10 questions: Virginia Moffatt, author of Echo Hall

Hi all!

Time for another questionnaire-style interview with an author with a book from Unbound Publishing (my own East of England is in edits with them as we speak, and will be out in due course). Today, it's the turn of Virginia Moffatt, who's here to tell us all about her new novel Echo Hall

1. Who are you and what’s your book about?

My name is Virginia Moffatt. I am a writer from Oxford. After decades of working in social care, I’ve had a few different jobs. I currently work as a Procurement and Contracts Manager in a multi-academy. I’m married with three teenagers who are all in full-time education.

Echo Hall is my first novel. It is about the echoes of history and asks the question, is conflict inevitable or can we find another way?

Virginia Moffatt.jpg

2. Why should folk read your book?

Firstly, I have tried to write a rattling good story and create characters you will care about, and want to follow through to the end. Second, because I think it has something interesting and useful to say both about the nature of war and peace, and the role of women in society. I would hope that it is the kind of book that will linger long after the final page has been read.

3. What’s the appeal of your book?  

It’s got a lot of different elements – gothic, family saga, politics, history – so I think that is appealing to a wide range of readers.  It is also fiercely feminist, with three strong heroines: Ruth in the 1990’s, Elsie in the 1940’s and Rachel whose story runs between 1911 and 1924.

4. Sounds great! Where/when can I get hold of a copy?  

Please, please, please buy it from your local bookshop, or if you can’t do that order it via Hive, as they will give a donation to your favourite High Street shop. It is also available via the usual online platforms if you prefer them.

Echo Hall.jpg

5. Describe a typical writing day, or at least a typical day with some writing in it:

I don’t really have one, because writing is crammed in the spaces I have between work and family life. I tend to do it in fits and starts, so when I’m in a writing phase, I’ll be up at 6 and write till 7 before getting ready for work, making sandwiches and chivvying teenagers out of the house. When approaching a deadline, I’ll probably be continuing in the evening after tea, between 7 and 9, and for as much of the weekend as I can get away with. From time to time, I go away on writing retreats which are very productive as I can please myself and will write from the moment I wake till the moment I go to bed. 

I tend to finish a draft and leave it to cook for a bit. So if I’m not working on a nonfiction project or blogging, or posting guest articles, I use that time to market my work (currently Echo Hall and an essay collection I’ve edited; Reclaiming the Common Good: How Christians Can Help Rebuild This Broken World.  I am looking forward to a day when I can work part-time and have at least one day a week devoted to writing, but that’ll have to wait till the day I get a major book deal!

6. Pick one book about writing. What it is and why have you chosen it?

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.  I had to read a lot of books about writing when I studied for a Diploma in Creative Writing and I found most of them dull and prescriptive. A friend sent me Bird by Bird. I immediately loved the accessible style and the fact that Lamott recognises there are many ways to write - you have to work out what methodology suits you.  I also love the encouragement in the title, drawn from real life experience when the author’s brother was overwhelmed with the enormity of a school project on birds. Their Dad fixed it by telling him to approach it Bird by Bird which is great advice for any project but particularly helpful for procrastinating writers.

7. Pick three books that have influenced or inspired you as a writer:

Only three? Gosh.

I love Gothic novels, but I think it is Wuthering Heights, that’s had the most impact on Echo Hall. When I was writing, I went back and had a look at how Nelly Dean tells Lockwood the story of Heathcliff and Cathy, to help me write Rachel’s story. For a while, I had Rachel’s son telling this to Elsie when they were trapped in a cottage overnight, but in the end, I changed it to a letter format. However, I hope something of the spookiness of Wuthering Heights remains and there are one or two nods to it in the book.

The structure of the novel is also inspired a bit by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is a series of interlocking parts. Each story is told till the halfway point, and then another story begins which has a connection to the previous. The sixth story is told in the centre of the book, and then we get the second half of the fifth, fourth etc till we are back at the beginning. I actually can’t remember if I’d worked my structure out before reading Mitchell’s book, but I certainly recognised the connection by the time I’d finished my first draft. I kept checking Cloud Atlas after that to see how the author constructed it and found that very helpful.

Finally, I reread George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying to get a sense of 1930’s life. Elsie, the second of my three heroines is living in the 1940’s but there are some flashbacks to her life before the war, and Orwell was a definite influence on those segments. He gets name-checked too.

8. Pick three desert island books - works you couldn’t live without

The Lord of the Rings. First read it aged 13 and roughly every 18 months/2 years ever since. I love it for its heroism both big and small, huge scope and sense of landscape, journey and adventure.

Cloud Atlas, because it is an astonishing journey through time and space, full of intriguing characters, interesting ideas, heartbreaking situations. Mitchell also uses language and imagery to great effect. It is stunning and I find something new every time I pick it up.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. It’s a brilliant novel about life, death, fate and God with the most heartbreaking last line ever.

9. Any words of writing wisdom?

Write the story only you can write. Develop a thick skin to deal with the critics. Work hard, experiment, learn from critique. Keep going, and believe in yourself, your time will come.

10. Let’s make a movie of your book. Give me the high-concept pitch:

Three generations of women experience love, loss and conflict during times of war. Is such conflict inevitable or can we find another way?

Social media contacts:

@aroomofmyown1 (twitter) Virginia Moffatt  & Echo Hall (Facebook)

Unbound URL: https://unbound.com/books/echo-hall/

Previous publications:

Rapture and what comes after:  Flash Fiction Collection. Gumbo Press (2014).

Non fiction.

Life without Jargon: How to help people with learning disabilities understand what you are saying (1996).

Reclaiming the Common Good: How Christians can help rebuild this broken world Darton, Longman and Todd.(2017).

‘Nothing More and Nothing Less.’ A Lent course inspired by the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. Darton, Longman and Todd. (2017).

Huge thanks to Victoria for her time and thought. Can't beat an Owen Meany fan! Echo Hall is out now, so please rush out and grab an armful of copies!

