- Murder, Mayhem and Indie Publishing
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… breathe, Caron, breathe…
Dear lady, this month thou shalt stand up in front of people and attempt to inform and entertain… Not much of a tall order is it?
Up there on this year’s to-do list, which always includes something along the lines of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, was’do a workshop/book event’. As someone who’d rather have a tooth pulled out sans anesthetic than stand up in front of an audience*, this is a biggie. I’ve published four books so far and this is my first ‘launch’.
To ease the experience, I bullied roped in another writer to join me and billed it as a Q and A session. Given that most people think they have a book in them, why not appeal to that audience by positioning our event as an exploration of the world of indie publishing? And unlike me, my author chum makes decent money from…
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- Searching for Agatha
As I said last week, literally thousands of people joined the search for Agatha Christie in December 1926 when she disappeared for eleven days. Her car was found, run off the road, at a place called Newlands Corner, in Surrey, in the South of England. Her fur coat was still in the car, and there were some clothes in a suitcase, and some documents, notably an expired driving license. It was assumed–or feared might be a better word–that she had either been kidnapped or murdered–or as her depressed state came to light, had committed suicide.
Indeed, in interviews a few years later, Agatha Christie did admit she had had suicidal thoughts, but it was her Christian belief that suicide was a terrible sin that prevented her from carrying it out. We can see this attitude so often in the news and fiction of that era. When someone kills themselves, they are seen not only as sinful, but as weak, selfish, lacking in moral backbone, and cowardly. So it wasn’t particularly a viable alternative for someone in desperate straits. But to go away, to be completely unknown and anonymous, that was a whole different thing. The prospect of disappearing–even if only for a few days–must have been a tempting one.
But how did she get from Newlands Corner to Harrogate, a distance of 230 miles, having abandoned her car? True, she didn’t check into the hotel for twenty-four hours after leaving home, but I really don’t think could have walked it, no matter how ‘outdoorsy’ she was known to be. She left the house at about 9.45pm on Friday night the 3rd December 1926. The met office reported it as slightly above the average for the time of year, and dry, and about 40f or 4c: which is still pretty chilly. (You can read old met reports here–if like me you revel in that stuff: it’s a fascinating site)
In an interview later, quoted in Surrey Life magazine (Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008/Words by Alec Kingham) says ‘For 24 hours, I wandered in a dream, then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.’ It’s not mentioned here but stated elsewhere, that this newly-invented character was a widow, and I find that interesting: is that why this character was happy? Notably, Agatha was said not to have been wearing her wedding ring, though in view of the wreck of that marriage, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, though the wronged party often does continue to wear their wedding ring, especially until the divorce is finalised. The breakdown of a long-term relationship is known to trigger a deep sense of bereavement.
Alec Kingham claims that Agatha walked to an inn in Shere (interestingly, this is the same small neighbourhood where Archie had gone to a weekend house-party of a friend, and to be with his mistress) and she stayed there overnight, then went on by train the following day, a tortuous route via local lines to reach Guildford, and from there to London, across London and then on to Harrogate, arriving at the Hydropathic Hotel in the evening.
In my view, she had to have planned it. I’m not talking weeks or months, just a couple of hours is all she would have needed. But I don’t believe this could have all been accomplished off-the-cuff. Is it possible her secretary helped? She was supposed to have been unaware of what had happened, other than the fact that Colonel Christie had left the house for good with his belongings following a final scene, and that Agatha herself went out a little later.
It’s been suggested that the site where she crashed the car had been deliberately set up to resemble a crime scene. And certainly if anyone could have planned and created such an event, she could. Who else would carry an expired driving license on her if not a mystery writer out to set up her own disappearance?
Archie Christie told the police that she had once said that if she wanted to disappear, she knew exactly how she would do it, and she maintained she’d never be found. Perhaps that’s why the newspapers featured her photograph with various disguises such as different hair colour and styles, and with glasses.
