Saturday, 17 December 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter: Christina Rossetti, Victorian poet & feminist


'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.'

Even if you aren't a christian, chances are you will have heard this carol being sung or played around this time of year. It was written by Christina Rossetti, sister of the far more famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a leading light in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, and died in 1894. Her life spanned the mid-Victorian and late Victorian period. She was the youngest child in an incredibly talented family. Her father, the Italian poet and political exile Gabriele Rossetti, immigrated to England in 1824 and established a career as a Dante scholar and teacher of Italian in London.

Of the two 'famous' Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti, I find Rossetti the more fascinating. At a time when women were expected to marry and limit their sphere of influence to hearth and home, she never married, although one of the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, James Collinson, proposed marriage in 1848. She turned him down, citing her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.

Rossetti was on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. She witnessed the chopping and changing of partners, the artistic compositions and radical lifestyles of the set. Yet she never acted as a model, nor was included fully in the activities of the group. Her poems often convey a sense of the 'outsider', the unnamed and unnoticed woman standing in the doorway observing, but not intruding.

Much of Rossetti's poetry is strong and strident and passionate, which makes her unusual given that her sex was supposed to be self-effacing and emotionally docile. Her verse is very female-located. In her poems 'Maude Claire', 'Cousin Kate' and 'Jessie Cameron' none of the men are ever named. All the women are named or given a voice.

Over the centuries poetry has been considered the highest form of literature, and thus up until the late Victorian period, consigned to the 'male' domain. Its anti-woman critics have always pointed out the 'public' nature of the poet and how that sat at odds with the domestic nature of women. Rossetti subverts the traditional gendered expectation, firstly by being a woman poet, then by asserting female emotions, identity and superiority over and over again in her verses.

Rossetti's own life frequently filters into her work. For ten years she worked at St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate. It was a refuge for 'fallen women', the 'soiled doves' of Victorian society. This experience colours such poems as 'Goblin Market', her finest poem, where the goblins (men) are seen offering luscious fruits to seduce innocent young women. Rossetti makes clear her disgust of the commoditization of sex, but also subtly shows how 'tempting' temptation really was.

'Goblin Market' is often mistakenly seen a children's poem. It goes deeper than that. Apart from a radiant depiction of sisterhood and the importance of female friendship in a dangerous and predatory male world, I think Rossetti is subconsciously exploring the radical idea of a 'woman Redeemer' in Lizzie, the 'golden haired/white dove' who saves her sister by offering money to the goblins, but refusing to taste their evil fruits. Instead, in a copy of Christ's last supper, she invites her fallen sister, who succumbed to temptation and is now dying, to 'taste' the juices she carries, and so be healed through her. (I am not sure Rossetti would have agreed with my feminist critique, but to me, the meaning is clear.)

Like her Victorian counterpart Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rossetti suffered from a variety of illnesses all her life. She was variously diagnosed with angina, TB, neuralgia and once with 'religious mania'. It is a moot point whether these were actual complaints, or part and parcel of being a very gifted, sensitive and intelligent woman poet at a time when such an occupation was still not totally accepted. It was only a few years on from the 'shocking' unmasking of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell as being women novelists (the Bronte sisters).

Many times during her life, Rossetti had to learn to control and subdue her nature. It was not always easy. As she wrote in later life to her niece “You must not imagine, my dear girl, that your Aunt was always the calm and sedate person you now behold. I, too, had a very passionate temper; but I learnt to control it. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath.''

 In 1893 Rossetti was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy that was performed in her own home. The cancer recurred the following year, and after months of acute suffering she died on 29 December 1894. She left behind a body of verse that is largely unread and unknown today, apart from the carol In the Bleak Midwinter, Goblin Market and the plangent Remember Me which is often recited at funerals. If you get a chance over the Christmas period, she is well worth seeking out.











Friday, 9 December 2016

How Not To Plan A Novel (Some Tips)


Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read my three Victorian crime novels have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust, Honour & Obey, Death & Dominion and now Rack & Ruin I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now finally, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.


No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wander off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about eight months. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness.

How do you plan ....?

Monday, 5 December 2016

Three Reasons to Self-Publish





With publication of the fourth Victorian Stride & Cully detective novel, and a fifth on the way I have now firmly moved into the entirely self-published category. And I been asked once again by several people why I decided not to go with a commercial publisher. 

Here are my reasons: 

1. Control: As a self-published author, I  have a lot of autonomy. I can do whatever I like, publicity-wise, and if you follow me on Twitter (@carolJhedges) you will know that I do. I had very little autonomy with Usborne and OUP and I gather that some big publishing houses like to keep a close eye on their writers so they don't run amok on social media, which could rebound back on them. Also I gather that many houses prefer writers to promote other writers on their list (possibly why I rarely get promoted by Choc Lit writers, lovely though they are).

2. Choice: I  chose the covers of my books, which remind me of contemporary newspaper headings, or theatrical posters. They are designed by a local graphic artist, who is also a friend. I have been told they are reminiscent of very early Penguin covers. They are certainly quirky and different ... just like the stories .. and, dare I say it, like the author of the stories herself! I can also choose and change the key words that help readers locate my books, and I can fiddle around with Amazon's book categories, if I want to. As I am an inveterate fiddler, I do.

3. Cash:  As a commercially published writer of adult fiction I was getting 40% of all ebook sales, less on printed books. As a published children's writer that dropped to 12% of all book sales. As an Indie, I can command 70% of sales. The difference in my monthly figures has been remarkable.

Ok, I know it is all too easy nowadays to write a book, cobble together a cover and upload the finished product to Amazon (actually, it damn well isn't, as you can read here:). Advances in technology have opened up enormous opportunities for self-publishing that were never there when I started writing books, and that is a good thing.

I also acknowledge that inevitably, there is a lot of dross out there and it lets the side down. Poorly written and produced books with typos, badly designed covers, sold at rock bottom prices or given away for free, which is not the way I want to go.

Despite the many ''Hey, I produced a book for virtually nothing'' blogs, the writers of the best self-published books have usually used beta readers, then paid out for professional editing, proofreading and cover designing. It is hard work and not easy and having done it five times now, I can attest to the pain.

But in a world where celebs are sneaking all the good publishing deals, and agents are less and less able to place books (and take 10% of your meagre earnings when they do), I still think that going solo, if you can, is the best and most lucrative way of presenting your work to the reading public. 

