I didn’t imagine I’d write any more historical time slip novels after writing The Old Curiosity Shop series… but here I am. 21,000 words into my first YA (young adult) novel, a serious time slip novel set alongside Hadrian’s Wall in England.
Our heroine, Lillian Ward, along with her mother, Lucia, are returning their farmland to nature. Ithaca Farm has previously undiscovered ancient Roman ruins lurking under its malnourished pasture. The discovery of those ruins leads to all manner of shenanigans.
We’ve got archaeologists, reporters, metal detectorists, high school kids, an albino, and a librarian (every book should have a librarian). Add in some Roman centurions, a brothel keeper, a pair of thieves, and the ability to slip through time, and hopefully I’m writing an adventure-filled novel. There will of course be a handful of deaths, with a smattering of not-too-much blood.
Ithaca Bound was dreamt up during a rainy walk along Hadrian’s Wall in 2018. Ithaca Farm (and Ithaca Fort) is a figment of my imagination. So please indulge me in a little shuffling of the known forts and fortlets alongside Hadrian’s Wall. Is it here that I mention walls don’t work? Just ask Hadrian, or Berlin…
The release date is a little hazy, but I’m planning for 19th June 2019.
I have a wonderful team of Beta readers, who are walking with me chapter by chapter, firing their constructive feedback as they go. And I’m eternally grateful for their help.
The photos above are from that very walk, in 2018, and are essentially where the story began, in my head. Poor Dr Andrew Birley had to then endure my thousands of questions for the rest of the ten mile walk we did… inspiration can strike at any time, even in the rain.
I’m working on the blurb now, and will release that over on my Facebook page this week. Please join me over there for more peeks into the process of delivering my new novel in the coming weeks:
So… what do you think? If you are excited about reading Ithaca Bound, click on the link below to join my very, very sporadic mailing list, so I can let you know straight away when it’s live. It will be available across all digital platforms. I promise.
Your taxi drivers are very polite.
Your streets are bustling.
You love books.
Thanks for having me.
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:
Sensible shoes. I sat down once, for about 10 minutes, over the four hours of the event.
Cash - have a float. $10 notes, $5 notes. Just enough to provide change if everyone only pays with $20 notes.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eat your heart out Disneyland and Universal Studios, you have nothing on the stomach churning rollercoaster of Amazon rankings...
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.
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.
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.
The James Burke Series
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 on Twitter
Today I emailed off the first draft of my second book, The Last Letter, to my editor.
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!