Certainly she’d have needed money. She had to travel all the way to Yorkshire, presumably by at least three trains and either underground or bus across London. Even in the 1920s, you’d need hard cash for that. And luggage–no respectable hotel will take a guest with no luggage at all, even if they said at the reception desk, ‘Oh I’m only staying for a day or two, the rest of my stuff is in the car.’ So let’s take it as read she had at least a small holdall or suitcase, with a change of clothes. And some cash.
She knew where she was going, she had everything she needed with her. She had to have planned it. Whether or not she had any help from another person remains a mystery, but this could not have been a spur of the moment occurrence.
- Hatless and coatless at 6am: Agatha’s famous disappearance.
1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.
Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.
After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.
Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands
Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.
Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.
And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.
In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.
A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.
The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.
But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life.
My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.
- Zips vs Buttons: The 30s: what were they like? Part 2
Welcome back to my foray into the 1930s. If you are over a certain age, the 1930s actually doesn’t really feel like an historical era but, you know, our mums’ and dads’ time, it feels ‘recent’. So it’s very easy to forget the massive changes and events that shaped, not just the 30s, but our own current era. I’m trying to give a little bit of the flavour of life in the 1930s in Britain.
This week I want to say something about technology, and about fashion. In some ways the two are inter-related. The zip? If you’ve never thought of that as a technological breakthrough—think again.
Can you imagine having no zips at all on your clothes? Trousers: buttoned or elasticated. Jeans ditto. Skirts, ditto. Jackets, jumpers, dresses… How would you close a long dress? Immediately any garment has got to be wide enough to admit either your hips or your shoulders, or depend entirely on button-type closures. Not that women habitually wore trousers in the 1930s, and jeans were very much an American work garment.
In fact the zip had been invented way back in the 1850s but in spite of lots of interest and various refinements of the design, it only became widely used in the early part of the twentieth century for boots, or for survival and specialist protective gear, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that it began to be used first for babies’ and children’s clothing, then for men’s trousers in place of the button fly. French fashion designers raved over its convenience, and emphasised that it had the benefit of preventing “The possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray”. (When I was a kid, public loos still had a notice just inside the exit reminding gentlemen to check they were ‘properly dressed’ before leaving the premises.) From there, due to the convenience and the ability to follow smooth lines, it came into the women’s and general clothing applications we know and love today.
Fashion was also the prisoner of technology with regard to laundering. Artificial fabrics had been around for a while, but were often confined to small items of clothing, or occasional items such as evening dresses or accessories, to avoid the need for frequent washing, due to their relative delicacy compared to natural fibres. Rayon and artificial silk required special laundering care, so it helped to have a maid with nothing better to do than to carefully iron your dainties.
Country wear for the well-to-do, especially for outdoor pursuits, was often tweeds by day, which were hard-wearing natural fibres, easy to launder—if you had a maid and somewhere to hang the garments to dry—and the pattern was great for disguising spills and light spatters (presumably blood from all the hunting…or maybe fish guts?). The colonies were still very much the mainstay of British textiles, with silk and cotton coming in from all over Asia, and the United States, either as fabric or as raw material to be made into fabric for the garment trade located in the Midlands and North. Hollywood’s glamorous influence on lifestyles meant that there was a greater demand for variety in fabric and in styles, and most women made the garments for themselves and their families at home, often completely by hand.
Very few households in Britain had washing machines in the 1930s, and tumble dryers were just a pipedream. Everything had to be washed by hand and dried naturally. The washboard and mangle (or you might prefer, wringer), were still depended upon as the main artificial aid to laundering.
But by the 1930s, with the exception of the very poor or very remote, the majority of British households had electricity. The National Grid was set up in 1934 to bring together all the separate private electric producers and their varying tariffs. In addition to this, manufacturing processes had been refined. The Great Depression hit American factory production, but in spite of this, the 1930s saw the increase of the household appliance: vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, central heating for the well-off, electric cookers, and so forth began to be desirable objects. There were also home-grown manfacturers such as Ewbanks of Accrington, Lancashire, still in production today. The marketing of their products was aimed at women, who were advised to ‘talk it over with your husband’. The advertisers promised a new standard of cleanliness and efficiency. The emphasis was on keeping up with the times, being seen to be ‘modern’ and scientific, and the promise of making the drudge of domestic duties ‘simple’. For the many middle- and upper-class families who’d lost most of their ‘help’ to the better paying factories, these items were very much the must-haves of the generation.
