of short stories about minor events that occurred during the civil war, which would entertain in the way of fiction but put meat on the bones of these small, often overlooked occurrences.

A sequel, that would be wonderful. Thank you for speaking with me today, Mark. All the best with your work. Keep writing!

Mark’s LINKS

Mark’s website: http://www.allegianceofblood.com

Mark tweets at @1642author

Mark’s blog is at https://www.allegianceofblood.com/#Blog

Allegiance of Blood is available from all online sellers or you can purchase a signed copy from Mark at this link: https://www.allegianceofblood.com/#Purchase

Guns Under the Bed: Jody Forrester’s revolutionary memoir

Jody A. Forrester, a writer and former chiropractor, received a MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars (2010), and BA from Antioch LA (2008), in literature and creative writing. Her stories received an honorable mention in the 2009 Anderbo/Open City Competition, and featured in the 6th Annual Emerging Voices Group Show (2010) at the New Short Fiction series in Los Angeles. Jody’s work has also been published in Prime Number, Claudius Speaks, the Furious Gazelle, the Citron Review, Straylight, Two Hawks Quarterly, the WriteRoom, and the Missouri Review blog. Jody has just completed a memoir, Guns Under the Bed: Memories of a Young Revolutionary, published by Odyssey Books (yes, my favourite publisher!) this year.

Guns Under the Bed by Jody Forrester

Guns Under the Bed by Jody Forrester

Jody is that rare thing, a native Angeleno – for the benefit of non-US readers, that means a born and bred resident of Los Angeles. Jody was raised mostly in Hollywood during the fifties and sixties. She lives with her husband, musician John Schneider, in Venice just six blocks from the Pacific Ocean. They have two adult daughters, a son-in-law, and a mini-Australian shepherd dog named Charley.

Welcome, Jody, thank you for chatting with me today. You’ve had quite a writing career on top of your day job. Do you have a go-to routine for writing? Where do you write?

These two questions are intertwine so I’m answering both. I have a desk where I write in my older daughter’s childhood bedroom. Typically I wake and have a light breakfast, and go upstairs to my office with a strong cup of black tea. Before I sign off for the day, I try to leave my pages in such a way that I know where I’m going to begin the next time I sit down. Otherwise, I start typing randomly, hoping there will be threads to pull out to begin something anew.

That sounds like you go with the flow, but in a structured kind of way. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

After twenty-five years in practice as a chiropractor, a wrist injury forced me into early retirement. Terrified of the days and years ahead without something to occupy me, I recalled that I’d always wanted to write. Three days after I sold my practice, I enrolled in the Baccalaureate program in writing and literature at Antioch College (LA), but the realization that I was a writer came several years later when my short stories began to be published.

Publication definitely helps with self-identification as a writer, I agree. How much research is involved in your writing?

My intent is verisimilitude, even for my fiction. As such, I research a lot, visiting websites of locations that may figure in the work, checking historical events that could be relevant, even looking up recipes and clothing in the era I’m writing in.

For my nonfiction essays and memoir, my research goes even deeper to assure myself that the facts are as I remember.

Yes, because memory is a fickle informant. Research is essential, and even then, I find that sometimes something slips through. How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?

I have a small network of writers, close friends, as well as my family, who give me feedback along the line. I depend on their responses to be sure I’m on the right track.

A reliable – and truthful – circle is so important. Can we get your book as an audio book?

My forthcoming memoir, Guns Under the Bed: Memories of a Young Revolutionary, will be released simultaneously as a paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

That’s excellent news. Your book is a memoir – what kind of reader would like your book?

People interested in the sixties and early seventies who either participated in or are curious about the anti-Vietnam War protest movement and the process of political radicalization.

Do you write in more than one genre?

I write creative nonfiction and short fiction.

And very successfully, too. Who helped you most when you were starting out?

I was fortunate to have several excellent teachers who served as mentors, both at Antioch and the Bennington Writing Seminars. They helped me identify the stories that needed to be written, and nurtured the earliest seeds.

I’m quite a fan of writing courses. Good to hear that yours was so great! Thanks for speaking with me today, Jody, and all the best for the success of Guns Under the Bed.

