Interview, One of a Pair, and an update

Interview, One of a Pair, and an update

It’s been a busy week here in my writing world.

Firstly, I was interviewed by Alan Wild for his excellent website that features interviews with writers of gay fiction. This interview gives you some personal background about me, includes some photos of where I live, and starts with a photo of me playing a church organ. If you’ve read my standalone YA romantic mystery, ‘The Blake Inheritance’, you will know that I have a particular interest in church organs. The photo was taken a couple of years ago when I returned to my hometown of New Romney, on the Romney Marshes, UK, and was lucky enough to be invited to play for a service I happened up. It was a bit nerve-wracking as I’d not played for years, but the nice thing was that this was the same instrument I learnt to play on over 40 years previously.

Here’s the link to the Interview with Jackson Marsh

Secondly, the eighth book in the clearwater Mystery series was published yesterday. There is a more detailed post about this novel further down my blog, but, in brief: ‘One of a Pair’ continues the story of Jasper and Billy, sees James Wright deal with his first case as the lead investigator of the agency, and brings in the eccentric Dr Markland to play an important role. You may remember Markland from ‘Deviant Desire’ and later, ‘Unspeakable Acts’ where he fell in love with a certain young lady who turned out to be… Ah, no spoilers allowed, sorry.

Here’s the link to ‘One of a Pair’ which can be found on Amazon around the world

While all that has been going on, I have been writing the prequel to the Clearwater Mystery series, and I’ve titled it ‘Banyak & Fecks.’

Those of you who’ve read the series will know who those two are, but what you won’t know, are the details of how they came to meet in London in 1844, and what they were doing between 1844 and October 1888 when ‘Deviant Desire’ starts. Actually, Fecker’s story begins even earlier, in 1881 in Ukraine when he was 13 (or 15, as no-one really knows his exact age). I’m enjoying the research for this one and have been reading about all kinds of things; the history of Ukraine, circuses in the 1800s, ships, the East End slums, language, Victorian rent boys and prostitution, and several other side matters too. No promises on a release date for this one, but I am aiming for the end of this year. I’ll tell you now, it’s not the same as the others, it’s not even a mystery, but it is a story of an unlikely but more or less instant friendship, and how two young men survived the East End streets in the 1800s.

The Clearwater Companion

My writing desk where I research and make notes. The open book is my leather-bound Clearwater ‘bible’, the floor plan is Clearwater House, and the map on the wall is the GWR rail routes circa 1890.

Chugging along in the background is my idea for, one day, producing a Clearwater Companion, a book of information, details, maybe illustrations if I can afford an artist, and other snippets for anyone who might be interested. This is an ongoing project and one that will take a long time to compete. I don’t know yet when the series will end. It may never do as I am enjoying writing it so much, but now and then, when I am not working, I jot down notes in my ‘Companion’ folder for use later. So far, I’ve only written an outline of Archer, Lord Clearwater, but I thought I would share with you what I have.

Remember, these are only notes.

Archer, Lord Clearwater of Riverside and Larkspur

Born: March 26th 1859, Larkspur Hall, Cornwall, second son of the 18th Viscount Clearwater and Lady Clearwater
Full name: Archer Camoys Riddington

Major life events
1868    Attended Millfield Preparatory School
1872    Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth
1874    Midshipmen
1876    Sub-lieutenant, Royal Naval College, Greenwich
1877    Lieutenant aboard HMS Britannia
1886    Honourable discharge after an injury during the Odessa skirmishes. Elevated to ‘The Honourable’ on the incarceration of his elder brother
1888    July. Elevated to the 19th Viscount Clearwater on the death of his father

Full title: Viscount Clearwater of Riverside and Larkspur, Lord Baradan of Hapsburg-Bran, and Honorary Boyar Musat-Râșnov.

We learn his full title in ‘Fallen Splendour’ when he is called into court to testify.

This is the Shutterstock model who represents Archer on the cover of ‘Deviant Desire.’ The image was bought under license.