If you think this gave women more time to chat on the phone, well… yes I suppose it did. Many middle class and upper class homes had telephones by the outbreak of the second World War. Households began to have telephones from the 1910s, thought they were often treated with grave suspicion and a certain amount of contempt. But if you think you could just wander from room to room as you chatted, you’d be wrong. The telephone was fixed in an out of the way place – a back lobby or study, and there you had to go to make your call.
And you couldn’t just dial the person you wanted to speak to. No! Although some areas did have a direct-dialling service, most did not. For most households, well into the 1930s, you had to ring the exchange and ask for a call to be put through to the number you wanted. If dialling out of your own area, you might have to wait for this to be completed. You had time to go off, make a cup of tea, and maybe a sandwich, and then the operator at the exchange would call you back and tell you the connection had been made. There were some automatic exchanges but remember, this was still relatively new technology and there were still many refinements to the system to be made.
Famously, Alexander Graham Bell suggested using the word ‘Ahoy!’ to answer a telephone call, but fortunately Thomas Edison came up with ‘Hello!’ and that remains good enough for most of us. From the exchange though, you might have heard those well-known words, ‘Go ahead, caller, you’re through.’
- Between a rock and a hard place: what was it like in the 30s? Part One
I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of murder mysteries set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I wanted to show just how different life was for everyone, not just young women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and writing centres around this, but the era presented both challenges and successes for many nations around the world. Let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people? It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war, as villages and towns slowly rebuilt themselves literally and figuratively. Attitudes were poles apart, with very ‘modern’ liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs.
To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more distant, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die or be injured in the space of just a few short years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of that terrible disaster.
While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly-emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go home and cook and clean and have babies. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom and equality. This continued to grow throughout the 20s, into the 30s and is still an issue today.
And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men, in terms of work, pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted parliamentary representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘your husband/father will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, and this came down to everyone over 18 in 1967. But in the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed to make an informed choice. Women began to move into political life, but still very much, generally speaking, in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician, becoming a cabinet minister in 1924.
People of colour and of different backgrounds were, in the majority of cases, socially separate from the white Christian majority. Again this continues today, doesn’t it, though it seems incredible to discriminate against someone due to skin colour. Reading the popular literature of the day could lead you to think there were no people of colour in Britain in the 1930s. But there have been vibrant non-white communities living in Britain for over two thousand years. We just didn’t admit it. People of colour were treated with hostility and resentment, and opportunities were often denied them through financial penalties or social stigma and racism. But here too, there were pressing demands for social change, and many welfare and interest group sprang up, working to change attitudes and lives practically and politically, for example, The League of Coloured Peoples and The Negro Welfare Association, to name two. However, there were successful non-white professionals such as lawyers as early as the 1850s, for example, John Thorpe and in the 1860s, Monmohon Ghosh. (More info available from the Society of Black Lawyers) And the Jazz age (1920s and 1930s) was enabling black musicians, artists, entertainers and actors to produce and perform their art, albeit without the same freedom and acceptance of white people.
Next week: Life in the 1930s: Technology and Fashion.
- What was the ‘Golden Age’ of British mystery writing?
We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.
When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.
What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.
Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.
Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.
So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)
Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:
Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.
Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.
Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.
Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.
Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.
Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:
S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.
John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.
In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels: such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.
Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.
What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.
- Lenny Kravitz and me
As soon as the calendar is turned to the page for September, like many people, I begin to think of Autumn. Yet it’s still technically summertime, and the meteorologists have promised us another heat-wave, so really the year is less advanced than I imagine. We’re still in the third quarter, after all.
