Celts, Saxons and DNA – Wow!

The appliance of science to archaeology is having a significant effect on our interpretation of existing historical evidence and one of the most dramatic areas of exploration is in the origins of the people that live on these islands. One example in recent years is the demonstration, using isotope analysis, that the population based in Roman Britain was very cosmopolitan and that people – not just Roman soldiers – came from many different parts of the Empire. Other evidence, though sparse, was already pointing in that direction but in the last half dozen or so years, the use of isotope analysis has revealed startling new conclusions about the nature of the inhabitants of Britain. But that is only one line of inquiry; another is the use of DNA.

I went to a talk recently which was entitled: Who Were the Celts? I turned up in all innocence not sure what to expect but hoping to be told something I didn’t already know. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I didn’t actually know anything at all.

The lecture started on fairly familiar ground. It presented the Celts as viewed by the Greeks, the Romans and everyone else since. Hundreds of years of scholarship were skidded through and the layman’s gist seemed to be that the Celts originated in Central Europe somewhere and spread in all directions, including the western coast of mainland Europe and, of course, Britain. So far so good, I thought, as this tallied with my own half-remembered memories of lecture content from umpteen years in the past.

Then the bombshell: archaeologists have used DNA evidence from various sources across Europe [yes, start panicking now!] and it turns out that the Celts moved in mysterious ways. They didn’t come from Central Europe but moved towards it! They existed in Western Europe and crossed into Britain at some point after the last ice age which ended about.12000 years ago. The Celts in Britain were then cut off from Western Europe when the ice melted so much that the English Channel was scooped out by the torrent of flood water. Just when the Celts crossed over is still open to question, but it seems that the ties of trade between the British Celts and mainland Celts remained very strong.

Now, I should include a caveat here: you’ll be amazed to hear that not everyone agrees about this. Some DNA analysts maintain that the Celts originated elsewhere, for example the Middle East. Also the historical linguists don’t agree with the archaeologists at all. They don’t think that the evidence of language development matches a scenario putting the Celts in Western Europe that long ago. Without going into too much detail, their argument has got something to do with the rate at which the Indo-European language broke down – or up – into many different languages.

Well that was the first eye-opener. It isn’t that I care particularly whether the Celts first lived in Central or Western Europe, but the fact that DNA evidence was being used to overturn established historical belief.

But there was another shock on the way.

I know – because I’ve been taught it consistently since I was roughly half a day old – that the Welsh, Scots, Irish and Cornish are basically Celtic peoples. The English are more or less of Angle and Saxon stock with a smidgeon of Viking and Norman thrown into the gene pool. Simple. I learned at my mother’s knee that the Celtic folk were driven westwards by the invading Anglo-Saxons who took the view that the only good Romano-Briton was a dead one – ethnic cleansing if you like.

This I held to be fact – undiluted, cast iron, fact. Apparently though, it was all a load of cobblers. How so, you ask?

Well, our new friend, DNA evidence, tells us that 68% of the genes of your average English person [not including more recent immigrants] are Celtic. So we English may have some Anglo-Saxon DNA but nowhere near as much of it as our Celtic stuff. The Welsh, Scots, etc each have higher percentages of Celtic DNA but no more than 10-15% more than the English. Wow! So in terms of our DNA the inhabitants of modern Britain have a lot more in common in their ancestry than was once thought.

What can we deduce from this startling evidence? Well, the big news is that at the end of the Roman period Angles and Saxons could not possibly have come in vast swathes and obliterated the Celtic folk or simply driven the few surviving Celts into the west. Rather, there must have been a long period of assimilation rather than virtual genocide. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons was therefore surely a slow-burner not the flash bang wallop of fond memory.

It is a question for historians and archaeologists – but also for historical fiction writers – how do we interpret the history of early Britain with the arrival of this new scientific evidence. Where we had certainty – admittedly based upon conjecture and the scholarly interpretation of written sources – we now have chaos and consternation based on an ever increasing amount of scientific evidence. It has produced a bewildering situation in which students of early Britain find themselves poles apart in their estimation of how our population developed. In short, we used to ‘know’ what happened and now we don’t.

Over the next few years it is to be hoped that DNA analysts will have collected and pooled sufficient data to have more of a consensus of opinion on both the origin and migration patterns of the Celts and the true nature of the Anglo-Saxon impact on post-Roman Britain.