 

Jody’s Links:

jodyaforrester.com

https://twitter.com/jaforrester2

https://www.facebook.com/profile

https://www.facebook.com/Guns-Under-the-Bed-Memories-of-a-Young-Revolutionary-257105318424130/

https://www.instagram.com/jodyaforrester/

 

How to be Happy with a Book Part 2: Does the book deliver?

Does that book make you happy?

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about reading happily, and how to choose a book that was most likely to please you. That was Part One of my meanderings about How to be Happy with  Book (click the link if you’d like to refresh your memory about that).

First, a reminder about the things I consider when faced with that delicious choice – which book next:

Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

Today’s post looks at the second list of criteria. That is, does the chosen book deliver what you expected? Let’s look at the writing quality and think about whether the book matches its promise.

Two books

Choose your next book to make you happy

Writing Quality Matters

There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.

Production values

We like the book to look and feel good in our hands or on our screens. I talked about covers last time, and I want to add that I often look again at the cover while I’m reading. Does the cover represent a specific scene? Perhaps it shows me what a character looks like. Maybe it simply sets the mood.

If you don’t refer often to the cover, or you’re not really into visual mood-setting, this may not bother you. But…

When a cover doesn’t match what’s inside in any of those ways, I feel let down.

Writing values

What is it about good writing? To me, it’s a bit like listening to speech. When I was a speech pathologist, I used all sorts of cues and markers to diagnose speech problems. However, most listeners wouldn’t even hear what I was hearing. For example, it’s not until a speaker is less than 96% fluent that ordinary listeners might think they are stuttering.

The same with writing. I have studied the craft, and although there are much better editors than I am, I can spot writing problems – especially in other people’s writing! Not so much in my own… Many readers will be made uncomfortable by ungrammatical writing or too many swear words. They may not be able to pinpoint the problem, but they will say that the book is not well-written, and they will ditch it.

For us writers, getting it right means endless rounds of editing and polishing.

open book

Reading is one of life’s joys

Editing values

Poor layout and frequent typos present another barrier to the enjoyment of a story.

To some extent this is due to the disruption of the publishing industry and the rise of self-publishing. But that’s a long discussion for another day.

If typos and shoddy layout don’t bother you, you’ll be fine with anything. That’s not what I hear or see in the world of books, though.

Let’s just say that too many typos are a big turn off for dedicated readers. Look at the review websites to see the loathing. Hmm.

Genre matching

Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.

On first reading, you might expect that the story will follow the traditional hero journey of mainstream fantasy. There, good triumphs over evil, after a series of horrendous trials, strange meetings and sad events. Well, the death of Ned Stark at the end of the first GOT book put paid to that expectation. Not to mention the random slaying of baby dire wolves early on. Eek!

Millions of readers were enthralled about the reversal of the typical storyline of the genre, thrilled by the way the story played with fantasy conventions, and excited by loads of extraneous sex and violence that raised the stakes higher and higher. Other readers not so much, because they invested heavily in Ned Stark and felt short-changed.

I’m not going to decree whether meeting or flouting expectations is good or bad. However, if you particularly want a certain type of reading (such as a happily-ending Regency romance), you probably shouldn’t choose one with zombies included.

Levitation in historical fiction?

When to DNF

I try my very best not to choose books that I can’t finish. As I said previously, a DNF is a disappointment for both the reader and the author. I can generally judge whether I’m going to enjoy the book by using all the cues I mentioned in the first post about How to be Happy With a Book, and reading the first page/few pages/chapter.

I am so excited when I realise that YES, this book is going to be fabulous!

I hope you get that feeling often too.

Next time, let’s talk about how to reflect on the book … and a little bit about reviewing.

 

 

Clare Urbanski loves villains … just a bit too much…

Clare Urbanski is a fantasy author and Twitter-certified villain fangirl. She’s managed to confuse and alienate many a friend who can’t understand why she always falls for the brooding villains instead of the courageous heroes, or why she always wants to play villains even though no director ever casts her as one. On top of that, she can’t find any fictional villains who will date her. As such, she’s had to settle for creating fictional villains of her own, ignoring the temptation to give them all happy endings.

Author Clare Urbanski

Author Clare Urbanski

Hello, it’s so nice to meet another Clare! We should form a club…No, onto more important things. What was your favourite book as a child?

