On tour in my slippers

I’ll be travelling around some splendid blogs run by other people this week, dropping by for a virtual chat or stepping back while other people review “Vita Brevis” or post excerpts. Some will be offering giveaways, too. The schedule’s below, and there might be an additional stop along the way – I’ll post that link if it happens.

The first stop (1 October) is chez John at The Last Word Book Review – just click the type in red to join us.

Blog tour schedule

 

 

 

VITA BREVIS is (almost) out in the UK!

At last! The hardback of VITA BREVIS, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Rome, goes on sale in the UK tomorrow (22 September). Vita Brevis HB coverYou can read the beginning here.

This publication is less nerve-wracking than usual because the book’s already been released in the US and in other formats here, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s said kind things about it.  It may well come to a bookshop or library near you, and is available online (see below). But…  the mighty Amazon UK don’t have it in stock. It’s probably a glitch that’ll be fixed before I’ve finished typing this*, but I was surprised – and ashamed, to be honest – by how alarmed I felt at facing publication day without the Big A on board. (*LATER – it wasn’t, but it is now.)

All of which left me thinking that life must have been so much simpler in the days when a book was either on the shelf in front of you, or it wasn’t. So I took a little look back to the early 1900’s, when one small seaside resort in Devon could support FIVE circulating libraries/bookshops, all competing for the cash of locals and visitors alike:Advertisement for circulating library

As each library was run on a subscription basis, readers would have to choose between them. (Maybe things weren’t as different then as we imagine. It’s not so far from the Netflix/Prime/Other-subscriptions-are-available debate, is it?) There’s a refreshing honesty about the advertising, though:

Advertisement for library

Perhaps the deciding factor would be price.

List of subscription prices

Hm. Shall I buy a year’s access to Class A books, or nine gallons of stout?

Brewery price list

Rather than commit to a subscription, you could always buy books outright from the same shop.

WH Smith advert for Cheap Editions

Some of the books on sale would be published on the premises. Indeed, should you wish to write your own book, pens and paper would be readily available to purchase. Sadly delivery by drone was not on offer, but someone from Vince’s would obligingly wheel your books through the streets to you in a splendid wooden hand-cart. (I used to have a photo of this but annoyingly, I can’t find it.)

Full marks to Vince’s yet again for imaginative marketing…

Advert for paper to make hats with

I have no idea why enough people might want a paper hat to warrant the cost of the advertisement. Maybe they were sunning themselves on the beaches? It’s a reminder that despite the parallels, those were very different times. Here’s an advertisement from the autumn of 1914.

Advert for maps made by Englishmen

I like to think we’ve moved on. And mindful of the awful events about to engulf the readers of these advertisements, I think I’ve got that mere hiccup on a 21st century website back into some sort of proportion.

 

The research for this post was done at the delightful Ilfracombe Museum.

* VITA BREVIS is available from bookshops or online at:

Bloomsbury UK

Hive

Blackwells (who also own Heffers in Cambridge, where I believe there is stock on the shelf.)

Waterstones

The Book Depository

Amazon UK

If anyone has any other suggestions, please share.

 

“We have to hope that our characters will forgive us…”

“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.

Sign out conference hall HNS OXFORD 16

I’ve never been to the Historical Novel Society conference before, but after last weekend I’m wondering why. It was splendid. If you want to read a well thought-out blog piece about it, there’s one in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want a few photos, some scrappy notes and some Anglo-Saxons banging their shields and yelling, then, dear reader, you are in the right place.

The problem with reporting on writing events is that my photos are often – quite frankly – a bit boring. They’re mostly:Tracey Chevalier giving a talk

Panels – a row of people behind a row of tables.

Discussions – two or three people looking at each other across a low table.

Talks – one person behind a lectern. Or standing beside a table. Could be anybody, because they’re too far away to tell. On the right: Tracey Chevalier, Richard Lee of the HNS, an illegible screen and the backs of two heads.  Luckily the talk was much better than my photography.

The Dinner – lots of people leaning against each other and looking cheerful around a big table.

After the dinner–  people standing around clutching drinks and looking very cheerful, despite the absence of tables.

Whilst these sort of pictures are fine if you know the people involved, or if you have always wondered what the person who wrote that hideous torture scene might look like, they aren’t exciting. So, I have vowed to take (or at least show) no more of them.

In future, any panel that can’t come up to the standard of Paula Lofting and Regia Anglorum‘s “How to Build a Shield Wall” isn’t going to get a look-in.

Photo of re-enactors with shields and javelins

Although they might get a quote, because some things are too good not to pass on.

For instance, Jo Baker‘s contention that “Books start to be historical when the clothes start to be vintage.”

Melvyn Bragg‘s “History and fiction have been intermingled for ever. Herodotus made up the speeches for his Histories.”

Gillian Bagwell‘s hints on “Giving your writing the reading it deserves” including, Memorize the first line so you can look at the audience. (I’d never thought of that.)

Rory Clements on “Writing the Historical Thriller” – “If you find it easy, you are not putting enough effort in. You could do more.”

Hazel Gaynor on reclusive writers engaging with booksellers – “I’m putting my Brave Trousers on, and I’m going out!”

Carole Blake‘s sage advice to aspiring writers – “Ask around – don’t be so grateful that you accept an offer regardless.”

But where, you may be asking by now, are the Anglo-Saxons beating their shields? Was that them, above? No, there’s more. We’ll get there in a minute. First, I’d like to celebrate the glorious Battle of Fulford tapestry. (Not, as I inadvertently called it on Twitter, “the Battle of Fulford Tapestry,” an otherwise unknown medieval skirmish over needlework). It’s six metres long, it was displayed at the conference by its designer, Chas Jones, and you can find out all about it on this website. You may recognise the style.

