What’s a Novel without Characters?

What’s a Novel without Characters?

Last week, I was talking about how I write a novel. Today, I want to talk about characters. After all, what’s a novel without characters?

Character Vs Characterisation.

In his book on screenwriting, Story, Robert McKee discusses the difference between character and characterisation, a concept that confounds many. Characterisation, he says, “is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being.”

So: age, height, sexuality, choice of vehicle, speech style, dress sense, personality, behaviour, job… And so on.

Many people, particularly new writers, think such things show a person’s character. They don’t, they are their characteristics. So, what makes a character and, more importantly, how do you show character when writing a novel?

My rule here is to never write something like, ‘Oh, Tony? Yeah, he’s a dodgy character,’ and leave it at that. Show Tony is dodgy (whatever that means), show him doing something so the reader imagines for himself how dodgy Tony must be.

Yeah, okay, but how?

Robert McKee, one of the gurus of screenplay writing, says: ‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’

He also says the pressure is essential, and that reminded me of a writing truism. In this case, it was said best by Syd Field in his work, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay.”

For screenplay, you can read novel, play, musical, story…

How do I show character?

All this theory made me think about my characters and how I set about creating them. I shall be honest here, sometimes I don’t think about a character before I write him/her, I just let them write themselves as I go. In other cases, I sit and consider the character beforehand, and at other times, I imagine someone I know, put them in a story-appropriate costume and setting, and write them doing what I think that person would do. Later, as I go through the drafts of a novel, I pay more attention to whether that character would actually do whatever it is I have them doing. I ask myself, would they say that? And more importantly, would they choose to do that? Sometimes, they just do it, and they’ve made a decision and shown character before I realise what I’ve written. That, for me, is when I know the characters I am creating are real.

Here are some examples of how I show character in The Clearwater Mysteries. Some of these examples were planned, others just happened because I was being led by the characters I was creating.

Silas Hawkins

At one point in ‘Deviant Desire’, Silas and Fecker take Clearwater and Thomas into the East End to see the sites of the Ripper murders. Archer (Clearwater) is looking for clues and becomes increasingly aware of the life Silas has been living. He is also falling in love with the Silas. Seeing how he lives, the squalor and the danger, Archer, being an impetuous romantic, offers Silas a new life and declares his love for him. They happen to be at a Ripper murder site, in the dark, with a mob of vigilantes fast approaching, all of which are designed to add the conflict, drama and tension to what should be a romantic scene.

On hearing a handsome, wealthy man, a viscount, is offering him a way out of his hellish existence, and knowing that he has feelings for Archer, what does Silas do? In a classic romance novel he might swoon into the man’s arms and say, ‘Take me away from all this,’ but this is a Clearwater novel. Silas simply says no, tells Archer to run before they are caught, and disappears into the night.

That rejection defines his character. He’s not weak, he’s not swooning, he’s taking himself out of a ‘dream come true’ situation because he can’t cope with the idea of being loved. That’s his character or part of it, and we learn from that scene that Silas is insecure about love, but strong when it comes to his convictions.

James Wright

In book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, we know that James is handsome, a ‘jock’ by today’s standards, literate and loyal, and we know he was bullied when younger, but these are characteristics. So, we need him to show character. Cut to the scene where Inspector Adelaide has taken Silas from Clearwater House and thrown him in gaol, Archer and Fecker are away, Thomas is at Larkspur, and two strangers, the Norwoods, have come to look after the house. James is alone, and because of the way Adelaide behaved, he suffers a flashback to his bullying. He crumples by the door thinking all is lost but, hs anger at Adelaide unlocks an inner strength. Refusing to be put down, bullied and trampled over, and does something about it. The conflict of the scene, the arrest, brings out the best in James. He chooses not to give in, chooses to seek help, and so his character develops from servant to friend to businessman.

Archer, Lord Clearwater

Of all the characters, Archer is the one most driven by outrageous, character-defining decisions, mainly because he can. The fifth richest nobleman in the country, he has the resources to do whatever he wants. He could give his life over to pleasure if he wanted, as so many rich landowners did. He could spend his time at any one of his homes and evict those families who rent his property if he fancied using it for himself. He could attend balls and galas, the theatre and dinners simply to socialise, and he could treat his servants like shit as his father treated them, and treated Archer.

He doesn’t.

He has more money than any of us can dream of, and yet chooses to use it for others. He sets up a charity to help who we’d now call rent boys, which, in 1888, was a fairly dangerous thing to do as it could invite all manner of negative speculation. Archer doesn’t care. He treats his staff well, is constantly trying to promote them and make them his equals if not friends (his fatal flaw), and he chooses to see the best in people (another flaw which nearly leads to his death on a few occasions). We get from that that Archer is a kind man, but it’s deeper than that. Like Silas, he needs to be loved, but for different reasons, and although it would be easy for him to throw money at people to make them happy, he doesn’t. His charity is also a business concern, his fundraising galas are also social manipulation, he gathers influential friends and knows how to play the political game while choosing to fill his house with staff we’d call gay or gay-friendly. In other words, in a time and place when being gay was punishable by two years in prison with hard labour, he chooses to tread a dangerous path and risk losing everything including his title, by protecting other gay men.

Some of Archer’s character-making decisions are made under great pressure. Examples: Knowing the Ripper’s identity and that the man is dangerous, he opts to accept his invitation to a potentially fatal confrontation (twice). When faced with a bland, legally correct and society-expected speech in front of 2,000 people at the Lyceum Theatre, he sets it aside to speak from the heart. (That’s book nine, you’ll have to wait for that.) Those are but a few examples.

Thomas Payne

Today, Tom is interviewed exclusively at the MM Fiction Café.

These interviews are an excellent way for a writer to stop and think more deeply about the character he has created. In this case, it’s Thomas Arthur Payne, and I was attending more to his characteristics than his character choices.

Thomas begins his fictional life as Clearwater’s footman, later, his butler and, at the end of book nine as something else (no spoilers!). Tom’s interview is accompanied by a drawing that I had commissioned (left), and I’ve posted it here so you can get a rough idea of how I see him. The drawing is pretty accurate except I notice the artist gave him an earring, which he would not have worn, and his cheeks are a bit chubby, but that was her interpretation of my description and everyone imagines characters in their own way.

Check out Tom’s chat with Josh at MM Fiction Café, and you will learn a few things about him that you won’t find in the books.

Finally

There is a line in a film, and I can’t remember which one, where someone says, ‘History judges us not on what we choose to do, but on what we choose not to do,’ and that also works when putting together a character. Ultimately, choices, or choosing not to make them, define character, particularly decisions made under pressure and during conflict because, as Syd Field says, “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story.”

[Currently, Saturday morning, European time, the Fiction Café server is having an issue. You may need to check back with it later to read the interview.]

How I Write a Novel

How I Write a Novel
Thoughts, Tips and Tricks

For this week’s blog, I’ve jotted some notes on how I go about writing a novel. There was once a book on my shelves titled ‘The Three Rules of Novel Writing’, but I discarded that years ago because, according to some, there are no rules to writing a novel. That’s not true. Mark Twain agreed that there were three, “Write, write and write”, and endless websites and creative writing commentators come up with lists of what you should and shouldn’t do when you want to write a novel. I tend to side with Mr Twain: Write.

The word ‘novel’ originated from the Latin novella, a singular noun use of the neuter plural of novellus, diminutive of novus, meaning ‘new’. We’ve probably all used the word, as in, ‘That’s a novel idea,’ and that’s exactly what a novel should be; a novel idea expressed through the medium of storytelling, one of mankind’s oldest forms of communication. Take it to the extreme, and you could write anything and call it a novel. For example, I’ve seen some books that had no punctuation or no speech marks around dialogue… Hideously affected if you ask me, and they come across as publisher-wank, for want of a better way to put it, and being ‘original’ for the sake of it. My advice? Avoid!

But I am not here to lecture on the art and craft of writing a novel, simply to tell you how I do it and what my thoughts on novel writing are. So let’s leap straight into a common question I am asked when being interviewed. Are you a pantster or a plotter?

Pantster

When I first came across the word pantster, I thought it was some fetish-related quirk or a typo, but soon discovered it refers to someone who makes it up as they go along. As in, flying by the seat of your pants, I guess. Famous pantster novelists include Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.

I’m in good company then, because I am sometimes a Pantster. In fact, I can confess that my entire Clearwater Mystery series has been written by pantstering, if “to pantster” can be a verb. I usually start with a question?

Deviant Desire: What if Jack the Ripper killed rent boys?
Twisted Tracks: What happened next?
Unspeakable Acts: Why not bring in a Cleveland Street scandal idea?
Fallen Splendour: What if the clue to a mystery was hidden in a Tennyson poem?
Bitter Bloodline: Why not expand the series to involve real-life characters of the time?
Artful Deception: How many twists can I get in one story?
Banyak & Fecks: Can I write a Victorian bromance?

Some tools of the trade on my shelves.

Next, I usually have a beginning and an end. For the current work in progress (‘Something Exposure’, still not fully titled), I want a thrilling chase towards the edge of a cliff kind of climax followed by a massive twist that leaves the reader thinking, ‘Oh no! What next?’ I have both in my head, and I’m currently heading towards them.

