Thursday, 16 November 2017

A tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett OBE was a Scottish historical novelist best known for her six-part series about Francis Crawford of Lymond. Born in Dunfermline in 1923 she began writing when she could find nothing suitable to read and the first in the series of six was published in 1962 though I believe it was published earlier in America because it failed to find a publisher in the UK.
I found Game of Kings on the library shelves while hunting for books for my mother. She gave it back to me saying “You should read this. You’ll like it.” Like it? I loved it! At 18, who could resist the dashing Scots mercenary, Francis Crawford of Lymond, who travelled to the French and English courts, and later became caught up in intrigues across 16th-century Europe? Not only that, but the other characters were glorious too, and they said things that stuck in my mind for years. The language was a delight, in places perhaps a little overdone for today’s tastes, but the dialogue was brilliant. I still re-read chunks now and then for the sheer pleasure of her style.
I raced through the series and came to a dead halt at the end of book number four in the series, Pawn in Frankincense, in 1969. I discovered she lived in Edinburgh, wrote to her and still have her reply in which she assured me there would be two more volumes to complete the series.
I worked in a library at the time and we gave the books to everyone we though would enjoy them. Eventually one of our ladies invited Dorothy to speak at Wilton Castle and it was there she told us of an American lady who had written 72 letters to her whilst reading the books. I volunteered to take the strain, Dorothy put the American lady and I in touch and we wrote to each other about the puzzles of the books for the next decade or so.
One reviewer at the time called Francis Crawford a sixteenth century James Bond, but the stories were far more complex than any Bond story. Puzzles were linked throughout the books and only answered in the last volume, and even then there were loose ends. By the end of Game of Kings, Lymond had certainly proved his innocence against the charge of treason, but the reader was left with the far greater puzzle of his parenthood. By the end of Checkmate we thought we had all the answers, but then doubts began to creep in.
Another series began – this time a prequel called The House of Niccolò. The first volume was published in 1986 and the hero was vastly different to the suave, elegant Francis Crawford. A dye maker’s apprentice, Niccolo lived in Bruges a whole century earlier. I think I still have the first galley copy without a cover or a spine that someone managed to obtain from the publisher, so desperate were we to read more Dunnett.

More puzzles and we had to wait yet more years for the answers. I don’t mean crossword puzzles, but puzzles of ancestry, of loyalty, of skulduggery. All this time Dorothy was writing a new Dolly book every spring – Dolly being a gaff rigged ketch and the home of artist Johnson Johnson who sailed the world investigating crimes. Then later still came King Hereafter, the book that some think her best work. Dorothy convinced me Thorfinn and MacBeth were the same person and though it was the hardest of all to read and understand, it pays re-reading and gives a huge insight into the minds of those who lived so long ago.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Life in 1000 AD

I've been reading up about life in 1000 AD because I'm writing about it as well as watching archaeological digs. One of the interesting facts to come out of archaeology is the skeletons of the time are always larger than expected and they have wonderful teeth; ground down with use on coarse foods, perhaps, but otherwise healthy. 

Life was shorter then. The life span was forty, and those who reached fifty exceptional. For men the cause of death was often violent - war, and if not instant death then death from battle wounds. 
Not that everyday activities in the home were always safe; a harmless cut from a slipped  gutting knife could end in death because blood poisoning could set in and there was nothing to combat it back then. 

Everyone worked hard, famine was not unknown and sometimes a family had to sell a child. 
Too much rain could rot the crop in the fields, and frost at the wrong time could spell disaster. If a family's feudal lord could not provide, then starvation was all too likely. Hedgrows would be scoured for herbs, roots, grasses, nettles - anything that could be eaten. 

A twelve year old boy could swear an oath of allegiance to the king and a girl of the same age could marry a much older man than herself. Consummation was usually delayed until the girl was in her teens, but not always. Since the contract of marriage was all about land, estates, property among the richer folk, what would it have been about for the poorer families? 