Still, it’s good news for historical fiction writers who, in the meantime, can invent their stories of early Britain with renewed licence and little fear of contradiction.

Posted in Ancient History, Historical Fiction, History, Medieval History | Leave a comment

At My Writing Desk – Where All Hell Breaks Loose

This month’s post was prompted by a question posed by the inimitable Simon Turney along the lines of: “What is on your writing desk at the moment?”

So I had a look and what I found made me think. For on my writing desk I unearthed many objects that I had not used for months, possibly years. They were buried under the weight of more recently valued items. I believe that when Simon put up his question he had books in mind and I have plenty of those but it was the other things which set me thinking about the ways in which where I write affects how I write.

I found myself considering the process of writing so I started to look at it from the perspective of the place where I sit and make up stories. I am fortunate enough to have a study with a large desk in it. The room has many other things in it and the desk itself carries a heavy burden such that the area for my writing is becoming ever smaller. Several visits to the local tip and frequent donations to charity collections have largely failed to arrest the encroachment.

The centrepiece of my writing desk is a large monitor screen which I plug into my laptop when I write. I find a larger screen makes it easier to read not only what I am writing but also internet sites I visit and so on. The screen actually belongs to my daughter and when she eventually gets back from the far side of the universe planet, there might be a bit of a scuffle about ownership. For now, it’s mine. I also plug in a proper mouse – proper, not real. I can’t be doing with the ineffective little touchpads on my laptop.

Then there are some speakers – though strictly speaking they are on a shelf above the desk – but they are very important. When I write in earnest, I generally listen to music – sometimes through the speakers or, if there are others in the house, through my headphones which are on the desk too! The music is on now and Cyndi Lauper is singing Time After Time – I love that song.

What else? To my left there is an old angle poise lamp. I tend to start writing before it’s fully light in the winter and the lamp has become a close personal friend, shedding light where there is often only chaos. To my right is a portable hard drive which is plugged into the laptop and I save files to several places so that, should there be some digital disaster, I will have an up to date copy of my work somewhere.

So we have the technology in place and the desk seems a crowded space already but we haven’t got to the research materials yet! The most important element is my collection of handwritten notes and these are at my left hand – by the way, I’m left handed. These are the stuff of the novel, jotted down as they occurred to me or as soon after as possible. I get a lot of ideas when I’m swimming but it’s a bit tricky to write them down until I’m dry. The notes are vital; they keep me heading in the right direction like little signposts along the road. As I write a scene I check through the slips of paper again and again because ideas don’t generally pop into my head in any sensible order.

Further along to the right of the desk is the most important ingredient of all: a mug of coffee – there will always be one there. If the mug is not there, then neither am I.

On the shelves all around me are many, many books. Some are handy because I’m dipping into them constantly at the moment. The work in progress is Rebels & Brothers Book 3 – no title as yet – which is set in 1468 and 1469. For this book I am constantly referring to the Middleham Castle guide because it has a handy floor plan in it. I have several reference books close by: Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters, Susan Higginbotham’s The Woodvilles and John Gillingham’s Wars of the Roses. Many others are littered elsewhere in the room, including historical atlases and individual maps.

So, how do I start creating a scene when I sit down to write in this cosy little environment? I may read through one or more previous chapters, especially if I’ve had a break of more than one day. I may not write the scenes consecutively although I know where the overall plot is going. So, I type the chapter number and a working title for it which includes when and where it begins. I type these in large red text. Why? I don’t know why. I started that way and I’ve never seen any reason not to. It makes them easy to spot when I scroll through the pages.

Then I begin, but how do the first words of the chapter come? For a long time, I used to wonder about that but now I don’t. I am just grateful if the words come – how, I don’t care about. I tend to know when I’m ready to have a go at a particular scene but some scenes I need to build up to, for example large set-piece battles.

Battle scenes require preparation on two levels: firstly, detailed research on what is known about the battle. This will usually be several primary accounts which I have synthesised to make a coherent source. There will be photographs I have taken at the site, perhaps videos. Images need to be on screen or on the already cluttered desk so that they are easy to look at as the scene is developed. The other level of research concerns where the story itself is going during the course of the battle. The battle is just a vehicle for advancing the story – albeit, hopefully, a spectacular vehicle.

