HAMILTON BOOK MONTH

I’ve just returned from a wonderful couple of days at the Hamilton Book Month.

HamiltonBookMonth

What an honour it was to be asked to appear as a panelist on their Historical Fiction Panel, together with the wonderful Rosetta Allan and Stevan Eldred-Grigg.

Our incredible panel convener, Maebh Long, had clearly done her homework, and was well prepared. A great panel chair will take the time to contact their panelists well in advance of the event, to talk through their questions, setting the panelists at ease, and Maebh did just that. Take note all future panel conveners!

The Long Room at Wintec soon filled with attendees despite the inclement weather. And they kept coming, leaving only three empty chairs by the time the organisers of Hamilton Book Month were introducing the event.

Having a crowd brings so much more energy to a room, and makes it easy for a panelist to bounce off the laughs and the engaged faces of the audience. So I want to thank the Hamilton crowd, and the visitors from out of town who made the trek in. You made the night a huge success, thank you!

Mention was made of ghosts and time travel and fat 70s backsides as each author read from their work - Rosetta from her latest work - An Unreliable People, leaving us shivering with metaphorical cold as the ice glistened on her fictional windscreen, and Steven had the audience in fits of laughter as he read from his book Bangs. I read a chapter from Telegram Home - The Auction, and half expected the audience to start bidding, as I’m sure I saw more than one hand twitching, eager to bid on fabric swatches and a collection of cabinet cards! Choosing the right passage to read aloud is a tricky thing, and can make or break an author’s appearance.

HistoricalFictionPanel

The best part about the panel, was looking into the audience and recognising a number of faces looking back at me. And not just fellow authors, but friends and online acquaintances. I was listening to a podcast the other day as I walked off my wine around One Tree Hill, and the crux of the interview was telling authors that they are a brand, so “don’t be a dick”. That advice really resonated as I smiled, waved and hugged my way through some of the audience. I hope I have shown my appreciation for each and every reader, online acquaintance, colleague, and friend who has come to an event, read my book, or commented on my various social media platforms. I try hard to help other authors. A rising tide lifts us all. Thank you for your support.

And thank you to the amazing sponsors of the Hamilton Book Month. Without your support, and the hard work of Catherine and Gail, we wouldn’t have this incredible event. Thank you.

Sponsors

HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCH A BOOK IN WELLINGTON

KiwiBookFeast

Dear Wellington...

Your taxi drivers are very polite.

Your streets are bustling.

You love books.

Thanks for having me.

Kind regards,

Kirsten McKenzie, Author


On the 18th February, I flew down to Wellington for the inaugural Kiwi Book Feast with six other New Zealand authors. The concept being that sharing the costs involved with a launch, and sharing the publicity, and the work load, would make all the more impact. And it did.

Having seven diverse authors all marketing the Kiwi Book Feast to their own networks was far more effective that slathering the city with posters and tweeting into the ether...

For an inaugural event, it was a learning curve, deciding on the run sheet, the catering, the venue, the date, the time, the authors, the layout. A hundred different decisions. For an event we hope to repeat around the country - with future books, some new authors possibly, who knows, it's a fluid thing.

Potentially a library or a bookstore may have been a better location, although holding it in a bar ensured fantastic food, a flow of beverages, and a dedicated sound guy, and a stage. So there were plenty of pluses! 

We had a lovely bookish Wellington crowd, and plenty of Twitter personalities turned up to support us, which was fabulous. And I was blessed by two friends flying down from Auckland to surprise me. I should have worn waterproof mascara...

We were also all very grateful to the support given to us by the New Zealand Book Council. They've just launched their beautiful new website. You should go and have a look at it - NZ Book Council Website

Ten things you need to know for a book launch, anywhere in the world:

  1. Sensible shoes. I sat down once, for about 10 minutes, over the four hours of the event.

  2. Cash - have a float. $10 notes, $5 notes. Just enough to provide change if everyone only pays with $20 notes.

  3. Have a display which is sympathetic with the content of your books. Historical? Have a couple of vintage props. Western themed? Horsey type props. Science Fiction? Not sure where you'd get your hands on some space junk, but maybe cobble something together!

  4. Extension cord... I have battery powered lights which I tuck in the side of my suitcases, but I did note that one of our authors came prepared with a multi plug and an extension cord. Pack it.

  5. Mailing List Sign Up Sheet. I've put that in bold, because I didn't have one. I must pack this into my book display suit case. That's this weeks job. Pack some pens too. Practice signing your book. 

  6. Price List - People don't like to ask the price of your books. They like to see clear signage showing the price of one book, two books, or the complete set. Make it easy for them.

  7. Books. Self explanatory. But also book type things that can be slipped into your books, or into handbags. Nothing bulky. A bookmark, a postcard, all with your book and contact information printed on them.

  8. Don't sit behind your table. I know lots of people feel more comfortable doing this, but I'm more a stand to the side, or stand to the side in front of the display. Its easier to engage. Easier to pass the book to a prospective customer. And on the topic of your table. Buy a table cloth. If you can't afford a table cloth, use your top sheet and iron it first.