Titles
A Viscount is the fourth rank of the British peerage system, coming beneath an Earl but above a Baron. The Clearwater of the title is derived from family land owned in the north of the country. Riverside is the family’s London Borough, and Larkspur, their country seat on Bodmin Moor.

Lord Baradan of Hapsburg-Bran. This is a made-up title, intended to show Archer’s European heritage. The Hapsburg (also spelt Habsburg) was one of the principal sovereign dynasties of Europe from the 15th to the 20th century. Hyphenating it with Bran, in what is now Romania, I wanted to make a link with Transylvania. Bran Castle, near Brasov, is known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, though it has little or nothing to do with Vlad Tepes, Bram Stoker or his novel.

Honorary Boyar Musat-Râșnov. A boyar was a member of the highest rank of the feudal Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Wallachian, Moldavian, and later Romanian and Baltic states aristocracies, second only to the ruling princes from the 10th century to the 17th century. Again, I wanted Archer’s roots to run deep in European history in case that would be of use later in the series. Because the title ‘Boyar’ fell out of use in the 17th century, I made him an ‘honorary.’ Rasnov is a place between Bran and Brasov (all of which I have visited). These are all inherited titles, passed down from father to son over the centuries.

Geroy
Fecker first calls Archer ‘Geroy’ in ‘Twisted Tracks’ after Fecker witnesses Archer’s noble actions towards his friends. In Ukrainian/Russian the word герой translates as hero, worthy or valiant.

Archer and Camoys
Archer’s father (Mathias) was obsessed with the battle of Agincourt (25th October 1415). He named his eldest son Crispin, because he was born on the anniversary of the battle which is also St Crispin’s Day. I had in mind Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in particular, the lines, “… we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” In the series, Crispin tried to kill Archer and therefore shed his brother’s blood, but as Archer builds his ‘crew’ of friends, we come to see them as a band of brothers.

Archer was named after the archers who won the battle of Agincourt, and Thomas de Camoys was the English peer who commanded the left wing of the English army at the battle. It is not a name Archer uses very often!

From my notebook
My notes on Archer include the following jottings.
Philanthropist, youngest member of the House of Lords at 29 (1888)
Brown eyes, stubble by evening, fit, prominent cheekbones. Toned. (Big and hairy ‘down there’.)
Doesn’t believe in class distinctions. Didn’t like his father. Gay, modern, forward-thinking.
5′ 10″, pouting lips, dark lashes.
Last time at the servants’ hall table on 13th birthday.
(Father ailing, Crispin mad, Archer to succeed, recovering from Odessa skirmish of 1886. Father, Mathias, 51, hunting accident (?) Father: 1837 to 1888)
‘Geroy’ by Fecks (honourable)

Have a good week and I will be back next Saturday. Remember, you can always post comments about the blog on my Facebook page, and if you go there, please do give a like and share.

This is a photo of us celebrating our three-year wedding anniversary, 18 years since arriving on Symi, and Neil’s birthday which all happened on the same day, September 8th. Neil’s the one pulling a funny face and wearing a top hat; he’s far more into SteamPunk than I am.

Researching for Historical Fiction: Victorian London

Researching for Historical Fiction: Victorian London

In this week’s blog, I thought I would share some of my notes on how I’ve been researching my historical fiction series, The Clearwater Mysteries.

My Clearwater ‘bible’ and some research.

Let’s start with the obvious question. “What is historical fiction?” Now, let’s reply with the obvious answer. “Historical Fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past.” Clearly, that’s not yesterday, but some time further back, and in my case, we’re talking about Victorian times, specifically 1888 and 1889, and even more specifically, England, London in particular.

So, what do I know about Britain 130 years ago? History at school was either 1066, The Tudors, or the Arab-Israeli conflict of the 1960s, not really much help. I do, however, have an interest in Jack the Ripper (1888), have read a few books around the subject and the times, but, until recently, that was as far as my knowledge stretched.

