Saturday 30 November 2013

Victorian Values: Location, location. location

''A starry night. Both above and below, for at their brightly-lit Park Lane town house, Sir William Snellgrove and his elegant wife Lady Harriet are holding a party. This lavish event is taking place just a stone's throw away from some of the worst slum dwellings in London, where families live ten to a room in damp crumbling buildings, sleeping on soiled straw or nothing, burning floorboards for heat and using the gap underneath as a toilet.'' Diamonds & Dust

An elegant town house
1860's London was a city of vast contrasts. Beautiful, elegant Georgian or Palladian squares housed virtually gated communities, with Watch Boxes at each corner manned by policemen, to keep out non-residents. Many other Londoners were crammed into buildings that had survived the Great Fire, or had been thrown up by speculators to meet the needs of the thousands of incomers, Irish, Jewish, Italian and French who flooded into the city from abroad or from the countryside to work in the shops, factories and 'dark Satanic' mills of the great metropolis.

In each of my Victorian novels, various authentic locations are used to set the story in its time. Many of them still survive, almost as they may have looked at the time. The terrible overcrowded slums and rookeries have all gone ... though it is a moot point whether they are creeping back, in the form of  ''beds in sheds'' housing a new wave of desperately poor immigrants seeking work and a better life.

Russell Square is where Romanian Countess Eleanore von Schwartzenburg stayed on her visit to the city, and where she met her gruesome end. In 1860 it contained ''grand terraced houses where the bankers,the merchants, the Sirs and my noble Lords lived. Green painted iron railings surround the plane-tree'd gardens, the statue of Lord Bedford at the centre and the pump on the east side'
The Square still has its plane-treed gardens, but the statue has been moved to the south entrance.

Russell Square as it is today

The statue of Lord Bedford 

The book follows the fortunes of three women. The youngest, 18 year old Josephine King, lives in ''St John's Wood, with its fashionable and shabby-chic villas''. At the time, the district was known as ''The wicked wood'' for its louche and slightly bohemian inhabitants - intellectuals and the newly monied whose morals and lifestyle were a little more relaxed and unbuttoned than the class above it. The houses had been built as the city extended northwards.
''She mounts the steps and rings the bell''
The ''wicked wood'' today 

A ''discrete little villa''
Both St John's Wood and nearby Maida Vale were notorious for prostitutes - not the shabby street girls of the Haymarket, but established mistresses of well to do men. They lived in little villas, rented or bought for them by their lovers. The fictitious Endell Terrace, home of the prostitute Lilith Marks who makes an appearance in all three books, is described as: 'a row of modern whitewashed villas, with black wrought-iron railings at the front. Several villas have canopied walkways that lead from the front door to the gate, discreetly screening visitors from prying eyes.'' Diamonds&Dust 

That these locations survive to this day is testament to the wealth or gentility of the people who lived there. The Victorians had an effective method of slum clearance - they pulled down the houses, often to make way for railways, which all throughout the1860s turned much of London into one big building site. The residents were not re-housed, merely turned out onto the streets to find alternative accommodation wherever they could - much like the ''Bedroom Tax'' has forced many families to do today.

A poor area still exists, though not in its original form. Carnaby Street, once part of a notorious rookery lies behind Oxford Street. In the 1860s it housed many seamstresses and home workers who served the new big department stores in Regent Street, existing on poverty wages so that the affluent classes could purchase the luxury items for sale. In one book, Isabella Thorpe orders a beautiful evening dress from one such store, demanding that it will be ready to wear next day: ''She does not know that the job of sewing the underskirts will be given to a thinly-clad young woman in a slum attic in Carnaby Street. They will be carefully checked for bugs and fleas upon delivery.'' 
                                                                                                               Diamonds & Dust

For anybody visiting London, there is a wealth of wonderful Victorian buildings to see. I recommend taking a bus ride to the West End - top deck for preference. You cannot fail to be amazed by the wonderful mix of architectural styles. The Victorians built stuff to last. From high class shopping parade to sewers, they have left their mark everywhere.