  9. Dress to impress: You're trying to portray that you are a professional, that you're serious about your writing. You don't have to go all Annie Hall, but maybe think beyond your usual old jeans and t-shirt. At the first two NZ Book Festivals I went with a long skirt and a velvet jacket. At the Kiwi Book Feast I wore smart jeans and a white cotton shirt, with a brooch. I felt smart and comfortable. The brooch was a nod towards the vintage theme of my books. Something to think about.

  10. Smile. Smile and engage. Ask the people at your table about the weather outside. Ask if it's improved, or if the rain has finally arrived. Weather is a very safe topic. It's an easy opener. Even if you're shy you can say "Has it stopped raining today?" or "Isn't it a lovely day for being out and about". Give it a go. Relax and have confidence in your work. That'll flow through to your own personal confidence. Good luck.

BRAVING THE CURIOUS ROLLERCOASTER OF AMAZON RANKINGS

Eat your heart out Disneyland and Universal Studios, you have nothing on the stomach churning rollercoaster of Amazon rankings...

Rollercoaster Postcard

Every author does it. Everyone tells us not to do it but we still do. We can't help it. It's like a drug. A legal high. It's either an adrenaline rush or a crushing debilitating blow, but we go back the next day, and the next and the next. We hit the refresh button with the same frenzy a gambling addict pulls the arm on a slot machine in Vegas. We check our rankings on Amazon.

Yes. We hit that refresh button so often that we wear the feet off our poor little mice.

Sometimes our rankings are up. And sometimes they're down. And sometimes there's such a tiny change that we'd rather see a noticeable drop than no change at all.

Queen of Hearts

And the worst of it is that most of the time, we have no idea why our rankings change. That's right. We, the authors, have almost no idea why they change. Sometimes we can pinpoint an upswing because we spent $28 on Facebook marketing (yes, Facebook marketing really worked for me!) or sometimes it's because a well connected book blogger raved about our book. Sometimes it's just because it's sunny, or the moon is in Jupiter, or the History channel is running its tenth repeat of a documentary about the gold rush and suddenly people are interested in everything that glitters.

I'm not going to go into the mechanics of how the Amazon algorithms work, many minds greater than mine have done that all over the internet, and you can read some fascinating pieces of research without having to search too far. I just know that over the last couple of months I've seen a lovely upwards trend in the sales rankings for Fifteen Postcards and The Last Letter, and I am eternally grateful to the people who have bought and read my books. What an honour it is you've placed your trust in me to write something which will entertain you.

Last year I set a goal of making the Top 100 for Historical Fiction on Amazon. It was part of a longer list I had laminated and had stuck to the wall of my shower so I could read it everyday. I can categorically confirm that writing your goals down and keeping them visible is as effective as everyone says it is. First I hit #91 on the Historical Fiction list, and I thought all my dreams had come true. THEN I HIT #56. WHAT AN ACHIEVEMENT. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm not too concerned about the why's and how's of the Amazon algorithms, I'm purely in the camp of "selling more equals a higher ranking". Simple really. I'm sure I could be a lot more pedantic about tracking my social media activity against the subtle changes in my sales ranking, but I'm not that sort of person. I've got a family I need to interact meaningfully with, and more books I should be writing, and reading, so I'm happy just celebrating these milestones when I notice them.

Thank you for reading my books. Here's to slowly creeping up the rankings as the new year kicks into gear.

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

First Draft Is Off To The Editor

Today I emailed off the first draft of my second book, The Last Letter, to my editor.

Happy Author Face!

Happy Author Face!

When I say I emailed off my first draft of The Last Letter, I actually mean I emailed a version of my manuscript where parts of it are version eight, other parts are version six. Some chapters, mainly the later ones, are versions three or four. Some sentences, nay, whole paragraphs, have gone through so many edits, they bear no resemblance to the very first draft I wrote.

So when I say I've emailed off my first draft of The Last Letter to my editor, what I really mean is that I emailed off the first version of my manuscript that someone other than myself will read. A scary thought. Exciting, and terrifying too.

About twenty minutes after I hit the send button, I started thinking about all the things I could have done to improve that first draft. What about the Raja? Will how I've left things at the Old Curiosity Shop make the readers happy? Thoughts tumbled over and over in my mind, querying my attention to detail, my historical accuracy. Did I have enough tantalising tidbits about antiques? Have I done justice to India? To New Zealand? To my characters and their hopes and dreams?

But, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa (from the Disney juggernaut Frozen), I have to let it go. It's out there now. My editor will tell me, in his gentle manner, whether what I've written is good enough, or whether I need to brood over it for a period of time before I send it back to him. And somewhere along the line we'll go through the manuscript page by page, line by line, where the annotated word document flies through the internet at various speeds, correcting comma's, tenses, removing Americanisms (which tend to creep in), and various other issues.

And so I wait. And in the time it will take my editor to read my 131,000 word manuscript I'll attend to my social media platforms, which I have left forgotten in the corner while I tried to fill plot holes and create characters who pushed their way off the page.

Thanks for your patience everyone. This will now very much be a case of watch this space!

The Last Letter
By Kirsten McKenzie