Girls would have been married off as soon as someone willing to take them on could be found, because it would mean one less mouth to feed for her family. Or she could go and work as a maid in a larger household and hope she was well fed.
Men who sought wives presumably had the means to feed them, which meant they would be older than the girls. Young men would have to work until they had somewhere to live and 
 something to offer a wife. This went on right up into living memory. It is not unusual to find our parents and grandparents  listed in the census reports as "servant" in a family with a different name to them right up to the thirties and forties.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

How things change

Around the year 1000 things were very different. Archaeologists who sift through latrine pits and peer down microscopes tell us that the toilet paper of that time was  moss. They report that human stools were looser then, probably due to the higher vegetable content - and the fact that gut infections were most likely rampant. Dog poo, on the other hand, hasn't changed much in a thousand years.

Latrines were sited close to the houses with total disregard for the attendant flies and odours, often only metres from where food was prepared. Parasites were common, probably due to the fact that five baths a year was considered excessive by the Anglo-Saxon population. Danish invaders were thought extreme when they bathed and combed their hair every Saturday night.

Even the Danes had no idea of germs, bacteria and infections but everyone knew that diseases spread from one person to another, hence the horror of leprosy. Bread, that staple of the diet, was often a week old when eaten and required to be softened by dipping it in the grain and vegetable broth that was the staple of the Englishman's diet. Everything was eaten, down to the spines of fish and apple pips and cherry stones. No food wastage in the 10th century, though given that the methods of storage available - things could be dried, smoked, pickled - many foods must have been well past their best, possibly spoilt or contaminated. Which brings us back to the contents of the latrine pit....

Friday, 3 November 2017

Titles

Do other authors look at the titles they have written and wonder why one book is more popular than another? Ask themselves why their books are read in the US so much more than in the UK?  I remember saying a while ago that Fair Border Bride was my most consistent seller but that has been overtaken by The Gybford Affair. Why? I have no idea.  Sometimes I think about replicating it!






Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Out and about

We didn't venture far while we were on Skye. We went to Dunvegan village a couple of time to pick up supplies at the general store and passed several soaked walkers on the way. They couldn't have got any wetter! and, as you might expect, they looked thoroughly miserable.

Decided that if we were to walk anywhere I would pick the time very carefully. I always check maps before I set off anywhere and  decided an unfenced track across open land would take me to the sea coast. We set off, all three of us, one in huge excitement and pulling like a train on his lead because of all the new smells. We got half a mile down the road, turned off to the gate and there was the dreaded notice. Dogs on leads or will be shot. Disappointment all round. Tim wasn't on his muzzle head collar, so walking him for three miles on a lead was unthinkable. We turned around, came back home and explored the hillside behind the house. Didn't matter to Tim - he loved it. At least we still had arms attached to sockets and we had splendid views out across the bay.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

A week in the west

Came home early from a week on the Isle of Skye. Caved in the relentless rain and 40-50 mph winds that moaned and howled around the house. We did have snatches of time when it was not raining and hurried out to enjoy our surroundings and take a few pics. Tim had to be walked, of course, regardless of the weather and our day began with me walking him the  400 yards down the curving track to the rubbish bins situated at the junction with the single track road.

The track was unfenced with woods on one side and a hillside on the other, so he galloped around
freely until we neared the road. Once I'd deposited our rubbish we headed back, and then if it wasn't pouring down, we ventured off-piste as it were and scrambled around the open land around the house. Little tracks led every which way through the knee high tussocks and bracken, possibly rabbit or deer tracks - we surprised two deer sheltering in the wood one morning and they scampered away, leapt the fence and set off across the hillside with the lovely level stride the red deer have.
 Then the mist would sweep across from the far headland, thicken and the rain would start again. We learned to anticipate how fast the clouds were coming and usually made it back home before we got drenched.  A great way to start the day. Then a quiet hour or two with the laptop and the wip until the rain disappeared and the sun came out again. Then all three of us would venture out and clamber up the hillside.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Disturbing tv

A lot of what I see on tv disturbs me.
What sort of things am I thinking of?