But we can’t help looking forward, can we? We have a tendency to push ahead a bit faster than we should, always looking to the future, the next thing, always rounding up. Do we have a primitive urge to be cautious going out to meet trouble before it reaches our home? We seem to over-prepare these days (think how much you buy for Christmas or any time the supermarkets are shut for just one day), and we have a tendency to expect and assume the worst, whilst professing to hope for the best.
For several months now, I’ve been thinking of myself as 58. I try to crowbar it into as many conversations as I can, as if I were 90: ‘I’m 58, you know!’ Partly it’s because I can hardly believe it myself. On the inside I feel like I’m still 14? 16? 30? But in actual fact, I’m not 58 until mid-October. So, I’m still 57, yet I actually only embraced the concept of being 57 when I was—you’ve guessed it–561∕2. I know I’m not the only one. Why do we do things like that? Is it so har dot be in the present?
Remember that old song Enjoy Yourself? The line goes, Enjoy yourself, It’s later than you think. What a depressing thought. It’s already too late. Wow. Do we want to believe that? If so, we might as well give up now; what’s the point of trying?
I’m trying to avoid the usual clichés, ‘take time to smell the roses’, ‘it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey’, but it’s quite difficult to do that and get my point across. (Yes I do have one…even if it’s a different one to my planned finishing point.)
I have a stubborn streak. I think most writers do. We need it to get us through all the demands of writing, rewriting, polishing, revising, rewriting, editing… part of me says, it’s never too late. There’s always more to come, a bit more you can do. Like a soap opera, the story never concludes, the writers just add another episode. Like the Lenny Kravitz song, It ain’t over til it’s o-o-o-over.
I’m going to live my life, and end on a cliffhanger. On my gravestone, I want the words: ‘To be continued…’
- Author Interview – Paul Nelson, young adult fantasy author and other genres
This week I thought it would be nice to take a break from ‘how-to’ and to showcase the work of an Indie author.
Paul Nelson is the author of Saving Worms After The Rain, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy. Paul is an advocate of autism and his main characters are autistic. It is Paul’s desire to open up the eyes of all of us to what it is to be autistic and to break through the preconceptions about autism and the way autistic people are treated.
I recently started reading Saving Worms After The Rain, because the title grabbed me. I have an issue with rain-wrecked worms but as an adult I’ve come to control it, though I’m still really careful to step around them. The Fisher’s Autism Trilogy are also on my TBR pile. I can highly recommend these very original books, as they are warm, funny and very human.
Now, over to Paul:
Thanks for agreeing to be tortured in this way, Paul, I have a few basic questions for you, if you don’t mind. Hopefully these will help people to see the man behind the books!
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
I write fiction that includes those with disabilities, especially autism. Saving Worms After the Rain is an adult mystery with historical elements, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy are aimed at young adults and are mainly fantasy.
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
Reading was hard for me as a child. I think I have ADHD. When I got older, I read lots of short stories by Truman Capote in school. I also love John Steinbeck and Anne Rice. I read a lot about spirituality…Richard Rohr and Buddhism.
Q3. What are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to in the future from you?
I’m working on a novel about a young woman with an autistic brother. It’s historical and fantasy combined. They find a time portal and travel back in time. It’s about the Susquehanna River Valley, where I live.
Q4. What are your favourite authors? What are you reading now?
Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Richard Rohr, Anne Rice. I’m not reading too much right now. I’m trying to spend most of my time writing.
I know what you mean, I don’t read much when I’m writing either, it seems too much of a distraction, and I’m worried about bringing other authors’ voices and styles into my work. Plus I just don’t have the mental energy!
Now on to Q5. What do you do when you’re not reading?
I spend lots of time caring for my mom, who is 86. My autistic son also needs a lot of my time. I make sure I walk for at least 40 minutes a day. It’s good for the body and the spirit and mind. I do a lot of writing in my head when I walk. I also love movies. I wrote a screenplay of my first book. My son and I go to movies quite a bit.
Q6. What is your writing process?
I like to write in my head first. When I sit down to start writing a rough draft, I imagine what I want to write as a movie scene. It’s like storyboarding in my head. After I write all the scenes, I go back and embellish, add descriptive passages and link the scenes together. I’m a very visual person.