So what's your publishing experience? And as a reader, do you ''prefer'' a book that has a 'proper publisher' behind it? Do share your thoughts ....




Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects


It is now just over four years since I started this blog, also four years since I joined Twitter and I can't remember the date when I set up my Facebook page. All of which is NO EXCUSE whatsoever for revisiting some of the more popular blog posts. But then, when have I ever needed an excuse.
Remember this one?

A vexing week at Hedges Towers. I think I am developing Copenhagen Syndrome. Every time something goes wrong, I find myself putting on a different jumper and thinking: 'What would Sara Lund do?' The new mobile phone is a case in point. I decided to upgrade to a new phone when the B H  E and U keys died on my ancient one, and the predictive text stuck on 'I am in the bar' rather than 'I am in the car'. Wrong impressions were being conveyed, I was having to think sideways every time I sent a text and my street cred was rapidly descending into the clown zone.

What I had failed to grasp however, was that mobile phone technology has moved on considerably since I bought my little silver 'mum-phone' many moons ago, which means that currently, if you chose for so many reasons, most of them associated with sheer terror and no money, to lurk down the shallow end of the technology pool, your choices are few. Basically it was either the black Nokia one that looked almost but not exactly the same as my previous mobile, or the Hello Kitty phone with free pencil set. I chose the Nokia; I chose wrong.

Getting it out of the box was, in hindsight, the easy part. It then took me ages to unlock the keypad - simply couldn't get the 'Press *' key to align with the 'Press Unlock' key. By the time I'd mastered that, my faith in the ability to absorb new skills had melted away like snow in summer. Two days later tentative progress has been made, despite the instruction booklet not being aimed at someone with technological skills so low you couldn't limbo under them. I still haven't worked out how to switch it off, though. (Am I the only person on the planet who turns off their mobile phone to save the battery? Apparently so.)

It's all part of what I see as the Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects, something I've observed is becoming worse as I grow older. Although the truth of that sentence could lie in the reverse premise. Whatever. Everything just seems to be getting proactively more annoying. For example, I'm fully expecting Sainsburys to post a notice any day banning me from the store, because I always end up rowing with the invisible purple gremlin inside the self-checkout till in a 'That's not an unidentified object in the bagging area - it's my SHOPPING, you stupid woman!' sort of way. I've noticed that assistants now seem to hover apprehensively whenever I approach.

In the same category is the Orange phone lady who tops up my pay-as-you-go account, and will not allow me to deviate from answering either 'yes' or 'no' to her questions. But my life is full of uncertainty, I wail, how can I possibly commit myself to only two possibilities? Is there no room for 'maybe'? At which point, she cuts me off and I have to restart the whole process from scratch. See what I mean?

 Before writing this post, I had to restore and reload Chrome, as it had decided to stroll off somewhere and commune with itself. Oh ~ and the printer is currently not working, despite kicking it, feeding it with paper and pressing all the buttons. Stuff that is supposed to make my life easier is by default managing to make it far more complicated. I am careening towards a farcical cliff.
Time to break out another jumper?

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Serial Offender


As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 83+ reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, Death & Dominion which came out last October. Rack & Ruin is the fourth outing for Stride & Cully and  I am currently putting the final touches to a fifth book.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The *Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat readalike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst, (bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought!)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

* These books will be re-published in 2017 by Accent Press

So what's your experience: Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts ....

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Remembrance Day


'No shelter from the kniving wind
No solace from the driving snow.
No warmth, no comfort or bright cheer
In heav'n above or earth below'
from 'Trench Winter. November 1916' by Noel Clark 

If you read my stuff, you'll know that lines from this poem feature in Jigsaw Pieces , my YA ebook . Noel Clark is a character from the book and his short life as a soldier poet in the first world war makes up one of the story strands. In a few days, we will mark the anniversary of the end of  that so called 'War to End all Wars', and there must be very few UK people who don't have some link back to the 1914-18 conflict. My link comes via my late father-in-law, the wonderfully named Herbert Inkerman Hedges.

My father-in-law was the youngest of twelve brothers. The eleven older ones joined the East Riding of Yorkshire Regiment and marched away to fight the Hun. They were all killed at the Battle of the Somme. He recalls his parents telling him how the telegraph lad kept cycling up to their house day after day, until the news of the last son's death was delivered.

I'm always intrigued by the way wars throw up poets. It's not just World War One, though that cohort are probably the best known. Poetry was also being written during World War Two, on both sides, in the Iraq War and is still being produced in Afghanistan today. I think the proliferation of soldier poets during times of conflict is directly related to the situation they find themselves in.

Poetry demands an inner ordering, a precise selection of vocabulary and structure - it's the verbal equivalent of piecing together a complex jigsaw - the picture only emerges when all the pieces are correctly placed. The control needed to make a poem is in direct contrast to the chaos that soldiers live in daily. Poetry is a way of containing their world and making sense of the senseless. It is therefore both therapy, and a psychological outlet for feelings and emotions too horrific to be dealt with in 'normal' prose.

Those who have read Jigsaw Pieces know the story of Noel Clark an imaginary World War One poet who died tragically at the age of nineteen, is closely linked to another soldier from that time: Billy Donne. What you do not know is that Billy was an actual person. I came across him quite by accident in a small article in the Times in 1997. It was headlined 'A happy 100th for man with mysterious past'. I used his story almost to the letter: Billy Dunne (the correct spelling of his surname) couldn't speak, and drew pictures of battlefields, just like his fictional counterpart. He was placed in a mental hospital in 1923 for unknown reasons, and no family had ever claimed him. His story touched me so much that I felt I had to write about him. The link with Noel Clark is where fact and fiction elide.

During the upcoming commemorations for the anniversary of World War One, we shall no doubt re-read many times the 'big' soldier poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. But actually I find just as much pity and pathos in the work of the women poets of that time, who did not share in the fighting at the Front, but shared in the suffering, and the changed lives. It is their sense of loss, their attempt to learn to survive survival, that makes their verse so poignant. One of the best is Margaret Postgate Cole. This is her poem Praematuri:
When men are old, and their friends die 
They are not sad,
Because their love is running slow, 
And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;
And they are happy with many memories,
And only a little while to be alone.
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
- But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. 