I must start with a clear idea of the point of view in the scene. Today’s scene features Lady Eleanor and it is told from her point of view. She is feisty, impulsive – explosive, even. Sharp words will be exchanged, perhaps blows and there will be much raw emotion too. In other words, as they say, all hell may break loose! She is one of my favourite characters to write so I’ll probably enjoy today a great deal.

I often begin with a piece of conversation even if later I remove it. It breaks the ice and gets the characters talking about what they are doing. This may not help them much but it seems to help me. I know what must happen in the scene but I don’t always know how it will happen. The characters will decide that sometimes. If I am true to the characters the story will seem real but if I try to bend them wholly to my pre-conceived plan, they will put up a struggle.

There have been a few times – not many – when a new character has forced their way onto the page and into the story without warning. In some cases their candle flares and dies swiftly but once in a very long while a character emerges from a writing session and stays for a long time. I don’t think this is a spoiler but for anyone who has read A Traitor’s Fate, one such character is Agnes, a waif that Ned comes across in a forest. Agnes just popped into the story one day and changed where it was heading. I loved her so much I just had to keep her in. Where did she come from? I’ve no idea! That’s one of the things which make writing fun.

I am writing the scene, glancing at my scribbled notes, reminding myself constantly how the chapter must end. Sometimes the words tumble out like a torrent and I struggle to record them before they are swept on and lost to me. Other times it seems as if each syllable must be chiselled out of stone and the pauses in between are long and uncomfortable. Even the characters seem nervous at such times as if my uncertainty has afflicted them somehow too.

When does the scene end? Sometimes I can get it right first time but mostly I can’t. I will go on too long and then think: the reader will be falling asleep over this. Or I stop too soon and think: the reader will be lost without more words of explanation. And at the end of most chapters there is the hook, the spur to make the reader bother to turn to the next page. How do I judge this? Alas, I am new to this craft of writing and my judgement is not always sound. My rule of thumb is: do I want to know what happens next? If so, that’s a start. If my editor does, then it’s even better and if the test readers do, then I leave well alone.

There will be places in the scene that I am unhappy with as I write but I will highlight them in yellow and then move on. It could be a phrase I am not sure about or it might be that I can’t remember a detail, a name or a place. Either way, I mark it to come back to. I might even leave it highlighted for the editor to make a ruling on later. Even when I’ve finished a scene, I will always come back to it later. I will re-read it and edit it – always cutting and only rarely adding. I will tweak the verbs, delete some of the adjectives and take out most of the adverbs. I will read it aloud – especially conversation. If it doesn’t sound right, it’s on borrowed time.

Then I go to my spreadsheet which lists every scene and what happens in them. I update it – perhaps I end up splitting a chapter into two. Perhaps I included in the writing some steps which I had not considered when I first devised the plan. Every chapter entry also includes page numbers, the character whose point of view prevails and a code which signifies whether it is finished for the time being or still a work in progress.

Then I look ahead on my scene schedule: what is next up? I’ll need to get my head around that for the next session. The spaces in between writing sessions are usually as important as the writing. I put post-its in my research books and close them, I put my laptop into hibernation – not forgetting to save everything first! Then I pick up my empty coffee mug and pause for a moment as I consider clearing some of the dust-covered clutter from my writing desk. Then I shake my head and go downstairs to do something that is not writing. 

Posted in Historical Fiction, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles – Shedding some light on the Yorkshire Rebellions of 1469

It’s often said – and rightly so – that primary source material is a godsend not only to the historian but also to historical novelists. As well as giving us an idea what happened, primary sources can also provide a valuable insight into the mind-set of those who lived in the period we are trying to present to the reader. Letters, diaries and court records – they all have their value to the historical fiction writer.

The only drawback of primary sources is that they can be unreliable and some of the least reliable are chronicles. Yet chronicles are usually a good starting point to give the student of history a general idea of what happened – or so I thought until I explored the Yorkshire revolts of 1469.

Last month I began some serious research for the next book in the Rebels and Brothers series which is set during the Wars of the Roses. In doing so I stumbled across an example of how utterly bewildering some chronicles can be. I was interested in the revolts in Yorkshire which culminated in the Battle of Edgecote in July 1469 where some leading noble supporters of Edward IV were killed.

All I wanted to know was what happened, but it wasn’t as simple as that. At first I consulted the accounts of historians but found them sparse and contradictory. When I visited the original sources I realised why, because the sources do not agree on much at all. They don’t agree on the timing, the people, the places, the size of armies or the routes taken by the rebels. Crucially, the identity of at least one of the rebel leaders is still a mystery – and likely to remain so. No wonder the historian, Charles Ross, refers to “total confusion amongst contemporary chroniclers.”