So many comedians who are not funny.

So called “Celebrities” who vie with each other to wear the least clothing in public and then put the photograph on social media. 

Reality programmes that use nastiness of one kind or another to grab an audience.

The way the media leads the public into thinking what they say is news when it is so often prefaced by the phrase “We understand that….we are told that…we think that…”

The way someone’s views are routinely shouted down, mocked, talked over or cut off in most tv interviews these days. The way interviewers ask questions that politicians can’t answer; politicians who won’t answer even if they can.

The cowardly people who use Twitter to annoy, vilify and abuse others.

Dramas, films and soaps where people are horribly tortured, mutilated, beated and raped.

The obscene amount of money that is bandied around in football and most other sports today.

Advertising on tv – and anywhere, for that matter - that tempts people into gambling.

The focus on food adverts and cookery programmes when a good percentage of the nation is already obese.

The endless cookery competitions where food is wasted and living creatures are killed – there will be a dearth of lobsters soon since so many are used in cookery competitions.

Blogger thinking I have spelling errors when I am using British English!


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Book Covers

Received my first review for Alba is Mine - 


Vasiliki said on 14th October:

"I didn't know what to expect when I bought this book, and I got a really pleasant surprise. It's packed full of detail with finely drawn, likeable characters and loads of intrigue. The world building/historical detail and description seem to me to be well researched and accurate (I covered a tiny bit of this era during my degree in Archaeology) but the author does not overdo it, keeping a light touch so that the story doesn't get bogged down with it. The writing is very good, and it is well edited so the reader isn't distracted by errors. Overall a very good read, that packs a lot in for the price."

All authors love to get reviews and I'm no exception. This one brightened my day and spurred me on with the writing of my next book. Here's hoping I get many more!

For a little amusement (and because I can't bare to delete them usused!) this is a cover I played around for a while before deciding to ask the very talented Dave Slaney to do a cover for me. His is so obviously better! I used to play arpund with ideas for a cover when I had reached a point in writing or editing when my eyes, or my brain, or both - had begun to glaze over. It was therapeutic but eventually frustrating because I did not have the expertise to get the effect I wanted. I see I even misspelled my own title!



Using different colours and fonts can make or break a cover,  and it is an absorbing process. Some colours fade back, other leap forward. Some fonts are just too - what's the opposite of plain? Beautiful hardly seems the correct word here. Mixing fonts and colours is just a no-no and that shows up well here in my two covers.

 I get the urge to go and take a class in graphic art, but then it all gets too complicated - no where local offers such things but the universities and they are so expensive that the idea just fades away.





No doubt I'll keep tinkering and trying and learning bit by bit. 
I'd really like to know how to fade layers into one another to make a wonderfully sophisticated cover like Dave Slaney.

If I was starting my life over again, I might  have chosen to do graphic art at university.

It's a bit late now! 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Location, location, location


I like researching locations for my stories. Contemporary stories in a foreign location are easily researched with tour guides, travel books and all the resources of the internet, but set the story in the past, and it’s a little bit harder to visualise. Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian locations are not too hard here in England as many of the streets and buildings are still extant, but when I made a 4 day trip to Dublin and found that the street I had set my heroine’s home on was still there I was surprised and delighted that I could walk up and down it. Why was I surprised? Because I had set my story in the eleventh century – almost a thousand years ago. (The fact that the street looked nothing like the scene I had envisaged didn’t spoil things for me. There might be fairly ordinary brick buildings there now, but the shape of the street was the same, I could see how steep it was, whether I could see the river or the sea from there, and it led to the cathedral that was being built at the time.)

Dublin was a famous Viking stronghold and an ancient settlement even when the Vikings arrived, so maps of the place in those days were easy to find online and print out thanks to archaeological studies. I could really get to know the layout of the Viking town from the maps and they showed the development from the earliest settlement to the 1200s, which covered my period of interest. Visiting the place showed me how narrow the river is now compared to how much shallower and wider it had once been before Lord Sitric confined it and reclaimed what had been swampy, tidal land.