Clare: The Truth Cookie by Fiona Dunbar. I still love that book. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of emotional family struggles—which the main character does use magic to solve, but very much through her own initiative.

It’s really well-written, I agree, and a great premise. What about creative writing courses – do you think they are valuable?

Totally depends on the instructor and what you need. If it’s all about craft and doesn’t involve practical feedback at all, that can be helpful to extreme beginners. Instructors who impose their own preferences on you and give you bad grades for not being Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t be allowed to teach creative writing, but they can help you develop a thick skin if nothing else. The kind of course I recommend is the kind that’s basically a workshop guided by the instructor’s expertise. I’d argue those are useful for everyone.

Workshopping is a wonderful resource for any writer, I think. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Someone once told me Sixth in Line was like “Crime and Punishment times seven.” (Dostoyevski’s) Crime and Punishment happens to be one of my favourite books, and I definitely wasn’t purposely trying to imitate it, but I was absolutely delighted by both the compliment and the realisation that Sixth in Line actually does take a bit of a jab at the übermensch philosophy. I guess Dostoyevsky and I both hate it. No one is special enough to be above consequences!

I’m all in favour of undermining the übermensch! What’s your favourite writing food and drink?

I actually have this nasty habit of not eating or drinking at all when I get on a good writing streak. I remember texting my writer friend once saying “HELP I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR THREE HOURS STRAIGHT AND I JUST WROTE A REALLY DISTURBING SCENE AND IT’S ALMOST 9 PM AND I HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE NOON PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT INSANE.” Not sure how she puts up with me.

Sixth in Line by Clare Urbanski

Sixth in Line by Clare Urbanski

Ah, you do like olive dangerously! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

I was in fifth grade. I used to be super into those Bailey School Kids books, and I remember being very disappointed to discover that not every type of fantastical creature I liked was featured in the series. Then, suddenly, one day I thought, “What if I wrote a book about the ones they missed?” And as soon as I realized nothing was stopping me, that’s exactly what I did. (I still have that one. My mom printed out all 150 pages for me and everything. Not a bad achievement for an eleven-year-old… which is the only thing that’s kept me from burning it. It is exceptionally, prodigiously terrible.)

Ha! Lucky for me, my early efforts are long-lost. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?

Anyone who knew me as a child: Oh, are you still writing?

Me: Yeah!

Anyone: [Remembering cute story about plucky middle school detective girls and the evil fairies’ labyrinth of doom] So what have you been working on?

Me: Well, I just finished a novel narrated by a serial killer…

Anyone: Uh.

Me: And I’m editing one about a teenage prince having a mental breakdown over all the deaths in his family…

Anyone: [Runs away]

That’s hilarious! Where do you write?

Actually, for me it helps to move around. For some reason I focus better if I don’t write in the same place twice. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of writing done in very non-romantic places, like while riding the city bus or trapped in the lobby of a Russian hotel (long story).

Ooh, perhaps another book about the Russian hotel…Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?

The most random places you could imagine. I did some excellent character development once by walking into a Walgreen’s to get out of the cold while I was waiting for the bus. The only money I had on me was a dollar in quarters, and since I was bored waiting I decided to search the store for anything I could buy with that. Unfortunately I was extremely hungry, and it was torture looking at all the candy when I could only afford an eraser. My mind immediately jumped to one of my main characters from a work in progress, an ex-criminal. I pictured him walking through his local market as a twelve-year-old, doing the same thing I was, but knowing full well he and his mom would go hungry that night if he couldn’t find anything cheap enough. Suddenly I understood exactly how his thieving habit started.

That’s very clever, and a kind of method-acting way of getting inside your character. I like it. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?

It might be funnier to tell you who I wouldn’t suggest. I think the absolute worst candidates would probably be 1. the Jack of Spades, the villain’s sidekick from Queen of Spades, and 2. Crystal, the main character’s twin sister from Hero of the Hinterland. They’re both an incredibly dangerous combination of powerful (in combat and magic, respectively) and spectacularly socially inept. You don’t want to be the one to accidentally make them feel threatened.