We do not even know for certain how many revolts there were: one, two or three. Historians, in an effort to make sense of the chronicles, tend to suggest three but no single chronicle suggests three! Some chronicles, such as the contemporary Brief Latin Chronicle and Polydore Vergil’s sixteenth century, English History, only describe one revolt but it is not the same revolt as the other chronicles describe!

Usually with rebellions there are some surviving court records which tell us about those who were condemned for their part in the events, but in the major revolt of 1469 the rebels won, so none of them were indicted!

With only a flimsy outline of the events I looked at the sources in detail to try to add a little flesh to the bones – fat chance! The problem with the chronicles is that, if they are all taken together, they do not give a credible narrative of the events – they cannot all be right! One is thus forced to “pick’n’mix” from them – abandoning a date here, a name there, or an event somewhere else.

lizwdvilleOne certain fact is that in the spring and summer of 1469 there was at least one revolt originating in Yorkshire. This revolt was apparently led by a certain “Robin of Redesdale” – also referred to in some sources as “Robin Mend-All.” It was directed against the “evil councillors” of the king, such as the Woodvilles, principally Earl Rivers – father of the Queen – and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke – the growing power in the Welsh Marches. Whether “evil” or not, Rivers and Herbert were no friends of Warwick and it appears that it was Warwick who was behind this revolt.

Some chronicles indicate that there was another rebellion in the spring led by “Robin of Holderness” which had more local aims such as the restoration of the Percy family to the Earldom of Northumberland. This rebellion was definitely crushed by John Neville, Earl of Northumberland – Warwick’s brother – so it does not seem likely that this one was fomented by Warwick. “Robin of Holderness” might have been executed depending on which Chronicle you believe. This second revolt causes confusion amongst historians because several chronicles roll both revolts into one.

Robin of Redesdale’s revolt was the more significant and more dangerous for Edward IV than the short-lived Holderness one. The chronicles differ about its timing: was it in the spring or summer? We are obliged to guess whether it had a false start in spring and then rose again in June or only occurred in the summer. What is agreed is that in June and July the rebels advanced southwards from Yorkshire. Edward IV was in the Midlands but he had few men with him and sent to William Herbert and Humphrey Stafford, the new Earl of Devon, to come north to confront the rebels. Herbert’s Welshmen and Stafford’s west countrymen encountered the rebels near Banbury and a bloody battle ensued.

edIVThe revolt had all the outward appearance of a popular uprising but we know it was engineered by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, because we have firm documentary evidence of his involvement in drafting the rebel manifesto. Whilst Edward’s attention was on the Yorkshire revolt, Warwick was marrying off his daughter, Isabel, to George, Duke of Clarence, the king’s brother, in Calais. He then brought the Calais garrison across to Kent and raised more troops to join “Robin of Redesdale’s” rebels.

It would be easy to say that Edward “took his eye off the ball.”  Should he not have realised that his chief magnate was plotting with his own brother against him? Well, quite a lot of people were fooled by Warwick’s behaviour during 1468 and the spring and summer of 1469 when he appeared to be working for the king with tireless energy and application. In fact, he was plotting the destruction of the Queen’s family, the Woodvilles, and the rising power of William Herbert.

So who was this “Robin of Redesdale”? The sources are little help here either but the smart money seems to be on either Sir John Conyers who was a relative of Warwick’s by marriage – or his son, John, or perhaps his brother William. William Conyers was killed at the battle of Edgecote on 26th July where the rebels triumphed over Herbert. The Conyers family were staunch Warwick supporters but there is no conclusive evidence as to which man was “Robin.” We’ll probably never know for sure.

Why are chronicles in general, and these chronicles in particular, so contradictory?

There are several reasons. The most obvious one is that most chronicles are written by a third party – an observer with no direct involvement in and often no personal knowledge of the events. In this case the perspective of the observers is very one-sided. Of the ten or so chronicles and fragments of chronicles with anything to say about these events, only one, John Warkworth’s Chronicle, is written from what you might call a “northern” perspective. The rest are written by southerners some of whom, such as the writer of the Croyland Chronicle, are usually very hostile to northerners. Most writers knew very little about what happened in the north and when they did not know they often guessed.

