Friday, 26 May 2006

This will be my last post for a while. Mrs Wenlock is driving me into the mountain fastnesses of Wales today, and leaving me in a remote cottage with no access to telephone, television or the interweb thingy so that I can have a week of solitude in which to write a good chunk of my new novel, an as yet untitled sequel to Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth. As I have said in a previous post, this will have an Arthurian theme of sorts, although it takes place in 1814.

My cottage was chosen for its remoteness - it is a good few miles from the nearest pub, for instance - but it turns out that the nearest town, Llangollen, claims Arthurian connections for itself. Indeed the hill in the picture below is called Craig Arthur, and nearby is Croes Gwenhwyfar, said to be the only place in Britain named after Guinevere. I should add that the earliest record of the name is from 1690, and was recorded by Edward Lhuyd, the inventor of Celticism, so it probably does not stand much scrutiny.

Sarah was in Llangollen quite recently, and one of the comments on her post reminds me that it is not far from where the action of some of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence takes place. I have nearly finished reading the last of the series to the Wenlock heir at bedtime.

Look for me to post again next Sunday.
One of the highest hurdles for any unpublished author to overcome is finding an agent. I know that I have been incredibly fortunate to be taken on by the first agency that I approached, and also to have such an excellent working relationship with them. Of course we have not got as far as securing a publishing contract, but their record speaks for itself: if Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth does not find a publisher it won't be because Ampersand aren't any good.

Not everybody is so lucky, and many aspiring writers are desperate to find an agent. So desperate that they are at risk of falling for scams. This seems to be a bigger problem in the US than over here, but the US is also where you will find operations like Writer Beware which exist to expose such scam-merchants for what they are.

Of course not all scammers are happy with the exposure that they get on websites like Writer Beware's Twenty Worst Agents list. One agent on this list, Barbara Bauer, has even started making legal threats against websites that highlight her place on that list. This has sometimes worked, but more often stirred up further negative publicity.

In addition to the Writer Beware list, there is also the venerable Preditors and Editors, who can be relied upon to draw attention to scammers (see what they say about Barbara Bauer). And for those of you looking for the personal touch, a post like this would not be complete without a reference to Gerard Jones and his snappily titled site, Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing, Propagandaville and Tinseltown, Too, is a Worthless, Superfluous, Giddy, Giggly, Chickenhearted, Money-Grubbing Nazi Moron.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Back in April I noted that Wenlock Books had been shortlisted for Independent Bookseller of the Year at the British Book Trade Awards. Well, they won.

The bookshop (with which I have no connection other than in the name) has been getting quite a lot of good press recently. I see that theguardian used the groanworthy headline "Much ado about Wenlock" for an article about them back in March. They are also featured in yesterday's piece on independent bookshops that are bucking the trend of discounting and closure that has been too much in the news over the last few weeks.

That feature should be cheering news also for Mark and Nicki at Mostly Books, coming soon to Abingdon.

Monday, 22 May 2006

Back in 1995 the BBC recorded dramatisations of two of Georgette Heyer's novels for the Radio 4 Playhouse slot - 90 minute single dramas. One of those two, Friday's Child, was rebroadcast by BBC7 at the weekend, and is available on their Listen Again service until next Friday.

The production stars Elli Garnett as Hero Wantage, and James Frain (Paul Raines in series 4 of 24) as Sherry. There are a few well-known names among the minor characters. Simon Russell Beale (a brilliant Shakespearean actor whom I saw a few years back as Richard III) plays Mr Tarleton, the late Mary Wimbush (Julia Pargeter to fans of The Archers) plays Lady Saltash and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Dr "Mac" Macartney from Green Wing) plays Ferdy Fakenham brilliantly.

All in all, well worth 90 minutes of your time.

The other Playhouse production from 1995 was Faro's Daughter. I do not know whether this has been rebroadcast, or will be soon. It stars Sylvestra Le Touzel (Fanny Price from the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park) and Nathaniel Parker (Harold Skimpole in the recent BBC Bleak House) as Deb Grantham and Max Ravenscar. The BBC also recorded Regency Buck in 1986, with Elizabeth Proud as Judith Taverner, and Steve Hodson as Lord Worth. Going back even further, to 1974, they recorded The Toll Gate, but I do not know who played what part in that.