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Stolen Childhoods


William Blake published his 'Songs of Experience' in 1794. Holy Thursday is one of the most poignant. The reference is to Ascension Day, when a service was regularly held at St Paul's Cathedral for the poor children of London's Charity Schools. Blake's verses are a bitter outcry against the hypocrisy of church and state (then closely linked), that doled out charity with 'a cold and usurous hand' and then paraded the recipients through the streets in a humiliating public spectacle.

These 'Babes', he says, do not enjoy 'sun' nor 'fields', instead their young lives are marked by 'misery', 'poverty' and 'eternal Winter'. The lexical polarity is quite deliberate. It is a bleak picture of a cruel and harsh time. Not that the Babes' lives got any better in the 19th century. Poor children were expected to contribute in some way to the family earnings from birth onwards. Small girls sold watercresses, strawberries or sulphur matches, depending upon the season. Boys risked life and limb sweeping the muck off the streets for people to cross. Babies were frequently 'lent' to elderly beggar women to make them look even more pathetic. Others sold flowers or matches on street corners, standing in the open in all weathers. Still more risked life and limb darting between carriages to sweep a path. Some children spent long lonely hours minding smaller siblings. Few could read or write.

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of London life recorded in his London Labour & the London Poor (1852-4), the words of  a coster-lad. His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving his mother to cope. He told Mayhew:

''Mother used to be up and out very early washing in families ~ anything for a living. We was left at home with some bread and butter for dinner. Afore she got into work, we was shocking hard up. Sometimes when we had no grub at all our stomachs used to ache with the hunger, and we would cry when we was werry far gone. She used to be at work from six in the morning till ten at night which was a long time for a child's belly to hold out again, and when it was dark we would go and lie down on the bed and try to sleep until she came home with the food. I was eight years old then.''

1889 poverty map of London's East End . The blackest streets mark areas of complete destitution

Sadly over two hundred years later, we still see the lives and life-chances of poor 'Babes' being trampled in the dust as their parents are treated with scorn and contempt by a government that regards them as idle wastrels. We see benefits cut, sanctions applied, help denied,

Daily there are stories of parents denying themselves food so that their kids can eat. Children arrive at school too hungry to concentrate; sometimes they don't arrive at all because they have no shoes, or uniform, or a warm coat. We see the rise of foodbanks: an utter disgrace in a 'rich & fruitful land' like ours. We read tragic reports of families being made homeless because private landlords raise their rent, and greedy profit-focused developers are reluctant to build 'social' housing. The 'free school lunches' are on the verge of being abandoned in favour of cheap breakfasts.
The cap on housing benefit and the rise of rents potentially throws numerous families onto the streets, depriving their 'Babes' of the right to stability, education and a decent family life. Thousands of children are, even as you read this, having their hopes and dreams of a happy future kicked into the nearest gutter though no fault of their own.

Someone on Twitter recently asked: How can any Government do this to innocent children? My reply: Because they aren't their children so they don't care. Blake cared. His poems, of which only seven copies were printed, were radical critiques of the rich landed fat cats in Parliament and the Church who lorded it over society and inflicted terrible damage to the lives of ordinary human beings by their selfish, greedy policies and attitudes.

The Songs of Experience were considered deeply 'seditious' and could have led to Blake's imprisonment if they'd ever been read by government officials. Nowadays, I guess he'd just be roundly mocked in the rightwing tabloid press and trolled on social media.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Men are From Mars


BH went off on his annual jaunt around Italy recently, leaving the cat and I in charge. Just before he left, we were invited to a lunch party at a couple's house we'd only been to once. Normally something to look forward to, and we do once we've surmounted the Actually Getting There scenario, which we go through so often in our 42 years together that it has now evolved into a script with its own rituals, worthy of a John Osborne play. It goes something like this:

Setting: We have been driving around for some time

Me (eventually): You're lost, aren't you?

BH (edgily): No, I know exactly where we are.

Me: Well, so how come we aren't there by now then?

BH (testily): We're going in the right direction.

Me (because I've started): Why don't you LOOK at the map?

BH (pointedly): I HAVE looked at the map.

Me: Then why is this the second time we've driven down this road?

BH (thru' gritted teeth): Maybe YOU'D like to map read? Maybe YOU'D like to drive?

Me (crossly): Just check the map, okay? Because I don't think this is the right way.

Eventually we stop, the map is checked, the car is turned round, and we arrive at our destination. I think that this is another of those 'Men are from Mars women are from Visa' things. If I need to go anywhere new, I have to do at least one pre-visit recce to make sure I know exactly where I'm going. And I still get anxious on the day of travel.

Checking the diary, I see it is just over four years since @carolJhedges joined Twitter. I did so mainly because having uploaded my YA novel Jigsaw Pieces to Amazon Kindle, and nearly died in the attempt, I needed to disseminate its presence and sell a few copies to make the whole ghastly experience worthwhile. Twitter has been getting a bad press recently due to the misogyny, anti-semitism and racism that its anonymity seems to bring out in certain warped individuals post Brexit.

My experience of Twitter has been reasonably positive, despite having some very unusual followers: dogs, hotels, cats, radio stations, pubs, lizards and two years ago, Lechlade Music Festival where one of BH's socks was apparently performing with The White Stripes. Don't ask. What makes Twitter such fun for me is encountering individuals with a sharp, razor-like wits, or just thoroughly nice supportive individuals who care about others and the world. There are a lot of them about.

Through Twitter I have learned how to grow veg, how to download images from the internet, and how to self-publish. There seems to be an expert out there for every occasion or eventuality. I've been recommended books I'd never have read before, and enjoyed some wonderful poetry. I've had access to brilliant blogs, I've come across recipes for luscious mouth-watering cakes and listened to some amazing bands. As for #thearchers tweetalong: you just have to be there to 'get' it.

And I'm absolutely sure that, in the extremely unlikely event that my 2CV were ever to break down on a lonely country road in the depths of Winter, while I was in the middle of a heart attack, there would be people on Twitter only too willing and able to help. Wouldn't you?

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Lost in Translation


So, it's farewell to the latest TV Beck episodes, which were a bit confusing as one of the main characters, Gunwald, was shot fairly soon into the series to be replaced by a very tall man with a beard you could use as a rug and a Norwegian accent.

The Nord-crime fest has been with us for so long that I now seriously believe I can actually speak Scandic ('tak ..praecis...alibi..') and I've almost stopped getting snagged up by the sub-titles, except where they are just plain daft. There was a bit in the last series of The Bridge where Martin, the gloomy can't-keep-it-in-his-cargoes 'tec met up with his son.

