BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE READER

Choosing a book cover is akin to choosing the name for a baby. You mull it over. You sound it out. You might share it with a few trusted friends. But in the end the decision is yours. And that decision can make or break the 80,000 words you've toiled over for the past year, two years, ten years.

This week I commenced the scary but exciting task of choosing a cover for my next book, for my horror novel PAINTED. I put the pitch out to DesignCrowd, and waited for the designs to roll in.

And they are. And some of them are amazing! I want to launch PAINTED now, today. Right this very second. I want to show you all the designs, I'm that excited. Designs have come in from Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Azerbaijan, UK, Bulgaria, Spain, India and Romania. And there is still a week to go in the design period. 

I keep refreshing the DesignCrowd page, looking for new designs. I already have my favourites, I've popped my top five down below. But I'll run a proper poll over on my Facebook page once the design period ends, and you can all vote for your favourite then - go here to be involved - FACEBOOK

I'd still love to have your feedback now though! Comments below are welcome.

Looking at the original book covers Stephen King used, there wasn't a lot of blood and gore on those. In fact, if you look at the current top 100 books on the Amazon horror list, very few of them feature blood, guts or gore in any form (although some of the new Stephen King covers do...).

So tell me, what do you like to see on the cover of a horror novel? Minimalist? Blood? Black and white imagery? Skull and crossbones? Comment on this post, and I'll put your name in the draw to win a signed copy of PAINTED when it is published in June 2017.

My Top Five Cover Designs, so far!

 

 

Setting Your Scene - How Much Research is Enough?

Today I welcome Historical Fiction author Tom Williams to my blog where he talks about how much research is too much, and goes into a nice little aside about how to forge bank notes...

Kirsten's background in the antiques business means that she is very aware of the historical artefacts that appear in her books. In fact, Fifteen Postcards is based around things that she might have found in her antique shop.

In writing historical novels, authors will be continually concerned about the items that their characters see, talk about, or use in their day-to-day activities. Getting them right is crucial, but continually shoehorning them into the plot to prove that you have "done your research" can lead to appallingly turgid writing.

Different novels, for different audiences, will emphasise different aspects of the past. Historical romances tend to dwell on clothing, often described in loving detail. I struggle with descriptions of clothes. I'm not generally that interested in what my characters are wearing, although I do usually check some images of people at the time so I have some idea of what they would have looked like. Of course, in my James Burke books, set in the Napoleonic wars, there are a lot of characters in military uniforms and these provide obvious descriptive opportunities. Still, I do try to avoid the trap that many specialists in military history seem to fall into when every uniform is described right down to the decoration stamped onto the buttons. I suppose, though, that this is again a case of who you are writing for – there are clearly people out there who love this sort of military minutiae and probably resent my failure to go into quite so much detail.

In many of my books there are some items that seem crucial to characters or plot or both. For me, getting these right can be central to the writing process. In Back Home the idea for the book came from accounts of 19th-century coiners and I decided that I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my depiction of their activities. I read a lot about coining in Mayhew, whose account of criminal life in London (in London Labour and the London Poor) gives a great deal of detail. I was lucky that while I was writing there was an exhibition on crime at the Museum of London and this included items that the police had confiscated from forgers, letting us see the actual tools they used in producing fake money. I read some modern accounts of electroplating, which was used to put the finish on the coins, and studied these until I was reasonably confident that I could make my own coinage using items I could readily have obtained in 1859. Most (but not all) of this information did make its way into the finished book, but, more importantly, it let me imagine the practical realities of turning out significant quantities of coinage in a basement workshop. With the core of my story firmly established in my mind, I was able to relax more with the tale built around it.

Writing about 19th-century London was relatively easy, because, living in London and with ready access to 19th-century prints and novels – let alone a plethora of television dramas – I, like many people, have a reasonable "feel" for the place and period. Even so, it's easy to find yourself completely lost. If somebody walks in to the lodgings of a poor person in 1859, what would they expect to see? Again, I often fell back on Mayhew. He provides masses of descriptive passages with street scenes, interiors and the characters who inhabit them. My loiterers in Seven Dials are unashamedly stolen from him and the back story of some minor characters is also taken from his book. I used contemporary maps to plot the paths of my characters’ walks around town and visited some of the locations myself so that I could imagine, from what they look like today, what they must have been like then. Imagining “then” was helped by descriptions in Dickens’ novels.

Most of my historical novels have included significant references to real people, but only one of the characters in Back Home is an actual historical figure – Karl Marx. As with other people I have included in my books, I read his letters to get a feel, not only for the facts of his life, but for the way that he talked about them. He is only a minor character in Back Home, but his dialogue reflects the way that he wrote. Of course, we can't know how he actually spoke, but I suspect it was like that.

Overall, then, I try to give my imagination a lot of space to move around a few fixed points, some of them defined by the objects in my characters’ lives, some of them by pictures and documents referencing them, some of them by place and, whenever possible, some of them in their own words.