For some stories, I have an opening. Example: ‘Home From Nowhere.’ Here, I wanted to start with Jasper being woken in the early hours and told to be ready to leave immediately. ‘Why?’ I asked myself and received the answer, ‘We’ll find out as we go along.’ As that story progressed, the ending came into sight about halfway through writing, before then, when I reached chapter five, I think, I had to ask myself, ‘So what’s the mystery?’ and then music popped into my head.

For other stories, I start with a setting, a ‘world’ in which the story takes place. Again, I can give you a list: Deviant Desire, Jack the Ripper. Unspeakable Acts, Opera. Banyak & Fecks, male prostitution in the 1880s. Something Exposure, Victorian, male pornography. Artful Deception, art. And so on.

For all of them, then, I have either a beginning to launch me into the story, or an end I know I have to aim for, and what happens in between is made up as I go along. Sometimes, the characters add the twists for me. I’ll be beavering away on a chapter, and it’s flowing, and I’m heading towards the last line which I imagine to be one thing, and one of the characters will suddenly say something I wasn’t expecting. Either that, or I throw in a line to see where it will lead to, and I take myself by surprise. There’s an example in ‘Fallen Splendour’ at the end of chapter four when Mr Norwood answers the door to find three men looking for Silas.

‘These men are here to see Mr Hawkins,’ Norwood announced.
‘Actually, Sir,’ the moustached man said, straightening his overcoat and squaring his shoulders. ‘We are here to arrest him.’

Believe it or not, I didn’t see that coming. My subconscious must have said, ‘What if…?’

Making it up as you go along is fun, but does require a lot of backpaddling, changing details in written chapters as you go, and making notes to remind yourself of things to tie up later, but it also offers the freedom to let the characters run wild. You can always tame them later.

Plotter

Plotting, on the other hand, involves… well, plotting. When I was studying screenplay writing, I learnt an awful lot about structure. I am still a structuralist as having a structure is different from plotting. All of my novels have a basic four-act structure as you see in most mainstream films. 1) Ordinary world, 2) change of world 3) halfway twist or boost/change, 4) unravelling. That’s a very basic outline of the four-act, hero’s journey storytelling structure which I like to think of like this:

Act 1:  There is no problem.

Act 2:  What is this problem?

Act 3:  How do we deal with this problem?

Act 4: Let’s put this problem to bed.

Some of my Victorian research books

Okay, so you could say that’s an outline for a plot, but it’s not really. That’s the frame on which you’re going to build your story, and there are plenty of other tried and tested structures, for example, Shakespeare’s five-act structure, but let’s not go there right now.

Plotting, to me, means detailing the action and the character arcs, developments and relationships, as you would do very carefully if writing a film. That involves storyboarding and telling yourself, ‘In chapter six, X must do something in order to show her development from A to C via B.’ ‘In chapter seven, the relationship between Y and Z reaches the point where the subplot rides above the main plot, and the MC comes to terms with the IC’s resilience, forcing…’

Yeah, well, as you might imagine, that’s far too technical for me. I can do it and have done it when writing film scripts, but it’s simply too restrictive.
(Btw, MC = main character, and IC = impact character, the wall he hits, the man he falls in love with, the challenge character, etc.)

Having said that, I do have to do some basic plotting, particularly in a mystery. Mainly, that’s around pacing. Don’t give away too much yet, drop a clue here so the reader will know it but forget it long enough for it to be a pleasant twist later, make sure you foreshadow that, if a character’s going to escape by galloping a horse, make sure we know early on that he can ride… And so on. But I don’t outline each chapter and arc my characters in fine detail. I have done in the past; ‘Jason and the Sargonauts‘ was one of my first James Collins novels, and that took a lot of plotting because of timelines, and because I was new to writing. Now, I like to think I am more intuitive. Besides, if you get it wrong in draft one, you can always go back and untangle your plot in draft two onwards.

My process

So, my process now is this:

From the Clearwater ‘bible’

I have an idea, a ‘what if?’, an ending I want to use, a twist to drop in at some point, a world I want to write in (Ripper, opera, art, music, early pornography…), or sometimes, simply a title. With Unspeakable Acts, the title came before the story.

I start at page one. Sounds obvious but often it’s the last chapter that’s in my head, and yet I leave that one and write chronologically to give myself something to aim for, and often, the ending changes or develops as I go as more and better ideas come to mind.

Actually, I messed with the chronology in ‘Artful Deception’ which opens a few days after the start of the story proper. We have the first scene, wonder what it’s all about, and find out later when the scene is fitted back into the storyline, although from a different point of view so as not to be repetitive. That’s a common film technique.

I make notes as I go. When writing anything, it’s vital that if you come up with an idea for later, you note it somewhere, else you’ll forget it. Similarly, I have a list of ‘Tie-ups’. These are ideas I have along the way and add in, intending to use them again later. The list is to make sure they do.

For my current Clearwater work in progress, I have a file titled ‘Ideas for act one onwards’ and running through it, I find these headings:
A ‘POC’ for each chapter. (POC = point of chapter, to ensure there’s a point to each part of the story and I’m not just indulging myself with interesting but unnecessary detail).
Time limit – to remind me of the timeline and pace.
The letter. In this case, a blackmail letter starts the mystery story, and it’s in my notes so I can easily refer to it as I go.
Notes on photographic ‘printing out’ paper, Eastman’s Solio paper (1888) very important!
Then there’s a whole section on train times because that’s one thing I like to be realistic about. I have notes from my friend, Andy, a railways’ expert who has copies of rare timetables books from my era.
TWISTS. In capitals, note. One of these rather alarmingly says, ‘CUT TO: Funeral’, but I will say no more.
A list of additional/cameo characters so I can add them to the ‘bible’ and maybe use them in later stories.
TIE UPS. Ah, there it is!

There then follow links to all kinds of research websites and title of books I’ve dipped into and might want to check back with.

My Rules for Writing a Novel

To summarise this rather rambling post, I’d say that my rules to writing a novel are simple. This list is not exhaustive.

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written, and then get it right.
  2. Write what you would like to read.
  3. Keep everything realistic within the world you create.
  4. Make sure everything ties up.
  5. Plot if you must but don’t let it restrict you.
  6. Write to the best of your ability.
  7. Constantly ask yourself, ‘Is that what I meant to say?’ and ‘Can I write this better?’
  8. Learn your grammar!
  9. Employ a professional proofreader.
  10. Write something every day, even if you think it’s rubbish.
  11. Don’t feel you must adhere to anyone’s rules.

And now, I shall thank you for reading, and head back to chapter 19 of ‘Something Exposure’ where one of my MCs is just about to confront the IC, while my other two MCs race to stop him. I must take what should be a cordial meeting to the point of fatality in a realistic and thrilling way without being ridiculous or allowing the pace to slacken. We’re at the crisis and climax stage, and I really can’t leave these boys hanging around a cold castle in the wilds of Scotland any longer.

See you next week!

MM Fiction Café

MM Fiction Café

The New Site for Readers and Writers of MM Romance and Fiction

Everyone loves to get something for nothing, and the most valuable thing an author can be given is free positive publicity. Today, I wanted to tell you a little about how I, as an author, like to prove that sharing is caring, and more than anywhere, I find this in the world of indie writers and their readers.

One of the things I’m keen to do is promote the work of author friends. You can see that on past posts, like the one about book covers. I also share some new releases and author news on my Facebook page. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Other people, on the other hand, do a lot more. Today, I want to feature a newly revamped site that’s 100% free for readers and writers. It has just come back online, it’s called MM Fiction Café, and it has been set up by my FB friend, Josh Dale. As I look at Josh’s FB friends list, I see we have several in common: Jay Northcote, Ann Attwood, Amy Spector and Elle Keaton among them. These are other authors (Ann is an editor and proofreader), and all people I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for the free-sharing and caring ethos that surrounds most indie authors, especially in the world of MM romance and gay fiction.

MM Fiction Café

The café has been relaunched for 2021, and, as I write, Josh is in the process of uploading and finalising, snagging and perfecting, but I thought, as this is launch week, I would give my readers a heads-up and let you in on the new-look site before everyone else gets there. Below are three other places where you can join the community of readers and writers for free, but before that, I asked Josh for more details about the MM Fiction Café, and here is what he sent.

What is MM Fiction Cafe?

MM Fiction Café has been relaunched for 2021 with a new look website. The concept was originally started three years ago as a place for Josh to post his book reviews. During that time, it has promoted over 800 books from 400 authors and reviewed 300 books.

The site is clear and easy to navigate, it already contains the core content, but they are working on many new and exciting features.

Current features include
  • Authors Directory

Which allows readers to find information about the author, such as their Bio, published book list, as well as the links for buying and social weblinks all in one place.

  • Book Directory

Want to find a book’s information without all the promo info?  It is easy to search and filter the books by genre, tropes or novel size to find exactly what you are looking for.

  • Reviews Directory
  • Blog Directory

Where you can read all the Promo posts.

Road Map for New Features
  • Favourites / To Be Read Lists. (coming soon)

Soon visitors will be able to log in and save their favourite authors, books, reviews and blog posts to their own favourite / TBR lists.