Secondly, at least half of the sources were written in the sixteenth century long after the events occurred. They may have spoken to some eye witnesses but it is doubtful. A great deal had happened since 1469, in particular the accession of the Tudors. The events of the Yorkist period were often portrayed as a chaotic contrast with the Tudor peace.

Another factor influencing the perspective of chroniclers was that the heavy casualties at Edgecote were not felt at all in most of England. Those who bore the brunt of the rebels’ anger were not Englishmen of the Midlands, London or East Anglia. Most of the fallen were Welsh or from the West Country – which to a Londoner might as well have been Greenland! There were no wounded men coming back to tell their tales in the taverns of the south-east.

edgecote

The wounded were in fact heading back to Wales and it is no surprise that there is a wealth of evidence from Welsh poetry of the time which describes the exploits of the Welsh soldiers at the battle of Edgecote. 

How do historians make sense of this tangled web of sources? Basically, they have to miss some things out and make other things up so that what they end up with is a sequence of events which is logical.  This means they devise a scenario that has three revolts and two leaders – a scenario which none of the chronicles actually describes! 

For the historian this is very unsatisfactory but for the historical fiction writer, it’s marvellous. I will have more freedom to invent than I know what to do with!

Further study:

Those interested in a more detailed examination of both the events and the sources could read K R Dockray’s Paper on The Yorkshire Rebellions of 1469 and a Paper by Barry Lewis called The Battle of Edgecote or Banbury (1469) Through the Eyes of Contemporary Welsh Poets.

And finally… please visit the links below where a glittering array of historical fiction writers have posted some corkers!

  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light….
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness – how did people of the past cope with the darkPlus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire –  Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light – A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships – Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light – Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire – 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

 

Posted in Medieval History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

The Dreaded Second Book

It’s been a funny couple of months really. If you are wondering where I’ve been since early October, I’ve been in the final stages of producing my second book, A Traitor’s Fate [hereafter referred to as ATF].

I am sure it was just a coincidence but it all seemed to kick off after I went to the Harrogate Historical Fiction Festival in October. Well, it started before that really…

I finished the dreaded second book in the early autumn and all the indications from my editor were positive but you still wonder as you are about to release it onto an unsuspecting public.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00060]

I had hoped to prepare the way for the second book in two ways: increase the visibility and sales of my first book, Feud, and then set up ATF for pre-order to build a little momentum. As it turned out, the first part of my cunning plan worked well. Feud had been well received but sales were relatively sparse until I dropped the price in August. Then things picked up a bit and Feud was selling steadily on Amazon UK though hardly at all on Amazon.com. In October, UK sales began to accelerate.

However, my scheme to arrange pre-order for ATF showed up my naiveté because I discovered belatedly that Amazon don’t allow pre-order for just any Tom, Dick or Harry and certainly not for low life like me whose sales are limited. So, no pre-orders!

In fact, it did not seem to matter. Feud continued to sell well on Amazon UK through November, remaining in or around the top 100 in Action & Adventure as well as Historical Fiction.

JuneFeudCover

That alone seems to have given the sequel, ATF, some momentum. I’ve had to pinch myself all this month – I keep asking myself: why have people decided to start buying Feud now, a year after its publication? Don’t get me wrong, I do think my books are good. I am just surprised at the suddenness with which other people seem to have reached that conclusion!

One of the pieces of advice I received early on from another author was to be patient and to build readership even if only gradually. At the time I didn’t get it, but now I do. We are not all going to write an instant best seller but if you can get readers interested in the stories you write and the characters you create, then perhaps the word will spread. Visibility is the key: if the readers don’t see your book, they are not going to buy it. On Amazon UK sales have made my books visible; on Amazon.com they haven’t. Like Morecambe & Wise, I’m struggling to win over America!

Why did readers start buying Feud? I’ve no idea. Perhaps I have an anonymous and influential benefactor somewhere out there in the UK ether who has been spreading the word. It’s fanciful to think that when I rubbed shoulders with other, more well-known, historical fiction writers at Harrogate, a little bit of their success rubbed off on me.

But…you know what? I think it is just patience.

 

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The Writer’s Craft: Where do the Words Come from?