Sadly Radio 4 no longer supports a slot for 90 minute dramas. The World Service has moved away from any sort of drama, and BBC7 commissions almost nothing new. That leaves only Radio 3 in a position to broadcast any further full-length productions like these. I fear that we will wait a long time before any more of Heyer's books are adapted for the radio in this way.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Readers with a retentive memory may recall that, back in January, I decided to change Lord Alexander's surname, because "Hawkshead" was too close to "Hawkwood", the surname of the hero of James McGee's Ratcatcher, a book which appeared to have a number of features in common with Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth. At that time I decided not to read McGee's book, so that I wasn't influenced by it.

Now that I am at the dotting of Ts and crossing of eyes stage of redrafting, I decided that it was safe to give Ratcatcher a go. I finished reading it this morning, on the coach up to London (National Express rather than the Mail, but at least I was guaranteed a seat inside).

Good news on two fronts. The first is that while there are elements in common between the two books - French spies, English aristocrats, a plot against the Prince, and much drinking of Brandy - these are standard features of books set in the early 19th Century, and there are no egregious similarities. The two are quite different in terms both of plot and tone. Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood is at home in that part of London East of St Martin's Lane, while Lord Alexander Harrow, youngest son of the Duke of Derwent, prefers it West of the Lane - not that each does not cope in the other's natural territory when necessary. Hawkwood would probably be able to handle an elephant too, but I was relieved to discover that he was not called upon to do so.

Not surprisingly McGee's book is darker than mine: there is more violence, and less romance. In the territory that stretches between and around the two poles of Bernard Cornwell and Georgette Heyer, McGee is closer to the former while I am, if it is not presumptious to claim so, nearer to the latter.

The other good news is that Ratcatcher is well written, well researched, and was fun to read. It is, I believe, intended as the first of a series. I hope that this proves true.

Sunday, 14 May 2006

Two newpaper articles have caught my attention in the last couple of days.

The first is a piece by Sara Fitzgerald in the Washington Post titled "Romance, Writ Large - A Tried-and-True Genre Of Novels Expands, And Business Is Booming". It is an account of the Washington Romance Writers' annual retreat at Harper's Ferry (pictured above). It gives a reasonable overview of the state of Romance in the US, but what struck me - indeed what struck the Colonial correspondent who alerted me to the item - was a mention of how one author found her way into the Regency period:
Kathryn Caskie was a former marketing executive in AOL's financial content area when she found her voice writing witty Regencys, a sub-genre of books set in the England of 1811-1820, the era of Jane Austen. The Waterford, Va., author had come close to getting a "Scottish Medieval" historical romance published when she had a brainstorm while watching trailers for the movie Rules of Engagement. "What if two old ladies found a war manual and mistook it for a manual on how to get engaged?" That led to her own Rules of Engagement, published by Warner Books' Warner Forever imprint. That was followed by another Regency, Lady in Waiting, about a lady's maid who has a shopping addiction.

The Scottish Medieval historical, she says, remains in a drawer. "People don't want angsty Medievals from me, they want to have fun. That's my audience."
Kathryn Caskie is not the only writer with a Mediaeval historical tucked away in a drawer. Two of my earliest attempts at writing were set in the Mediaeval period: one recasting Æthelred II (known as Unræd, "ill-advised" or, wrongly, "unready") as the heroic but tragic figure he really was; the other telling the extraordinary story of Judith, daughter of the Carolingian King Charles the Bald. Kaskie says that readers don't want angsty Mediaevals from her. I never got far enough to know whether they might want them from me: it was enough for me to establish that while I wanted the stories told, I wasn't enjoying trying to tell them. Maybe one day.

The other article is from the Scottish Sunday Times. "The Write Way to Fall in Love" by Kenny Farquharson describes a recent Romance writing course given by Sharon Kendrick at the Castle of Park. It was a course at the Castle of Park, given by Annie Burgh, which pointed me at the Romantic Novelists' Association. Joining the RNA was probably the single best move in my (as yet still short) writing career. Mr Farquharson cannot resist the usual inaccurate pastiche of Mills & Boon style at the start of his piece, but once past that he gives a better than average account of the course.
Taking a lunchtime break in the sunshine on the Castle of Park lawns, Kendrick explains that the writing of the perfect Mills & Boon is partly instinct and partly an awareness of unwritten rules...