  • Series Directory (coming soon)

A section to find your favourite series and all the books within the series.

  • Comments / Readers Reviews (working on)

Visitors who log in will be able to comment on our posts and leave positive/constructive reviews on books.

  • Coming Soon / Release Date Diary (working on)

Want to know when your favourite author’s next book is due to be released.  We will have a diary where authors can list their work in progress / next release. And they will be able to update their progress.

  • Author interface

Ability for authors to add their own details to the author directory and for them to add books to the book directory/series directory.

This will be an invaluable new resource for the MM fiction Community, a great place for us all to catalogue our books, and for our readers to easily keep up to date with our works.

Josh and his team invite you to visit the website, and if you have a suggestion for a new feature or would like them to consider a change to the website, please feel free to contact them using the general enquiries link at the bottom of the Request / Enquiries page.

Links

Website: https://mmfictioncafe.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mmmidnightcafe
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MMfictioncafe
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/MMFictionCafe/mm-fiction-cafe/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/MMFictionCafe/

Other free-to-join MM Romance and Fiction Websites

And back to me. There are many sites out there where authors can promote their work and where readers can see what’s new in the world of MM Fiction, but not all of them are free, and some are more popular, and therefore more useful, than others. I’ve chosen three where my work appears. I take an active role in two, Queer Romance Ink and All Author (which covers all genres, not just MM romance), but I let Good Reads take care of itself.

Queer Romance Ink (QRI)

QRI is ‘an inclusive library of romance titles across the queer rainbow.’ It’s 100% free for readers and a place where you can browse by all manner of means: title, author, genre, niche, tropes and so on. Authors pay to be listed as the site has overheads, and I don’t mind that at all. I have been found there by many loyal readers, and through its partner company, Other World Links, I have indulged in blog tours of new releases, and other publicity events. I did my first blog tour with them when ‘Twisted Tracks’ first came about. That’s part two of The Clearwater Mysteries, and I thought I’d give it a go as I’d never done a blog tour before. For me, it involved writing interviews and other short articles for over 25 blogs where bloggers discuss new gay fiction. It was a fun thing to be involved with and, I am sure, led to the Clearwater series’s ongoing success. ‘Deviant Desire’ hadn’t had such an official launch. Although it had started selling reasonably well, as soon as that blog tour came out, it shot right up the rankings as many readers decided to start with book one (Deviant Desire) before heading to part two, the book that was being toured.

All Author

All Author is a site that runs on similar lines but is not queer fiction specific. It’s one of, if not the top site for authors seeking publicity and readers seeking new ideas for what to read next. Again, I pay a small amount to list my work there, but what I get in return is phenomenal. For a start, it’s a huge database for readers and writers and thus, connections. They allow my PA, the wonderful Jenine, to make up gifs and banners and other publicity material. They also feature books on their front pages and run automated Twitter posts for me. I don’t Tweet, so that’s a boon, and again, the results of using them outweigh the minimal cost I pay each year to be listed.

Remember, MM Fiction Café has been set up to 100% free, another reason to support it, and a better example of how authors in the world of gay fiction are prepared to help each other for no financial gain.

Good Reads

Tbh, I’ve never been sure about Good Reads, and I hardly use it as I spend more time writing than I do reading. However, I do use it because I have author friends there that I like to promote and it’s free.

When I published my second book of memoirs about moving to and living on a Greek island (under the name, James Collins), I asked a personal friend to write a short testimonial. This she did, and very nice it was too. Anne is Anne Zouroudi, the famed Bloomsbury author of The Greek Detective Series. She’s always been Anne, of course, but now, her books have taken off, and a TV series is being discussed. Sometimes, it’s who you know, perhaps, but the point is, Anne follows and supports me via Good Reads, and so do many others. And, better still, it’s free for readers and writers to post and publicise there, find books, write and read reviews, and join in with the online community of book lovers.

Meanwhile, at the Café

To finish, I’ll refer you back to Josh and the MM Fiction Café. Go and take a look, but remember, the relaunch was only this week, it’s still bedding in, and it will take a little time for more books to be added. Bookmark the site and pop back to it to see what’s new, specifically in the world of MM Romance.

As indie authors, it’s fantastic to have a site like this where we’re welcome to list and share for free. I’m totally in favour of authors supporting each other by sharing info on newsletters, sharing blog posts, making special appearances on each other’s sites, and promoting each other without asking for something in return, and that’s exactly what Josh is doing. After all, caring is sharing, particularly at the MM Fiction Café.

[If any authors of gay lit, MM romance or historical fiction want to put a guest blog post on my site, just get in touch.]

My links

Jackson at QRI
All Author
Good Reads profile

New Year, New Story

New Year, New Story

Hello and welcome to 2021. It is January 1st as I write this. I have been up since 5.30, we had a power cut at 6.00, and just after the lights went off, the thunder started. It’s now 7.30, the power is on, the rain is hammering on the roof, and I couldn’t be happier. Why?

Clearwater #9

Because I am 50,000 words into the first draft of a new story, I have a wealth of Christmas gifts still to explore, but more than that, we are happy and safe on our Greek island, and there is a whole year ahead in which to achieve some wonderful things. One of them will be this new book, currently untitled but with ‘Something Exposure’ as an idea: The Clearwater Mysteries book nine. It is a return to the classic Clearwater of mystery to be solved by a deadline, testing friendships, reputations at stake, and threats to the Clearwater way of life. I won’t give too much away, but so far, the story includes the second Clearwater Foundation gala, Prince Albert Victor, Victorian male erotica and the influenza pandemic of 1889/1890, the ‘Asiatic Flu’ as it became known.

Number nine stars James, Silas and Fecker in the main, as the others have been ordered to Larkspur by the viscount, and the London house is to be closed. However, Archer and Tom have to travel to Paris on urgent personal business. (Will they finally get time alone together enough to allow their repressed feelings for each other to bubble over into something more physical? I’m not sure yet.) So, while I am constructing number nine, I am also thinking sideways of another (ten) which may run parallel to it, but involve other members of the crew. I am thinking Archer, Tom and Jasper as I’m rather falling in love with Jasper’s character.

We will see how that all goes, and I’ll keep you updated on my weekly, Saturday blog.

Vincent Virga

Meanwhile, I want to tell you about one of the Christmas gifts my lovely assistant, Jenine, gave me. You may remember we had a post in November called, ‘Do We Judge a Book by its Cover?‘ I was honoured to be joined in that post by Vincent Virga, author of Gaywyck, the first gay, gothic romance published in 1980. If you follow the link and look at Vincent’s website, you will see details of his other works. These include the Cartographia.

 

“CARTOGRAPHIA offers a stunning array of 200 of the most beautiful, important, and fascinating maps in existence, from the world’s largest cartographic collection, at the Library of Congress.” There are more details here.

Well, my present was a copy of this stunning book. So far, I’ve only had a quick glance at the pages, but it’s on my desk ready for me to pour over as soon as I resume my working week on Monday.

Glenn Chandler

Beside it is a copy of the script for ‘The Sins of Jack Saul’ by Glenn Chandler and Charles Miller. This is a musical version of the life of the notorious Victorian male prostitute, Jack Saul, on whom my |Clearwater Mysteries character, Silas Hawkins, is very loosely based. Glenn has also written the definitive book about Jack Saul which I have and have read (and must read again), and was kind enough to dig out the script of his musical, send it to Jenine who then printed it for me as another wonderful Christmas present. I’ve read it, and intend to write more about this in the future.

Meanwhile, you can find out more about the musical here.

Book giveaway

During December, I ran a quote competition on my Facebook page. Each day, I posted a quote from one of my books or its blurb. Readers named the book, and all correct answers were entered into a spreadsheet from which my godsons drew a column and row at random. Maryann was the winner and will receive a signed copy of ‘Banyak & Fecks’ (as soon as it arrives here, I sign it and post it on; the mail has been much delayed by Christmas, but it is on its way). More giveaways will be announced on the new page on this site, so keep an eye on that.

And into 2021

So far, on my list of things to do in 2021, I have the new book… And that’s about it. We’re not planning to travel anywhere, though if at all possible, Neil will go to Scotland to visit his children and grandchildren. We are hoping that Symi opens up for tourism from May onwards and that we have a better summer season than we did last year. As I write (yesterday as you read this), Neil is baking a cake to take up to Jenine and the god-boys where we will be having lunch and playing games, as restrictions in Greece have been relaxed a little for today, St Vasilis Day in Greece, and we are allowed limited mingling. We are looking forward to that, and I am looking forward to slipping back into my writing regime from Monday onwards and producing the next stories. ‘Something Exposure’, Clearwater nine, is, as I say, well underway, and I can’t wait to get it out to you.

So, I will sign off by wishing you a peaceful and trouble-free year ahead, and leave you with an image Andjela, my cover designer, made up for me of Neil looking rather like Clearwater, the industrialist, posing for a photograph in 1890.