Saturday 23 November 2013

The PINK SOFA welcomes Jonathon Fletcher

Jon is another of those amazing people I met on Twitter. Not many people would use a scary picture of themselves holding a weapon as a cover to their own book. Yes, that IS him. The PINK SOFA is hiding behind itself. Jon has helped and advised me with techie stuff, and is always on hand with gardening tips. And he writes amazing books, as you're about to discover. A truly talented man! With his own space weapon. As the festive seasson is upon us, I have broken out the Danish Butter Cookie tin, and there is freshly brewed coffee to go with it. Over to you Space Captain:

''I grew up in Stockport near Manchester and after school completed an art foundation and then went on to a film and animation degree in Newcastle upon Tyne. As I have always been a science fiction fan, my final year film was a sci-fi epic called “Unity” which I did all the special effects for. After the degree my first job was as a prop maker at Cosgrove Hall Films in Chorlton-cum-hardy where I worked on “Brambly Hedge”, “Rocky and the Dodos” and Gerry Anderson’s “Lavender Castle”. After about a year there I left to help set up a new animation company with a great bunch of people and became head of the props department at Hot Animation in Altrincham. I worked at Hot for around nine years in which time I predominantly worked on the first fourteen series of “Bob the Builder”, eventually becoming Art Director on that show. I also did occasional work on “Pingu” and various pilots.

When the company was closed down and I was made redundant, I fell back on my other passion, gardening. I took my redundancy money, bought a van and tools and became a full-time gardener.I always have a lot of free time in the winter and also felt that I needed an outlet for my artistic side. I hit upon the idea of self publishing on Amazon and my first Novella “Josiah Trenchard Part One: The Might of Fortitude” was published in October 2012. Self publishing draws on my experience working with scripts in the film and TV industry and I build models for the covers and then Photoshop the artwork, a skill I picked up working as an Art Director.

The idea for my books came directly from my final year degree film. It was a sixteen minute short science fiction film entitled “Unity”. Ever since I made that film I have been developing the ideas as scripts and those scripts have now become the basis for the Josiah Trenchard series of novellas and the forthcoming “Unity” series of novels. I was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, the TV show “X-Files” and films like “Aliens” and “Bladerunner”, so the books reflect those. They’re military sci-fi with a story arc and sub-plot that is closer to something you would see in “X-files” or “Fringe”. Josiah Trenchard is a separate mini-series based in the same universe but following different characters and events. I wanted to test the waters of self publishing with something small before I put all my effort into one massive novel that may have flopped. So far, Trenchard is doing quite well and readers seem to like the series, judging by the reviews I’m getting.

I treat writing like any other job. I do a little every day at the same time, before I go out to work as a gardener. In the winter when I’m not gardening I tend to write all morning and then do jobs around the house in the afternoon. I have a story arc for the ten episodes of Josiah Trenchard already worked out and each part deals with a separate horror / sci-fi theme. Part one was about the ship itself and the bad guys were deadly space pirates. Part two has a Frankenstein style monster, three is my take on Jekyll and Hyde and part four has zombies. It’s just a case of filling in the blanks around the framework that gives me and developing the characters.

I chose to self publish simply because it was a quicker route than finding an agent and I was confident that I could do it. Plus I have a business plan that follows ten novellas and a series of Novels that I don’t think any publishing house would have opted for with an untried author. I’ve been a sci-fi nerd all my life. I know what makes our kind tick. My marketing is aimed at people like me. Military sci-fi is a niche, so there’s no point trying to market towards romance readers. However there are elements of horror and thriller plots in my books, so I cover a fairly broad spectrum of readers.

 My basic premise for Trenchard was “What if you replaced Captain Kirk with a hard ass?” Trenchard is heavily influenced by Gene Hunt from “Life on Mars” with a little Dirty Harry thrown in. I wanted a flawed Captain; he drinks, he smokes, he swears prolifically and he loses his temper often. But he gets the job done no matter what. He becomes known as “The Fixer” and his ship, the Might of Fortitude, is sent into the most dangerous situations. He works for the United Worlds Space Navy who are locked in a guerrilla war with desperate Insurgent terrorists and pitiless space pirates that haunt the outer reaches of the asteroid belt.

As part of the plot his crew are mainly young, inexperienced and occasionally downright useless. He has to mould them into an effective fighting unit along the way. One of my favourite characters to write is Paddy McGagh, a hard drinking Irish man who is seven foot tall and built like the proverbial brick privy. He takes no nonsense from anyone and is probably the only crew
member who can match Captain Trenchard drink for drink.

Without giving away spoilers, there’s a series of devious bad guys who crop up regularly including a young female Japanese assassin who causes Trenchard no end of trouble and the Machiavellian Papaver Corporation. Each episode has a new monster to fight, be it vicious pirates that would happily flush you into open space, a deadly cyborg covered with spikes called the “Morgenstern”, or flesh tearing zombies that are practically impossible to kill!