That’s an interesting approach – I find it difficult to write until I’ve created a book cover – I need that visual stimulus to bring my story alive in my head, but I don’t do the full on storyboarding. Maybe I should try that.
Thank you so much for sharing your writing process with us. I’m really looking forward to your new book – and all your subsequent books out there in the big wide world.
About the Author:
Paul Nelson is a former music teacher who has written a trilogy of fantasy fiction books inspired by his 19-year-old son Michael, who was born with autism. Michael has a hard time communicating on his own, but Paul knows his son has a story to tell. Paul wants to show the world that people with autism are not ‘badly behaved’, ‘badly brought up’ or ‘stupid’, but are creative, intelligent, compassionate people with something to say. On top of that, his books are a breath of fresh air. The books are available as a set in one volume called FISHER’S AUTISM TRILOGY, or as individual volumes, entitled: Through Fisher’s Eyes, Dark Spectrum and A Problem With The Moon. In addition to this trilogy, there is also a novel for adults, Saving Worms After The Rain, which Paul describes as a mixture of mystery and the history of central Pennsylvania. You can follow Paul on his author page on Amazon.com or on Twitter.
- Going Indie – part four
First of all, many apologies for the delay of this post – life, eh, what can you do? Never enough hours…
We’ve been talking about self-publishing, what it is, what it entails. This week I shall try to briefly touch on Keywords, Promo, and the thorny issue of ‘Do I need a website/blog?’ Please bear in mind there isn’t room in one (or indeed, four) blog posts to tell you everything you need to know, I’m trying to give an overview, not a definitive guide. But there are LOADS of eBooks, paper books, blogs and chat-rooms to help with these issues, and all the publishing platforms have their own FAQ/How-to/Help etc pages to guide you through the process. Or you could ask an Indie author specific questions and get specific answers.
So after weeks and months (possibly even years) of agonising, slaving and panicking, you’re finally ready to press ‘Upload’. It doesn’t take long for the cogs to whirr and for the publishing platform of your choice to announce Ta-da! Manuscript successfully uploaded! or words to that effect. Your next reaction, after the euphoria has died down, is likely to be Help!!!
Because now, you need to put in your keywords.
What are keywords? There are different types of keywords – words you use to categorise your book to slot it neatly into your genre or type of work on the publishing platform/shop (the BISAC category); words you use in your blurb to help with SEO and make your book more discoverable; or words you use in your advertising campaigns.
Put simply, they are the words potential readers type in to the Internet (all of it) or a specific site such as Amazon, to find a book. As simple as that. So they might type in, Caron Allan, author extraordinaire, or, far more likely they will type in: Murder Mystery or Chick-Lit or Western Romance or something of that sort. A keyword is a kind of catch-all mini-phrase to help them find their book, because as we all now know, online book retailers are in many ways a sophisticated search engine.
Or to put it another way, all the books that are available have been filed away, but you need to find a way to recognise and retrieve them. Now someone could type in ‘Once Upon A Time’ by Timothy R Author, but if Timothy R Author is a newbie who has self-published his exciting new work just this week, it isn’t very likely any reader would know of his book. So how will he reach his market?
If you are writing in a genre category, you probably already know your category. If you are writing something that doesn’t fit snugly into one category, then you will need to use multiple keywords. For example, say you’re writing a murder mystery but your detective is actually a vampire… then you might choose one category as:
Fiction – Paranormal – Vampires
and another as:
Fiction – Mystery & Detective – Police Procedural
Fortunately you have the option to use a number of categories, usually two or three, when you are setting up your book on your chosen publishing platform.
When writing your blurb, don’t just give a brief plot outline but mention your categories/genres, and descriptive terms such as ‘traditional’ or ‘cosy/cozy’ or ‘action-packed’ or maybe mention it if there is a big twist at the end, that kind of thing. This will be picked up by search engines. Books very often have subtitles these days, such as ‘a gripping thriller that will leave your breathless’ – it’s all to do with discoverability.