Setting Far After Gold in the north west of Scotland was both better, because I had spent many holidays there, and worse because there wasn’t an equivalent large settlement like Dublin. http://www.ullapool.com/ullapool-history is a starting point for the history of the area and the latest large scale maps show where the settlements and brochs, rivers and fords once were and still are. I could describe the landscape because I’d seen it, as long as I made allowances for the changes that have taken place. Forests were much larger around the eleventh century and land was undrained and often swampy. Fords and known tracks were important for travellers and travel by sea was deemed much easier than travel overland. I had experienced the weather of the north west in the summer months and late October, early November; research told me which animals once lived there. We no longer have wolves in Scotland, but wolves and bears were certainly present back then.

Orkney is another of those places where research pays dividends. I’ve never been, but archaeology provides a great deal of information about dwellings, artefacts used, crops grown and where settlements were. Google Earth is fantastic for giving an author a feeling for the size of a place and the geography around it. The satellite imagery will give a very good idea of where you might beach a ship or find a way through the mountains and contour lines of maps will suggest whether you might end up in a bog or fall over a cliff face.

I discovered a fabulous website for maps held at the National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/towns/ and used it for the two historical novels set in Edinburgh and Stirling during the mid 1540s. The magnification on most of them allowed me to see individual buildings on the old High Street most clearly.
I used all of these techniques in writing ALBA IS MINE, released 1st October 2017. Here’s the blurb:

In 1034, the fuse has been lit that will change the kingship of Alba. When his place in the succession is rejected, Finlay of Moray rebels against his grandfather the king and sides with half-brother Thorfinn of Orkney.

With his intended bride married off to his cousin, his boyhood friend joining the opposing side and the threat of war looming, there is little happiness for Finlay. Wanting to cement the bond between them, Thorfinn badgers him to marry his beautiful sister, but Finlay, reluctant to abandon hope of his first love, grimly resists the idea.

This absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.



https://tinyurl.com/ycyymrmq (US)
https://tinyurl.com/ybq33rgp (UK)

ALBA IS MINE Kindle Edition $3.11
by JEN BLACK
Jen has always lived in the North East of England and currently resides in the lovely Tyne valley between Hexham and Newcastle. On a clear day she can see across Northumberland to the hills where the border with Scotland runs, and the beautiful unspoilt coastline is barely thirty minutes away by car. She has a degree in English Language & Literature and a great love of history, her dog Tim and takes pics wherever she goes. With several book titles to her credit she is now working on EILIDH AND THE VIKING. See her blog at http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com find her on Twitter at JenBlackNCL.


I wrote this for the http://www.editingpen.net/researching-locations-jen-black/ It went out this week and I was pleased with the result.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Fashion and cosmetics

 Anyone who knows me knows I am not a follower of fashion. I like to be clean and look neat and tidy, (except when I'm walking Tim, because he doesn't care what I look like - he loves me anyway!) but beyond that, comfort is my watchword. Ridiculous heels are not for me, though I will agree they are a miracle of engineering. But trust my ankles to them? No way!

I cannot actually remember when I last wore a skirt. Dresses, perhaps, when going out for  meal. But skirts? They seem to be a thing of the past, probably because few of us have waists anymore! I grew up wearing nice tweed skirts and crisp white blouses, and still think they look great. Tweed doesn't have to be hairy; it can be the softest, smoothest fabric ever and I love the intermix of so many soft colours. Jagged flashes of black and red or dresses so full of overblown flowers that remind me of wallpaper fashions are not for me.

Leggings, jeggings, joggers, opaque tights - an expert is required to tell the difference between them. They may be comfortable, but sometimes they look downright ugly. Particularly bad are the white or pastel coloured ones. Schoolgirls go to school now in stretchy black skirts that only just cover their knickers, worn with black opaque tights, and again, not all of them should be slaves to such a fashion. In fact, none of them should, since the parade of thighs every day as they go to and leave school is probably a distraction to every driver on the road! There is a sort of metronome precision about the march of the black clad thighs that draws the eye....but who looks at faces when there are so many thighs on view?