Martin: Hi.
Son: Hi.
Subtitles: Hi....Hi.

Someone in the sub-title department was clearly having a laugh.

I don't know how you react, but I also find heartening to realise that there are countries where people exist in a sort of 24 hour low-level gloomy twilight, speak languages in which the consonants vastly outnumber the vowels, and spend all their lives killing each other or plotting political coups behind the scenes. And only have 8 professional TV actors between them. Maybe that is why Annie, the heroine of my YA ebook Jigsaw Pieces, originates from one of the Scandi countries. I'm a closet gloomster with hidden psychotic tendencies.

I hold my hands up at this point and confess that of all the countries featured in the Nordic Noir dramas, I have a particular fondness for the Danes, because they translated one of my books into Danish.  Rodt Flojl (the o's have little lines through them, can't work out how to do it, sorry) which is the Danish version of Red Velvet, has been available in Danish bookshops since 2001.

Interestingly, Rodt Flojl, the translated version, is at least a third longer than its English counterpart Red Velvet. Don't know why. Complete mystery. Maybe I have more to say in Danish. Sadly, I also don't know what it is, but every now and then I receive a small royalty cheque.
Tak.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Ready, Steady > Review!


If you  follow me on Twitter, you will be familiar with the above poster. Ot  tweets like this:

‏@carolJhedges
❤ Read it?
❤ Loved it?
❤ REVIEW it!

#Writers make the world go round

I tweet it quite regularly to encourage readers to think about putting their thoughts (hopefully positive) onto a review site. One of my writer acquaintances @TerryTyler4 started #AugustReviews over the summer with the idea of encouraging readers to write reviews of books they have enjoyed on Amazon, and then tweet the link so that we can all share it. You can read her post here:  

So what are reviews for? I think they fulfill various functions. Firstly, they help other readers decide whether a book is for them. A slew of interesting and varied reviews (by this I mean at least a cogent paragraph not just: 'Ooh, I sooo love this book'/'I didn't get further than page 5') help one to decide whether to download/buy. Or conversely, whether not to waste your time. We are all time-poor. Reviews are therefore an aid to connecting the reader to the right book.

As a writer, I find reviews of my own books useful as a gauge to measure whether or not I am hitting the reader satisfaction button. Are they enjoying the story? Do they get it? Can they follow the plot? If not, how can I improve the reading experience for them in the next book. Reviews are also a personal encouragement - the writer's lot is an isolated lot most of the time. It is good to receive a little praise for one's efforts, especially when the serendipitous happens: a reader finds a whole new layer of meaning that had never occurred to me. Reviews can be a writer's best learning tool, if you let them.

Reviews are also very important in boosting sales.That is why I welcome the way sites like Amazon and Goodreads allow ''ordinary'' people to post reviews, and I get annoyed when some writers are sniffy about ''non-professional'' people expressing their thoughts and ideas,because believe me, the chances of most of us small/self published authors getting our work reviewed in mainstream papers or magazines, which is what we'd all like, are pretty remote.

For me, a special and unexpected reviewing source has also come from all those followers on Twitter who tweet a few lines saying how much they have enjoyed one of my books. Or, as someone did recently, treat me (and all my and their followers) to an excellently succinct chunk by chunk commentary on Diamonds & Dust as they read it on a long train journey. Interactive reviewing 2016 style. I never experienced this when I wrote teenage fiction and it has been a revelation.

So with Christmas tiptoeing over the far horizon, may I encourage you to buy our books, read them, and then knock out a quick review for us ~ it needs only be a paragraph or two. Long essays not required. But it will make a HUGE difference.

Thank you.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The PINK SOFA meets: ME!



As you all know, the PINK SOFA is incredibly friendly and sofiable and loves nothing better than a good chat with a lovely guest. Sadly, it is currently guestless, so to stop it weeping all over its upholstery, I have offered myself. Yes, utter madness, but there you are.

When did you start writing? 

I probably started writing as soon as I could write ~ I remember making tiny books for my toys, age about 6 (yep,very Brontes). I won the Writing Cup at primary school, for a review of Alice in Wonderland. As with most of my stuff, I still don't know why it was 'so good'.

What 3 things (not including paper, computer, pens) would you like to facilitate a good day's writing? 

Coffee. More coffee, ooh and a piece of cake would be nice.

Do you write to a schedule, eg every day or three times a week, set times, etc or do you write as and when the mood strikes? 

If I wrote only when the mood struck, I'd never get anything written. I have learned after 17 published novels that the only way to write is: you sit down at the computer (usually an hour or so in the morning and then a few more hours in the afternoon) and YOU WRITE. Bum on seat, fingers on keyboard. Only way to do it. The inspiration comes as you start.

Is writing your main source of income? Lots of articles say writers make no money. Can you survive on writing alone?

I could never survive on writing alone. As a self-published writer, I make a couple of thousand pounds a year, and that's apparently pretty good. In the past, I taught at secondary school. Currently as I am retired, I tutor A and GCSE English. I don't know of ANY writers who do not have several day jobs to make ends meet. And with the ruthless discounting of books and ebooks by retailers, it is becoming even harder to survive.

What is your favourite cake? 

As I write Victorian crime fiction, it has to be Victoria sponge ~ of course!

Where do you do most of your writing? 

I have colonised the third bedroom. I have my desk, my iMac and all my bits and pieces. The window overlooks the pond, so I can stare at the fish for inspiration. I do a lot of inspired staring.

What book are you reading at the moment? 

I'm reading An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. Love his books ~ consistently good. I read Archangel every 2 years.

What's the latest word on  your Victorian books?

I'm glad you asked. All four novels are 'off' Amazon at the moment for a tidy-up. They are also having NEW COVERS designed by RoseWolf Design (very exciting: I love them, hope you will). The fifth one Wonders & Wickedness is being edited. All the books should be back on Amazon soon.

Do you use social media (facebook, twitter) to engage with your audience? Does it helps sales? 

I LOVE social media. I have met so many great people on there. I tweet at @CarolJhedges and am there every day chatting, posting pics, getting into discussions and trouble, and generally having fun. I have a very active Facebook page as well and I belong to several Book Groups on Facebook. It's the only way to get yourself noticed ~ though not if all you do is promote your own stuff. Most of my sales come from people who've enjoyed what I post and decide to read the books on that basis.

What do you prefer? Kindle or printed book?