Advertising campaigns are too large a ‘thing’ for me to mention here other than to say, when setting keywords, I find the names of other authors of my genre more effective in generating sales than ‘amateur sleuth’, ‘female protagonist’, etc. Try to keep up-to-date with your genre.
Do I need a website?
New authors often ask, ‘But do I really need a website or a blog?’ The answer, you might be surprised to discover, is ‘No!’. No, you do not need a blog.
You only need a blog if:
- you want to connect with other authors,
- you want to connect with readers
- or you want to sell books.
So yes, sorry Hon, you DO absolutely need a blog. Otherwise how will readers, authors etc, find out about you? How will you keep everyone in the universe up-to-date with your news? One of the first things you need as an author, is a blog. And yes, you will need to update it regularly – at least a couple of times a month, if not weekly. A lot of people post new material daily. I don’t have that kind of time, but I’ve got a suspicion that if I did, I would increase my following really quickly. I’m not the greatest at posting new stuff, life just gets in the way for me all too often at the moment, but I try to add a blog post at least every fortnight, and preferably weekly. It can be hard to think of things to say, but don’t sweat it, get hints and tips from everyone, ask yourself what you would want to know about an author, then put that on your own site. You can schedule posts in advance, say if you know you’re going to be busy or away on your hols or something fun like that.
And yes, you ALWAYS need a picture for your blog posts!!!! Get royalty free images from Pixabay or other similar sites. Some sites require payment to download an image. Pixabay ‘suggests’ a payment in the form of a ‘buy coffee’ button, but you don’t have to. However, to my mind, if you are using an image, for example on a book cover, where you could potentially make money, possibly quite a lot of money, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge the source of the image and send some ‘coffee money’ to the wonderful person who enabled you to create your book cover. It’s a business for them as well as for you, respect their time and effort.
‘But I don’t know anything about blogging!’ you cry. Welcome to the Indie World, where you can learn to do anything for next to nothing. Your go-to site should be Indies Unlimited, those wonderful guys and gals tell you how to do everything. You should also sign up to Alli – the Alliance of Independent Authors – they have a lot of very helpful material too, and are working to raise the profile and professional standing – and quality – of Indie Authors and their works.
‘But I don’t know html or how to ‘do’ websites,’ you wail. No. Neither did any of us, and now look. Seriously, if I can do it, you can do it. It takes a wee bit of patience and a bit of perseverance, but you’ve got those, right, because you are, after all, an Indie author, those are the main commodities we all have in abundance.
The good news is, there are loads of books out there, loads of sites out there and loads of lovely Indie authors out there who will help you. And you absolutely can do it all for nothing, or next to nothing. You can get a WordPress blog for nothing – they have loads of free templates. (see here: https://wordpress.com/themes/free )
And there are other blog providers out there (of whom I know nothing, because I’ve had and loved my WordPress blog for five years or so). WordPress have a massive amount of info and how-to guides and even do mini online courses.
Ooh tricky. Yes, you see, you need to promote yourself. Don’t be coy, be realistic. If you want to sell your books, you need to tell people about them, That’s what promotion is. It’s not boasting. It’s not lying. It’s not ‘cashing in’ or being materialistic. It’s being smart and helping readers to find a book they will love. There are millions of readers around the globe. And there are (I’m sure) millions of books. How are readers going to hear about your book if YOU don’t tell them about it? Yes I know you’d rather stay at home and write peacefully; I know that you’re an introvert and get shy, embarrassed, tongue-tied and stammery when you have to tell someone that you have written a book, and possibly, if they’re not too busy, and they don’t think it’s too expensive, could they please buy a copy. I’m the same! Yes, really, I’m very uncomfortable telling people about my books and asking them to buy one. I feel like I’m busking in a shopping mall or begging on a street corner. BUT. How else can we do it? Mr Amazon might do a wee bit of advertising on your behalf – but it’s up to you to do it.