Remember, if you keep reading, I’ll keep writing!
Jackson

Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

It occurred to me, as we approach Christmas that I’ve never written a Christmas story. I have come close with the final scene of ‘Fallen Splendour’ where we join the Christmas staff ball at Larkspur Hall in 1888, and I have also come close as James Collins, in my novel, ‘The Saddling.’ I say ‘close’, because, in Saddling, there is no Christmas because there is no Christian religion, not since the Blacklocks family took over the village in… I forget the year but before the witch trials of ‘The Witchling’ and sometime after the first return of ‘The Eastling’ in the 13th century.

Instead, Saddling, the village of the series, follows its own Lore based on nature and the turning of the seasons. The first in the series, ‘The Saddling’ opens on winter solstice night, 1292 when a great storm threatens the Romney Marshes with flooding. That is based on a real event, the great storm of 1287 where villages were washed away, and lives and livestock were lost.

Part of our harbour in flood this week.

As the winter solstice is only a couple of days away, I thought this was an appropriate time to talk about it and the Christmases of my youth on the Marsh, and now, here on the Greek island, Symi. Where, by the way, the approach of the solstice combining with an upcoming full moon, has resulted in our harbour already being slightly flooded.

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. This year, it occurs at 10.02 UTC on Monday and marks the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, the first day of winter.

This year, according to The National Geographic, “… just head of Christmas, two of the solar system’s brightest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, [will] engage in a celestial dance that will bring them within planetary kissing distance in the evening sky.”

A bit flowery perhaps, but true. “The moment of closest approach arrives on 21st December—the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of summer for those in the Southern Hemisphere. The two planets will appear closer together than at any time in almost 400 years in an event known as a great conjunction.”

According to Astronomy.com, On 21st December, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in Earth’s night sky than they have since 1226 A.D. This event is being described as causing a ‘Christmas star’, which all seems nicely appropriate, and the date, 1226, gives me a very tenuous link back to ‘The Saddling.’

After the initial storm scene of ‘The Saddling’ which sets up the Lore that is to follow and the superstitions and rites of the village, the story cuts to 18th December 2012. It is 720 years after the great storm, and the central character, Tom Carey is struggling to keep his life together, obsessed with tracing his family tree in order to inherit a fortune from his last family member. By chapter eight, he has arrived in the village of Saddling and, as his car has broken down miles away, seeks a room at the inn, The Crow and Whiteback. It’s charmingly old-fashioned but shows no signs of Christmas, and when the landlady, Susan Vye appears through the floor from the cellar below, and he takes her by surprise, Tom comments, ‘Nice place, but not very Christmassy, Only four more shopping days to go.’ He laughed, she didn’t.

The story unfolds as Tom searches for clues to his family mystery, the storm clouds gather, he befriends two local lads who are preparing for their saddling, and he learns that the ceremony is to be held on the evening of the winter solstice. In our present world, this Monday.

The Saddling series plays on such natural events as this year’s ‘Christmas star’, the solstices and equinoxes, the natural birth, harvesting, dying and rebirth of the land, the relationships between man and nature, farming and festivals. Apart from finding it interesting to research, I used this natural flow of the earth as a background because I wanted to set the stories against the naturalness of change and difference. By which I mean, as Tom makes his way through book one, he comes to realise that like it or not, he is attracted to another man. As the series progresses, the villagers gradually come to accept that Tom and Barry’s ‘friendship’ is as natural as the changing seasons, the tide, the earth’s cycle, and that, underneath it all, is the message of the books.

Winters on Romney Marsh

Fairfiled, Romney Marsh and St Thomas Becket church – the inspiration for The Saddling. (The church features on the cover of all three Saddling books.)

I wasn’t aware of the solstice when I was growing up on the Marsh, but I was aware of Christmas. I didn’t have any particular interest in the fields and deeks (irrigation ditches/dykes that prevent the land from flooding) or the farming way of life, but I must have absorbed it. My best friend from nine to 12 years was the son of a farmer. I’d cycle over to his house about a mile away into the wide, flat landscape of the fields to play in the hay barn, make rafts on the wider deeks, help his dad deliver lambs at lambing (though more likely get in the way), and sit down to huge suppers of ‘lookers pie’ prepared by his classic farmer’s-wife mum.

[On the Marsh, a looker is a shepherd and lookers’ pie is shepherds’ pie made with chops not mince.]

The ruins of All Saints church, Hope

I have never been very good at sleeping, and in my teens, I would sometimes walk out onto the marsh at night. It has an atmosphere of its own, with nothing to hear but the cry of an owl, the breeze in the hawthorn bushes and the occasional plop of a frog leaping into a dyke. I walked to a place called Hope*, just outside New Romney, one of the villages that were washed away in the great storm and now nothing more than a ruined church wall, just to enjoy the peace and the smell of damp coarse-grass and sheep treddles.

[That’s a Kentish word for sheep poo, a smell that, when you’ve grown up with it, is more comforting than you might think!]

Later in my teens, one of my best friends was also the son of a farmer, and I’d visit his house too. As is the way of the Marsh, he lived next door (half a mile) from his cousin, my earlier bestie, the families farmed together, but in this case, I visited to play on his dad’s snooker table, and play music as we were in a swing band by then. His dad, by the way, is now in his 90s and still actively farming his land.

Christmases

The Romney Marshes before they were ‘inned’ (irrigated)

And then there were the Christmases. These, for me, were traditional family affairs. We were expected to attend Midnight Mass at the parish church where I ‘sang’ in the choir and learnt to play the organ. As my two brothers and I got older, we went under the bribe of being able to open a present when we returned home. Older still, this tradition ended up with my dad being the only one who attended church, me staying at home to watch concerts on TV and wait for my older brothers to return from the pub when we opened presents, often not going to bed until well after three in the morning.

If you were wondering where Romney Marsh is; it’s on the south coast of England.

Another big part of my teen years was music, as you might have gathered from my Jackson books like ‘The Blake Inheritance‘ and ‘Home From Nowhere.’ I started playing the piano aged six or seven and carried on throughout primary, prep and secondary school to finally rise to the complicated heights of grade eight in my early 20s. I was inspired in music by teachers at both prep school (where the music teacher took me to play the organ in Hythe church when I was 11, and from when I was transfixed by the musical ‘machines’). At secondary school, our music teacher arranged for us to attend concerts in Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere at his own expense, encouraged me to stage musical revues and write songs for the junior years. He also saw a friend and me through our A-Level, arranging for Dominic (the only other A-Level music student) to be in a masterclass with Julian Lloyd Webber which I attended, and had a great knack of staging the Christmas concerts at the parish churches of New Romney and Lydd. Being a piano player, I wasn’t needed for the orchestra, but was dragged in to play the percussion (not as easy as it sounds) and sometimes ‘sing’ in the choir. I put ‘sing’ like that because I mouthed along more than sounded notes.

From Past to Present

Our tree this year.

All of these random reminiscences have a bearing on what I write now. The loneliness of the Marshes at night, the earthy, natural way of life, lambing, harvests, hay bales, hawthorn-lined, narrow roads and the deeks, the wide, flat landscape of the drained marshland and its rich history, the memories of cold legs in damp-smelling churches, the vibration of the organ in the last bars of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and the present-giving by the fire… The older you get, the more you reminisce, but in my case, the more I put such reminiscences into my books, although often, from a different character’s perspective.

And now, the past not only influences what I write, but what we do at Christmas. This year may be slightly different, but we will still be able to be with our ‘logical’ family, our two godsons on the island and their mum as we have been for the last 17 out of 18 Christmases. It will be a day of fun, feasting and falling about laughing against an underscore of Annie Lennox and carols from Kings, godson #1 on his piano and, if we can drag him screaming from his Xbox, godson #2 on his guitar (he hasn’t got it yet, and I hope it arrives in time).

But before all that, we have Monday and the Winter Solstice, and it strikes me that if you’ve not already read it, you could get hold of a copy of The Saddling today, 19th, and start reading it, following the story day by day on the exact dates the story is set. You will reach the climax on Monday night, and if you are lucky enough to have a thunderstorm that night, you’ll get the full dramatic effect.

Whether you do that or not, have a peaceful solstice and seasonal feast or holy day, and I will be back with you on 2nd January with my next rambling blog post.

The Saddling is available to download now on Kindle and is available in Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback.

‘A Place Called Hope’ by Emma Batten

* A Place Called Hope is a novel by the daughter of my childhood piano teacher, and is very much worth reading, as are all of Emma Batten’s Romney Marsh, historical novels.

Ideas for the Next Clearwater Mystery

Ideas for the Next Clearwater Mystery

I have to admit, I completely forgot what day of the week it was, and that’s why my Saturday blog post is appearing on a Sunday. I was sitting here at the computer yesterday writing ideas for a new Clearwater story and thinking, ‘I’m sure there’s something I should be doing…’ There was, and here it is.

A (possible) New Clearwater Mystery for Book Nine

Here’s a treat for you. A sketch of Fecker drawn for the Clearwater Companion (a work in very slow progress).

During the last two weeks, I have begun work on a new Clearwater adventure. I had started one before I sat down to write the prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and had the beginning, the ending and the mystery in between semi-mapped out. I was going to call this one ‘Men of a Similar Heart’ because I liked the title, and I may still come back to that title and story in the future. For some reason, though, I reached around 30,000 words and found myself trundling. I mean, writing chapters where all kinds of interesting domestic things happened, characters chatted, and we delved into day to day life at Clearwater House, but where nothing actually happened to advance the mystery story. This suggested that either I wasn’t in the right mood to continue an adventure, or the story was mundane.