The Witch's Apprentice by Clare Urbanski

The Witch’s Apprentice by Clare Urbanski

I will keep that in mind! Eek. *looks over shoulder in case a magic villain has materialised* Who helped you most when you were starting out?

My parents had this one friend who used to read my works in progress when I was in high school. Every time he came over I would print out a chapter or two for him, and he read every single one of them. Considering how terrible I think those high school projects are now, I actually get a little teary thinking about how kindly and generously he encouraged and supported me by being my first “fan.”

That’s a lovely memory. Early constructive support is very important, I think, more so than early criticism or corrections. Thanks for speaking with me Clare – and adding yet more to my long ‘want to read’ list.

Clare’s LINKS:

Twitter: @ClareUrbanski, @VillainFangirl

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clareurbanski.author

 

Daughter of the Times: Louise Fein

Real people living though unprecedented times – sound familiar? This is what author Louise Fein brings to life in her novel People Like Us  (see my review of this wonderful book here). Inspired by her family’s real life travels and tribulations, Louise looked at the historic events of Nazi Germany from both sides, creating wonderful characters who will resonate with readers. How can such things happen to ‘people like us’?

Welcome, Louise, lovely to speak with again. I see mention of your novel everywhere  such as in the latest issue of the Historical Novel Society journal. I’m so glad to see it getting the attention it richly deserves. You came to writing later, after studying your masters – what advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Author Louise Fein

Author Louise Fein

LOUISE: My advice is: persist, persist, persist. Writing is a long game, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. Read as widely as possible, it’s the best and most vital way to becoming a writer. Set yourself easily achievable targets. Ones which don’t seem too daunting. You most likely have a job or busy life around which you must write, so at the end of a long day, you probably won’t want the prospect of writing 2,000 words. But, if you set a target of just 500 words a day, four days a week, you will easily have a first draft within a year. A comfortable target means you are less likely to bail or procrastinate. Then, once you have a first draft, even if it’s terrible (and most, certainly mine, are) you will have something to rewrite, edit and polish. Only when it is as good as you can get it, should you consider sending it out.

Yes, I agree, and I’d probably add that you need to put it aside for a little before sending. How much research is involved in your writing?

A lot! I am currently writing historical fiction, so it’s a huge part of the process. For People Like Us, I travelled to Leipzig twice to conduct in depth research there; I read everything I could get my hands on about Leipzig in the 1930s, as well as fiction and non-fiction set in that time period. I listened to people’s recollections, read contemporaneous diaries, letters, official documents and even Mein Kampf, to really understand the mindset of the Nazis. My current novel is set in 1920s England and I’m having to do just as much research for that, although a totally different subject matter. Luckily I love the research part of the job.

Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein

Published as Daughter of the Reich in the US

Can’t wait to see the new one! I guess that’s part of your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I am in the editing cycle for my second novel. I am excited for this book, but can’t say too much about it at present. I am also thinking ahead to my third book, and doing some early research for that. I have a setting for it, a premise and rough outline of a story, which is how I usually start. The early research is quite general but helps me to hone the story. I will then write a pretty rough first draft which will be a chance for me to explore my characters and story lines. Most of it will end up being ditched, but it’s part of the process. When I write the second draft, I will do more specific and detailed research as required. I will finesse and add depth and detail to the storyline. I will do at least three drafts, probably, before I feel ready to submit to my agent and editor. There will be further edits after that following their input.

And that process is why your writing is so good! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?

Before I started my master’s degree, I didn’t know any other writers. Through the course, I soon had a core group of writing friends and we continued to meet up long after the course had finished to critique each other’s work and to support each other in our journey to publication. Since getting my publishing deal, I have met a great many other writers, both virtually and in reality. They are, in my experience, THE most supportive, generous and lovely group of people who cheerlead each other. Writing is a lonely job and chatting to others who understand the writing life is crucial for me!

I find the #writingcommunity wonderful! Do you belong to a book club?

I belong to three! Reading is my passion and I also love chatting to likeminded people about books.

Three book clubs! That’s very keen. Where do you write?