I'm a book girl. Partly my age (66) and partly my arthritic hands. I just find as I write on a screen, I prefer to relax with an actual book. And one reads books more slowly and thoroughly. And they look good on your bookshelf. I appreciate that ebooks are cheaper and you can store more on an ereader, but I just like turning pages, and underlining things, and going back to read something that I enjoyed.

If reading and writing were banned, what would you do instead? 

Die. End.

The PINK SOFA and I are now going to stuff ourselves with cake. Please feel free to join us  and share your writing/reading experiences.


Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Oldest Juvenile Delinquent


Next Tuesday BH is off on his annual Italian jaunt. This time he will be accompanied for the first week by You must be mad and the two grandchildren. They have rented a villa near the beach at Bari. No, don't ask why I'm not going. It's complicated and involves sleeping in my own bed and sundry other small things that are insignificant to people like you but are big things to people like me.

As a rule of thumb, whenever BH leaves, various mechanical devices in the house see it as their opportunity to break down or fall apart, so I have mixed feelings and a roll of gaffer tape ready for his departure. I have also alerted a few responsible friends on Twitter to stop me getting into cyber-trouble. Good luck with that, responsible friends.

Last week marked a milestone in the life of Little G Books with the first publication of Murder & Mayhem, the 4th book in the Stride & Cully series. It has been a bit of a personal triumph as we managed to write/edit, and then produce both book and ebook entirely on our own. For Death & Dominion, we had a lot of help and advice. The time before that, books came out via a small independent publisher.

If you are now expecting a blog on the merits of mainstream/indie/self publishing, look away. Been there, written those. Suffice it to say, it is very satisfying to have the reins of control firmly in my cold little Reynauds fists. Am currently working on the 5th book.  Hopefully the lessons learned will enable us to publish it with even less hassle next year.

Not that I am to be trusted with anything, it appears. Popped into local supermarket to buy some sparklers for upcoming Bonfire Night celebrations. Approaching the fireworks counter, I was informed by the assistant that I had to complete my shopping before I could buy them. Asked why ~ and was told that it was a safety precaution to prevent youngsters from setting them off in the store. I pointed out that I was in possession of a bus pass but it made no difference, which only goes to prove that I am potentially the oldest juvenile delinquent on the block.

But you already knew that, didn't you?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Inspiration or Perspiration? #Amwriting


So here we are, almost the end of September, and I am trying not to put the central heating on, as last year I spent my meagre heating allowance at least 20 time over. The price of oil is supposed to be lower than at any time over the past few years, yet I spend every penny I earn on keeping warm enough to earn the money to spend on keeping warm. 

Paradoxical world.

As writers, we are often asked (well, I am) how the creative process of writing a book happens. What I think people desperately want to hear is the apocryphal Enid Blyton response on the lines of: I just wander into my little writing place, and suddenly, all sorts of lovely characters and plots tiptoe through the mental bluebells straight into my mind fully formed, and all I have to do is write them down and hey presto! a book appears. In other words, writing is easy and you, interested interlocutor, could easily do it too.

Sorry, it doesn't work like that. At least not for this little duck. In another of these paradoxes, I find that creativity only occurs when disciplinary structures are applied. Rigorously. In other words, I have to make myself sit at the keyboard, regularly, and write. I can fantasize about the book all I want, imagine the amazing prose that I will write when I get round to it, but until my rear end and the chair are brought into contact, and remain in contact for long periods of time, nothing creative happens.

Sure, there are moments, and flashes of inspiration, when one stares at the screen, and wonders whether the Writing Fairy has just made a house call, but on the whole, these episodes only tend to emerge out of a period of just slogging away at the writing process. And I should know, having just topped 70 thousand words of the next Victorian novel, purely by dint of making myself sit down at the eMac every day and write it.

An article in the Guardian recently lifted the lid on how to be a successful author. No secret, sadly. A lot of labour and a bit of luck. Heavy on the former. As Wm Blake remarked: Without contraries is no progression. Ain't that the truth!

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Pitfalls & Pratfalls of Self-Publishing an Ebook


Anecdotally, it is very easy to publish an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Anecdotally, it is as easy as uploading a post to Facebook. Yep. If you believe the anecdoters. More fool you if you do. Let me enlighten you, gentle blog reader. 

The story starts with a writer, an eMac, and a newly finished novel called Murder & Mayhem ...

* Copy novel onto memory stick and take down to office computer. Spellcheck, because eMac has limited vocabulary. Go through whole book adjusting spaces and paragraphs which have gone awry in short distance from upstairs to downstairs. As things do.

* Format novel** as word file and send out to first editor.

* Novel returns. Deal with issues arising.

* Send novel to second editor.

* Ditto

* Novel is proof read.

* Ditto

* Apparently flawless novel is turned into epub file and transferred onto BH's iPad for final checking.

* A few small formatting mistakes are found in the transfer and dealt with.

* Send now definitely flawless novel as mobi file to select group of reviewers for pre-reading.

* Deal with small formatting mistakes spotted by one eagle-eyed reviewer.

* Go onto Kindle Bookshelf and do all the 'back of house stuff' ready for upload. This involves    uploading cover, writing blurb, deciding on Amazon categories, keywords, pricing etc.

* Upload 'temporary book' so that can offer it for pre-order.

* Amazon sends email that 'real book' must be uploaded in 10 days time. Ignore it.

* Family stuff happens.

* Amazon sends second email warning that if book not uploaded by agreed date, will remove book, writer, reputation and probably send goons round to burn down house.

* Fail to appreciate that in the US, month comes before day. Think we only have two days. Panic.

* Load Calibre to format book file as epub. (One day left before Amazon ends career.)

* Calibre refuses to recognise book file and convert it. Panic.

* Try putting book file through as doc-ex. file. Seems to work.

* Upload epub to Bookshelf six hours before Amazon deadline expires.

* Preview book. Seems OK. Hopefully.

* Await publication day (22nd September) with great trepidation and large bottle of prosecco.



**  All the techie stuff is done by Beloved Husband. I do the checking, panicking and drinking.You didn't seriously think I was capable of doing the techie stuff. Did you? 


Saturday, 10 September 2016

Ellis or Emily? Does Your Writing Name Matter?


At last someone (Professor Michael Luca) has come out and said what we've always known: there is absolutely no difference in the quality and accuracy of a book review by an 'ordinary' reader on Amazon, and a professional book critic. Moreover (and we all knew it as well) professional critics were more likely to praise a book when the author was well-known/a prizewinner/had garnered press-coverage/ was connected to some media outlet.