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Details on all of my books here.

 

Torc: a sneak preview of a new novel

I've got a new book coming out in a few weeks. It's called Torc. It's several things: a book set in Scotland with two young female protagonists; it's got timeslip elements as well as some historical features, being set half in the present, and half in the second century.

The book's in the final stages of being prepped and proofed at the minute; a cover's on its way as well. However, here's a heads-up on the opening...

Torc: chapter one

Ailsa stood barefoot on the sand, looking out to where the river met the sea. She loved this, the hour between night-time and daylight, and she loved the freedom that she had, that her parents gave her, to come down here on her own and be one with the morning.

The time was precious for a hundred reasons.

Because this was the hour that she could be alone. Because this was the hour she could think. Because this was the hour that she could learn about the ways that the sun and the sky and the sand and the sea worked with each other, and as one in unity. Together these elements made sense. Together they made Scotland.

An hour wasn’t enough. It would soon be over and then the day’s work would begin. When it was term time she was excused chores in the hotel that her mother and father ran, but now out of school as the summer holidays had begun, she had to do her full share, eleven years old and or not.

That was another reason to be up and out of bed, to slip on a tee-shirt and some shorts and just get down here quiet and quick. It wasn’t just about the landscape or the whisper of the sea breaking at the water’s edge. It was about claiming some time for herself.

That was all the more important now. Most children, she supposed, were like her friends at school and had the long summer weeks to go on organised family holidays or to laze around at home and do what they wanted. Ailsa’s life wasn’t like that. Her parents’ hotel was just a small one - with nine bedrooms, a bar and a restaurant - but this was their busy time of year. 

Through the winter they just about got by, mostly with walkers and climbers, sometimes the odd party of out-of-season artists or photographers, bird watchers, history nerds and archaeology fans. They came for the views and the rare species, the quiet wilderness, the heritage trail and the ancient monuments not far off. But money was tight, though she knew her Ma and Da did what they could to shield her from it, and everything relied on the summer so they’d have enough in the bank to see them through the dark slow months till the clocks went forward again and with that movement, a more certain shift in trade.

The summer customers were different. They were richer, for one thing, or at least more prepared to spend what they’d saved. And there were more of them. The hotel was pretty much booked up right through to the new school year beginning, and having all those people coming through the doors meant that everyone was expected to do more than just help out.

Breakfast was Ailsa’s allotted time; and yet another reason to be both awake and getting some time for herself right now. She was needed in the kitchen by six a.m. so that they could be ready to start serving meals by seven. Breakfast ran through till ten o’clock; sometimes people slept in late, and there were often day-trippers who’d walk in unannounced for something to eat too. They were a pain, but their custom couldn’t be turned away. Another hour, until eleven, to clean down the dining room and lay tables for lunch, and then Ailsa was free for the rest of the day.

Things were different this week though.

Ailsa was babysitting.

Not the toddler kind of babysitting; all kiddie cartoons on the telly and pretending to be enthusiastic at whatever doodles the kid had drawn or their repetitive games with toy cars or dolls or whatever. They had family staying, and that meant Ailsa was expected to entertain her cousin Tom.

Ailsa was now at the water’s edge, white foam sliding over her where the sea broke over her toes. The cold was comforting. It felt real, natural, honest. 

Da had his brother, Uncle Harry, and his wife Aunt May, staying. That meant their son, Tom, was with them too. And by ‘staying’, that was exactly what was meant. They weren’t in the spare room of the flat her family shared on the top floor of the hotel. Uncle Harry had insisted on them coming as paying guests. ‘You’re running a business, Davey,’ he’d said. ‘We’re no different from any other customer. The hotel’s got to pay its way, and that means us paying too.’

Ailsa always felt weird when she heard her Da spoken to as though he was a little brother. He was one, she supposed, to Uncle Harry, but that didn’t make it right. It sounded patronising, and besides, no-one called him by his first name. To her mother he was a soft-spoken “McCulloch” and to the few regulars that there were to be had, he was “Mr Mac” or sometimes “Cully”. To Ailsa he was “Dad” or more often and more simply “Da”. But “Davey”, “David” or any other variation? No.  

A seagull came in low over the water, grazing the waves on the down-flap of its wings, before arcing back up into the sky. It wheeled, apparently banking around for another run in the opposite direction, but then it broke off and started flying away. Maybe whatever had attracted it to the water, something glittering like moving fish, had shifted off and the gull had gone to try its luck elsewhere.

The bay faced due west, more or less. That meant the sun rose behind them, but it also meant that the sunsets could be incredible.

Flecks of sunlight caught the gull’s now-beating wings. And then the bird disappeared. Alisa stared into the still half-dark sky until watching after the bird made her eyes hurt.

That was when she realised something. Uncle Harry and the others had arrived late the night before having driven the three hours across from Edinburgh and there’d not really been the time for anything other than quick hellos.

Ailsa would see them at breakfast. Worse, she’d be taking their orders and serving them at their table.

The gull was gone, the sky empty. Ailsa couldn’t feel her toes. The comfort of the cold had turned to numbness.

Ailsa trudged back up the beach to the hotel. Today was Monday. They were staying over until Thursday morning. That meant three full days, and four breakfast sittings, to put up with cousin Tom and his stupid city smugness.

 

They’d had the hotel almost as long as Ailsa could remember. Once, when they’d been asked to write a story on their first memories, for an English class, Ailsa had filled three pages with her arrival here in Darachmouth and at The New Hotel. She could only have been two and was still being wheeled about in a buggy, but nevertheless she packed those three pages with her tight but not-yet-neat writing about the day she’d first seen the hotel; when they’d come over the little bridge which separated the car park from the hotel and found it, all white walls and black-painted windows and sign, all of it framed by the beach and sea beyond. Ma still had the exercise book she’d done the writing in, tucked away in one of the boxes in the attic along with her baby shoes and clippings from her first haircut.