I am very lucky in that I live in a 400-year-old converted watermill. In the garden we have an Elizabethan barn (dating back 500 years), beneath which runs a small stream, and which used to house a horse and some farm equipment. It has been converted into a library-style writing office, where I have my desk, a rug, couple of sofas and shelves full of books. I share the barn with some tiny birds who nest in the rafters and the odd bat! It is wonderfully peaceful and the perfect place for creativity, although, despite being heated, it is a little cold in the winter! My dog always accompanies me, curling up and sleeping in her basket at my feet while I type. Walking with her helps me solve many a plot hitch.

Writers and their dogs – a heavenly match. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?

I think I would have to choose Erna. She is the best friend of my main character, Hetty. Erna is incredibly brave, selfless and a brilliant friend. We get to know Hetty in the book very well, having access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It would be great to know more about the lovely Erna.

I loved Erna, she’s great character. Do you send out a newsletter to readers?

I do. I send a quarterly newsletter to my readers who sign up to my website: www.louisefein.com You will receive a free WWII themed short story if you sign up and I promise, I won’t spam you!

That sounds like a wonderful deal! All the best, Louise, and let us know when Book #2 is here!

 

Louise’s Links:

To find out more, you can follow Louise on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/louisefeinauthor/  or Twitter: https://twitter.com/FeinLouise or visit her website: www.louisefein.com

You can buy People Like Us from the following booksellers, or ask at your local independent store:

UK

https://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545005

https://www.waterstones.com/book/people-like-us/louise-fein/9781789545005

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Louise-Fein/People-Like-Us/23814992

Australia

https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781789545012/people-like-us/

https://www.amazon.com.au/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545013

USA

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062964054

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughter-of-the-reich-louise-fein/1132922940?ean=9780062964052 

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062964052/?utm_campaign=aps&utm_medium=athrweb&utm_source=aps

 

 

How to be Happy With a Book: a guide for readers and reviewers in three parts. PART ONE

In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?

*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.

How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE

I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.

*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
Pile of books I have read this year

Some of the books I have read so far this year

As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.

As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.

Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.

*We do (read reviews of our books)

 

I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s  a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?

Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

 

This post is Part One: choosing a book*

*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.

 

First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.

Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.

*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!

You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!

Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.

Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.

Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.

PART ONE SUMMARY:

So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!

Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?

Until then, happy reading!

 

Remarkable Women with Carrie Hayes*: free love and votes for women

Carrie Hayes’ debut novel Naked Truth tells the story of real life sisters, Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull, American suffragettes and advocates of Free Love, who came to New York in 1868 and challenged the status quo.

*Author photo by Pamela Forbes
Tennessee Claflin, stockbroker

Stock broker Tennessee Claflin with investors, from The Days’ Doings, February 26, 1870.

Unusually and rather shockingly for women of the time, they opened a Wall Street stock brokerage and published a newspaper. In 1870, Victoria made history when she became the first woman to run for President of the United States.

Victoria Woodhull attempts to vote

Suffragettes Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin attempt to vote, from Harper’s Weekly, November, 25th 1871

Welcome, Carrie, and thanks for speaking with me. Can you tell us why writing is important to you?

Carrie: Writing is important to me because words and language are the most basic and spontaneous way for us (ie people) to convey our thoughts, feelings, dreams and everything else that goes along with being a human being. I love, love, love all forms of art- music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts, but writing is something almost everyone can do- at least to one degree or another. So that pushes its significance to the top of the list.

What’s your take on creative writing courses?

I think creative writing courses are incredibly valuable. They help tease out whatever natural flair you might have as a writer, at the same time as (hopefully) drilling in a little bit of discipline when approaching one’s work.

What would you like to tell aspiring authors?

My words of advice to any aspiring author would be to read as much as you can, particularly those writers you admire and would like to emulate. The books that you read are like free lessons and can only help you grow as a writer.

Can you give us some insight into your writing routine?

My go-to routine for writing involves as much procrastination as possible! But sitting at my desk is very heaven. It’s in a smallish room at the top of the landing at the house where I live. There’s a wall of books on one side and a small bed across from that where my dog snoozes while I work. The desk was a gift from a friend and had been her mother’s. It’s an elegant burled oak lady’s desk with a patina full of good vibes. It’s centered on the window and looks out onto the street. I can peer around my computer screen and watch the comings and goings outside. I don’t allow myself to quit for the day until some writing happens….Writer’s block is not really a thing for me, because a very brilliant writing teacher I had said, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, you just have to work through it. Just get to work!” She also pointed out that 300 words a day come out to a novel a year, so there isn’t any excuse. My favorite writing food and drink is preferably something that isn’t sticky. I’m a pretty messy person, but a gooey keyboard is the worst. I tend toward salty savoury things whilst working, but then again it’s a rare sweet that I’d turn away from too..