Then there is the new craze for having eyebrows that look fine on Middle Eastern ladies but have an odd, unbalanced look on most pale British faces. It may be the latest fashion, but some faces are overpowered by such eyebrows. Plus which, everyone's eyebrows are beginning to look the same. I long for a return to individuality, just as I long for this fashion for scarlet lipstick on blondes to disappear. Ladies with dark hair and skin tones can take it, but again it is a matter of balance and in my opinion - and this is only my opinion and you are free to disagree with me - scarlet lipstick looks like a wound against pale skin and fair hair.

Forget fashion - pursue your individuality and prosper! Those people in the fasion/cosmetic industry are making millions out of you.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

One of those days

This has been one of those days when lots of little things either don’t happen or don’t get fixed. Nothing major, nothing life changing but mildly annoying all the same. For example, my trip to the chemist to pick up my repeat prescription was foiled because it hasn’t been made up yet, which reminded me that I have not yet contacted the surgery to have an annual blood test done, the results of which will dictate the medication I take for the rest of the year. (This may be the reason the prescription was not ready for me!)

So I came home and tackled the online system for the surgery only to find that I can make an appointment with a doctor online, but not the nurse practitioners who do the blood tests. Picked up the phone to make said appointment only to be told that the surgery is closed until tomorrow morning. Surprising, since it was only four in the afternoon. They have half days? Who knew?

Our local supermarket did not have a copy of Writing Magazine which I wanted to purchase because a friend has a piece in the November issue. I don't know if they don't stock it, or if they simply have not received it yet. A second product I wanted was not available – found a rather large space on the shelf where it is usually kept.

I have tried yet again to change the description of my new novel release on Amazon Kindle. Yes, I know there’s a typo – that is what I’m trying to change, but it seems the gods are not with me today. Now Amazon is asking me to fill in their dreaded tax form and it seems I cannot find the right method of listing - international style – my phone number. They keep printing it in red. The final insult - the printer refuses to print out a copy of the instructions for filling in said tax form.


At this point I am making a major decision. I am going to bed to read my Gabaldon.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Alba is Mine

Publication Day yesterday!

Sad to say I may have caused a temporary problem for anyone trying to buy the book - I made a typo in the original book description on the KDP pages and have tried to alter it more than once while it was on pre-order. Yesterday I tried again, and once I'd done it, I realised that I'd effectively put the system out of action until they'd re-processed it.
Here's what I want the description to say: -




BLURB



In 1034, the fuse has been lit that will change the kingship of Alba. When his place in the succession is rejected, Finlay of Moray rebels against his grandfather the king and sides with half-brother Thorfinn of Orkney.

With his intended bride married off to his cousin, his boyhood friend joining the opposing side and the threat of war looming, there is little happiness for Finlay. Wanting to cement the bond between them, Thorfinn badgers him to marry his beautiful sister, but Finlay, reluctant to abandon hope of his first love, grimly resists the idea.

This absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.

Here are the links:

https://tinyurl.com/ycyymrmq (US)

https://tinyurl.com/ybq33rgp (UK)

This is my tag line:
Scottish-Viking struggles for a crown amidst treachery and love.


Monday, 25 September 2017

Re-reading the Outlander series

Gabaldon's books stand the test of time well. I'm enjoying reading them this time around (only my second venture into them) more than I did the first time. This may have something to do with the fact that I have more leisure time now to read them properly, word for word, instead of flipping through them to get them finished and go on to something else. The fact that I'm writing now may also have deepened my interest. 

As most of the female reading world knows, they are huge books, usually between 800 and 1,000 pages. Most agents and publishers frown on long books these days, so it will be interesting to see how long the last volume, scheduled for 2018, might be.