Victorian Erotica

So, I set that aside and started on a completely different idea which was thrown up during the writing of Banyak & Fecks. If you’ve read that one, you’ll know there is a scene where Silas is invited/seduced into posing naked for photographs. [I looked around the web for an image or two to illustrate that scene and found only a couple of solo men. The others were far too pornographic to display here.]

Later than 1889 judging from his hair style, but you get the picture.

This did go on in those times (1889). There was a market for erotica and pornography, straight and gay, and you can find original images online in various archives. Of course, the practice was going on before and has been happening ever since. My godfather (born in 1919) was once a model for erotic images in the 1920s and 30s. He posed for a fairly well-known photographer called Angus McBain, in Victoria, London, and told me about his sittings when he related his life story to me later in his life.

In Banyak & Fecks, Silas poses and is photographed… and then the story moves on. I was thinking about what to write next, aware that the ongoing series has reached the last few months of 1889, and I wondered, ‘Now what?’ Most of the love stories have been put in place, and I can’t really introduce another new character and love story, Clearwater House is now full of couples! Well, we have Archer/Silas, James/Thomas, Fecker/Lucy and now, Jasper/Billy. Apart from perhaps having some infidelity (which is not impossible), it’s currently hard to think how I can inject another love-thread into the saga. Instead, I thought, I might have a simple mystery for James, the detective, to solve with one or two of the other characters.

And then I remembered Silas’ photo-shoot with ‘Sir’ in Banyak & Fecks, and thought, ‘What if…?’ As that idea started to grow, I realised that, as we’re towards the end of 1889, another Clearwater Foundation Gala is due; another big theatrical event with the well to do of London, and thought, ‘that’s an interesting starting place,’ and the idea developed.

Relating the Story to Today

1889 saw the outbreak of a worldwide flu pandemic, the ‘Russian’ or ‘Asiatic’ flu that started in Bukhara in the Russian Empire (now in Uzbekistan). It reached England in December 1889, perfect timing, I thought if such a tragedy could be considered perfect.

This means I have three pieces of a possible mystery puzzle. 1) a threat to Clearwater and his way of life with the surfacing of erotic photographs of Silas, His Lordship’s secretary and coordinator of the Greychurch Mission. 2) The second Clearwater Gala, and 3) the arrival of Russian flu in Britain.

How to tie them together?

Well, I thought, also available to me in terms of historical accuracy, is Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s grandson (also known as Prince Eddy, and one of the more unlikely suspects for being Jack the Ripper). He was away in South Africa at the time I am writing, but I can take a liberty with that, and I wondered how it might add pressure to the story if he was at the gala, and better, considering becoming the patron of the Clearwater Foundation.

A cencored image such as those Silas posed for.

With that in the offing, and images of Silas about to surface, there could be a head-on collision for Clearwater, and what’s more, it will take place during the outbreak of deadly flu. So, I then added another what if…? Someone close to Clearwater became gravely ill. That adds pressure, but what if this impending tragedy caused Clearwater to travel abroad, thus putting him in more danger, leaving some of his crew behind to deal with the possible Silas embarrassment?

Who is in charge of sorting out this mess? Well, at the moment, I am working on the idea that James, Silas and Fecker will take the lead in this story, and I am up to 30,000 words, which is about the end of the first act.

The New Story So Far

No spoilers, but in the story so far, the gala has happened, Prince Eddy is considering lending his name to the Clearwater Foundation, everyone is happy, but Dr Markland has pulled Archer aside to give him grave news. Back home the next day, Markland and Archer tell everyone about the flu heading to London, and Archer orders everyone to Larkspur for their protection.

The spread of Russian Flu 1889 – 1890

But… He’s also received word that his mother, while travelling to Bran Castle for Christmas as she does every year, has fallen ill with the flu in Paris. Archer and Thomas set off for Paris, Harvey and Mrs Norwood pack up Clearwater House and take the staff to Larkspur, and everything seems on track.

But… Behind this, Silas has received copies of photos he posed for three years previously, along with a blackmail threat, and the only people he can turn to are James and Fecker…

And… Well, that’s the next stage. As the characters investigate, I will inject a deadline and head to a climax that will somehow involve one of those ‘race to beat the baddie’ endings that we saw in Twisted Tracks, Unspeakable Acts, Artful Deception and the others.

That’s where I am at the moment. Today, if I can, I want to bring the first act to its end with one almighty twist, or development, or ‘oh no!’ moment, and that’s my job as soon as I have finished this stream of consciousness ramble.

Thanks for listening. Writing this has helped me clear my thoughts which were becoming a little bit stuck. Next week, hopefully, I will remember what day it is and post my last blog post of 2020 on Saturday as usual.

While searching for suitable photos for this post, I stumbled across Josephine Myles, ‘Gay romance with lashings of English sauce’ and a post on her site, from which I borrowed an image (which I censored slightly). Have a look at her site.

Notes From Home

Notes From Home

I thought I would combine book news with a personal update this week, and I have a few things to tell you about.

Banyak & Fecks

First of all, ‘Banyak & Fecks’, published at the start of the week, has already received a cracking, five-star review. This is a prequel to The Clearwater Mysteries and is written in, dare I say it, a more literary style. It’s not the usual murder, madness and mayhem of the books that follow, there are no cryptic clues for the reader to solve as you travel through the story with the Clearwater Crew, and although I’d consider it romantic, it’s not a romance.

Banyak & Fecks is the story of how Silas and Andrej met on the streets of the East End in 1844. It tells of their growing relationship through to the day or so before ‘Deviant Desire‘ starts in 1888. The boys were teenagers at this time (although that word didn’t exist then), and I wanted to give an idea of what it’s like for a young man to experience the confusions of sexuality at that age and in that era.

I also wanted to drop in plotlines and people who appear in the books that follow, and astute readers will notice some. Without giving things away, when you read the story, you meet characters from ‘Deviant Desire’ (Molly at the rope house, for example, and a couple of the future victims of the Ripper). You also meet Eddie Lovemount from books two to four. James Wright is mentioned, as is the Cleaver Street brothel from ‘Fallen Splendour.’ I even put in a meeting with a doctor who has a bushy moustache and who Fecker thinks was called Marked-land, or something. It is Dr Markland, of course, appearing a few years before his first proper appearance in book one.

What I also did, was to lay down some of Silas’ past which could later come back to haunt him, and that leads me onto…

My Next Writing Project

Tower Bridge, London, being built in circa 1889, as mentioned in Banyak & Fecks.

To be honest, I’ve been having trouble starting the next Clearwater book, and I think that’s because I stepped away from the series to add in the prequel. Having said that, I have written four different openings of the same story, sometimes three or four chapters, but can’t decide which way to go. The other day, I went back to an old file and reread one of my opening chapter ideas, and something went ‘ping!’ So, I am now starting on that version of the next story, the working title of which was ‘Men of a Similar Heart’, but which, I think, will now be something else.

I won’t say too much about book nine, as I hope it will become, but I will tell you that it currently starts in December 1889 at the second Clearwater Foundation Gala – as foreshadowed in ‘Bitter Bloodline’, which is taking place at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. I intend to tie the story in with something that happened in ‘Banyak & Fecks’ that involved a photographer… And that’s all I am going to say about that. If all goes well, you can look forward to the next Clearwater instalment early next year.

Meanwhile…

Giveaway

Before that, we have Christmas, and as you may know by now, we’re running a free book giveaway. Head to my Facebook page, give it a like and follow, and every day, you can enter a draw to win a signed paperback copy of ‘Banyak and Fecks.’ There’s a different quote from a blurb or book every day, and all you have to do is correctly identify the book to have your name put into the hat. You can enter every day, so you have 24 chances of winning.

And while all that is going on…

Home news – a trip to Canada

I have been posting five times per week on my personal blog, www.symidream.com

The view from our sitting room.

This is a blog I have kept up for the last 14 years (I think it is, certainly a long time), and there, I put up photos of the Greek island Neil and I live on, and write a little each day about what we’re up to. Sometimes I write more in-depth posts, and sometimes I just ramble about what I am writing. These past three weeks, I have been writing about the holiday we took back in early March before C-19 took over when we went to London and Canada. You’ll have to go back to the start of November to begin at post one, but from there, you can follow the story through to the last day (yesterday). From now on, I’ll be back to my usual kind of Symi blogging.

Symi harbour last week.

For us, here in our rented house overlooking a glorious harbour, it’s mainly been about being locked down (the Greek national lockdown is now running until at least the 14th December), and so we’ve not been doing much. We have been out for a few walks, Neil more so than me, and we’ve watched a lot of TV. I’ve also started back on building a plastic model kit. This one is of The Invisible Man, and the kitchen table is currently covered with paints and pieces while the air is perfumed with white spirit and glue.

Not me, but my boarding school as I remember it.