Eight years ago. The way you heard grown-ups talking about it, an amount of time like eight years was nothing. They were wrong. Eight years was Ailsa’s whole life, or at least the parts of it that she could remember, and in all that time she’d never had cousin Tom staying over.

He and his family had visited, of course, and Ailsa’s own family had been over themselves to Edinburgh a few times, but not often, and never overnight.

There was something about this visit. Something different. Something off. Ailsa knew, the way you just know sometimes, without anyone in the room ever saying out loud that a problem exists, that there’s an issue.

It was there last night in the hellos when Tom and Uncle Harry and Aunt May had turned up. An awkwardness in the greetings, like they weren’t family, but strangers who’d met for the first time and had been told by others to be friendly to each other.

Ailsa got down on her haunches and pressed her hands into the wet sand. The squelching sounds the sand made when she pulled her fingers free always made her smile. Nearby there were worm-casts from lugworms, curly brown squiggles breaking up the smoothness of the sand. Maybe that’s what the bird had been on the lookout for.

Behind her, a shout. Ma, calling her in.

Ailsa turned and waved, holding her sandy left hand splayed out. Four fingers and a thumb. Five minutes. Please.

The wave and pointing-to-the-wrist gesture back was unmistakable. Okay. Five minutes. No more.

Ailsa turned back to the water and counted in her head - in elephants: one elephant, two elephants - to three hundred. By the time she finished the count, the water was up to her ankles and she couldn’t feel anything from her knees down because of the cold of the water.

Then she ran back up the beach to the hotel to get a shower and to get changed into her kitchen clothes and to begin the breakfast service.

She kept the thought of the water’s cold inside. If Tom started any of his tricks, she’d call on it to keep herself from getting mad.

At least, she'd try. 

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There we go. As always, glad to hear your responses (and your thoughts on the notion of previewing work before publication!). 

There'll be more news about Torc once the book cover and the signed-off MS is sent off for publication.

In the meantime, my Great Fire of London-set novel The Prospect of this City is out now for Kindle and in paperback.   

Harrogate History Festival

Last weekend I was over in Harrogate at the now-annual Harrogate History Festival that's organised by the Historical Writers' Association. That's three-ish days of talks over a wide range of history-related writing (both fiction and non-fiction are represented here). I didn't take session notes this time out as it wasn't a writing practice-specific set of events (there was one session on historical fiction writing, but I didn't go to it!).

 

These kinds of events are both fun, educational, and useful too. For a start, as a writer whose work tends to invoke the historical, they show that you're not alone; a big hall full of folk of all ages underlines the idea that there are people out there that are into the same sorts of stuff as you. And folk of all ages as well; Michael Morpurgo effortlessly filled the hall with three generations of readers.

So, over the weekend, I went to sessions on (deep breath) women in WWII, historical villains, WWII spies, on England's long and noble history of defeating the French, on Thomas Cromwell, on breakthrough historical fiction authors on King John and Magna Carta. Oh, and keynote-style speeches from Melvyn Bragg and Ken Follett.  A particular high point was outgoing HWA chair Manda Scott interviewing Kate Mosse - I've never been the biggest fan of Mosse's fiction, but she came across so well I went straight out and bought a copy of her novel The Taxidermist's Daughter...


So a good weekend was had, ta very much, plus I came away with a load of promo material that gave me heads-up on dozens of upcoming historical novels, and a goodie bag that included a proof of a new Alison Weir novel on Katharine of Aragon.  

The next job then is to get to the level in a year or so where I'll be on the stage! Best get cracking...

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My historical thriller The Prospect of This City  - a new take on the Great Fire of London - is now out. It's available in paperback from this very website, and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon

Derby Writers' Day 17th Oct 2015 - part 2

This is the second half of a two-part post covering Derby Writers' Day. The morning's panels are here.  As usual, these are my written-up notes; they're not a verbatim record!

1pm: Historical Fiction panel.  Panel sponsored by Writing East Midlands.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Claire Harvey, James Wilde/Mark Chadbourn (chair)

Question: how did you started?

EC: I was writing from childhood, though not published until my thirties. 

CH: 15 years from first starting to be published.  As I am newly published, I still feel an imposter.

MC: For me, short story success led to an approach.

Question: Agents?

EC: I have been with Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann for 25 years. She is especially good for foreign rights.

CH: I’ve had an agent for less than a year.

MC: I’m on my fourth agent, plus an agent for screenwriting.

Question: what makes a good agent?

EC: contacts.  Tact.  Stickability.  Someone who listens and advises.

CH: I sent work out to about seven; my agent is the only one who picked me up, but I am very happy.

MC: much depends on the individual agent’s taste.

Question: research?

EC: I have a good base line of knowledge after 25 years writing.  I now work on a need to know basis.  I use primary and secondary resources.  Plus I am a medieval re-enactor.  Research must be used organically in the novel though.

CH: I do it as I go along.  As I work in the 20th century, that means there’s an awful lot of audio visual material available, plus I can conduct interviews.

Question: trends?

EC: there were doldrums for historical fiction in the mid-1990s.  I took a cut in advances to keep published.  But there was a renaissance in the genre after the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl.  The genre is healthy at present.

MC: Roman fiction is still strong.  Also, historical fiction lends itself well to other genres.  We have not yet hit peak Roman.

Question: plot or pants?

CH: you have to write the book that you’ve got.  You can’t predict the market.

EC: in my biographical historical fiction, you have a map to follow.  I write a 16 page synopsis for my agent, and the blurb.

CH: I write a synopsis and a route plan but it’s all subject to change.

Question: what advice would you give your younger self?

EC: Edit!  Making the best it can be before it goes out into the world.

MC: I wish I’d learned more about the business side of publishing sooner.  Agents, income, genre considerations.

Question: can a writer make a living?