I'm almost finished Voyager, vol 2. This is the one where they sail for the West Indies to rescue Young Ian and I don't think I have read this one before. I often wondered, as I read later volumes, how they got to America with half their family around them. Now I'm finding out and along with that I'm discovering  some little bloopers. Yes, mistakes.  


They're not huge mistakes or typos, but because it is nice to know that even such famous authors who have huge publishing resources behind them can have the odd little typo, let me tell you what I've found. First of all she refers to Carter Bar as Carter's Bar. For those of you who have maybe never heard of the place, it is about 45 miles from me; the point on the A68 where the land drops over the ridge of the Cheviots from Northumberland into Scotland. If I checked historical maps I might find it was once called Carter's Bar - but so far all I've found is pubs and cafes in Edinburgh called Carter's Bar. 

The author also refers to "a bramble" from Jamie's mother's rose tapping against the window of Lallybroch. I've never heard of roses having brambles but evidently it is used in the US and people with more gardening experience than me assure me the UK catalogues hold a variety of bramble roses. To me, here in the north of England, we call  brambles those wild thorny shrubs that bear blackberries, and we go brambling.  On that point, I cannot accuse the US publisher of being incorrect. 

But when the author has Jamie and Claire sail from France to a port at Cape Wrath in the extreme north west of Scotland with vertiginous cliffs (there wasn't even a lighthouse until the mid 1800s) and no landing place, planning to pick up supplies at Lewes as they sail on to the West indies, I goggled. Cape Wrath is a hell of a place to get to today, never mind in 1760. The clansmen who rode there to meet them there were heroes! Read chapter 42 "We set sail" and then look at Cape Wrath on Google Earth. 

As for Lewes, it is unlikely that they had sailed from France to Cape Wrath and then proposed to sail south around Cornwall and back up the English Channel to Lewes to pick up supplies. Lewis, the northernmost of the western isles, however, would be on their way since they're sailing for Jamaica. 

Two pages on from this and there's an "exclamation of distate."

So many of the places mentioned in the story are real, but there are fantasy places mixed in, such as Ardsmuir prison. I never found where that was except she says it is on the west coast of Scotland near Coigach. Now, Coigach is the hill north west of Ullapool and there are islands off the headland where the gold could have been hidden on the seal's island. but my theory at the moment is that she uses genuine Scots names but not always as real places. It's become like a game for me to know which are which. Looking out for such things does not detract frm my enjoyment of the story; it's almost a bonus! Sad, I know!



Monday, 18 September 2017

Alba is Mine pre-order link

I think it is safe to put this up now.

"ALBA IS MINE" is available for pre-order in the Kindle Store. Customers may pre-order here

Those who pre-ordered the book will receive the content on the release date, 10/01/2017.

"The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to be his bride married off behind his back, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them. 

His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay -
marriage with his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear. 


Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours."









Wednesday, 6 September 2017

KINDLE UNLIMITED PER PAGE RATE


The per-page rate for Kindle Unlimited dropped down to $0.004034 per page for July, 2017.
This downward trend has now continued for several months.

But it’s common for the rate to drop in January for the holiday season, and return upward starting in February.


On the other hand, the KDP Select Global Fund for July, 2017 was $19M, which is a clear million dollars above the $18M payout for June, 2017.
This is part of an upward trend. 

So while the per-page rate has dropped recently, overall Amazon KDP is paying even more in combined Kindle Unlimited royalties.

"However, there is another big factor involved. Amazon KDP just introduced KENPC v3.0. If you haven’t already done so, you should check the current KENPC’s of your books. You can check your current KENPC from your KDP bookshelf. Click the Promote and Advertise button next your title (or click the … button to find this option, if necessary), and scroll down.
If your KENPC happens to be longer than it had been, that will help compensate for the lower per-page rate. If your KENPC happens to be shorter now, the lower rate will hurt even more if it continues."


Chris McMullen runs a very good blog for those who can handle more detail on this sort of topic. Here is the link:
https://chrismcmullen.wordpress.com/