I used to make these kits when I was 13 at prep school and took up the hobby again a couple of years ago. I make the Universal Horror Model kits, originally produced by Aurora with glow in the dark pieces. These days, the originals are collectors’ items (I have two) and not exactly cheap. So, I make the remoulds. The best time to do this is when we have one of our Greek island biblical thunderstorms, as we do in the winter when we unplug the router and computers, and I can sit for hours fiddling with paintbrushes and let my imagination wander to create the next Clearwater scene.

The current state of the kitchen table.

We have also been preparing for Christmas, though no decorations yet. Every year for the past 16 or so, we’ve spent Christmas Day with Jenine (our bestie and now my PA), and her two children, our godsons. Hopefully, this year will be no different, and it’s always a day of madness and fun. I’ve been teaching our youngest godson, Harry (13), to play the piano, and we currently have lessons via WhatsApp. He’s only been learning a year and is already over halfway through his first grade, so I am a very proud god-dad.

Get In Touch

I’ll finish by asking you if you have anything you’d like me to write about in my weekly blog. Would you like to know more about my writing process, how I came to be living on a Greek island, what I am planning, what’s my favourite book…? Anything at all, just drop me an email to jack @ jacksonmarsh.com, or leave a comment on my Facebook page, and I’ll do my best to blog about what you want to read.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, thanks for your reviews of my books, stay safe, and most of all, keep reading.

How I Write Book Blurbs – And A Christmas Giveaway

How I Write Book Blurbs – And A Christmas Giveaway

Recently, I noticed a few new writers on Facebook groups asking for advice about their blurbs and putting up some examples of what they had come up with. I found myself cringing at some and being impressed by others, and thought I would talk about the way I write mine. This short guide is about what I do. Whether you decide this is a good way to do it, or whether you think, ‘Hm, I’ll avoid his advice,’ it’s up to you.

There’s another reason for doing this today, which you will see if you follow my Facebook page during December. I will be running a prize draw through the month and giving away a signed copy of ‘Banyak & Fecks’ on Christmas Day. I’ll tell you more about that after I’ve blurbed about blurbs.

So, what is a blurb?

A blurb, also known as a book description, is found on the inside back cover of a hardback, on the back cover of a paperback and/or on the Amazon page under the product description. It’s the thing that a potential reader usually looks at after they’ve been impressed by your cover, or not. It’s your story in a nutshell and is probably the hardest thing to write after a logline. You are condensing your book into 150 to 200 words, after all, but you are doing so much more than that.

Start with a Logline

A logline is perhaps more of a filmmaker’s term, and it aims to reduce the film/story into even fewer words. When I write my books, I desperately fight to come up with a logline first, so I know what my story is, and then using that line as my focus to keep myself on track.

Yeah, right, well… Often I come up with it halfway through or at the end, because by then, I actually know what the story is about because the characters have taken over, but that’s me, and that’s novel writing. Film loglines, however, are a good place to start when writing a blurb because they help you focus.

An example of a logline would be: The ageing patriarch of an organised crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son. (The Godfather)

Loglines are not to be confused with taglines, the publicity headings if you like. A tagline would be ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ (Alien), or, ‘There are 3.7 trillion fish in the sea. They’re looking for one.’ (Finding Nemo).

A logline for my new release (due out on Monday/Tuesday of next week) might be:
A Ukrainian refugee and the son of an Irish immigrant meet, bond, and become sex workers in Victorian London.

That’s a very simple outline of ‘Banyak & Fecks’ but is the overarching story, therefore should be the basis of the blurb.

From Logline to Blurb

Do you know what your story is about, or do you only know what happens?
A blurb isn’t a synopsis. Well, it is, kind of, but it’s not a full synopsis. It’s 150 to 200 words that a) introduce your main characters, b) set the stage for your conflict, c) establish the stakes/risks, d) show the reader why they will like this book. Simple, eh?

No, not really.

Here’s a made-up example of what I consider a bad blurb based on a few I have read.
“Jack searches for love and has a one night stand with Jock that leads to them becoming insta-lovers, but Jess gets jealous and kills Jack in a brawl the next day. Jock yearns for his lost love like a teenager with raging hormones. Will he ever find happiness?”

For a start, I am already confused between Jack, Jock and Jess. However ‘insta-lovers’ suggests a bit of nookie might happen as long as we understand the modernism, ‘insta.’ We know one of them gets killed, so that’s that tension gone, but who are these people and what chemicals were they taking? ‘A teenager with raging hormones searching for love?’ What does that mean? After that, I didn’t care who found love and moved on.

It’s difficult. In fact, writing a blurb is more difficult than writing a 120k word novel or a 100-word synopsis. I just took another look at my ‘Banyak & Fecks’ blurb and realised I’d written 196 words, which is a bit over the top, but I also noticed I’d cheated.

How? Well, I’ve put certain information outside of the book description, but I reckon that’s okay because that info will be for the Amazon page, and people will have read that before buying the paperback, so I don’t need it on the back. Your Amazon book description can give more information than you book blurb, and so, is a convenient space in which you can expand your sales pitch and description.

The ‘cheated’ info runs:

‘Banyak & Fecks’ ends the day before the first Clearwater Mystery, ‘Deviant Desire‘ begins. It is a story of friendship and platonic love set in Greychurch, the imaginary Whitechapel of the Clearwater world. Extensively researched, readers are taken from the Russian steppe and the Wirral slums to the squalor of the East End in the late 1880s.

[Genre: Historical Bromance]

[‘The Clearwater Mysteries.’ Historical MM Romance, mystery and adventure.]

You don’t need all that on the back of your book, but it’s excellent information to put on Amazon, your blog, publicity, social media etc.

My Blurb Advice Based on My Learning Curve

What you do need is a brief outline of who, what and why. Who is/are the main character(s)? What’s the tension, conflict, interest? Why does the book appeal?

1          Keep it simple. Don’t give in to temptation and outline the entire story.
2          Use power words. (See below.)
3          Think, ‘Who am I writing for/selling to.’
4          Remember, you know who/what you’re talking about – but the potential readers don’t.
5          Don’t be indulgent. The blurb doesn’t show off what a great novelist you are or how cleverly you use words. If anything, it should show off how succinctly you can write, how objective you can be, and how good a salesperson you are.

Here’s an example of a blurb

I am not saying it’s the best example, but this is the blurb for my best-selling novel, ‘Deviant Desire.’ That’s bestselling for me, not as in ‘New York Times bestseller or anything. I’ve put notes in brackets and power words in bold. Power words are things like fear instead of ‘are scared of’, and kill rather than ‘attack.’ Murder or disembowel might have been even better.

Deviant Desire taken apart:

Deviant Desire blurb on Amazon

The Victorian East End (time and place) lives in fear of the Ripper (tension) and his mission to kill rent boys. (Character setting general. This opening line also sets the overall atmosphere and theme.)

Silas Hawkins, nineteen and forging a life on the streets (main character 1) could well be the next victim, (personal danger) but when he meets Archer, his life changes forever. (How? Why? Interest in what comes next.) Young, attractive and rich, Archer is The Viscount Clearwater, a philanthropist, adventurer and homosexual. (Main character 2, conflict between classes, sexy man suggesting ‘Mr Right.’ Homosexual isn’t the best or most powerful word, but ‘gay’ didn’t exist in that context in 1888. Even ‘homosexual’ was only used in the professional medical world, but there you go.)

When Archer suspects the Ripper is killing to lure him to a confrontation, (Why? Who is the Ripper?) he risks his reputation and his life (what’s at stake MC 1) to stop the madman’s murders. (Summary of action plot.) Every man must play his part, including Silas. (What’s at stake, MC 2) Secrets must be kept, lovers must be protected, and for Archer and Silas, it marks the start of their biggest adventure – love. (That lot doesn’t tell us what happens, it suggests what might happen and, hopefully, our imagination is stirred.)

There then follows on Amazon pages only:

A mashup of mystery, romance and adventure, (tells the potential reader if this is their kind of thing) Deviant Desire is set in an imaginary London of 1888. (Imaginary to show we’re not taking a new look at Jack the Ripper, so Ripperologists don’t get offended.) The first book in the on-going The Clearwater Mysteries series (shows there are more, and if you enjoy this one, your investment will pay off) and mixes fact with fiction. The series takes the theme of loyalty and friendship in a world where homosexuality is a crime. (Covers the overall series without going into detail, and says what kind of books follow, though not what stories.)

Insta-love, physical romance, mystery and murder. (A general covering of ‘tropes’ a word I dislike but a necessary evil.)

Some writers also put ‘triggers’ but, to be honest, with power words such as murder, Ripper, homosexual, and physical romance, you’d have to be pretty dim not to pick up on the fact this is going to be a gay murder thriller with some sex in it. ‘Physical romance’ is there because it’s best not to mention ‘sex’ on Amazon pages, they get funny about things like that.

DS Billings Mystery series box set

Another thing you can do on the Amazon page is put quotes from reviews of the book, or others in a series. You’ll see that’s what I’ve done for Deviant Desire’ and others. For ‘Banyak & Fecks’ I am lucky enough to have a quote from Olivier Bosman, author of the DS Billings Victorian Mysteries.

A colourful and enchanting tale. Beautifully written. Marsh does an excellent job of evoking the look and feel of a different age.”

