Thursday, 26 January 2012


I've been working really hard these last few days. My left shoulder aches to prove it, though I don't know why sitting at a computer should make one shoulder ache and not the other! As I think I've said on this blog, I'm going through a second draft of the first Matho Story. I had named this volume Treason, but as my wonderful critique partner pointed out to me, an Englishman can't commit treason in Scotland, though he can in England.  So as well as a second draft, I'll have to rethink the title.
The second volume of Matho's Story is written, but  also needs that vital second draft polishing. I've already begun writing the third volume, which is going very slowly because of all the second drafting and also because I received edits for a novel called Reluctance. and also because all the details of French history and locations on the internet  are in French, as you would expect.
I'd almost forgotten about Reluctance. I signed the contract for it so long ago, way back last year. Set in 1803, not quite the Regency period, and in the north of England rather than the overdone locales of London and Bath, it makes good use of my local area. In fact, I got the idea from visiting a local National Trust site at Gibside, one of my favourite places for a day out or even just a hour's walking in the woods. Back in the seventeenth century it was owned by the Bowes family, who married into the Strathmore family of Bowes-Lyon fame. Evidently the Queen Mother snitched a fireplace from Gibside and took it to the Castle of Mey - I think it was Mey.

So, if I work very hard today I should get the final read through of Reluctance finished and sent back to my editor. According to the knowledgable ones, I should be publicising the story now, even though it isn't published until April. An added distraction is the tennis match just coming through from Australia via the sling box! Oh, to be able to do everything at once!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Romance secrets

In lots of romance stories, two characters meet – no, sorry, they more often collide – and claim they dislike each other, while as writers we expect our readers to understand that love is simmering just below the surface. Is this premise truly believable or should we dismiss it as absolute tosh?

Always in the romance genre there are problems as to why the two couldn’t possibly be thought of as lovers. He’s too proud, she’s too prejudiced. Rhett Butler is no certainly gentleman, while Scarlett is your true ladylike southern belle. (Put in your own names and see if they match what I’m about to say.) What happens as the story progresses? We find that Scarlett has it in her to cheat, lie and steal in a way that makes Rhett look positively gentlemanly. Darcy proves he has the guts to see his faults and change his ways, while Lizzie recognizes with dismay how hasty and ill-judged her speedy character assessments were - not only of him, but also of Whickham.
Are they really the disparate characters first presented to the reader, or are they much closer to each other in tastes, habits and thought? I think Darcy and Lizzie are alike in many ways. In fact, Darcy and Elizabeth admit as much, and the film Gone with the Wind demonstrates how similar Rhett and Scarlett are in their courage and desperate will to survive and keep their dependents alive.
Perhaps this is the true secret of the romance genre - that couples should share values and traits, however deeply they are hidden or obscured by initial impressions.
They’d have to have something to share, or their lives would be hell. Wouldn’t they?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Oxford commas

It was my local authors' lunch yesterday, hence my dereliction of duty regarding a new blog post. After a lovely lunch and much general chatter, we got down to talking about writing. The Oxford comma became a topic. Now I was interested in this because having done edits with more than one US indie publisher, I've noticed how much more frequent is their use of a comma.

I'm not denying commas are important. As Truss says in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a humble comma can change the sense of a sentence. Take for example:
"Verily, I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" and compare it to "Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise." See how the meaning changes?

The Oxford comma is the one that comes after white in the sentence "The boat is red, white, and blue." In the UK, the standard usage is to omit it. In America, standard usage is to put it in.

Since the comma is one of those markers in language that indicates where the reader
ice fowers
should slow down and pause in order to fully appreciate what is being said, then sometimes the extra comma is useful and sometimes it is not. My own feeling is that quite often one's reaction is no more than noticing something different, something unusual. Americans notice the comma is missing, in the UK we notice there's an extra comma where we wouldn't expect one. Does it destroy the reading enjoyment of the story? Not really. Not for more than half second, anyway.

What I do find confusing is when to use commas joining two complete sentences. When I'm edited in the US, they take out the ones I use, and put in ones I wouldn't, and I can't always see why. In the UK, commas are used with conjunctions such as and, or, but, while and yet. But we never do it with however and nevertheless.

Just to make life even more confusing, there's something called the splice comma.  When the conjunction is omitted and the comma is retained, when it should really be a semi-colon - that's a splice comma. Example: Pansy woke up in an unfamiliar bed, she felt odd. Famous writers like Updike, Beckett, E.M.Forster and Somerset Maugham use it, and get away with it. Used by them, it is considered dashing, poetic and effective, says Truss. Done by those who don't understand the rule, it is awful.