So use social media to tell everyone about your books. Make some snazzy little graphics on Canva (I’ve told you before about the wonderful Canva – they do templates the perfect size for Instagram or a Facebook post or a Twitter post etc) and post them from time to time – don’t bombard the social media world with promos and ads mornign noon and night – mix them with other types of subtle promo – pics of your cat, hints, tips, news, likes and retweets/reshares of others’ output. Pay for a few Facebook ads (you need a Facebook Page to do this…a profile/timeline doesn’t work quite as well.) And maybe do paid ads on Twitter or Google too if finances allow. You can set a daily or project budget limit to avoid nasty surprises. You could put leaflets through doors, give away a few freebies at fetes, fairs, galas, book-type events, jumble sales, craft fairs, car boot sales… Ask your loved ones to big you up to everyone they know. Phone or write to your local newspaper, library, book group, community centre, school (if writing for kids…), radio station and so on. Contact everyone you can think of, tell them about your book. you may need to supply a few sample copies, but it’s all good, right?
A quick word about the promo people you see advertising on Twitter especially – some of them have now discontinued. I’ve tried a few, and can honestly say they didn’t work for me. But they may work for you, especially if they don’t charge very much to advertise your books. They may boast that they have 100K+ members or followers or whatever. The thing to bear in mind is, most of these followers are other authors trying to sell their books. Take a look and see how many retweets these ads get on average. Usually the only people who see them are people trying to sell their own book, and you will be lucky to get more than a handful of retweets or comments. If the fee is low, do it, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.
There are some promo sites who charge a lot and offer big results. I haven;t tried any of them. Some of them have entry requirements such as a level of sales or reviews/ratings. What I say is, go in with your eyes open, and try everything you can afford, see what works and what doesn’t.
It takes time to build a following. And it takes time to build your author platform. You need patience, and you need to keep on keeping on. Meanwhile, play nice with the other authors you ‘meet’, don’t compare yourself to others and don’t ever, ever give up. Go for it.
- Going Indie – part three
Welcome to part three of what was originally a one-part blog post. There’s another part next week too…there just seems to be so much to say on this topic, and, I’m not quite sure how it happened, I’ve gone from my general feelings about being an Indie author to an actual nuts-and-bolts how-to… I’m just going with it now, too late to stop.
Formatting is important, I can’t stress how important actually, but if you’re on a budget, it is actually not that difficult to do this yourself. I would never pay someone to do this for me. There are books to tell you how to do it, and numerous internet posts and docs to tell you the same. I use two: I use Indies Unlimited for all how-to info and technical stuff. Seriously, if you don’t follow Indies Unlimited then you’re very very naughty indeed, because they have information about EVERYTHING you will ever need to know. Here’s a link to their formatting stuff:
I also use a paperback book I bought a few years ago now. It’s by Michael Boxwell and it’s called Make an Ebook. If you are buying a book, especially a printed book, to tell you how to do this kind of thing, do check the date of publication and the scope of the content. There are loads of books out there, and a lot of them are seriously out of date, as I have discovered to my cost.
The basic watchwords of formatting are, for Amazon, keep it consistent, keep it simple. I’ve put together a kind of crib-sheet with my tips on formatting a book for KDP publication and for Createspace. It doesn’t cover everything, and I assume you are reasonably good with IT and word processing. Hopefully it will help. You can read it here. If there is anything I’ve missed out that you really need to know, please send me your questions! Or if I’ve made a mistake again – we need to know this stuff!
Blurb – how long, how many versions?
Don’t confuse the number of characters with the number of words. It’s best to check your limit by opening your text document, and in Word, you can find the character total by clicking on the little bit at the bottom left of your screen where the number of words is displayed. This will bring up a box which shows the character numbers too.
You need four versions of your book blurb:
one Amazon Ad promo length (140 characters – that’s REALLY short)
one Twitter new length (240 characters, quite a decent, usable length now)
standard ‘short’ publishing/sales platform blurb length, around 400 characters
long version – can be anything from 1500 to 4000 characters. This will appear on your Amazon product page, any other book distributer product page ie Draft2Digital/Nook/Barnes and Noble/Kobo/Apple or anywhere else you choose to put it – on your blog, website, Goodreads etc.