Procrastination staved off by snacks sounds like a good plan! What kind of responses to your writing have you had?

“I didn’t want it to end….” was the best response I’ve had to my novel. However, reviews are tricky. Because whoever is reviewing the book might really, sincerely not have enjoyed it at all! And that puts the reviewer in an awkward position, I think… so one shouldn’t take these things too much to heart, but getting a negative review never feels good. Alas, it’s part of the deal of putting one’s work out there! An agent who wrote me a really nice rejection letter said my novel made him think of Annie Proulx‘s writing…. But I haven’t read much of her work, and the agent also rejected me, so I don’t know what to think about that. I guess I realised that I am a writer when it just became the default setting of how I spend my quality alone time. I wrote something in medium about that: this is a friend link so anyone can click on it and see it  in medium. https://medium.com/@carriehayz/for-dad-in-time-for-fathers-day-2f3368f78455?source=friends_link&sk=f730af86b5cafa8217227457ce1f1425.

It ‘s about my dad, who was involved in the New Journalism movement of the 1960’s. He would constantly say that I would be a writer. Of course, if one’s parent says something, it almost becomes a challenge not to do the opposite thing….  It wasn’t until he’d been dead 30 years that the writing thing really took hold and I just stopped fighting it.

That’s very interesting, if a little sad, but your dad was right. If writing is your go-to quality activity, then it’s definitely your way of life. Do you like reading too?

My favorite genre is historical fiction, which not coincidentally, is my genre. I love doing the research. It’s everything to me. In fact, I wish I were better at it. And to be honest, my favorite reader would be someone who just likes to read what I like to read! Something challenging but not too difficult! Something with lots of nuanced, even feminine perspective that doesn’t necessarily end the way that I want but something that leaves me feeling a little bit breathless and amazed by the narrative journey I’ve taken whilst reading the story, you know?

Naked Truth, or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit by Carrie Hayes

Naked Truth, or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit by Carrie Hayes

Your writing style is quite different to a lot of historical fiction. How have readers responded?

So far, my book has yet to gain much traction. It may be because it isn’t very straightforward. Also, some readers have really disliked the way I used news clippings and letters from the period to frame the action. Then there are those who find the jump cut style of the narrative rather jarring. I am a huge Baz Luhrmann fan, and the way he incorporates the jump cut in Romeo and Juliet left a very powerful impression upon me in terms of storytelling and structure, even now, years later. So, the way I wrote the book was an attempt to emulate that sort of perspective. I think that were I to write it again, I would stick with my guns, too. I just like a jarring, staccato style narrative. I do. So, if I could write a  note to a reader, I think it would say,

Dear Reader, 
THANK YOU for reading this! If you don’t know who Victoria and Tennessee were, now you will. They were real women who did incredible things, but were largely lost to history. 
I wrote this book with the hope of inspiring you, if only just a teeny tiny bit to take chances and to do incredible things. 
Also, Reader, please rest assured that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your efforts go unheralded, 
incredible things are still worth doing. What matters is that you did them. 
With every best wish, Carrie

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Carrie. Your Naked Truth book is on my TBR list for this year, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Carrie’s LINKS

Website: www.carriehayes.net

The Book: Naked Truth or Equality: the Forbidden Fruit

On Amazon: Naked Truth or Equality: the Forbidden Fruit

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/carriehayes1964/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carriehayespage/

Blog: https://medium.com/@carriehayz

 

Austenesque enjoyment with Riana Everly

Riana Everly is a Canadian writer of romance and historical romance. Influenced by the beautiful writing of Jane Austen and the rich historical tapestry of the early nineteenth-century, Riana combines elements of stories old and new in her Regency novels. Each one takes a surprising twist on a well-loved tale, much to the delight of her many readers. Love and adventure feature highly, and among these variations you may find your own personal favourite Mr Darcy…

Teaching Eliza by Riana Everly

Teaching Eliza by Riana Everly

Welcome, Riana. Your books have such an interesting combination of inspirations and cross-genre views. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Riana: I’ve been known to sneak in song lyrics or snatches of plot elements from my favourite operas. But nobody has ever found them, so I don’t think I do it very well.