All I can add is that I get very confused when the grammar I learned at school and have used all my life is deemed to be incorrect. I sit here and muse how very different the novels of Nora Roberts would be if her books were put into UK English before they were loosed on the British public. Watch caps and Oreoes? What the hell are they?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


frozen delights
I should have entitled my last post as E-Publishing rather than Self-Publishing, and I'm surprised I didn't get a host of comments pointing out my basic mistake.

So let me say right away that self-publishing is either
a)Vanity publishing or
b) publishing yourself via Amazon Kindle.  (I've not investigated Smashwords, Nooks, Kobos and the like yet. My learning curve has reached astronomical heights in figuring out the Kindle process, and I'm resting on my laurels for a while.)

I think we all know that in Vanity Publishing, the author pays someone to publish his or her work. Using Amazon Kindle is different in that the author pays no one, and has to do all the work of getting the ms up there as a buyable commodity. if you can write good tales but know next to nothing about  formatting and using unfamiliar software, then the obvious route is via Vanity Publishing. For those who have some knowledge of software and not enough dosh to pay someone to do all the hard work, then the Kindle route is preferable.Both situations provide an open door for a lot of authors who would otherwise never get published, who perhaps should not be published - but it also provides a springboard for those who have a good story to offer but find that today's recession-ridden publishing world simply won't take a risk on them. As an aside, it seems that there are a lot of people in the world who want a fast, cheap read that has few pretentions to literary fiction. As in everything else, the range is wide and there is a market at every level.

The independent e-publishers, on the other hand, are more willing to risk taking on an unknown author. They vet the offered work and reject or accept according to their varied criteria.Their editing levels are varied, too, and so are their royalty rates and contractual demands. But it must be remembered that the range is wide, and while one end offers low quality writing for sale, the opposite end offers high quality.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Self Publishing

There is still a lot of confusion about self-publishing out in the writing world and I suspect the lines are blurring again. There are various options:
  •  Pay someone to publish your book for you. This used to be called vanity publishing. Basically it doesn't matter how good or bad your book is, there is always someone who will publish it simply because you are paying them to do it.
  • Small independant firms, mostly in the US, may choose to take up your book and publish it in e-format. This route requires that you submit the usual partial chapters, synopsis, cover letter and sometimes a plan for how you intend to promote your book if it is published, by e-mail. Everything is done by e-mail. They pay all publishing costs, and you receive a royalty on sales. Editing standards are as variable as the reliability of the company, and the range goes from very good to dismal.
  • Larger independant firms, still mostly in the US, who have been around for a decade and have a stable of known authors on their books. They are as hard to break into as the big publishers. Submissions are often closed for months at a time.
  • Then there is the fairly new avenue of going with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing programme. For this, you need a fairly good knowledge of formatting, but it is possible to upload a Word programme ms. onto Kindle all by yourself. You decide how much to charge for the book, provide the cover, write the blurb, and promote it yourself. You are managing director of your own publishing company, but you are also the skivvy who checks the books. Royalties depend on sales, but it costs you nothing to put your book up there.  Great for backlist, or for those tired of submitting, waiting, and getting rejections; or those books where the publisher has suddenly gone out of business, as happened with me. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cold days

I seem to be a little out of synch with my posts. I don't usually bother at the weekend, as everyone is busy with family and home, but today - why not? Yesterday was cold, and last night even colder. Today the frost is gripping hard and shows no signs of letting up. The first supply of peanuts and sultanas are out ont he bird table and the blackbirds are mobbing it. I'll save my brisk walk until around midday, when it might be a tad warmer.
Still, it's good weather for getting work done. DH is excavating floorboards in order to insert lights in the ceiling of the floor below, and in between the horrendous whine and howl of the drill-thing he's using, I can get on with my own stuff. Wrote 1200 good words yesterday that didn't need much polishing up, and will aim for the same today.

frozen sundial

The tricky thing is getting my character from point A - point B in France, and trying to describe sixteenth century French countryside. My French is limited, which makes research something of a guessing game. But I'll use what I know of the country today and historical facts I'm sure of, and see what I end up with. Maybe taking Matho to France wasn't such a good idea after all!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Spines are important!

Sutherland mountains
I have had wandering pains in my chest for nearly six weeks now, and finally made appointment at surgery expecting to be told I had a chest infection. Seems I needed an osteopath instead, so I made an appointment with the recommended person and duly trotted into his consulting rooms that same afternoon.

 Believe it or not, I had three ribs out of place, and probably all due to poor posture ie slouching on the sofa with my feet up all evening. With the ribs duly clicked back into place and lots of advice I now feel back to normal. It seems walking, cycling etc do nothing for the spine, not even power walking where the arms seems as active as the legs. For my age (ah! Those dreaded words) my spinal movement is pretty good, but I need to exercise it properly to keep it supple and I should not, repeat not, slouch on a sofa with my feet up for four hours every evening! I must sit properly, and get up several times through the evening, and do the prescribed exercises.