For the tech-heads out there, each episode introduces new weaponry too that dispatches enemies in a variety of delightful ways. Watch out for the W.A.S.P. grenades in part four, a particular favourite of mine and the acid rifles. Each trooper is armed with a “Vicar” assault rifle and as Commander Skelat will tell you, ‘this particular Vicar ain’t the nice kind that you invite round for tea and  cucumber sarnies. No he’s not. He’s the sort of Vicar who sticks a crucifix up the enemy’s arse and then drowns them in the font!

For the immediate future I’m hoping to publish part five in time for Christmas 2013. The whole of this episode is a flashback and you get to find out about Trenchard’s past and exactly what happened in the Belatu-Cadros uprising on Mars four years ago. Then there will be five more episodes to come after that including… wait for it… a Christmas episode!

After the ten episodes of the first series, I have two full length “Unity” novels at a draft stage and then potentially a second series of Trenchard. One thing is for sure, episode ten will not end well for our illustrious Captain Trenchard and the readers are going to be desperate to find out what happens next…''

 Jon can be contacted via Twitter @JonGardener 
 His blog and links to the Unity novels are at:

Thanks Jon. So, as we dig into the biscuits and pour the coffee, why not sit down and ask Jon something. Anything. I promise he won't zap anybody. Well, he SAID he wouldn't.... 

Saturday 16 November 2013

Pain-free Publicity

Excitement grows at Hedges Towers. The Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery launch date is just over 2 weeks away. All over the UK and further afield, crinolines are being aired, etiquette books consulted and Ralph the Marvellous Performing Dog is practising his tricks for the BIG Party on December 3rd. If you follow me on Facebook, you are invited. If not, feel free to press your nose to the digital plate-glass window and one of the hired staff will endeavour to slip you a glass of mulled wine and a slice of cake.

Last week's blog debunked some of the popular misconceptions about publicity. Now I'm going to share some of the ways I intend to create a ''buzz'' around the new book. Hopefully then you'll see it coming and be able to duck! The first port of call for me is always local: we have a great local paper, The Herts Advertiser, and I hope to have at least one article on the book. Local papers love local stuff, so a well prepared Press Release emailed with a polite note and a good pic to the editor always gets results. It also helps if you have a ''story'' to tell - as most of you know, I am a well-known local activist and pain in the council's backside, so that should endear me to a few readers!

I'm also going to get myself onto local radio: Radio Verulam and 3 Counties. I have the perfect face for radio, as you can see, and again, the same ''local criteria'' applies. In a similar vein: the book is set in and around St John's Wood and Hampstead, where I lived and studied ... so I shall use the settings to generate interest and a press release will be winging its way to the Ham & High. I have already persuaded Hertfordshire Libraries to stock the book; a similar charm offensive will be launched on Camden Libraries. Libraries are always worth considering as you get PLR -  Public Lending Rights: the money paid every time someone borrows your book. It will probably only buy me half a brick in the Tuscan villa, but half a brick is better than no brick at all. And I shall visit every branch of Waterstones and small Independent Bookshops with a copy of the book to show them and smile. A lot.

I also intend to use this blog. Look out for some great posts on the Victorians and food ... sex ... clothes .... houses .... poverty .... manners .... did I say sex? The blogs will be a mash-up of pictures of actual locations, bits from the book, and original/modern interpretations. It seems a shame, having done all this research, that 90% of it will be wasted. I shall be doing some guest blogs. If you asked me, please remind me: the memory is not what it was.

I will also post some links on Twitter and my Facebook page - both to the book, and to the blogs and any other interesting Victorian stuff I think you might like to read or see. Recently, a couple of people on Twitter have introduced me to hashtags ## and if you are also intending to publicize a new book, I recommend you check them out. #bookplugs #writing and #ebooks are good. And there are many more; some will be specific to your genre. If you use them, make sure you retweet other people though. It's only polite. I have also learned a lot from studying other writers' promo tweets: how they set them out, make them eye-catching, so I hope to follow their example.