When I took my first hesitant steps towards becoming a writer, one of my chief concerns was whether I would be able to put the words together coherently on a regular basis. That may sound silly because I was confident I could write at the time; I just wondered whether I could sustain it. Looking back, it’s easy to brush aside those early worries but I suspect that such concerns often make budding writers give up, especially if the words dry up.

The first book took me a long time to write because I was still working part-time to begin with. Words did not always come easily – as many writers have found – but I always seemed to find a way out. I’ve seen two strategies suggested for writers when the words won’t flow. What they amount to is either walk away from the page and clear your head or bludgeon any collection of words onto the page and rewrite them later. I’ve tried both of these methods and would recommend the walking away model.

Now, with two books finished [almost!] I’ve found more of a rhythm to my writing than I had before. You find out pretty fast when you write best and for me it is usually in the morning. The funny thing is though, that whilst I seem to find the words easier to spray on the page before lunch, my best ideas for scenes and character development tend to come later in the day when my mind is occupied elsewhere – or simply lying dormant! This creative pattern seems to work for me but when the rhythm is broken for a time, I always wonder how easy it will be to start again.

Recently, we went on holiday to Crete – well, it was a walking holiday so, given temperatures in the mid-30s centigrade and a certain amount of climbing, it was a fairly full-on week. I had decided to get away from the writing for a week – whilst the editor was still busily thrashing through A Traitor’s Fate – and stay offline too. The latter was not difficult and it was a relaxing week, but there were quite a lot of occasions when I found myself slipping into writer mode. I began to wonder where the words and ideas would come from for the next book.

As I splashed down a cool beer at the end of a long, hot walk, was I even then storing away some well-phrased description of near exhaustion or perhaps an image of the beaming waiter’s expression for future use in some medieval scene?

When breathlessly climbing Mt. Gingilgingolos1os above the Samaria Gorge with the sun beating down, would my experience of relentlessly pounding up the hillside come in handy if Ned Elder decided to do a spot of hill walking  along a rocky path of loose scree?

Where could I utilise this excellent experience of sweat and toil? I rifled through my embryonic ideas for Book Three in vain. Perhaps one of the other characters could be persuaded to spend some time on an exposed ledge somewhere. After all, I had a few encounters with sheer drops to refer to if required. Alas, I could not see a connection but I’m convinced that the ideas were already being born.

ledge1

Perhaps I could send Ned Elder to Crete? Who owned Crete in the late 15th century, anyway? I think it might have been the Venetians…but my ignorance of 15th century Cretan history was immense in its scale and variety and in any case Simon Turney has already threatened me with GBH if I do a Crete story before he does.

So the experiences kept coming but I couldn’t see how they were going to be much help with the next couple of books in the pipeline. Then it struck me – and I was nowhere near the road to Damascus at the time – that it didn’t matter because what I was doing was what most writers do. I was accumulating some flotsam and jetsam, some fragments of experience to be sorted and re-sorted and probably twisted out of all recognition to form the basis of some yet to be envisaged incident. The sights, the sounds, and even the sweat, will all be synthesised into words, phrases and sentences expressing exhilaration, relief, satisfaction or any one of a whole palette of emotions. These fragments form the building blocks of a craft in which I have as yet acquired only the most basic of skills and which I am trying to learn as I write each new page.

At the end of my week in Crete I had to accept that writing had taken over my life – even on holiday. But I don’t mind. It doesn’t spoil anything and I enjoy turning over the material in my head. It’s the same when I’m doing almost anything else: walking, swimming or gardening. The creative ingredients are there but they are only shadows on the page; they are not yet words, until morning comes and I sit down to write.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

How much is a Book Worth?

In the past month or so I’ve been doing some research about the pricing of ebooks. For months I priced my debut ebook at $2.99 but in August I dropped the price to 99c. Partly that was the result of a promotion I was taking part in organised by the Awesome Indies group of writers.

Now I’m going to digress for a minute, so bear with me. Awesome Indies is one of a number of groups trying to filter the vast morass of self-published work around online at the moment. The aim is to advise the reader of indie books that have been read by several people before being given approval. Another such group is Indiebrag. These sites don’t charge for listings as many sites do and they provide some kind of standard of quality that the reader can go by.

Anyway, digression over. A group of Awesome Indies writers had a promotion for several days in August where we reduced books to 99c. For me this promotion led to a spike of sales through Amazon, but my total sales for the month of August as a whole were about average. I decided I would leave my book at 99c for the next few weeks to see what would happen.