Not the best foundations on which to build a historical fiction series set in the late Victorian period, so, what’s the answer?

Here is a tip: The answer is always research.

You don’t have to be an emeritus professor of literature and history to write historical fiction and, despite what someone might have told you, you don’t have to write about what you know. Tom Clancy didn’t know anything about submarines when he wanted to write ‘The Hunt for Red October’, so what did he do? He researched. Similarly, all I knew about life in Victorian London was from watching TV shows and films, which are not always the most accurate of study tools, nor are some documentaries. So, what did I do?

‘You researched.’
Good, you’re paying attention, but how did I do it, and can I offer any tips for anyone else wanting to write historical fiction? Rather, anyone who wants to write it well? I accept I am not (yet) in the same league as Hilary Mantel or Ken Follett, but whatever I am doing seems to be working. Coming into the genre untrained, as it were, I can also offer some examples of where I’ve gone wrong which may help you avoid the same pitfalls.

So, here are a few of my tips on making your historical fiction more accurate, and, as we’re talking about London in the 1800s, we’ll start at the Ohio State University in 2015.

I found a page on their website that summarised an article, ‘7 Elements of Historical Fiction‘ by author, M.K. Todd, and here, in brief, is my interpretation of those seven elements, with some notes on how I deal with them in the Clearwater Mysteries, set in the late 1880s.

Characters, real or imaginary, must act appropriately to the time.

I am writing about upstairs/downstairs life at Clearwater House and Larkspur Hall, and one thing Archer, Lord Clearwater, would love to do, is treat his servants as his friends. Simply put, he can’t, or at least, he can’t be seen by the outside world to do so, because it simply wasn’t done. That wasn’t how it worked, though there are records of noblemen treating their staff well, even having consensual affairs with, or marrying staff. So, what does Archer do? He promotes them, makes his lover his private secretary, his best friend, his butler, and, in the case of James Wright, makes him a businessman.

My tip here is not to push what was ‘the done thing’ too far, although I do it by making Archer an overly generous man, which, in turn, causes resentment from his peers, and thus gives me some juicy conflict to inject into what are generally feel-good stories.

Dialogue should be accessible to today’s reader with enough about it to appear real for the time.

Yeah, well, okay, but, you know… whatever. Recently, I realised I had used the word ‘okay’ in dialogue in a couple of the Clearwater books, but I am gradually editing out that and other time-inappropriate words. The word okay didn’t come into use until the mid-20th century. Similarly, it’s unlikely anyone said whatever in the way we hear it on TV now, so it’s not just words we must be aware of but turns of phrase. Similarly, many of my characters are gay, but they can’t be, because homosexuality wasn’t in usage until after 1900, and gay, even later, so those words are out.

Tip: If you want to check the usage of a word against your era, Google the word’s definition, and you will find the online dictionary gives the etymology and a convenient graph of instances of usage and popularity. If the graph is flatlining in your era, don’t use that word in dialogue.

Setting. The reader should be placed in the setting of the time from the start, and fall deeper into it as the story goes on.

Putting the date at the top of the first chapter is handy. I first did this in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third in the series, and I did it as part of a newspaper headline. The article that followed, written in a style inspired by newspapers of the time, also set up the place and background to the story. It also adds another layer of realism to the book.

That’s another trick I use from time to time, adding in realistic newspaper articles in the correct style as they can give the reader not only a feel for the time, but information and background which might otherwise sound clunky in the narrative. Bram Stoker did this masterfully in Dracula.

Themes must be explored within the context of the time.

The theme of the Clearwater Mysteries is male bonding, which we can then break down into bromance, gay relationships and acceptance of homosexuality. Or, if you like, the theme is about how my gay men survived at a time when prejudice was rife and homosexuality illegal. At the heart of the series is a set of characters who must survive being illegal and unacceptable, a state that surrounds their personal conflicts and happiness. I believe that, as the series develops, the reader takes in the theme subliminally and that heightens the romances and platonic friendships, giving us more fulfilling feel-good moments. You could use this theme in stories set in any era, but the pressures that bear on the characters will vary according to time and place.