What I'm not going to do is inundate total strangers, or you with 'buy my book' tweets or Facebook messages. If you want to read it, great. If not, hey. I won't be constantly checking my sales figures or Amazon ratings either and informing you every hour of the day. That way madness lies. And somehow I am going to try to find time to get on with the sequel, so that IF you bought, read and enjoyed Diamonds & Dust, there will be another book in the pipeline for you to read very soon.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Reigning On My Parade

Excitement is building at Hedges Towers. It is three weeks until the official Facebook launch of Diamonds & Dust: A Victorian Murder Mystery (publ. Crooked Cat Books) and suddenly, the reality that it is actually going to happen is dawning. This book is special for many reasons. It is my twelfth published novel (I have loads of unpublished ones). It is my first adult novel, as opposed to the teenage and YA fiction I have previously written. It is also the 'unexpected' book - in that, despite writing a novel a year, I had not been able to break back into mainstream publishing since 2008, when Usborne decided not to publish any more Spy Girl books.

Unexpected also, as those of you who are aware of the back story know, because prior to placing it with Crooked Cat, I parted company with my agent, who had told me that there was no market for this book, so she was not going to bother sending it out to publishers; comments that resulted in my almost losing heart and deciding to give up writing altogether. Take whatever lesson you wish to learn from this.

So, apart from sorting out the party fairy lights and discovering they don't work because one of the bulbs has blown, ordering in crates of prosecco and wrapping crepe paper streamers round the PINK SOFA who has been in launch mode since the summer, I am also gearing up for some publicity, because I have promised the family that there will be a villa in Tuscany and a black Maserati from the profits.

Publicity has become vitally important in today's frenetic book market. In the 1950s when I was growing up, there seemed no need for authors to get involved in marketing their books. Nobody was interested in them. I could have passed Ruby Ferguson, Primrose Cummings, A Stephen Tring, Pamela Brown or Don Stanford in the street and not recognised them. Now if you publish a book, unless you are happy just to have achieved publication, and content that only your immediate family, and close friends will buy it, you HAVE to put yourself out there.

There are a couple of myths currently going round about publicity. The first says that mainstream published writers don't have to do much if any publicity, as they have marketing wonks to do it instead. Wrong. If you read last week's blog, where best-selling author Kate Long talked about her writing, you will see I asked her that exact question. You can read her reply here.

My own experience, based on OUP and Usborne, my two previous publishers, is that at my level of importance, publicity wonks will send your book out for review, feature you in the publisher's catalogue, and produce press releases, but that's pretty well it. The rest you sort yourself, unless you are a 'famous or favoured writer' - of which more anon. Sometimes, they don't even do that - one year, I was told by OUP that they were going to spend the entire marketing budget on a couple of well known childrens' writers who brought in more money than a mid-lister like me. Seriously.

The bottom line is always money. If you don't sell enough books, and make sufficient money, big publishers will drop you. Actually, most publishers of whatever size will drop you - so those authors I recently came across on Facebook moaning that ''they can't do publicity, it isn't ''them'' and why doesn't X (their small publisher) do it all for them like big publishers do'' really need to wake up and smell the coffee.

The other myth is that 'popular' mainstream authors get taken on lovely trips and outings to promote their books. Hollow laughter. I recently caught up with one such writer, just back from the US. It was a nightmare. Meetings with publishers, followed by book talks, followed by signings, followed by working dinners, followed by total exhaustion. And one of the famous OUP writers I mentioned earlier didn't get to write a thing for two years, had a nervous breakdown, and had to force herself to inch back into writing again. So there you are. Myths well and truly busted. Next week, I shall explore some of the publicity portals just waiting to be explored, and how I hope to use them without annoying all of you too excessively.

***** I am currently up for Blogger of the Year 2014: If you would like to vote for me (or any of the other bloggers) please go to:  *****

Saturday 2 November 2013

The PINK SOFA welcomes Kate Long

Kate Long and I met on Twitter. Only I didn't realise who she was, as she tweets under a different name. We bonded over our shared love of wildlife: voles and hedgehogs in her case, Roman Snails in mine. It was only when she started tweeting links to her 3rd book, Bad Mothers United, that I made the connection. I have bought and read all her books - they are brilliant. So it is a great pleasure to welcome her to the sofa. I asked Kate to describe her writing route:

''Looking back, I can’t remember what it was about the story-idea of a teenage girl getting pregnant and battling with her mother that lodged so firmly in my mind. It was 1998, I had a new baby in the house and I barely had the energy to dress myself in the mornings. Yet it was during one of the long, sleep-deprived nights that I managed to sketch out the bare plot for my first published novel, The Bad Mother’s Handbook. I still have that set of notes somewhere, scribbled inside the pages of a book on breastfeeding.