...To succeed in this trade, she says, writers cannot be cynical hacks out to make a killing from women’s simple desires, but must have "a fundamental belief in the redeeming power of love". As for the archetypes and sexual stereotypes that people the books, she is unapologetic....

..."These books are fantasy and they end with the resolution of the romance, which is exactly where Pride and Prejudice ends. We do not hear about what Mr Darcy is saying to his wife 10 years down the line. Instead of calling her ‘my darling Lizzie’ in that quietly passionate way and loving her feisty spirit, he might think she’s an argumentative cow."
This is better certainly than the piece on the same course by Martyn McLaughlin in yesterday's Glasgow Herald (not available on-line). I have only seen the opening paragraph, but McLaughlin manages to squeeze in enough inaccurate, insulting and patronising clichés there to put me off wanting to read anything else by him.

Saturday, 6 May 2006

What is a Romantic Novel? The latest issue of the Romantic Novelists' Association's RNA News contains two essays on this subject, from RNA Chairman Jenny Haddon, and from RNA President Diane Pearson.

Jenny is clear that "romantic" is a slippery word. If it means everything that Roget's Thesaurus suggests as synonyms it would cover almost every novel ever written, from Gilgamesh and Genji to Trainspotting. This is clearly too wide a definition for any practical purpose so Jenny suggests a narrower definition:
My own view is that a romantic novel is about:
  • an adult love affair
  • the risks and powers of emotions, particularly sexual attraction
  • personal ethics
She goes on to make it clear that a romantic novel may include many other things, including big ideas or simple passion, but the core must be "conflicts between sense of self, what the characters want and how that changes under the onslaught of attraction and eventually, need for beloved's good above all things."

Diane takes a different approach.
I have always felt that our title [the Romantic Novelists' Association] is more of a generic heading covering an enormous range of popular fiction written very largely (though by no means entirely) by women, for women - romance, serious historicals, chic-lit, sagas, comedies, aga-sagas, romantic suspense and so on.
She suggests that "the true romantic novel should be huge in every sense of the word and at its core should be an overwhelming, gut-wrenching, heart-pulling, passionate emotion."

Diane argues that the emotional content does not necessarily have to be that of love between a man and a woman. She suggests that the biggest love in Scarlett O'Hara's life is not for Rhett or Ashley, but for Tara. She also quotes Douglas Reeman (Alexander Kent) saying that he considers his own work to be very romantic "What can be more romantic than a man's passion for his ship and the sea?"

For Jenny the bottom line is:
no love story, no romantic credentials.
Diane says:
They're hard to write and require stamina and courage, but when they work - Wow! - they're the most powerful and memorable books ever written."

So how does Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth stand up against these two definitions? It passes Jenny's first hurdle: there is a love story there. Moreover, our hero ultimately risks his very life for our heroine.

As to Diane's requirements: there is indeed, at the book's core, something huge. Gut-wrenching, heart-pulling emotion, yes of course. But more, much more than this, there is an elephant.

Monday, 1 May 2006

Sumer is icomen in,
Lhude sing cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wude nu.
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteth after lomb
Lhouth after calve cu:
Bulluc sterteth
bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Today is May Day, traditionally the first day of Summer in England. OK, so there have been enough attempts to mess about with the traditional seasons, not to mention the events of September 1752, to make it impossible to say definitively when anything should happen "traditionally", but it seems to me that the period between May Day and Lammas works better as Summer than any other three month period.

Traditional (there's that word again) English summer holidays - going to the beach in August with a bucket and spade - are a very modern phenomenon, coming along during and after the Industrial Revolution. Before industrialisation the start of August marked the end of Summer, and the start of the harvest - the busiest time of the year.

Summer was a period of long, lazy days when the countryside was at its most green and pleasant, building up from the celebrations of May Day to Midsummer's Day, and then drifting peacefully towards Lammastide.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the may queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.

The days are long now, and the old traditions still survive if you know where to look for them. These are the best three months of the year.