For proof of this, we only have to consider the reception of one Robert Galbraith, who barely got a mention in the mainstream book review pages until 'he' was outed as J. K. Rowling. After which every critic in the land was falling over themselves to praise the very things they had failed to notice previously. Laugh? I nearly started.

I have also suffered from the 'critic with an agenda'. I remember Dark Side of Midnight the first in my soon to be reissued YA Spy Girl series was compared unfavourably on Amazon to a certain well-known children's writer in the same field. As was the second book. And then the third. This happened so many times, that the words 'stitch-up' came to mind. I have also read fulsome reviews of books by writers whom I know share the same publisher/agent. Or awful reviews where some personal spat is being used to exact revenge.

Charlotte Bronte was equally sceptical of the so-called 'prof'We had the impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes used for their chastisement the weapon of 'personality' and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.'
essional book critic'. She wrote in 1850, over the sisters' decision to adopt the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:

Interestingly, when Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, Ellis Bell was praised for the strength and passion of 'his' tale. As soon as it was revealed, however, that 'Ellis' was in fact 'Emily', the same reviewer slated the book as being 'odious and abominably pagan'.
Nul points, that critic!

As a corollary: the importance of the 'lay' critic cannot be overstated. Amazon (responsible for over 89% of online book/ebook sales) bases much of its online placing of a book on the amount of reviews it garners. I will leave you with the following poster. If you read, do please consider reviewing also.


Saturday, 27 August 2016

So You've Published A Book?



In a couple of weeks, the fourth Victorian Detectives novel will hit cyberspace. It's called Murder & Mayhem (I'm into linked titles) and if you cast your eyes to the right sidebar and down a bit, you can see it. I'm into linked covers too. If you click on the 3 previous covers, you can read a free sample and get an idea of what I write about. It would be easy now to sit back and preen. Many writers do. The book is soon out. Let the sales start.

Oh no they won't!

Writing a book and getting it published, by whatever conduit you use, is only the start. To get any sales, you have to make people aware of your masterpiece. In this blog, I'm exploring some of the ways I use to promote my work, because unless you are out there, loud and proud, nobody will notice you.

1. Social Media: There are loads of blogs about how to use Twitter to enhance your digital presence . Suffice to say that most of my sales come from Twitter. And practically all come from people recommending the books to other readers, and that comes from me chatting, interacting and posting funny stuff and reciprocating favours. In other words, I'm a friend first, an online character second, and a writer selling books third.

2. Press Releases: The local press are (usually) delighted to receive a press release, a publicity pic and a free copy to review.

2a. Press Releases: Anywhere your book is set will be delighted also.

3. Local Radio: Contact them via Twitter, phone them up, arrange to do a studio interview. Listen, I sound like a 15 year old mainlining helium, but I still do it.

4.National Press: Will be interested if you have a brilliant backstory, particularly if it involves abuse, or hardship. Also if you earned shedloads of advance shekels or you are very very photogenic. I haven't cracked this one yet. Maybe you will.

5. Literary Festivals: Everybody's doing it. Local library will have contacts of yours. Get in touch. I've done the St Albans Literary Festival twice. I ran a workshop on how to get published ... ooh, and I had some books on a side-table. Next year I hope to extend my range a bit and do some further afield.

6. Signings: Local bookshop is worth approaching. Also local gift shops and Oxfam.

7.Talks: WI ~ you have to audition and be approved, but it's worth it. Local book clubs/writers' groups, libraries are also worth contacting. If you write YA or children's fiction, schools are always keen to have a visiting writer. Make sure you get paid ~ the Society of Authors has recommended fees.

As you now see, there is a lot more to being a writer than merely writing. Writing is the ''easy'' bit! And lest you should eye your mainstream published brethren and mutter 'bet they don't have to do all this' ~ YES THEY DO! Big publishers are very selective about who they spend their publicity budgets promoting. If it ain't you, you will still have to do the legwork. I've spoken to some ''famous'' names, and it is so.

Finally: make sure you are registered for PLR - Public Lending Rights: that's the money paid by libraries every time your book is borrowed. You can register at www.plr.uk.com. Every little helps.

If I've missed out your favourite publicity medium, then please mention it in the comments. Congratulations on being a published author, welcome to the club.  Now get out there and sell!

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Cover me!

New cover ... almost ready

They always say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

I have received both praise and 'stick' for my covers. Interestingly, the praise has always come from readers, who appreciate the nuanced designs, with their nod to original Victorian covers. This is deliberate ~ if you read the novels, they are not just fast-paced detective stories, but a 'homage' to the style of novels of that period, which I frequently reference as I go.

The 'stick' has come from various publishers who've approached me to ask if I'd consider letting them take the series over ON CONDITION that they changed the covers.
Original early Victorian book covers

The fact that you are looking at the new cover for Murder & Mayhem (published via Amazon this September in both book and ebook formats, all being well) gives you an indication of my response. Thanks but no thanks. My covers are designed by a local graphic designer and friend, David Baird, thus adding an extra personal dimension to them. They are now published under the Little G imprint (my own) adding yet a further one. They are special and it is a joy to share them with you.
It always amuses me, when scrolling through Twitter, to pick out the 'I bought an off-the peg cover' people. It's so easy to do. Frequently you see the same muscled bloke or shapely young lady with accompanying pout in different settings, and wearing different clothes depending upon the genre. There seems to be a smallish pool of cover models out there. And although many of the cover suppliers SAY they do not re-use a design once you have bought and paid for it ~ they do. Believe me. Seen it with my own eyes, Guv.

So I shall continue to have my own bespoke covers, using original Victorian fonts and colours (the new one is teal) until I run out of ideas. And in case you can't make out the blurb, here's what the complete description on Amazon will look like:

The city is in the grip of railway mania when the gruesome discovery of several infant corpses in an abandoned house forces Inspector Lachlan Greig of A Division, Bow Street Police Office and his men to enter the dark and horrific world of baby farming. It will take all Greig's skill and ingenuity to track down the evil perpetrators and get justice for the murdered innocents.

Meanwhile two school friends Letitia and Daisy stand side by side on the threshold of womanhood. One longs for marriage to a handsome man The other craves entry to higher education. Will their dreams come true, or will their lives be shattered into little pieces by the tragic and unexpected events that are about to overtake them?