Again, I’m not saying I am the expert on writing blurbs, I am simply passing on my experience. If you want professional advice by trained educators, you can easily find it through an online search.

And now, the signed-book giveaway news.

During December, from 1st to 24th, I am giving everyone the chance to win a signed paperback of ‘Banyak & Fecks.’ Each day, I will put up a quote from one of my books, or from one of my blurbs, and all you have to do is leave a comment on the Facebook post giving the title of the book from which the quote comes.
You don’t have to have read them all, some you will pick up from the blurbs, others will be obvious, and some will be harder.
Follow my Facebook page. Identify the book and put the name of the book in the comments below. You can enter on as many days as you like, even every day if you want.

Each correct answer will be numbered on a spreadsheet. When I get together with my godsons on Christmas Eve, I will ask one of them to randomly pick one number/entry from a hat, and that will be the winner.
I’ll then announce the winner on my Facebook page, and we’ll exchange private messages so you can give me the address to send the book to. (Note: it will take a while to arrive as it will be posted from our little Greek island, but you should get it sometime in January.)

Now, I must get on with setting up the files for ‘Banyak & Fecks.’ Look out for it on Amazon over the next few days, and I look forward to seeing everyone join in with the December giveaway.

Here’s one good, in-depth article about writing book blurbs.

The DS Billings Mystery series by Olivier Bosman, box set, Kindle edition

The Clearwater Mysteries: What’s next?

The Clearwater Mysteries: What’s next?

My next novel, ‘Banyak & Fecks’ should be available in a couple of weeks, and my newsletter will tell you when it has been published. There will also be news on my Facebook page. It occurs to me that I have done a rather strange thing, or I am about to. I realised that what I have done is write an eight-part, ongoing series over the last two years, and now, I’ve gone back to before that series started and written a prequel. So, that’s kind of cart about horse, as Fecker might say.

The Theme of The Clearwater Mysteries started with a pebble

Banyak & Fecks works whether you’ve read some, all or none of the series, and you can slip it into your reading at any time without it interrupting the flow of the series. It won’t give away any spoilers either, but it will explain a few things you might wonder about as you read the eight books.

For example, in book one, ‘Deviant Desire’, Silas’ only possession is a small, black and white pebble and when he wakes up at Clearwater House to find his clothes have been burnt, he is desperate to know where it is. Luckily, Thomas, the footman, being a caring chap as well as drop-dead gorgeous, finds and keeps it, assuming that it has importance to the urchin.

Later in the series, we learn that Andrej gave Silas the pebble, and Silas kept it as a reminded of their deep friendship. What we don’t know, in detail, is how Andrej (Fecks) came by it and why it is so important to him. In Banyak & Fecks, we not only learn how Fecks got the pebble, but also why and what it means.

As I was writing Banyak & Fecks, I realised that this small object carries the weight of the story’s theme – the series’ theme in fact: friendship and male bonding; bromance if you like. The pebble is a symbol, and although not mentioned in every book, is still in Silas’ possession at the end of book eight.
The pebble also has significance for me, and I don’t mind sharing that with you. In fact, I can do better and show you a photo of it.

I’ve had this pebble since I was 16. (It is 1.5 inches wide and sitting in a bowl made from a coconut shell I bought in Croatia.) It was given to me by my best friend, Andrew when we were walking on the beach. It was just a ‘Here you go, a present for no reason,’ moment, and nothing more romantic because our relationship was platonic. However, it meant much to me; it must have done as I still have it 41 years later. That sense of best-friendship, strong platonic love between one young man and another, is what drives the Clearwater Mysteries, or the relationships side of the stories, and I guess, the overarching theme stems from then, my teenage years.

Fecker and his horses

Another piece of backstory which is never fully explained in the series is Fecker, his horses, and his riding ability. In book two, ‘Twisted Tracks’ we have a classic ‘chasing a steam train on horseback’ scene. Archer (Viscount Clearwater) and his crew have answered a call to confront his nemesis, the Ripper. During the scene, the new footman, James, finds himself inching along the side of the coal cars at speed, trying to reach the cabin to pull the brakes and stop the train from crashing. At one point, he is hanging by his fingertips, in danger of falling to his death, when Fecker gallops alongside, stands and pushes James back to safety before calming riding on. How can he do this? At some point in the stories, Silas has said something vague like ‘He trained in a circus’, and it’s kind of left at that. In ‘Banyak & Fecks’, however, we find out how Fecks came to work in a circus, what he learnt there, and the dreadful thing that happened to make him leave. You might also be interested to know that a horse he has towards the start of the story is called ‘Banyak’, a word that in Ukrainian slang, means ‘idiot’. The word also has another, kinder, meaning which is explained in the book, as is the way in which Silas and Andrej came to call each other Banyak and Fecks.

Fecker’s skill with and love of horses is also developed in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, by which time he has become Clearwater’s coachman, and fallen in love with Lucy, a maid.

Sexuality in The Clearwater Mysteries

Hang on, didn’t Silas and Andrej work as rent boys in the East End? How can Fecker do that if he’s straight? Ah-ha! This is also explained in ‘Banyak & Fecks.’

My vision of ‘The White Ship’ where Banyak and Fecks lived in the East End

Andrej was 16 when, by necessity, he turned to renting on the streets of Genoa. Without being too graphic, most men will remember how easy it is to, um, perform at that age and beyond, and how embarrassing it was that one’s hormones often kicked in at the most inopportune moments. Fecker is still renting when we first meet him in ‘Deviant Desire’, but stops as soon as he doesn’t need to do it anymore. He does it because he can and must, not because he wants to. Having said that, there’s a scene in ‘Banyak & Fecks’ where he loses himself in a moment, can’t help himself, and kisses another man. By this time, he’s about 18, and, we would now say, confused (slightly) about his sexuality.

Silas’ sexuality is in no doubt from the moment we first meet him in the prequel, and he loves the fact it makes him a criminal because he’s quite proud to be one. He too undergoes a confusing transition, from wanting to know what sex with a man is like, to his first time with X (spoiler avoidance there), to finding it mundane when renting. It’s not until he meets Archer, however, that he is fully able to be himself, and that happens in ‘Deviant Desire.’

Running through the series, but not starting from the prequel, is the theme of Archer’s, Thomas’ and James’ sexuality. Later, we meet Jasper and Billy, also of the same ‘persuasion’, we’re never quite sure about Doctor Markland (but then neither is he), and there are even questions about which way Mrs Norwood leans, and what Lady Marshall has got up to in her past. In my Clearwater world, I wanted everyone to be gay, but that’s not realistic, but there’s no doubt that my core characters are. Apart from Fecker, who is always something of an enigma.

Making connections

One of the fun things about writing a prequel after eight books that follow it was laying down connections and bringing in backstories from the books that follow, if you follow me.

For example, in book three, ‘Unspeakable Acts’, Silas returns to a boy brothel at Cleaver Street. (I took my inspiration for that one from the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889.) He remembers being taken there by a man called Eddie Lovemount who propositioned him in The Ten Bells when Silas was renting. In ‘Banyak & Fecks’, we see that meeting and what followed, and Silas’ experiences at the brothel are set out in more detail. Eddie also mentions a messenger boy he’s got his eye on. He fancies him, but the lad won’t play ball, and he names him as James Wright. We meet James in book two, ‘Twisted Tracks’ (and briefly in book one), and there, we learn more about him and Eddie Lovemount and their days as messenger boys. James then has a meteoric rise from messenger to footman to valet to private detective, but that’s the kind of magic Clearwater weaves.

While putting these scenes together, I had to refer back – or forwards – to books already written to make sure my facts tied up. While doing that, I made a few minor changes to books one to four (nothing that alters the plot, mainly getting rid of words that weren’t in existence then, like homosexual, teenager and okay), so it was a useful exercise in that respect.

Similarly, because Banyak & Fecks ends just as ‘Deviant Desire’ is about to begin, the end of the prequel takes place once the Ripper murders have started. ‘Deviant Desire’ begins after the third (or fourth) murder, and they and the Ripper are the ‘action plot’ if you will. So, when I came towards the end of the prequel, I needed to remind myself of how book one starts and was able to bring in more facts and details from the real Ripper murders. In a couple of cases, I have quoted sections from actual news reports of the time, changing only names to suit my story. I was also able to bring the victims into the story, as many of the Ripper’s victims knew each other, and so, when you read Banyak & Fecks, you will meet some of the unfortunate boys who don’t make it to the end of the book.

So, what’s next?

As I said, ‘Banyak & Fecks’ should be available soon. My proof-reader is currently going through it, no doubt tutting at my punctuation, Andjela, the designer, is working on the back cover, and when I have both, I shall have one more read-through, make up the Kindle and print files and send it on its way.

Which begs the question, what to write next? I must admit I’ve been in limbo land these past couple of weeks unsure whether to return to Clearwater and write a book nine or look at something else. Book eight, ‘One of a Pair’ feels like the end of something in the way that book four ‘Fallen Splendour’ feels like the end of a chapter or the halfway point in a longer epic, and I have been wondering where to go now.