I have done them all through today – and if the spine is really out of shape and needs to be kept flexible, some unlucky persons need to do the exercises every four hours through the night. But this morning I woke up and there wasn’t a twinge to be felt, so I am following the advice very carefully indeed from now on.

 The exercises are really simple, too.  Raise a straight  arm until it touches the ears, slide the hand down the thigh until it reaches the knee, slide the hands down the shins to the feet if you can, clasp the fingers at chest level in front of you and  turn the arms sideways as far as you can; and finally, rotate the pelvic girdle. Now do on the opposite side. Voila. You should have a nice supple spine.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


ancient door handle at Blanchland
I'm awaiting the next installment of Borgen, the newest Danish tv serial to reach UK shores. There's something fascinating about the way Danish tv has suddenly woken slumbering audiences with the quality of their crime thrillers. First The Killing 1 - twenty hour long episodes chronicling the police investigation of a young girl's murder, with all the dead ends, sudden deductions and loose ends showing the confusion that faces police forces with every such case. It also shows the nightmare for the victim's slowly disintegrating family - the endless questions, and the revelations that prove she had a secret life her parents knew nothing about.

The chilly character of police investigator Sarah Lund isn't one you wouldexpect to prove a hit with audiences, for she never explains herself or her actions, is abrupt with colleagues and witnesses alike. Her personal life is put on hold again and again, because she is gripped by the need to find the murderer and will go to any lengths to track him down. Yet  her big-eyed, calculating stare holds a fascination. We wonder what she thinks, what makes her do what she does? What does she see that we've missed? What thought processes does she follow?

The sub-titles from Danish are a boon to me. Often in modern tv I mishear or don't understand the rapid, garbled speech, particularly in American tv shows, where sentences are truncated and idioms abound. Now I can follow the plot perfectly - well, as far as understanding the dialogue goes.
Killing II was equally as good as Killing I, and I've noticed that the male leads from each series have turned up in Borgen. It's interesting to observe them in different roles, but I do keep wondering when Sarah is going to turn up in her favourite sweater.

Sunday, 8 January 2012


Today I thought I'd add a small excerpt from Fair Border Bride.  Set in  the rough world of the borders between England and Scotland in the mid sixteenth century, a pretty girl distracts Harry from his mission:

Harry gritted his teeth, offered his most elegant bow and watched them go. The young lady tossed a swift, laughing glance over her shoulder before the crowd took her away.

Harry turned to the stallholder. “Who was that?”

Of little height but ample girth, the stallholder regarded him from shrewd blue eyes. “Fancy ye chances, lad? That was the lady of Aydon Hall. Margery Carnaby and her daughter Alina. They’re a-carin’ for Sir Reynold, him that’s ill and like to die soon.”

“Aydon? Just north of here?”

“Aye. Right by the Ay Burn. Ye’ll be a stranger to these parts yourself, sir?”

Harry saw no need to deny it. “Travelling north to Edinburgh.”

“Oh, aye. And ye’d be from Lonnun, then, sir?”

Harry gave her his best smile. There was no harm in letting everyone think he was from the south. In fact, it was to his advantage. “How’d ye guess?”

The dark wool shawl draping her shoulders moved as she shrugged. “Ye don’t sound as if ye come from these parts. Ye sound more like gentry. I thought o’ Lonnun, that’s all.”

“It is quieter hereabouts than London.”

Mary handed him a neatly wrapped package and named her price. “Quiet, d’ye think, lad? It’s but a hundred miles to Edinburgh, and ye’ll travel some o’ the most dangerous land in the country to get there.”

Counting out coins into her palm, Harry hesitated, and his gaze rose from the coins to the woman’s rosy, thread-veined face.

“Dangerous for everyone, or just for me?”

Mary choked back a laugh. “There’s outlaws and broken men up in’t hills, my bonny lad, and they’ll shake loose the Border whenever they take a fancy to dee it. They’ll not stop to ask ye name, never mind ye destination, before they slit ye throat and ride off wi ye purse.” She looked him up and down. “They’ll no’ forget ye sword nor ye dagger, either, not even that bonny jewel in your cap. Nekkid as a babe ye’ll be, when those limmers leave ye.”

He resumed counting out coins into her plump hand. “I’d best take care how I ride then,” he said. “For ride I will.”

Her blue eyes twinkled. “Luck be wi ye, sir.”