Plot must be historically viable of course, and will be shaped by events of the time.

Some of my plots revolve around fictionalised real events, such as the Ripper murders of 1888 (in my case, the victims being rent boys, not women). Other mystery plots in the series involve real people of the time such as Stoker and Irving, places of the time, such as the Royal Opera House, employment such as telegram messenger boys and servants, and even real ships and trains. You’ll see in ‘One of a Pair’ (due out next weekend), there are references to chemicals and medical research that existed in 1889 but were called different names then, and genuine poisoning cases. Even the Adriatic sail-steamer of the White Star Line gets a look-in and description, but the 1871 ship that was replaced with a more famous steamer in 1906, and all travel details in the story are taken from timetables of September 1889, exactly when the story is set. Oh, and many of the laws referred to in ‘Artful Deception’ are, or were, real.

Conflicts must be appropriate to time and place.

Archer’s conflict (wanting his servants to be his friends) is time appropriate, and the gay characters living in times when homosexuality was illegal, are time appropriate, as are the troubles in Andrej (Fecker’s) Ukraine. There are other conflicts, such as Silas and Andrej surviving the streets of the East End by becoming rent boys, because many people turned to prostitution to survive. Other conflicts in the series include Mrs Norwood divorcing her cheating husband without losing her respectability, and Jasper’s treatment at the hands of Earl Kingsclere, which he can do nothing about.

World building. Readers must live in a world of your time beyond your story.

I take this as meaning, you can’t just tell a romantic story in a drawing room, one afternoon in late spring, not unless you are putting on a dodgy amateur dramatic play. The Clearwater world ranges from the intimate, i.e. Archer’s dressing room where his valet dresses him, to the wider world of the servants’ hall below stairs and their everyday life in service. It also ranges from the house to the city around it, and on to the country, and in ‘Artful Deception’, even to Europe. But it’s not just a case of location, there are also things like attitudes, religion, politics, beliefs, manner, etiquette and costume, all of which must be appropriate to the period. These things impact on the behaviour and attitudes of characters both major and minor, and their inclusion, makes the story more believable.

So, how do you achieve all that?
The answer, again, is and always will be, research, which brings me on to a few more tips and recommendations.

Be wary of documentaries.
I was watching an esteemed TV presenter narrating a respectable British series on the Victorians and chatting away knowledgeably about the state of London streets in 1870. One clip they ran showed cars driving around Piccadilly Circus. Er, maybe several years later post 1892, but certainly not in 1870. As the programme didn’t say when the clip was from, it was misleading.

Tip: I watch documentaries and make notes about dates and events, people mentioned and so on, and then double-check them elsewhere, just to be sure.

Read books
Other people’s historical fiction, yes, but again, I’d still check for accuracy unless I’m reading Hilary Mantel or someone I really trust – no offence to fellow writers.

As you can see from the photos, I have a wealth of books on my shelves that cover Victorian architecture, life in stately homes, books on 19th-century fashion, and in particular, ones written by scholars or people of the times. (Tip: Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens, is a good place to start, especially for the 1830s.) I also have a fair few railway timetables, maps and dictionaries of rhyming slang, dialects and the etymology of words. I love buying books, but when I need a quick-fix fact-check, I download to Kindle as it’s much quicker than waiting for a delivery.

Use the internet wisely
Double-check everything. Don’t take Wikipedia as gospel, it’s much better to search out specialist sites.