I also have my Saddling series to finish (as James Collins), because that’s crying out for a fourth and final book. At the same time, I have this inner stirring which feels like the need to start on another series entirely. I’m still thinking gay, mysterious, adventurous and Victorian, and wonder if I am being drawn towards Steampunk. It’s not a genre I’ve read, even though my husband has The Steampunk Bible and likes the fashion, but I like the thought of inventing another world within Victorian London. After all, I’ve done so much research for The Clearwater Mysteries, it would be a shame not to use it.

So, I will leave you on that note – hopefully looking forward to ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and telling all your friends to read the series, and I’ll take a couple of days off while I wait for inspiration to smack me in the face.

Remember, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter here.

A week in lockdown: A personal post.

A week in lockdown: A personal post.

Over recent weeks I’ve blogged about ‘Banyak & Fecks’, book covers, my ghost and horror stories as James Collins, my editing process and Coming Out Week. This week, I thought it high time I filled you in on what I, as a person, have been doing, and what is happening in my real world. So, here is a personal post about a week in lockdown.

Where I live

As you may know, I live in Greece on a small island called Symi, which, if you look on the map, you will find not far north-east of Rhodes. It’s in the south Aegean, closer to the Turkish coast than it is to the next Greek island. Symi is small, yes, but not the smallest island in the country, and we have around 3,000 inhabitants. There are only two main settlements on the island, Yialos, the harbour area and Horio, the village that rambles from the top of the harbour bay, through a dip and up again against the side of our ‘mountain’, the Vigla. Neil and I are lucky enough to rent a house overlooking the harbour entrance, and our view is… Well, our view is this:

Greece is currently in its second lockdown since March. When this pandemic first reared its ugly head, Greece was one of the first countries to react and called the country into lockdown well before the end of March. I know that because we were returning from a once in a lifetime holiday to Canada. When we left Greece in early March, the virus was something that was happening elsewhere but still something to keep an eye on. Travelling through Athens and London, we were advised to wash our hands, use sanitiser and keep a little distance from others; that was it, and that was how it was when we reached Canada too.

After five days travelling across the country on a train, we got off in Vancouver to find the world had changed, and the return journey involved changing flights and plans, isolation and, ultimately quarantine at home.

Symi Dream

If you want to know more about this trip, I have just started blogging about it on my five-times-a-week blog over at www.symidream.com There, we’re currently on day six (still in London), but you can click back to find the start of the story, or just click to this page to read the first post and carry on from there.

We’re almost in that situation again because we’re not allowed out between 9pm and 5am, we must send a text message for permission to go to shops and a few other allowed activities, and we can’t visit friends. Everything is closed apart from essential services, and we have another two weeks to go before we can ease off.

So, what have I been doing?

Writing

As you can see from the way I ramble through these blog posts, I enjoy writing, and that’s what I have been doing. Actually, this past week, I have been doing a fine edit on ‘Banyak & Fecks’, the Clearwater prequel due for release at the end of the month. I have five days before it is due with my proof-reader, and still a quarter of the book to go through. I’ll reread it again after proofing of course, but we’re nearly there.

Between reads, I reread ‘Fallen Splendour’, one of my favourite Clearwater adventures. I’ve been going through the books making a few minor adjustments like typos we all missed (not many), getting rid of a few words the characters use that I’ve since learnt were not in use in 1888 (eek!), and generally checking facts against what I am writing in the prequel to maintain consistency.

Another of the projects I am working on, in the background, now and then, is The Clearwater Companion. This may end up on this website as a guide for fans of the ‘Clearwater Crew’, or it may end up being published, but it’s a collection of notes and backgrounds about the characters and the story. I have an artist in India who is turning cover images and descriptions of characters into pencil drawings for the book, and this month’s drawing is of Silas Hawkins. She sent it over this week, so I present it here for the first time.

Reading

I do like a good book. Not only as something to read, but something to hold, and this week, I took delivery of two new research books.

The first is titled, ‘East End 1888’ and is by William J. Fishman. It is a study of Tower Hamlets through the year 1888, which is perfect for me. Tower Hamlets (a London borough) includes the districts of Whitechapel and Limehouse, or, in my world, Greychurch and Limedock, and 1888 was, of course, the year of the Ripper murders, the inspiration for ‘Deviant Desire.’

The second book is titled. ‘The True History of a Little Ragamuffin’ by James Greenwood. James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British social explorer, journalist and writer, and brother of the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette. You may remember, a while ago, I wrote about reading ‘A Night in the Workhouse’, the first piece of what we’d now call undercover journalism, published in January 1866. I found this via the online newspaper archive and have it in PDF if anyone wants to read it. I read about it first in ‘Slumming’ another book I recently acquired, and the workhouse article is the basis of Silas’ night in a workhouse in ‘Banyak & Fecks.’

‘The True History of a Little Ragamuffin,’ is a reprint of the original story Greenwood wrote based on his research and experiences working in the slums of East London. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in Clerkenwell, so, for me, it’s full of observations, language and details about the time I am currently writing in. It is, though, in tiny print and not easy to read.

 

The smell of books

Recently, before lockdown, my 13-year-old godson came for a piano lesson (I’ve been teaching him for a year now). One of the things I get him to do is find fun facts from an encyclopaedia of music I bought him last Christmas as the lessons are also about music generally. I have the same book, given to me on my 13th birthday, and thus, it’s rather old now and has a distinctive smell, as books do. Harry (or Little Mozart as I call him because he is so talented), was sitting next to me as I opened the encyclopaedia and he said, ‘I love the smell of books.’ I couldn’t agree more, and to hear it come from someone brought up with screens and phones, video games and computers as learning materials, I thought it was delightful. It pleased me to hear so much, I almost let him off his scales that day. Almost.

Other Symi winter things we do

But my world isn’t all about writing, I’d say only 80% of it is, the other 20% is made up of watching TV.

No, I’m joking, although we do spend a lot of the wintertime watching TV as there’s not a lot else to do on Symi in the darker months. This lockdown, to us, is not dissimilar to a usual winter on a small Greek island where many tavernas are closed, the beaches too, and where the weather can range from gloriously sunny to Biblically thunderous. One of the most popular questions from summer visitors is, ‘What do you do in the winter?’ I shan’t tell you what Neil says we do all winter but will tell you that there is a lot to see to, and plenty of things to keep one occupied.

Walking, for example. Up the hills, down to the bays, or even just around the ruins of the old village, many of which have not been repaired since WWII and the years afterwards when the island struggled to get back on its feet. It’s an atmospheric place, and was the inspiration for my book, ‘The Judas Inheritance’ (James Collins) which was made into a film in 2013 called ‘The 13th‘ (still to be released).

My writing station

As well as that, when we’re not locked down, we spend time with our godsons (Harry, 13, and Sam, 17) and their mum, Jenine (age withheld), playing cards, having family dinners, laughing a lot and being a family. Armistead Maupin once made a distinction between his ‘biological family’ and his ‘logical family’, and the boys and their mum are our ‘logical family.’ We have spent every Christmas with them bar one for the last 18 years, and we are looking forward to doing the same again this year.

So, another thing I’ve been doing this week is buying Christmas presents online as the shops are closed.

My other writing station, my father’s old desk.

We’ve also been preparing the house for the winter. Summers are hot here, up to 45 degrees and above sometimes, but winters are cold, down to 5 degrees but with a windchill that produces ice on the rosemary bushes. We also get a lot of rain, so we’ve painted the flat roofs to stop the rain coming through, and found the old towels to wedge under the ill-fitting doors and windows. I’ve yet to hang the draught-excluder curtains at the balcony windows (they face north) and the front door, but that’s on my list. As is my Invisible Man horror model kit which I started last winter and aim to finish this year.

What lies Ahead?

What lies ahead for me for the next week is finishing ‘Banyak & Fecks’ before 20th. I also have two piano lesson/practice sessions with Little Mozart which we are conducting via WhatsApp, me at my piano, him at his further up the hill, and I really should go out and do a few more healthy walks. Apart from that… We have a new season of The Crown on Netflix starting tomorrow, so that’s going to be a binge, I have two books to read, and my Clearwater bible to keep up to date with info from the prequel that I’ve not yet entered into it.

Inside the Clearwater Bible

As well as all that, I need to find time to make those minor changes to ‘Fallen Splendour’ and upload the new files to Amazon. Doing this doesn’t take the book off the shelf, and I’ve done it with books one to three in the series recently. It only takes a couple of hours, and I feel much better for doing it, which I do at my other desk on my old computer as this one doesn’t have the same programme. It gives me a chance to sit on the posh chair at the posh desk (above) which was my father’s, rather than my computer station. Oh, and I must also hoover the carpet because our cleaning-man (Sam, the other godson) can’t come for the next two weeks. We pay him, by the way, it’s not slavery, it’s his job, and very good he is at it too.

So, that’s a personal ramble to make a change from the books and writing posts of late, and I hope I’ve not bored you too much. I’ll be back next Saturday with something else. Meanwhile, if you want to escape lockdown and come on an adventure with us, click over to my personal Symi Dream blog. We’re currently in London with Paddington bear, meeting Jennifer Saunders and some old school friends, and are about to jet off to Toronto and Vancouver.

See you next week!

Symi Dream
The Judas Inheritance