Work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry

 

7

And this is how they got those lovely colours for the wool. I tried to turn all the labels around the right way before taking the photo, so with luck you can zoom in and read most of them.

Skeins of wool dyed with natural materials

There was, of course, a very fine Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.The guests included Queen Boudica, an elf, a witch, a monk, Tilla (or rather me, wearing her clothes), a gondolier, and Mrs Lincoln. On looking at the photos it’s clear that Tilla enjoyed the evening a little too much and all the photos she took were a bit blurry. This is her best effort at Mary Todd Lincoln, whose splendid outfit won first prize in the costume pageant.

Photo of lady dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln

So that, gentle reader, was a very brief roundup of some of the highlights of the HNS conference. In the year that marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we will leave the final word to Harold Godwinson’s men. Some of whom are women. But as they say about historical fiction, it’s all lies anyway.

 

 

VITA BREVIS, published today – and a caption competition.

Vita Brevis HB coverI’m delighted to announce that Ruso and Tilla’s seventh adventure, set in the great city of Rome itself, is now available on an e-reader near you! Find out more about it here.

If you live in the USA, Canada or Cambridge*, VITA BREVIS should also be available in a bookshop.  (*The fine folk at Heffers Bookshop have arranged a few sneaky imports in time for their Summer 2016 Crime Party on Thursday.)

Paper copies will set sail across the Atlantic before long and, with a fair wind and strong rowers, should arrive in September.

To apologise for the delay, here’s a caption competition! The best caption sent in from the UK or Ireland for the photo below by the end of July wins a signed copy of VITA BREVIS. Friends from elsewhere are very welcome to enter but sadly you will win only the honour of keeping us all amused.

Mosaic of woman (?) confronting naked man

What’s going on here? We need to know!

Badly dressed for the Bard

Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of  local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.

Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?

Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered.  We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.

Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.

Bag with pic of Shakespeare and "The Bard is my Bag" printed on it.

And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know),   Victoria Eveleigh.

IMG_20160425_132950412_HDR

 

 

A YEAR OF RAVENS: A NOVEL OF BOUDICA

Lest anyone should think absolutely nothing’s been happening at Downie Towers while the  editor was drafting her feedback on Ruso 7 – here’s news of a completely independent project. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the award-nominated team who put together A Day of Fire last year, and this is what we’ve been up to:

A YEAR OF RAVENS: a novel of Boudica

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Celt . . . and these are their stories. 

A novel in seven parts by Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Celts who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

Due for release November 2015.

There’s a page for the Facebook-savvy here where you can find out the latest. Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions of what the great queen might have looked like. I can’t help thinking they tell us as much about their creators as they do about the woman herself.

According to Dio Cassius, Boudica was “very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh;  a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”

Here’s an eighteenth century take from John Opie:

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons.  John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.
Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

 

Thomas Thornycroft’s Victorian version is on the Embankment in London:

Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK
Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK

 

And here’s one created this very morning!

Layout 1

The pleasure of being a guest

I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo.  Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.

Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.

 

.Rainbow over cliffs at Hadrians Wall

Judging a blog by its cover

The nice people at the publishers have decided that it’s time to redesign the covers for the Medicus series,  so we’ll be raising the tone with a little classical sculpture. TABULA RASA has a view of The Weary Hercules – I’m sure that’s exactly how Ruso sees himself at times – clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides.

This is the sort of reference that cheers authors enormously because those same apples are mentioned briefly in the book.  It’s always flattering to think that the person who designs the covers has taken the time to read what’s inside them. (You might think this is a pre-requisite, but you’d be surprised – look what someone did to Henry James. And surely that’s not even a screw, but a nut?)

I’m not sure the actual cover is as bright as the picture here, which I have to admit clashes with the header of the blog. This may leave you wondering what right I have to be sarcastic about other people’s design choices. Meanwhile, let’s move on to the rather lovely new cover for the paperback edition of SEMPER FIDELIS:

Cover of Semper Fidelis paperback

Both of these should be available in the US and Canada in August, and in Britain in October.

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.

 

 

Emergency surgery with a biro

I’ve just finished checking through the proofs of the next Ruso novel, TABULA RASA, which will be out in the summer. (It’s set during the building of Hadrian’s Wall, in case anyone’s wondering.) Either Bloomsbury’s typesetters are impressively accurate or I’m a rubbish proofreader, because there seemed to be hardly any typos to correct. So, things were all going along very nicely – until the point where a character was mentioned as a ‘son’ and two pages later, miraculously transformed into a daughter.

This is a manuscript that has already been past agents, an editor, a copy editor and a production manager. You might be wondering why none of them had spotted the blunder until now – but I suspect it’s a case of author interference.

Every professional edit means the author has to re-read and approve any amendments. Being a chronic ditherer, when I re-read I stumble across things I wrote that I no longer like, and I can’t resist the urge to tinker. The further down the line these changes are made, the fewer chances the professionals have to rescue me from my own stupidity.

I can remember noticing at a fairly late stage that there was a disproportionate number of boys in the book. So with a few strokes of the keyboard (ah, the power of the written word!) I created a girl – but only, it seems, in one place.  The typesetters, whose job is not to reason why, accurately reproduced what they were given. Fortunately there was time to take a biro to the manuscript and complete the sex change before it went to print. So Husband’s suggestion of, “Call them Hermaphrodite,” wasn’t necessary. But I did think it was rather a good joke.

LATER – since hitting ‘Publish’ on this post I’ve found and corrected three typos already… this is why publishers pay people who really do know how to proofread!