Some lovely late Victorian covers
Hope meets horror, and Parliament is threatened by anarchists in this rumbustious fourth Victorian crime novel, set once again amongst the dangerous twisting alleyways and gaslit thoroughfares of 1860s London.


Grab DIAMONDS & DUST, the first in this electrifying series.

Praise for HONOUR & OBEY: 
“Carol Hedges has again delivered a book which is written to be devoured in one sitting.” ~ A Woman’s Wisdom

Praise for DEATH & DOMINION:
''I love Carol Hedges' portrayal of atmosphere .... and her gift for conveying exactly what a character is like.''   ~  Rosie's Book Review Team


So that's my cover philosophy. That's how I roll. How about you ~ what makes a 'good' book cover? Please join in the debate...

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Bluestockings:The Campaign for Female Education



In 1971 I graduated from Westfield College, University of London with a BA (Hons) in English & Archaeology. I took it for granted that I had a right to go to university and that following my degree, I would enter the marketplace as a professional woman, equal to any man doing the same job of work.

I started researching the roles and expectations of young Victorian women for my novel Murder & Mayhem (publ this September). The story features bright 17 year old ‘Feminist’ Letitia Simpkins who desperately wants to learn more, but is denied access to further education by her authoritarian father. It made me realise how lucky I was to have been born in the mid-20th century rather than the mid-19th century.

For bright young Victorian women, the doors to further education closed at 16. Intellectual curiosity and thinking skills were considered a waste of time, given that the purpose of a woman’s life was to marry and be the mother of (many) children.

As one contemporary wrote: “Girls are to dwell in quiet homes, among a few friends; to exercise a noiseless influence, to be submissive and retiring.” (Sewell, Principles of Education).

Interestingly as far back as 1694, Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies suggested a type of university education. But of course, the very fact that the proposer was female meant that the idea was not taken up or considered seriously.

Women were just thought of as physically incapable of scholarship. For a start their brains were nearly 150 grammes lighter than men’s brains. So that must indicate that their intellect was weaker. And then there was the vexed question of menstruation, which sapped the body of lifeblood.

Put those two together, and it was quite apparent that women who used their brain too much ran the risk of becoming sterile, as their wombs atrophied, thus negating their purpose in life, or even worse, producing “a puny, enfeebled and sickly race” of children.

You may laugh, or gasp in amazement, but this was a widely held medical opinion at the time. Girls were strongly advised to focus on making their homes a sphere of accomplishment, rather than striving for a higher education. And to wait patiently for some young man (who may well have had the benefit of a university education) to come calling.

That the ‘petticoat problem’ began to resolve itself was entirely due to the actions of a few determined young women who decided that rather than break down the doors, they’d pick the lock and fight for equal education for women.

In 1850 North London Collegiate School opened, followed a few years later by Cheltenham Ladies College. The key word is ‘college’ – these weren’t places to learn embroidery, a smattering of French, some maths and what to do in a thunderstorm. They were seats of learning, encouraging girls to see themselves as capable of entering university and from there, the workplace.

In 1879 London University became the first to admit women undergraduates on the same terms as men. One of the pioneering women who enabled this to happen was Constance Maynard, who in 1863 campaigned for girls to be allowed to sit the Cambridge Locals (the equivalent of GCSEs) and then the Higher Locals (A levels).

When I was at Westfield, originally founded as a women’s college, my hall of residence was called Maynard House, a fitting tribute to a Bluestocking pioneer. Without women like her, prepared to step out of the shadows and campaign for their beliefs, I would not have had the benefit of a university education, and the opportunity to have a productive and fulfilling career.

Murder & Mayhem: an extract

In which our heroine Letitia Simpkins discovers an unpleasant truth:

''The pleasant and instructive visits to the Regent Street Ladies’ Literary & Philosophical Society seem a distant memory. The outside world seems a distant memory. There is nothing in Letitia’s life now that she recognises. The joy of it has run out as quickly as it gathered.
Letitia pauses outside the parlour door which unusually, has been left ajar. She leans against the door jamb, bone weary and despondent. She sees her papa and Mrs Briscoe sitting side by side on the sofa. Mrs Briscoe is speaking. It takes Letitia a few seconds to realise whom she is talking about.
“Really, it is a most unfortunate situation. The girl has barely learned sufficient to equip her for a useful life. I do so sympathise with you, my dear friend. That mauvais quart d’heure in between school and marriage is always difficult.”
Her father snorts.
“It was Susan’s whim to send her to the boarding school in the first place. She thought mixing with a better class of girl would help her find a husband. As if any self-respecting man will marry her. She hardly has the looks to attract a suitor. And I cannot offer a dowry - there is the boys’ schooling to pay for, and then their university fees. They must have the best start in life.”
“I do so understand. And of course, you are quite right. But as I wrote in my little pamphlet: How to be Happy Though Unmarried, there are many things a girl can do. The poor are always with us, so there is plenty of charity work.
“And there is no household task that any girl should deem beneath her position to perform, as I have frequently reminded Letitia. All these useful occupations will enable her to pass her days in dignified tranquillity”
Letitia’s eyes brim with tears. She does not know what hurts more, to hear her own father admit her lack of beauty, or to understand that he does not care what happens to her in the future. However Mrs Briscoe’s next remark causes her to breathe in sharply.
“Has she had any more letters from those vile Women’s Rights creatures?”
“Not for a while.”
“I am so glad you managed to intercept them, my dear. A parent must be vigilant at all times. One tiny slip, and a girl’s reputation is gone, never to return.”
“I have locked them away safely, never fear. And I have instructed Mary to make sure the post in and out of the house is always placed directly upon my desk.”
Mrs Briscoe leans forward, placing her hand on his.
“It is no more than your duty as a loving caring father. And now that you are a widower - though hopefully not for too long, you must be even more vigilant on your daughter’s behalf.
“A young girl’s true sphere is in the home, and there she shines brightly. Skill with her needle is the only accomplishment she needs.” ''
                                                                                                              (Murder & Mayhem tbp.)


Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Victorian Workhouse: Relic of the Past?

Luke Fildes Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)
Even though Fildes' famous painting was posed (the gent in the top hat was a known street 'character' and was allegedly paid to lean against the wall, looking decrepit), it is still a pretty accurate depiction of life for those at the bottom of the Victorian food chain. When you had no job, no money for food or rent, and nothing viable left to sell or pawn, you had 2 choices: the 'Asylum for the Houseless Poor' or the street.