Harry slid the small package inside his doublet and wandered on, whistling silently through his teeth, wondering if he should have asked about guides for the next stage of his journey. Better not; he didn’t want every village idiot knowing his business. He’d use his own judgement in finding a man who knew the routes through the hills.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Marquee names

No, I'm not going to be talking about tents on lawns or river banks, but historical novels. 
Evidently marquee names are novels written about a really well-known historical person, such as Mary Queen of Scots. Some do it head-on, with the historical person as the lead character. I suppose Phillippa Gregory's books fit this mould. Lately it has seemed that such books have taken over the historical genre.

 Gone with the Wind is my idea of historical novel, and it's not just a best-selling historical fiction novel, it's the best-selling novel of all time. Scarlett O'Hara is not a historical celebrity, but she certainly leaps off the page, just as copies of the book leapt off the shelves. Hopefully in today's confusing world, the marquee name has not crowded truly fictional characters off the bookshop shelves, otherwise Fair Border Bride doesn't have much hope of success. True, I've used real historical people like Sir Thomas Wharton to give the story some ballast and enhance the setting of the warlike borders of Tudor England and Stewart Scotland, but the major characters are out of my head.

Alina Carnaby may have existed on parchment as an early medieval heiress in the Tyne valley, but there's precious little known about her life. I borrowed the names of her three brothers and used them, too. Starting with only a name, it was up to me to give them life and personality, and that's what I enjoyed doing. I even gave the seven-year-old brother a lisp when he was nervous!

It could be that there's a danger in sticking too close to real historical persons, for they accepted things and did things that we find reprehensible today. Life was far too barbaric for us to really think as they did, when something as simple as a cut finger could lead to a nasty, lingering death from blood-poisoning, and bubonic plague killed a third of England's population. With death hiding around the next corner, there's no wonder that religion figured in people's lives far more than it does today. Hunger was endemic, and murder virtually undetectable. War maimed and killed men, marriage was a business proposition and childbirth killed women. People lived off the land, or were dependant on the bounty of their local lord; he in turn was dependent on the gift of the king, who taxed the people when his coffers ran dry.
Perhaps we really need the romanticising of history to make it palatable.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Endless editing?

cottage in Blanchland
Read this article by Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal, and see if it makes you think.
I hadn't realised that once I'd loaded a book onto Amazon's Kindle programme, I could still edit any little problems I spotted once it was up there. But evidently you can. According to Mr Carr, it's easy-peasy, and though I have no wish to go through my publishing to Kindle experience again quite yet, thank you, many of you will no doubt seize the opportunity.
I can see Mr Carr's point re text and reference books. Incredibly easy to update them once they're electronically published, and no need to keep track of editions, but I can hear book publishers and booksellers groaning as they read his article. Not to mention authors.
It isn't exactly in anybody's interests, apart from the reader.

But then again, if the reader wants the latest information, they'll have to keep on buying the same title until some bright spark comes up with software that will automatically update the copy you bought three years ago. That really would be a death knell for many!

As for fiction....for the ephemeral stuff, here to day and gone tomorrow, it doesn't really matter that there may never be a definitive copy. But when we speak of classics, modern classics and bestsellers that will last on through the years - don't we want to read the same words as everyone else? Won't we object if the author pesists in tweaking and fiddling and changing the text because s/he isn't satisfied with the "finished" work?

Food for thought indeed.

Monday, 2 January 2012


SNECK is a word used in Scotland and Northern England either as a noun or a verb. It comes from Middle English and relates to a door fastening. My dictionary says it is the same as latch, but to me that isn't so. Remember the 1960s term "latch-key kids?" There is a whole different meaning: a latch is something you drop in order to lock the door. A sneck will certainly drop, but it won't lock. The only way you could stop someone getting in from the outside was to ram a stick or an iron bar through the sneck, which effectively jammed it shut.
The first pic shows the outer side of the door, the street side. This is on a pub door in Blanchland, and you grasp the handle and push down the sneck with your thumb - hey presto, the door opens!

This is the same thing, only fancier. This was on the Abbey door in Blanchland, which was was consecrated around 1146.
Set where the green fields turn to rising moorland, the whole village boasts a population of around 140 and was formed in the by then Bishop of Durham, out of the medieval abbey buildings. Click for more info on the Bishop, and here for more on Blanchland. evidently Blanchland hit the news in 1715 when Tom Forster, one of the Jacobite rebels, hid in the chimney of the Lord Crewe Arms, one of the oldest hostelries in England.
The third pic is inside of the church door, showing how the wood is much battered by the constant movement of the iron sneck as it is lifted and closed. Let it drop by accident, and the noise is horrific in the confines of a stone building!

The final pic is the other half of the very first picture; cruder, but essentially the same design on the inside of the Lord Crewe Arms. They're still in common use and though people use them without thinking, they don't always know what they're called.

Lost dog!

Sunday 8 th May Slow start to a sunny day with a promise of high temperatures. Bill took Perla out at 7.30 as he has done all this month ...