 

Well-hidden, then! How much research is involved in your writing?

Oh, so much research! I spend more time researching than writing. I know I can never get everything correct, but I can try, and I do try.
Because I mainly write about the Regency period, I have a fairly broad general knowledge about the basics. I know the general history, the politics, the fashions, etc, but that is just the beginning. For example, in my first published novel, Teaching Eliza (a novel in which Pride & Prejudice meets My Fair Lady), I needed to know about class-based accents in nineteenth-century England. So down the rabbit hole of research I went. For a throwaway sentence in one of my works-in-progress, my main character buys a cribbage board for a gift. And down the rabbit hole went I, searching up the history of cribbage and the sorts of cribbage boards found in England in 1810. And I have to admit, I love that part! It’s what makes the history part of historical research come to life for me.

Through a Different Lens: a Pride & Prejudice variation by Riana Everly

Through a Different Lens: a Pride & Prejudice variation by Riana Everly

Sounds wonderful to mix history, created characters, and devious plots. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!

Me? Plot holes? Never!
(Okay… all the time. But shhhhh. It’s a secret.)
I tend to let my stories sit for a long time between first draft and editing. This way, when I go back to them, it’s with a bit of a clear mind because I have some distance between what I wrote and what I’m reading. But I would never trust myself to find plot holes. Instead, I have a few trusted beta readers who I beg to read with a critical eye and let me know what doesn’t work. And then I go back and rewrite and tinker and fix things and hope I don’t introduce more mistakes as I edit.

What an excellent practice – hope you don’t mind if I ‘borrow’ it! Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience?

I really write for myself. I know the advice out there is to write to market, but that is not me. I have my stories that want to come out, and if they are not exactly what “the market” wants, then so be it. I would rather sacrifice some readers than write something I don’t really want to write.

I completely agree. It’s the story bursting out of me that I want to write, not what’s hot at the moment (which can be sad for the income stream!). What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

I just dyed my hair purple. Does that count?

The Assistant by Riana Everly

The Assistant by Riana Everly

Absolutely! Not sure its it’s scarier than sending your writing out into the world, but it’s your hair after all. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I have been writing some historical mysteries. I have three completed – one almost fully edited and two in various stages of editing. My plans for the next twelve months are to start publishing these and to write the other three I envisage for the series. There is a large story arc for the main characters over the six planned books, which is why that will be the limit to this particular series. But if I still like my characters, there might be more in store for them.

That’s a massive project. It’s exhausting just to hear about it! Go you. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?

I think a cover is so very important! I know we are always told never to judge a book by its cover, but how can we avoid doing that? Some of my favourite authors have very amateurish-looking covers, and I’ve learned to focus on the text and not the outside, but were I just to see that cover, my instinct would be to assume the inside is as amateurish as the outside. Perhaps that is not a good trait of mine, but it’s there and it’s not going away.
So my advice is always to get a professional cover. If you happen to have those amazing skills, that’s fabulous. But if not, spend the few dollars and get something that looks professional.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to find a terrific cover artist. She listens to me and accepts my constant suggestions and requests with a cheerful smile. One of the perks of being indie!

The Bennet Affair by Riana Everly

The Bennet Affair by Riana Everly

Yes, it helps to be able to have that closeness, I’m sure, to others involved in getting your story out there. Do you write in more than one genre?

Sort of. Isn’t that a great answer? I started my writing career writing Jane Austen-inspired romance, which I still do and which I love. But I’ve also always loved classic mysteries, and somewhere along the line I had the idea to write some Austenesque murder mysteries. They straddle the line between historical mysteries and cozy mysteries, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my sleuths as they solve their way through Regency England.

 

Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?

I used to approach my books with a vague story in mind and let my characters tell me what they were up to. But since I’ve started writing historical mysteries, I find I have to be much more of a planner. Clues, red herrings, more clues… They all have to be there and fit together and make some sort of sense at the end.