EC: Yes, and a good living too, in time.  You’re in it for the long haul.  Advances vary, but they are decent for me at present.  Some publishers give very small advances though, and poor sales records can haunt you for years.

MC: The trick is staying published.  There is a high attrition rate.  You have to publicise yourself these days.

EC: You have to offer more than the book.  Facebook etc.

MC: You have to treat social media as part of your business.  You are the product as much as your books.  There is an element of personal branding.

Audience Q and A:

Has steampunk impacted on Victorian?  Not sure, it’s just an aspect of Victorian.

Vocabulary? CH: my tip is to read it aloud. EC: use clear straightforward English.  The language should be a clear window to the story. MC: As long as it feels right, then the language will be all right.

Are there any publishers to avoid? MC: stick with the big five or six; that you can’t go too far wrong.  But be cautious always.  Always check out their economic model. EC: you can also check with the Society of Authors who will check a contract for you, as well and good agent. MC: small publishers struggle sometimes to get your books in shops, therefore they might make money but you might not.  The basic advance these days is 10 to 15,000.  For a big author, perhaps 50,000.  Small publishers will offer in the low thousands or perhaps even only a few 100 pounds.

When to stop?  After about six drafts.  Give yourself time and space between the drafts.  Always try to read it aloud.  Some use editorial services and get feedback.  Don’t rework part drafts; do the whole thing.

 

2 pm. Literary Fiction panel.  Alison McQueen, Alison Moore, Nicola Monaghan (chair).

First, the panel discussed definitional issues.  Literary fiction is that which might engage with weighted topics, privilege meaning over entertainment, feature an emotional journey, be judged primarily on the quality of its writing, or just a clever marketing device.

AM: Yes, real-world and online bookshops both love categories.

AMc: I dislike the term.  It’s also sexist.

NV: As well as focusing on the middle-class and the white.

AMc: Some so-called literary fiction can be verbose, dense, and portentous in its writing.

NV: Marketing loves categories.

AMc: Yes, there can be an element of snobbery.

NV: Genre fiction can address social topics and be as well written as any literary fiction.

AMc: Does your voice stay the same when writing literary/genre?

AM: Yes, though horror-specific writing will naturally lean towards a darker tone.

AMc: My five Housewife books had some of the darkness toned down by the publisher. You don’t want the reader running for a dictionary. Having a copywriting background helps.  I try to be as clear as possible. The industry loves pigeon holes. After the five Housewife books, I was done, and broke my contract.

MV: Voice develops all the time.  As does process.

AM: Process stays the same for me, the context changes.

AMc: Writing process is endlessly fascinating; the things that other writers do.  I’m always looking for tips.

Some people prefer chaos, whereas other.  Others preferred detailed Excel spreadsheets!

Question: how did you get your break?

AM: Through short stories; that's how I met my agent and editor Nicholas Royle.

AMc: Competitions can be really useful.  My original contract didn’t mention ebooks, so I didn’t get paid when Macmillan published ebooks of my first Housewife novels.  Rejection is part and parcel of the industry.  You have to get on board with the knockbacks.  Many authors are increasingly dissatisfied with the publishers.  Self-publishing is a real option these days.

NV: Yes, I’m sensing optimism from self-publishing circles.

AM: There are some good independents out there also.

NV: But distribution can be an issue for independents.  Also self-publishers may not face rejection and so not learn from it.

Question: what’s your voice?

AM: I’ve never been taught.  I’m guided by my characters, plus the time and mood of the piece.  Many writers have recurring themes.

AMc: I’ve had no training either.  Voice is ½ invisible watermark; it's always there somewhere.  Voice is recognisable in good writers.  Be honest and authentic and it will come through.  Strip away the bullshit.

Question: what about endings?  Is literary fiction less plot-driven?

AM: Yes, but if it’s good, there will be all the ingredients there.

NV: Genre doesn’t have to be closed.  The good novels carry on inside the readers.

AM: Screenplays need more plot.  I’ve supplied additional notes to clarify the ending of the book for the screenplay version of my novel The Lighthouse.

 

3 pm Keynote panel: Are writers thriving or surviving?  Emma Bamford, Elizabeth Chadwick, Alex Davis (chair), Stan Nicholls.

Q: What changes over time have you seen?

EC: The internet, the rise of small press and self-publishing. Also there are more people writing, and being enabled by writing.

SN: Nowadays you get one shot. Talent isn’t nurtured. Also, “bestseller” status has changed; it’s almost a meaningless term nowadays. You have to be versatile and adaptable. There’s a resurgence in short fiction, but there are fewer paying markets.

Q: What qualities do you need to be a writer?

EB: Perseverance, an element of luck. Also, you can’t afford to be precious. Everyone gets edited. Everyone gets rejected. You need marketing skills and a thick skin. You need to be able to operate in both the online and the “real” world.

SN: Publisher support isn’t there to the same extent that it was. Most books don’t turn a profit; it’s a bit of a lottery at times. Also, there are so many books out there. The publisher’s role as gatekeeper is still relevant, but it’s not the whole story.

EB: I agree. You have to give more than just the book these days – such as extras online and via social media. Structured interactivity, especially via Facebook, is important – you can build a community of readers via networking. However, you can’t do this cynically, and you must beware that you don’t oversell your books.

Q: are livelihoods being squeezed?

EB: I recall a 2002 survey that said that average writer earnings were around £10K. A much more recent survey estimated that figure to now be £8K. In other words, you need a day job.   

SN: The industry’s always looking for new blood, though, and large advances are out there for newish writers. In many ways publishing is a 19th century industry trying to take on board the 20th century while being in the 21st!

Independent presses are doing as good a job as the majors, but they can struggle to get distribution. I’d like my work to get to a readership, even if it’s not a huge one.

It’s best not to get into writing for the money.

EC: At the end of the day you have to reach your readers, so give yourself the best edge that you can.

Floor questions:

What issues should we be wary of as writers?

EB: Always check out publishers that aren’t household names. Check contract terms and conditions carefully.