Perhaps it was because becoming a mum had been so fraught with difficulties. I’d suffered two unexplained miscarriages and undergone horrid fertility treatment. Experiences like that go through you and colour you forever, and, post-baby, I found myself drawn to explore motherhood in fiction. So I imagined a schoolgirl, Charlotte, bright, ambitious and university-bound but nevertheless falling unexpectedly pregnant and having to navigate her way through the consequences. 

Then there’d be her mother, angry, thirtysomething Karen, who had herself dropped out of Sixth Form for the same reason seventeen years earlier. And, overseeing the family, eighty year old Nan, whose own journey to motherhood would have taken her through the route of secret, private adoption, with much heartache along the way. As the story developed, I became caught up by in other issues too: how had life changed for women over the last few decades? Did having more choices simply mean more pressure of expectation? Why did we repeat our parents’ destructive patterns of behaviour? How could we break out of unhappy family scripts? The more the characters told me, the more I wanted to investigate further their complex dynamics.

I’d come to writing via a lonely path. When I very first tried my hand, in the mid-Nineties, there was (for me) no internet, no online forums where I could ask advice, no Google for my background research, no time-swallowing social media. There was simply me, a freezing box room and my old Amstrad PCW9256. This machine was so basic that you had to insert a Start of Day disk every time you switched it on, as it was incapable of retaining instructions between sessions. Even the attached printer was a cranky dot-matrix contraption which took two minutes to print each page and couldn’t cope with continuous feed.

Nevertheless, this is where I produced my first published work. For the next ten years I settled into a pattern where I’d always have a full-length work on the go, but alongside that I’d be producing and sending out short stories, perhaps three or four a year. I wasn’t in those days au fait with e-zines or lit-zines, and I’d sussed early on that women’s magazines are a terrifically hard market, so I sent almost everything off to competitions. That was the only other viable market I knew. As it was, a steady series of comp placings kept me buoyant as I slogged away on the novels.

It was 2000 before I found the time to sit down and write The Bad Mother’s Handbook in full. I managed to do it only with the aid of an Arts Council Grant which helped pay for childcare. Because by then I’d spent so long considering the plot and characters, the novel flooded out almost faster than I could type and I was able to complete the bulk of it within eight weeks. That taught me something about the way I need to work, which is that thinking/preparation-time is vital for me, and if I try and begin writing without it, I quickly dry up.

The novel was accepted in 2002 by Picador, came out two years later and did very well, reaching the Sunday Times bestseller lists and making Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. Later on it was adapted as an ITV drama. I was bemused, though, to see myself portrayed in the press as an “overnight success” and a “kitchen-table scribbler” who wrote “if there was nothing on TV”, when in reality I’d had ten years of slogging to find my style and voice.

Since then I’ve had six more books published, the latest being the sequel to The Bad Mother’s Handbook, Bad Mothers United which I wrote because so many readers emailed asking for it. I’d never imagined a follow-up, so that was a learning curve in itself. But as soon as I started planning out the narrative, their voices came back as strongly as ever, telling me how each thread would develop and how their concerns had changed. Because the book had been on TV, I even had moments where I felt the actors themselves were leaning over my shoulder and watching what came next. I do like to think they were all fairly satisfied in the end by their individual story arcs and resolutions. More to the point, the readers who’d begged to know what happened to Charlotte, Karen and Nan seemed happy.

Meanwhile I’m currently on the last chapter of my work-in-progress which is a tale of two sisters, one of whom is afflicted by extreme beauty. The novel covers eating disorders, sibling rivalry, family secrets, infidelity and friendship, and will be out next spring. You can get a sneak preview here of the images I’ve been using for inspiration:

So where next? I haven’t ruled out a third Bad Mother book, but again it’ll need time to percolate. I’d like to see Charlotte-the-teen grown up with a teenager of her own – then she’ll know what she put her own mother through – and I feel mum Karen could be on the verge of something really dramatic. She is, after all, entering her prime. Who knows? She’ll no doubt tell me when she’s ready. My pen is poised for instruction.''

You can buy Bad Mothers United here:
Come and say hello on Twitter:
And last but not least – if you’re into wildlife, check out my nothing-to-do-with-books nature blog:

Thanks Kate ... please hang around - I'm sure people have lots to ask. Actually, I'm going to start the ball rolling: there is this myth on social media sites that if you are published by a ''big'' publisher, they have marketing people to do all the promo work for you. Is this true?

Friday 1 November 2013