End matter/Front matter
These are: Copyright page, dedication, other books by this author (useful to have!), and about the author. I also include a sneak peek of the next book if I can, and there can be a contents list at the front or an index at the back.
Some authors advocate putting all ‘front’ matter at the back, as it means that the Search Inside function on Amazon gives the reader more ‘meat’ in terms of reading material from the actual publication, and not mainly ‘filler’ in the form of front matter which can be unhelpful in making the choice whether to buy a book or not. And it can be annoying if you’re trying to get a feel for a book and have to wade through pages of posh reviews that are no help at all. I personally do a bit of both. I keep the copyright and dedication at the front, and the contents page, and a character list if I’m using one, and the acknowledgments, author’s note, author’s bio and other books bit I stick at the back.
Write them in advance, so that you don’t delay your publication by having to quickly knock up yet another Word document. Also, you can use these items in subsequent publications with a few simple updates.
Yes, you do need a copyright page, don’t ever think you don’t. It can be very short and simple. This is what I use:
The Mantle of God: a Dottie Manderson mystery by Caron Allan
Copyright 2016 © Caron Allan
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the owner of this work.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including but not limited to: graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any informational storage retrieval system without advanced prior permission in writing from the publisher.
This is a work of fiction, and is not based on a true story or on real characters. (Unless it is, of course, in which case I’d skip this bit.)
You can either type copyright in full or get the symbol from the Insert tab of your Word doc. You can change the size to whatever you want, both of the symbol and the copyright statement as a whole. I like to keep it small and so usually select a font size of 8 or 9. You may feel as an Indie author that you don’t need – or deserve (some people have told me this) – to protect your work. That’s (insert profanity of choice here) rubbish. You worked hard and you NEED to protect your author rights. Please don’t be naïve and think it’s unnecessary. Possibly you will find you still get plagiarised; for some books, it seems to be endemic, I don’t know why, and although there are steps you can take, it’s very difficult to stop it completely, as some authors have found to their cost.
I don’t feel these are useful for fiction eBooks as eReaders remember where you got to, you don’t have to look it up. And very often, authors chapter titles are plain and simple: Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc. If you are publishing a non-fiction, you probably need the contents list.
Tell people about yourself. Be quirky, be human. Put a face to the name for them. Use this bit also to include your social media contacts and advertise your website or blog.
You can survive with just one or two versions, a long one and a short one. Ideally though, you need as many biographies as you do blurbs, and of the same kind of length. That way you’re good to go no matter what. Write them in advance, so you don’t have to have a last-minute panic, and update them periodically as your details and available books changes.
Also by: this is a useful bit to include, as readers can see all your stuff, and even the reading order if appropriate. I also add in a Coming Soon bit on mine to let them know what I’m likely to bring out soon.
I like to say thanks to a few people or tell them how much I appreciate their help. It’s just a line or two. I like to have it at the front. Anything more lengthy, I turn into an Acknowledgement and have it at the end!
You can generate a Contents Table page in your Word doc without too much grief. Just, for an eBook, remember to click Format Table and take out the page numbers! If you tweak your manuscript, or make any kind of adjustments, you must remember to Update Table before you upload your document.
A quick word about Word. If you are planning to upload your word doc to Amazon, your contents page should be fine, but for some reason, some authors prefer to save their Word docs are a pdf and upload that. If you do this, you need to do a whole new contents page as the pages will not be ‘clickable’ in your pdf. It’s a bit of a faff to build a clickable contents page in in pdf doc but it’s not hard, it’s just messy and tedious. If you want to do it, maybe Google it? I don’t have a crib-sheet for that as yet. Personally I recommend uploading a Word doc, it’s just easier all round. However, you need to remember to save your final version as a Word 1995-2003 document as Amazon don’t support the later versions of Word, or at least, last time I looked, they didn’t.
Next week: Keywords, Promo and Do I need a Website.