EC: Both the Society of Authors and any decent literary agent, if you have one, will be able to give contractual guidance. There are also good sites like Predators and Editors.

SN: I’ve seen some shocking contracts being offered to writers. Be wary. There are vanity presses and sharks out there, and they prey on the gullible and the desperate. There are no short cuts.

AD: Also, self-publishing is increasingly an option.  

Question: Self-publishing – Yes or No?

EC: I like the idea of mixing and matching. Some of my backlist novels would be ripe for self-publishing, though I probably wouldn’t consider it for new work unless I had no other option.

EB: I like the idea of the control of self-publishing. But one would have to be really brave to walk away from a traditional publishing deal. That said, self-publishing can work really well for genre fiction.

SN: So many self-published books sell under a hundred copies though. I might consider self-publishing passion projects. There is still a stigma to self-publishing in some quarters.

AD: “Hybrid” authors who self-publish and are traditionally published simultaneously are growing in numbers all the time.

Q: What tips have you got for promoting yourself online?

EB: Be authentic

SN: Give bonuses – free shorts and extra chapters, for example. Also, involve people in some way. Devise interesting competitions.

Q: How best to grab readers while they’re young?

SN: Write something good! The challenge in the digital world is copyright protection. A whole generation is used to the idea of free content.

EB: Be cinematic. Jump cuts and short chapters.

EC: Short paragraphs. Be punchy.

Q: What good news is out there for writers?

EB: Writing is rewarding in and of itself. Do it for that reason. Not for fame or riches.

SN: When you get random contact from strangers saying that your writing’s had a positive effect on them or their life in some way. You can’t beat that. Also, you keep learning, so don’t be put off.

And with that, the session and the day ended. Thanks again to the event organisers and sponsors!

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My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now in paperback from this very website and in Kindle ebook and paperback via Amazon.  

Guest blog post at A Writer of History

There's a guest blog post by me over at Mary K Tod's excellent historical fiction site A Writer of History.

Mary's site is a fine resource for anyone interested in historical fiction, with plenty for fans of the genre and for writers alike (and those of us - like me - who are both!). 

My piece is on character design in historical fiction and can be found here.   

My own historical novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available from me (signed if you prefer!) and in both paperback and ebook via Amazon

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 2

Continuing on from the previous post, here's the second excerpt from the PhD thesis that I wrote alongside Prospect's original version.

This section discusses genre definitions, historical fiction, thrillers, inspirations and contexts of the novel's writing, and some of the practical issues involved in writing a fiction set within a defined and well-known historical context.


On the face of it, Prospect may be categorised generically as an historical novel, in that the book is set in a specific real-world past, that of the years following the 1660 restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and to a significant date and event within that, the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Historical fiction, as both de Groot and Green (2011: 59) note, is undergoing something of a commercial and critical renaissance. Hilary Mantel’s back-to-back successes in Man Booker Prize terms with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies being perhaps the most conspicuous example of the turn in making ‘historical fiction respectable again’ (Jeffries 2012) .

That said, the historical in itself does not necessarily lend itself to accuracy in terms of genre identification; the temporal location of the (or indeed, any) novel’s events doesn’t necessarily provoke a kind of novel in itself. As someone who’s unpublished in the novel form, there are no clues which might be deduced from my name in the way that a potential reader might assume certain (albeit differentiated) expectations from a recognised thriller writer such as Lee Child or John Le Carre or indeed historical novelists such as Bernard Cornwell or Lindsey Davis.    

The concept of genre is usually bound up with that of with questions of narrative, though Mullan offers useful additional definitions: story is what happens in the novel, narrative is the way the story is told, plot being the ‘causal chain that connects events and characters (2008: 169 - 70). Bulman defines genre as meaning ‘kind, sort, type or category’ (2007: 104). Genres often indicate plot archetypes - romance, thriller, science-fiction, and horror - though may not always communicate much by way of specifics.

The term ‘historical novel’ doesn’t necessarily do this in quite the same way, though it may suggest an approach that the author might take in telling their story. Johnson (2005: 1) offers an opening definition of historical fiction as that which is ‘set before the middle of the last century and [where] the author is working from research rather than personal experience’. De Groot focuses on the ways which the genre ‘fundamentally challenges subjectivities, offering multiple identities and historical story lines’ (2010: 139). This latter definition was where I was headed, though in the early parts of the project I was burdening myself with the assumption that there was an imperative to deliver history and fiction rather than fiction that was in some way historical.   

To acclimatise myself to the genre I set myself the task of reading as much historical fiction as I could. I put parameters around the reading: I’d restrict myself where possible to English-set historical fiction, and to work by practising authors and to work set pre-1800. This was to limit the reading to something manageable and also to give it some coherence, and partly to give myself an overview of the condition of historical fiction as it is now. By reading in depth, I could better understand the genre: what worked and what didn’t work for me within it. I looked for London-set novels where possible. So I read over one hundred and fifty historical novels between 2008 and 2012. In doing this, I found out a huge amount about what was and wasn’t interesting to me within the genre. These ideas fed into the structuring, writing and rewriting of Prospect.

The Prospect of This City began as another book altogether.  In 2006 I’d started writing a novel as a response to the July 7th 2005 bombings.  I’d been in central London that day (I live in Lincolnshire and had taken the week off to help my brother set up his final show for his BA in Fine Art). The experience of being at once close to and distant from that event was in many ways thrilling.  The novel I’d started (though it was never completed) concerned a young man with Down’s syndrome who worked in the backroom of a flagship London chain bookstore as a cleaner.  A set of terrorist attacks similar to the 7/7 ones occur, and the young man tries to make sense of them.  He begins a journey around London, visiting friends, churches, a mosque, asking questions and trying to work out why someone would seek to kill themselves and others in service of a faith-related cause. Eventually he decides that the only way to understand the act is to replicate it.