There's a lot of real history in many historical novels, including mine. Part of the trick, though, is that this shouldn't be immediately obvious to the reader. A novel has to work firstly as a story – the items in the lives of our characters are the set dressing. It is our words that are the script.

BOOK LINKS

The White Rajah

Cawnpore

Back Home

The James Burke Series

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke at Waterloo

Bio:

Tom Williams used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about historical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog (http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/) which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.

Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina. 

Tom has a wife who, fortunately, has a well-paid job, and a grown-up son who has resolved that he is never, ever, going to write anything.

Tom's blog

Tom's Facebook

Tom on Twitter

WHO WAS I KIDDING, THINKING MYSELF AN EXPERT?

This is a blog entry I originally wrote for the blog of Tom Williams, author of the Burke series, Cawnpore, and The White Raja. You can access his blog here: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.nz

An Expert in Antiques?

Enamelled Coins

Fifteen Postcards has just been published by Accent Press. A novel incorporating three continents and traversing two centuries: historical fiction written from a modern perspective. I like to describe it as a blend of ‘The Far Pavilions’, with a touch of ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’, rolled together with a smidgeon of the ‘Antiques Roadshow’. But I haven’t always been an author.

Nine years ago I was working as a Chief Customs Officer with the New Zealand Customs Service. It was a career I adored, and one I appeared to be particularly good at, according to my performance reviews and peer feedback. Then unexpectedly my father died, leaving my mother a widow without an income.

My brother and I quit our jobs. Someone needed to run Antique Alley, the business my father started in 1971. My brother worked full time, whilst I went part time, as my first daughter was born six months after Dad died. The timing was brutal.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ states that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill requires practicing, correctly, for around 10,000 hours. I’ve roughly estimated that since my father died, I’ve worked in the shop for 5,616 hours. I don’t work full time, and I’ve had two children in the past nine years, but I do know that I now have roughly 5,000 hours of additional knowledge of antiques. With that, I thought I had enough knowledge to sit down and write a novel about a girl who works in an antique shop. So I did.

I sat down, with my MacBook one day, and started writing, with no idea of where to go, or how the story was going to evolve. Who it was going to involve, or what the future plan for my writing was. But damn it, I knew antiques, I liked writing, so it shouldn’t be that hard, right?

First off, I started writing about postcards. One of Dad’s passions. He collected them personally. We sell them at the shop. I know that real photo postcards are more collectable than others. That Tuck’s postcards are highly sought after. And that... That’s when I stumbled. What else did I know about postcards? Highly embarrassing, but I had to turn to Google, to the library, to the reference books at work. Those 5,000 hours may as well have been 5 hours, or five minutes watching the Antiques Roadshow for all I knew about postcards. Fortunately William Main had published an exquisite book titled ‘Send Me A Postcard’ which had somehow appeared on the bookshelf at home. Fate? Google is great, but nothing beats a beautifully illustrated piece of research. And so it continued.

Green stone adzes (axe heads), made by the early Maori in New Zealand? I’m a New Zealander, born and bred, albeit with a British passport as well, I know everything there is to know about Maori adzes. Ah, no. Just like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, I knew nothing. A research trip to Auckland’s world class War Memorial Museum proved how little I knew. These are just two tiny examples of the level of research I did for my novel - the one which was meant to be easy because I knew at least half of all I (thought) I needed to know about antiques.

I can hear your readers asking why I bothered with all that research. Surely ‘Fifteen Postcards’ is a fictional account of Sarah Lester’s life in her antique shop in London. It’s not an autobiographical account of Kirsten McKenzie’s life in an antique shop in Auckland. I’ll tell you why. Because my father would have known.

My father was a walking encyclopaedia of back stamps, and hall marks, of fakes and reproductions. He knew gemstones from glass with barely a flick of his eyepiece. He would have been mortified if I’d placed a Victorian dining chair in a Regency setting (I didn’t). I also expected that people who read historical fiction probably knew as much, if not more, about some of things I wrote about. Given that my father won’t ever read my book, I didn’t want to upset the readers who will. It was embarrassing enough when my editor David Powell highlighted that I’d used the wrong currency to describe when Sarah is counting her coins in her bedroom suite in the Savoy in London. His words are burnt into my brain when he gently pointed out that Sarah probably wouldn’t be using George V coins. But that’s what editors are for, and I am eternally grateful.

I wanted every description to not only be beautifully written, but I wanted them to be accurate. That ormolu on the edge of the table? I needed the reader to be able to see it as it was then - in 1860s India, not how its presented in some poorly funded TV commercial for tea bags.

So instead of pumping out an 80,000 word novel in a few months, I wrote a 130,000 word novel over a period of one and a half years, edited it, had it accepted for publication by Accent Press, where it was edited again (and again) and here we are. I’m writing a blog piece for another historical fiction author, one who understands and appreciates the quest for historical accuracy in his research for the Burke series.

I leave you now to carry on with my next manuscript, where I’m immersed in colonial New Zealand just prior to the outbreak of the Maori wars in the 1860s. Wish me luck.

16 July 2015