Why did I do that?  Well, several reasons really. Firstly, I wanted to see if the price reduction had any influence on sales over a longer period than a few days. Secondly, the sequel to the book is due out at the end of September and I wanted as many people as possible to read the first book beforehand. The implication of course is that dropping the price would encourage more sales – but did it?

My impression so far is no, it didn’t. I’m not selling as many books at 99c as I was at $2.99! Now since I’m using a small sample – i.e. one book – I’m not making any claims for other books but I do wonder about the dynamics of all this and I can think of several possible explanations. Perhaps August is a slow month for sales anyway. Perhaps potential readers think that a book priced at 99c – albeit temporarily – is not likely to be very good. Perhaps a higher price gives more confidence of quality. Perhaps a reduction in price suggests desperation on the part of the writer? It’s also possible that the historical fiction genre has its own sales patterns which don’t match other genres. Are HF readers more or less likely to buy a book if it is low priced??

I read the results of a survey recently which suggested that the optimum price for indie books is either 99c or $2.99 and now, increasingly, $3.99. Higher prices than £3.99 do not seem to give consistently good sales. Yet in my case reducing a book which was selling OK at $2.99 to 99c seems to have had an adverse effect on sales.

Let’s forget about sales for a moment and concentrate on other measurements of value, such as reviews. Perhaps reviews have affected my sales one way or another. I have some really good reviews and I have some so-so reviews. I have a good review average which hasn’t varied much over the life of the book. My Amazon reviews are not submitted by people I know, so I guess the book is not a genuine turkey. So the reviews don’t seem to have been much of a factor in the difference in sales.

I’ve had discussions with other writers before about the value and pricing of indie books. Some are of the opinion that books should be priced reasonably because the writer has slaved over his work and deserves fair recompense. The only problem is that I can’t see how you can define either a “reasonable” price or “fair” recompense. The fact that writing can be hard work is not necessarily a reason for the reader to pay you lots of money. The issue is: what is the book worth to the reader? The reader is influenced by the market place, by what they like to read and by their own resources. As a reader, what am I prepared to pay for a book written by an unknown author who has self-published it? It seems as if anything above $3.99 is difficult to achieve.

What about the length of the book? Should I expect a reader to pay more for a longer book? Mine’s over 500 pages but, if I’m the reader, do I care? No, I don’t. I may be looking for a longer read but, if the book’s no good, length is only going to make a bad impression worse!

Looking at it from the other point of view: as a writer, why do I want my book to sell? Well, the money obviously… but at the start that’s not the main issue. To start with most writers are not going to make a fortune, even if their books are good. Why? Because self-published authors have to market their own books without the resources of a major publisher behind them. So, as every new writer knows, visibility is everything; you won’t sell books at any price if no-one knows that your book exists. So one reason why I might sell my book at a price that is less than “reasonable” is that I want people to read it. Doing that is not selling myself or my book short, it’s being realistic: selling more copies increases the visibility of the book.

Every indie writer will claim that their book is well worth reading but it is self-evident that with such an increase in the number of self-published ebooks available, there must be many books which would have been hastily rejected by agents or editors.

I’m tempted to make the book free for a while and see what happens then. But even if it is downloaded many times, will it be read much? It is quite clear that many readers download free books but don’t necessarily get around to reading them until much later, if ever. If I want to increase my genuine readership, then I would surely do better to persuade the reader to value the book more by paying for it.

So, where does that leave me on pricing? You have only to take a brief look at Amazon to see that the prices of kindle books vary wildly. My gut feeling is that there is an optimum price for my ebook, it’s just that I don’t know what it is! The experiences of other writers seem to support this confusion as different writers will tell a wide variety of stories about how they have priced their books and what results they have had.

In traditional publishing the prices are influenced to a great extent by the costs. If you go into a bookshop and pick up a few fiction paperbacks the prices will be pretty comparable. Ebooks, however, have limited costs and the reader knows it.

I think we’re in a whole new situation with the pricing of books just as happened in the music publishing business. I’m not sure the mist has cleared on this one yet.

Posted in Self-publishing, Writing | 3 Comments

Writing the Second Book

Firstly, I should apologise for the length of time I have been absent from my blog. My very good excuse is that I have been finishing my second book, A Traitor’s Fate, which is the sequel to Feud. I set myself the target of finishing the draft by the end of July – and just about managed it by the skin of my teeth! Anyway, since the draft is now with the editor I can sit back for five minutes and reflect upon a few other things – such as, how did I come to write a second book?