I put the project on hold at about the 30,000 word mark.  In part this was because I’d prepared inadequately for the project.  I’d written from a random start point with little in the way of organised planning, character thought or forward plotting. I ran out of steam. Also, I’d been concerned that the book was too similar to Mark Haddon’s The Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which had been a recent success in critical and commercial terms (Freeman: 2006), and that I’d grafted Haddon’s naive protagonist onto the terrorism-related premise without sufficient thought.  Any resulting book would seem, I determined, an emulation of Haddon’s.

The idea behind Prospect came along at the same time.  My intent was to write the two novels back-to-back, exploring in different but related ways aspects of the city, of terrorism, of faith extremism and its dark possibilities; one from a contemporary standpoint, one with an historical bias.  An element of this was derived from JG Farrell’s The Siege of KrishnapurThe Singapore Grip and Troubles, novels which individually and collectively critique aspects of the British Empire.  Again, the idea was one of emulation: to examine terrorism in a manner similar to how Farrell had his.  I had nebulous ideas for a third book, a contemporary thriller involving a forgotten IRA arms cache, the son of a soldier killed on active duty in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, and video evidence of a hushed-up atrocity committed by M16 officers acting undercover inside a terrorist cell.

The Prospect of This City was to be the second-written of the three books.  I didn’t feel confident in starting an historical piece first, so I went with one of the others, thinking  that a present-day setting and direct references to contemporary issues would make for more straightforward writing.

I was wrong. I wasn’t ready to write a full novel. I licked my wounds and in time I turned to Prospect. I felt sure that there was enough in the log-line: ‘a race-against time conspiracy thriller set during the Great Fire of London’ to be able to construct something, though in 2006 I had little in the way of potential character ideas, of detailed plotting or specific knowledge of the period. 

Though I had not investigated in depth, it felt that the Restoration was relatively underused as a setting for novels and within that, there was space for the Fire to be explored.  My hope was that approaches would be provoked by doing the reading. 

As it was, two novels had already presented themselves as models. These were Thomas Harris’s second Hannibal Lecter novel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Frederick Forsyth’s thriller The Day of the Jackal.  In particular I was taken with the mentor-student relationship between Lecter and FBI trainee Clarice Starling, and with the implacable nature of Forsyth’s unnamed assassin. From these I took guidance on the fascination that procedure can bring. Harris details FBI protocols on search and entry, on forensics and pathology, on painstaking leg-work.  Forsyth generates suspense by juxtaposing twin processes. The novel shifts from observing the assassin’s preparations to intercutting between his progress towards Paris, where he intends to strike, and police commissioner Lebel’s methodical approach to securing the positive identification of the hit man. Though I wasn’t interested in writing either a cat-and-mouse thriller nor one which focused on a dogged investigator, I was interested in the planning, assembly and execution of an event, and in the particularities involved.

My own short stories evidenced repeated use of compressed timeframes or real time narration. The ‘race against time’ aspect of my logline resonated here; I wanted to construct a story that took place in as short a period as I could justify. The finished novel, an epilogue aside, is related over two and a half days, with the last 40,000 words before the coda - from the start of the Fire to the novel’s climax - covering perhaps five hours. 

 Some of this came from my interest in compact timeframes, some was necessitated by the records and retellings of the Fire itself.  In essence, my narrative could not tell the whole story of the Fire, as there was no single climactic event to work a whole-Fire narrative towards. 


The next section's a bit spoilery, so I'll leave it there for the time being, and I'll post up some more material from the reflective thesis in a few days' time, once I've cut out sections that are focused on plot specifics and suchlike. 

The Prospect of This City is available in paperback and Kindle ebook here

Behind the scenes of The Prospect of This City, part 1

 

My novel The Prospect of This City was originally written as part of a PhD in Creative Writing I studied between 2009 and 2013. The now-published version isn't identical to that submitted for the course (and there's a post for another time right there in the alterations made and the rationales for them), but it's pretty close. 

Alongside the creative work that I submitted, there was a dissertation about an aspect of the experience of the novel's writing. Mine was called "Mapping the author in The Prospect of This City". Hmm. I'm not sure that I'd go with that title now, but there you are.   

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be posting up (fairly lengthy) excerpts from that accompanying non-fiction work. Some of it will be rewritten/clarified from the submitted version, but it'll be substantively the same. 

If nothing else, it records how the book was written, the decisions and choices made along the way, and the reasons underpinning them, as well as an account of the different kinds of research done. some interest here if you're into writing generally, historical fiction more specifically, or the kind of work that might go into writing a book. 

I'll include the (somewhat weighty) bibliography as the last blog post in this sequence. 

At the point where we get potentially spoiler-y for those of you who haven't read Prospect yet (and why not, if you haven't?), I'll flag it up in advance. Don't worry this time around though, as there's nothing that'll let anything too contentious plot/character-wise out of the bag in this post. 

Here we go with the first excerpt. This is approximately the first half of chapter one of the dissertation.


The Prospect of This City (hereafter referred to as Prospect) begins in the days immediately prior to and continues into the first few hours of the start of the 1666 Great Fire of London. Having the Fire be a setting for a novel-length thriller narrative was not an idea that I had come across. This was both surprising and pleasing to me as the Fire seemed like an obvious event to use to structure this kind of story. This apparent lack was enough in itself to assure me that there were stories here, stories that had not been told before. This feeling was backed up by Sarah Johnson’s exhaustive 2005 librarians’ catalogue Historical Fiction: A Guide To The Genre.

That’s not to say that the Fire hasn’t been a feature of much fiction, occasionally conjoined in story with its immediate predecessor in terms of a nationally-significant event, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 - 5. Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance Old St Paul’s is a melodramatic yarn of obsession, thwarted love, prophecy, destruction and redemption across the two disasters. GA Henty’s 1895 When London Burned covers similar terrain.