That makes perfect sense, indeed. One has to shepherd those lovely characters to a degree, or they’ll toddle off into some other plot of interest only to themselves.

Thank you so much Riana for sharing with me today. I’m so intrigued by your mash-ups of genre and manners into stories that meet us in the now. Long live the Regency in fiction! 

Silhouette in frame

Riana’s Links:

Website: www.rianaeverly.com
Blog: https://rianaeverly.com/blog/
Email: riana.everly@gmail.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/RianaEverly
Amazon Author page: www.amazon.com/Riana-Everly/e/B076C6HY27

BOOKS:

Teaching Eliza – https://books2read.com/teachingeliza
The Assistant –
https://books2read.com/theassistant

Through a Different Lens – https://books2read.com/throughadifferentlens/
The Bennet Affair –
https://books2read.com/thebennetaffair

 

 

 

 

Dashing adventure and writing at lunchtime with Alec Marsh

English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.

Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.

Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.

Author Alec Marsh, photo credit David Harrison

Author Alec Marsh, photo credit David Harrison

Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have  been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?

Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.

A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?  

I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…

Rule Britannia by Alec Marsh (cover detail)

Rule Britannia by Alec Marsh (cover detail)

 

Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.

What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.

I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?

Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.

ENEMY OF THE RAJ (Drabble & Harris #2) by Alec Marsh

ENEMY OF THE RAJ (Drabble & Harris #2) by Alec Marsh

How do you feel about reviews?

Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.

Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?

The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.

Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

When I was  17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.

Did you always plan to write historic fiction?

No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.

Is writer’s block a thing for you?

Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done. 

True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!

 

Alec’s Links

Twitter: @AlecMarsh

Facebook: @AuthorAlecMarsh

Instagram: marsh_alec

 

To by paperback or ebook from Amazon:

 

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

No Small Shame by Australian author Christine Bell (I recently interviewed Christine about the book) follows the story of Mary O’Donnell from her childhood home in a Scottish mining village, through emigration on a cramped sailing ship to Australia and life during the tragedy and disruption of the First World War and beyond. The shadows of poverty, gendered roles, and class/religious divisions reach far into the future.

The young Mary has her hopes fixed on childhood favourite Liam, but their eventual marriage occurs under circumstances that cast a dark shadow across both their lives. When Liam goes to war, Mary discovers another focus for her life in Tom, but the cost to her and her child is daunting. Throughout her story, we discover that Mary’s mother is a repressive and dominating influence, who demands that her daughter’s life should be no wider than her own journey of hardship and struggle – the lot of a woman. This is an influence that Mary must escape to truly grow into her own person.

While this is overall a somewhat sombre story, the emotional stakes are high for Mary, and reading this story as a latter-day woman who has had access to education and gender freedom unknown to our historical sisters, my heart grieved for her lost potential and the blighting of many of her chances at happiness. On the other hand, Mary is a heroine who always seeks a better life and keeps her eyes on the horizon, looking for better days to come.

Part of the story is about decisions and their consequences, but Mary is treated tenderly despite what her family would call mis-steps. It sometimes feels as though Mary gets few chances to smile, but she is admirable in the way she shoulders responsibility for her own choices and where life leads her.

Backed by meticulous research and giving a detailed recreation of the places, habits, and speech of the time, this is a highly readable novel that will please lovers of stories where life is reflected accurately, where engaging and believable characters must come to terms with the real events and the barriers they face while still making the best they can of themselves and their circumstances. There are no easy solutions, but amid the sadness there is plenty of hope, resilience, effort and love.

Australian history brought to poignant life.

Christine’s links:

Website:              https://christinebell.com.au

Twitter:                https://twitter.com/chrisbellwrites

Facebook:            https://www.facebook.com/chris.bell.77377

Instagram:           https://www.instagram.com/christinembell

Book links:

Readings: https://www.readings.com.au/products/30505748/no-small-shame

Dymocks: https://www.dymocks.com.au/book/no-small-shame-by-christine-bell-9781920727901

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/no-small-shame-christine-bell/book/9781920727901.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/No-Small-Shame-choice-forever-ebook/dp/B07WQYNC2G