When I started my first book, Feud, my mind was full of doubts: could I actually write a full length historical fiction novel? Could I write to a standard that would match a reader’s expectations of quality? Could I create a group of characters that readers would care about and would be interested in following? There were lots of other questions that troubled me – but I’ve forgotten most of them now.  The point is that writing the first book does not immediately put an end to those questions – especially if you are self-publishing. You’ll still have doubts – I know I did!

So how do you overcome the doubts? For me, it comes back to the reason you started writing in the first place – and in my case, I starting writing for me. Writing is a selfish act and you have to embrace that. There are a lot of other aspects of life which demand your attention: such as partners, children and work[!] but, if you want to carry on writing, then you have to have some “me” time.

After the first book, it’s good to reflect a bit on what you’ve achieved. That might range from the satisfaction of completing a book you wanted to write but that few will ever read to the euphoria of writing a best seller that everyone will want to read. Provided you have done at least a minimum of marketing, then you’ll know whether your book is being received well or not. It doesn’t have to sell a lot – unless you need to pay the bills with it! – but if anyone is giving you good reviews then that is grounds for considering writing another book.

In my case, since I always wanted to write a series of stories, it was important to me that the first one was well received. Once I had completed Feud and “put it out there,” I received enough good reviews to encourage me that I could begin the next story in the series.

When I started planning the second book I was still spending quite a lot of time promoting Feud and beginning to build a readership for the series. As other self-publishers will be only too aware, there is a lot of work required to promote your work. For me – and I’m sure many others – this did not come easily. I’m the sort of person who is a bit laid back about it all – the Sergeant Wilson, rather than the Captain Mainwaring, of marketing, I think. So there was a steep learning curve in that area as well.

All of this meant that I was working very slowly on the new book. I already had a clear vision of where book two was going and the way in which I wanted the characters to develop. I also had an outline of the plot although there was still a lot of fleshing out to do on the basic skeleton of the story.

Then of course the doubts returned – the obvious one: was the first book just a fluke? I’d written a book and got away with it. Heave a sigh of relief and go back to mowing the lawns. Other doubts followed and lingered for some time; such as… I killed so many characters in the first book, have I got enough left to field a basketball team let alone populate another 500 page novel? And… have I already used all the decent expressions I’ll ever think of?

Any creative process has its rocky moments and in the winter of 2012/13, I needed some encouragement – apart from friends and family! The encouragement came from fellow historical fiction writers and from readers. It only takes a few genuine readers to say: “I can’t wait for the sequel” and that’s a powerful incentive to write one! So, as 2013 went on, book two gradually gained momentum – though it took me a long time to decide on the title, A Traitor’s Fate.

Then a funny thing happened:  I wrote a scene in which I killed off a major character and then I thought: hang on a minute, I need that character for book three! So, the further I got into the second book, the more I was becoming interested in where the third book would take the characters. Before long, I found myself looking several books ahead and realised I was committed to writing a series – it was a sobering thought but it was also a really exciting one.

Now book two is finished – subject to the editor wreaking his own particular brand of havoc with it – and I’m planning book three in earnest. What have I learnt so far? I’ve learned that my first book won’t be my best because I want to improve as a writer. I like to think that I’ve learned from some of the reviews I’ve received, that I’ve responded to criticism positively. I’ve learned that some readers will not like my book and that it doesn’t matter. They are entitled not to like it; readers look for different things in a book. Feud included a lot of action and not very much introspection – not everyone wants to read such a story. As long as plenty of readers do, then you have nothing to worry about.

Of course the self-publishing “machine” now has to swing into action again to get A Traitor’s Fate out into the world of books. There will be the usual trials of formatting for ebook and print once the editing is complete. Then I shall be seeing who has time and inclination to review it in advance of publication and putting out some tasty morsel extracts to excite interest! It’s all go! Sooner than I’d like, it will be published with a fanfare – well, perhaps a quiet little one – and then there will be promotion, marketing, more promotion…

But…lurking in the background, still a little nebulous and half-formed, are the first ideas for book three. I’m thinking about the research I need to do, the places I need to visit, the plot ideas I want to develop. And so the world turns…and here I go again…

Posted in Self-publishing, Uncategorized, Writing | 2 Comments