This linking of Plague and Fire is also an organising feature of Mary Hooper’s At The Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes (grounding their narratives in Plague and Fire respectively), and continues to the present, as indicated by CC Humphreys’ recently announced two - book deal for novels entitled simply Plague and Fire (Williams 2012).

The approach wasn’t of interest to me, because I had seen it done before and because I was unconvinced of the usefulness in linking the two very different disasters together, except in the minds of those who sought conspiracy theories and thus could make their own connections from events which were otherwise coincidental to each other.

Nevertheless, I maintain an interest in the potential in fiction of conspiracy and it was my intent to articulate this in Prospect. Chapter Two looks at this in more detail.

The Fire, though it appears as backdrop in novels as diverse as in Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Tom Holland’s vampire saga Deliver Us From Evil, has often been confined in writing as a subject for younger readers. The Fire is often taught at primary school, where it’s used to exemplify breadth of study, wherepast events from the history of Britain and the wider world (for example, events such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Olympic Games, other events that are commemorated)’ in Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum (Department for Education 2012).

There are many supporting texts written for Key Stage learners such as Lynne Benton and Peter Cottrill’s The King and the Great Fire and Margaret Nash and Jane Cope’s Toby and the Great Fire of London. Children’s novels set in and around the time of the Fire such as Pippa Goodhart’s Raven Boy may be also considered here.

I felt secure, however, at the project’s outset that there was a space for a Fire-set novel and that this wasn’t over-worked ground, particularly as I had no interest in conflating Plague and Fire. That’s a position that hasn’t since altered.

The idea that there was an element of awareness of the event residual from childhood history lessons, general knowledge and the like was an appeal, as was the open-endedness of the Fire. As the Fire was not ended by human agency, but rather by the prevailing winds changing and by the exhausting of the fuel supply of London’s goods and property (Bell: 226), there was the challenge and opportunity to invent a climax that was not tied to a fixed historical conclusion.

The Fire has been used in more allegorical ways. Peter Ackroyd’s first novel and Jacques Roubard’s non-fiction memoir, both titled The Great Fire of London make reference to the symbolic power of the destructive event, though neither are concerned with the history. The use of the Fire for its symbolic potential was something that I was interested in exploring from the beginning of the project.

The use of an event of national or wider significance to echo / refract a protagonist’s dilemma is a standard fictional ploy. One significant recent strand of this concerns 9/11 and in particular the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, referenced in novels as diverse as William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Another is the writing commenting on, analysing and - crucially for me, replaying - the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. Such fictional representations, as Knight has it, raise “fundamental questions about the connection between conspiracy plot and narrative plot; about the nature of character, agency and causality; about the relationship between fictional narrative and historical truth” (2007: 105). These are all areas in which Prospect, as it developed, has fostered interest.    

I wanted Prospect to use a historical event to make some kind of commentary or at least allusion to recent happenings. In Prospect, the faith-driven terrorist Challis plots to engineer the destruction of a major city landmark in ways paralleling those of Mohammad Atta and his cohort. Prospect, I thought, could consider the contemporary world. But it would not site its drama in the aftermath of 9/11, as in the novels mentioned above. Instead, Prospect would prefigure the present day in the past.

I was interested in the idea that history repeats itself. Indeed the Fire was rumoured at the time to have been a revisiting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James I in which the destruction of Parliament by dissident Catholics was barely averted (Tinniswood: 161), and so we should perhaps not see occurrences like 9/11 as necessarily unique, but merely the most recent and vivid iteration of a pattern of events played out before and will doubtless be re-enacted again.

The question of fidelity to the historical record in genre fiction is an ongoing topic of discussion in academic, readership and professional writing circles. Though the parameters of that discussion are outside the scope of this reflective thesis, it should be acknowledged that a range of opinions exist and are of concern to authors, to readers and to commentators also. To some extent, this reflection is my take on that debate, by way of extended example. This is what I did, how, when and why.

Outside of the perhaps necessarily subjective nature of history as a discipline and the obvious point that historical fiction, by its nature, will make play with aspects of the past, one of the purposes of the genre is to find points where the two (history and fiction) may be combined. The medievalist Ian Mortimer’s useful concept of ‘free history’ might be employed here: ‘the totality of all possible human engagements with the evidence relating to a past event or state of being’ (Mortimer 2008: 1).  For Mortimer, free history ‘lies somewhere between “what happened in the past” and “what historians do”, being less than the former and more than the latter. It encompasses the full extent of activities which could be considered “historical”’ (2008: 8). This includes historical fiction, where, as de Groot puts it: ‘novelists concentrate on the gaps between known factual history and that which is lived’ (2010: 3).   

For a novel to go too far in the direction of the factual/historical, the effect might well be akin to an animated textbook. Go too far in the other direction though, and the end result might well be pastiche, romance, or maybe fantasy. That may not necessarily make for bad fiction, but unless the genre boundaries are understood by author, the publishing profession (and its retail ancillaries) and readers alike, the possibility of a text being rejected because it does not align itself in a genre-appropriate fashion is raised.

Thus, authors who are associated with historical fiction are keenly aware of the need to be identifiably, if not authoritatively, persuasive in their genre credentials. At one end of this spectrum, the author might be a recognised historian and/or have a parallel career in academia. Contemporary British examples include Roman scholar Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome series, 2009 onwards) and the above-mentioned Mortimer, who publishes Elizabethan-set thriller fiction under his middle names James Forrester (2009 onwards).

Notwithstanding those badges of authenticity - or at least of verifiable expertise in the historical - authors need to ensure that their texts are seen to be based on historically accurate source material and that licences and adaptations taken and made to the record are documented to have been taken into consideration.

This may be evidenced in several ways. Some, like the author biography, links to personal and publishing company websites, social media contacts, and fly page lists of other publications, are perhaps standard across many genres.