Henry Mayhew, writing twenty years earlier, paints an equally vivid picture. He describes:

''..the homeless crowds gathered about the Asylum, waiting for the first  opening of the doors., with their bare feet, blue and ulcerous with the cold, resting for hours on the ice and snow in the streets. To hear the cries of the hungry, shivering children ..is a thing to haunt one for life. There are 400 and odd creatures utterly destitute - mothers with infants at their breasts - fathers with boys holding by their side - the friendless - the penniless - the shirtless, shoeless, breadless, homeless; in a word, the very poorest of this the very richest city in the world.'' 
(Mayhew, London Labour & The London Poor volume 111)

Although the Workhouse has had a very bad press - think of Oliver Twist, many poor people had no option but to enter it, even if only temporarily. For a large percentage of the working poor, jobs were seasonal or sporadic. Men were hired by the day (docks), by the season (agriculture) or for a limited time (May-June was the London Season). With no trade unions, no labour laws and no minimum wage, they were unable to budget. No work = no pay. Any work-related accidents at a time when medical care had to be paid for, could spell disaster.

Whitechapel workhouse

Once they entered the Workhouse, personal possessions were taken away, and families split up. Inmates quickly became institutionalised and neglected. The routines of hard physical labour, the poor quality food, the feeling of belonging nowhere and having no future must have been devastating upon their sense of self.

In Honour & Obey, the Clapham family are driven out of their slum tenement by their ruthless landlord, Morbid Crevice. Here, they encounter their first taste of Workhouse life:

The family are led through a series of dark passages, then across a dismal yard to a bare unlit room. Cold from stone flags seeps into their thin shoes.
      ''Women and children in there,'' the porter says, pointing at a closed door.
      The woman clings desperately to her husband's arm
      ''Come along old gel,'' the man says. ''It won't be for long. I'll go out and find work tomorrow and we'll soon be on our feet again.'' But the hunch of his shoulders and the hopelessness in his voice belie his cheerful words.
      The girl tugs at her skirt.
      ''C'mon Ma,'' she says. '''Best not to linger, eh?''
      The man gives the girl a grateful look. She stares back, her eyes hard like stones. She isn't fooled. She knows that it is the end of the road for her family. That her little brothers and sisters will be sent elsewhere, that her father will sink even further into drink and her mother into despair. That is what always happens.
      What she doesn't know is how she is going to get revenge on those who did this to them. Not yet. But she will.
(Honour & Obey by me)

Couple the sense of utter despair with the knowledge that society regarded the poor as 'undeserving' - it was widely thought character defects, drink or sheer idleness meant that people were reduced to beggary, homelessness or reliance upon the meagre provisions of the Workhouses. Reading derogatory articles in the press about the 'underclass' that inhabited the less savoury parts of the city, one can see how many on both sides of the poverty line regarded the workhouse as one step away from actually being in prison.
Workhouse dining room
The Workhouse was a relic from the past. One that we look back upon with some horror. But have attitudes to the poor changed? I think not. Consider the 'zero hours' contract. The exploitation of workers by firms such as Sports Direct. The ruthless cutting of housing and family welfare benefits. The gradual privatization of dentists and many NHS services, denying the poor access to basic health care. The recent scrapping of university maintenance grants now closes the doors on tertiary education for all but the well off.

Consider too the demonization of the poor via TV programmes like 'Benefits Street', the rush to condemn 'improvident' parents who have too many children/feed their families on junk food. The eagerness with which private landlords and councils now employ bailiffs to turn whole families out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the extortionate rent.

This Autumn, one in five 'low-waged working parents' will go without food to feed their kids. Many people will visit Food Banks, or be reliant upon the charity of friends and relatives. We may have moved away from incarcerating the poor and elderly in barrack-like Workhouses, but little in our public attitudes towards them seems to have changed much.

As one inmate of Poplar Workhouse plaintively said: ''Poverty's no crime, but here it is treated like a crime.'' (quoted by Will Crooks, Poplar Workhouse guardian 1893)

In our time too.





Tuesday, 2 August 2016

#AugustReviews: Ready, Steady, Review!




If you  follow me on Twitter, you will be familiar with tweets like this:

‏@carolJhedges

❤ Read it?
❤ Loved it?  
❤ REVIEW it!  

#Writers make the world go round


I tweet it quite regularly to encourage readers to think about putting their thoughts (hopefully positive) onto a review site. One of my writer acquaintances @TerryTyler4 has now started #AugustReviews with the idea of encouraging readers to write reviews of books they have enjoyed on Amazon, and then tweet the link so that we can all share it.  

So what are reviews for? I think they fulfill various functions. Firstly, they help other readers decide whether a book is for them. A slew of interesting and varied reviews (by this I mean at least 3 cogent paragraphs of analysis, not just: 'Ooh, I sooo love this book'/'I didn't get further than page 5') help one to decide whether to download/buy. Or conversely, whether not to waste your time. We are all time-poor. Reviews are therefore an aid to connecting the reader to the right book.

As a writer, I find reviews of my own books useful as a gauge to measure whether or not I am hitting the reader satisfaction button. Are they enjoying the story? Do they get it? Can they follow the plot? If not, how can I improve the reading experience for them in the next book. Reviews are also a personal encouragement - the writer's lot is an isolated lot most of the time. It is good to receive a little praise for one's efforts, especially when the serendipitous happens: a reader finds a whole new layer of meaning that had never occurred to me. Reviews can be a writer's best learning tool, if you let them.

Reviews are also very important in boosting sales.That is why I welcome the way sites like Amazon and Goodreads allow ''ordinary'' people to post reviews, and I get annoyed when some writers are sniffy about ''non-professional'' people expressing their thoughts and ideas,because believe me, the chances of most of us small/self published authors getting our work reviewed in mainstream papers or magazines, which is what we'd all like, are pretty remote.

For me, a special and unexpected reviewing source has also come from all those followers on Twitter who tweet a few lines saying how much they have enjoyed one of my books. Or, as someone did recently, treat me (and all my and their followers) to an excellently succinct chunk by chunk commentary on Diamonds & Dust as they read it on a long train journey. Interactive reviewing 2016 style. I never experienced this when I wrote teenage fiction and it has been a revelation.

So over the next four weeks .. and beyond, may I encourage you to read and review  -  it needs only be a paragraph or two. Long essays not required. But it will make a HUGE difference to the writer.

Thank you.