The author’s note, usually (though not exclusively) appended as a suffix to the book, is an inclusion so common to become almost a genre expectation within the historical. Some are brief, light-hearted, offer a couple of pointers for additional reading and give thanks and acknowledgements. Others run to several pages and give a more in-depth background to the historical contexts of the fiction being presented, often with acknowledgement of omissions, elisions and/or changes to the sources used in the piece’s development. This may also feature an extensive bibliography. Some authors use a non-fiction preface. The most common textual inclusion is a map. Some novels include dramatis personae. At one extreme, the 2012 paperback edition of Michael Jecks’ King’s Gold contains, in order and before the first chapter: a glossary of technical terms, a cast of characters, an author’s note, a map of London and a second map of the River Avon.

The purpose of these paratextual additions is to attempt to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader: the fiction is derived from authentic and verifiable occurrences.  In addition, there’s an opportunity to showcase the author’s knowledge and historical bona fides as well as their elisions and inventions. There’s also an opportunity to refer to ‘awareness of the strange project in which they are involved’ (de Groot 2010: 7-10) in presenting an amalgam of fact and fiction as a historically-relatable invented past. Within the novel itself, the historical fiction author may have to navigate between creating plausible dramatics, explaining specific terminology and contexts for the unfolding drama.

To some extent, if the contextual burden is being carried by extra-textual materials (and in series, by predecessor and successor novels) then the authorial responsibility to explain within the fiction might be eased. The extent that this is generically tolerable, notwithstanding the possibility that a reader may / may not skip the preface pages and dive straight into the first chapter,  and / or ignore any appendices, may vary from reader to reader.

This tendency is particularly evident in paperback editions, where along with the aforementioned inclusions, the edition may also include author interviews, reading group questions and also the first few pages or chapters of the next volume in the sequence, the newer book often appearing in hardback at an approximate time to the paperback of its predecessor (Wilde 2012, Parris 2012 as examples).

This may have the effect of stimulating sales of the series, of reminding the reader that there’s more to come and perhaps ‘upgrading’ the reader from paperback to hardback purchases, and thus provoking a spike in revenue, both in terms of the price uplift between hard- and paperback edition and in terms of recency, foreshortening the buying of the next volume from the next paperback release (perhaps a year away) to the immediately-available hardback. This would map across to ebook sales; UK ebook pricing tends to shadow the most current paper edition.

Prospect does not feature these inclusions, and indeed was written to be self-supporting without them, but it’s recognised that they’re generically appropriate and may even be seen as necessary in a potential published version’s ‘package’. There are some indications, if only in the reading I did while working on this project, that this pattern isn’t followed through to those novels which may be historical in terms of setting but are positioned as literary works rather than genre ones. Representative examples include Clare Clark’s The Great Stink (2005) and Maria McCann’s The Wilding (2010) where additional material is limited to brief acknowledgements after the novel.

However, whatever the usefulness in additional material being presented with the novel text may be (added value to the purchased product, familiarisation, verisimilitude, the provoking of authenticity and accuracy in the fiction, showcasing of research, offering follow-on reading as possible examples), Prospect needs to be able to stand on its own. The idea of the novel being self-contained in these terms was important from the outset.

Notwithstanding this, the title The Prospect of This City is derived from a map. The phrase appears in an inset picture and accompanying description of London of ‘The Prospect of This City as it appeared from the opposite Southwark side in the fire time’ within Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1667 diagram of the extent of the damage to the city (National Archives 2012).  I’d bought a print of the map as one of my first acts of the project. Those words stuck, and so became the title and, over time, provided me with the book’s climax.  

The more I thought about it, the more promise the idea of the map held in articulating positions that I’d begun to take. Maps were everywhere in the books, not least in my personal favourite novel, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1984), which opens with a diagram of the abbey in which the drama is located and is concerned with the need for a map with which to navigate the labyrinthine forbidden library at the novel’s centre, the library itself organised as though it were a map of the world (Rice 2003: 249-354). I was also taken with the conceit of the historical novel as a kind of map itself, a map of a fictionalised version of a real past. A research notebook entry of mine from 2010 reads:

Novels are symbolic, not iconic. But they don’t help themselves because they encourage being seen as iconic through (visual) signs such as covers, maps, etc. And by non-fiction supplements intended to be decoded as iconic rather than symbolic. 

 

In discussing Eco’s novel, but expanding his point more generally, Rice (2003: 350) comments:

 

the artist encodes meaning, maps cognitively a conceptual space, a world that the audience decodes by a reciprocal mental mapping process. That, of course, does not mean that these maps are interchangeable or simply superimposed upon one another; they are supplemental.

 

Perhaps the definitive statement on this comes from Jorge Luis Borges (though the concept may be traced back to Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded). The Borges short fiction On Exactitude in Science posits a map of identical size and scale to the real empire that it’s based on (Eco 1998b: 84). This map/territory conundrum - that the map is not the territory, and not only should the two not be confused for each other but that to accept the map (or the copy) over the territory (or the real), itself exhaustively dissected by Umberto Eco (1998b: 85-94) stayed with me throughout the research, writing and reflective periods of the project.    

The issue of the relationship between the historical and the novelistic, long an area of contention within the field of historical fiction, felt analogous here. The novel is not the history in ways similar to those indicating that the map is not to be confused with the territory. There may be relationships and referents between the two, but one (the novel, or the map, to follow the analogy) is not the other (the historical background of the novel, or the territory).

I saw that there were freedoms and opportunities here. Understanding that my obligations to the Fire and its personages were not ones of literal, mimetic reproduction or ones of exactitude was a liberating one, and ones which I’d not fully taken into consideration in the novel’s planning and early iterations. I’d been overly preoccupied with the former rather than the latter word in the phrase ‘historical novel’. This reflection is the closest I’m going to get to producing such a map, because, as I came to understand, that burden of obligation doesn’t need to be borne by the novel.  


That's the end of this excerpt. More in a few days (the posts will be tagged "Behind the scenes"). And here comes the hard sell: Prospect is available here

The second excerpt's here