Dictionary of Victorian London (click to go to the site)

On which note, I want to finish by pointing you towards The Victorian Dictionary. This invaluable archive was compiled by the author, Lee Jackson, a writer of fiction and fact, some of whose books are also on my shelves. This website has become my first go-to place for research because it gives examples of the time. For example, there are descriptions by writers who visited the London Docks in 18-whenever or saw the depravity of the East End first-hand. Similarly, there are snippets from newspapers and periodicals and other writings of the time about all aspects of life. It has a searchable database with subject headings too, and a bibliography. There’s even a database of Victorian slang which I love to dip into. (It’s mainly from around London as the site is actually http://www.victorianlondon.org/) I’ll do that now and leave you with a couple of random words that you might want to use in dialogue when appropriate to your characters.

Tulips of the goes – the highest order of fashionables
Romoners – fellows pretending to be acquainted with the occult sciences, fortune tellers
Bender – a shilling
Diddle cover – the landlord of a gin shop

I could go on, but I’ve already gone on long enough. My last tip would be, when thinking about writing historical fiction, do your research and make it fun. I have learnt so much over the past couple of years, I am now at the point of being able to insult people without them having a clue what I’ve said!

I will see you next week with details about the next release, ‘One of a Pair’ the Clearwater Mysteries Book Eight.

Banyak and Fecks, A Clearwater prequel

Banyak and Fecks
A Clearwater prequel

In the last couple of years, since I’ve been able to commit more time to my writing, I have fallen into the habit of starting on the next book while the current one is ‘resting.’ I take a book through its however many drafts and reach the point of leaving it alone before I fiddle with it too much and break it. During this time, it waits for its slot in my proof reader’s schedule, and Andjela K designs the cover. Meanwhile, I turn my attention to what’s next. So, while ‘One of a Pair’ awaits proofing and layout, I have started on the book to come after, and it’s a prequel with the working title, ‘Banyak and Fecks.’

If you’ve read the Clearwater Mysteries, or if you’ve only read the first one, ‘Deviant Desire’, you will know how it all starts. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Silas from the cover of Deviant Desire.

Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate. Silas had no idea that the discussion taking place concerned him, or that it was even happening. He wouldn’t know the details for some time, but even if he had heard the conversation, he wouldn’t have believed it. It wouldn’t have concerned him if he had, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life.

Even though he is only 19, Silas arrives at the start of the Clearwater series with a history. We learn parts of it through the book, where he mentions his upbringing in ‘Westerpool’ (the Wirral). We see where he used to live in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, but there is a lot of detail as yet unshared in the series. Hold that thought.

When we first meet Andrej (Fecker/Fecks), he also comes with a history. Remember we’re dealing with two young male prostitutes as you read Andrej’s first entrance:

(Silas) had deliberated at this window so often that some good had come of his indecision. That good appeared beside him, bringing the smell of apples and the reflection of a tall man of similar age.
‘Privet, Banyak,’ he said in his native tongue.
‘Evening, Fecks.’ Silas acknowledged his mate’s reflection with a nod towards a marble angel.
Fecker, like Silas, was nineteen and had picked up a street-name known only to his close mates. Silas had given it to him not long after they met. Andrej, his real name, knew that it was Irish slang for fucker, but he took pride in that. Unlike Silas, he wasn’t queer, and only rented when he was desperate. His cock was usually enough to secure him an income. There were plenty of men who were happy to pay for the youth’s substantial endowment, particularly as it was attached to a six-foot-two blond lad built like a docker.

This is how I imagine Andrej/Fecker

Again, as the series unfolds, we learn some of Fecker’s past, particularly when he is travelling with Archer in book four, ‘Fallen Splendour’, and tells him why he left Ukraine and came to England. What we have never had, however, is the full story of that journey.

And that’s where ‘Banyak and Fecks’ comes in. I am currently writing a prequel to ‘Deviant Desire’ which tells the story of how Fecker and Silas came to London. Starting in two different countries at different times, these two characters eventually meet in 1884 and spend nearly four years living and working together on the streets of the East End before book one starts. I wanted to explore the beginning of their friendship. To do that, I decided, I had to go right back to the pivotal moments in their lives, the inciting incident, as they call it in scriptwriting circles, and that’s what I’ve started doing.

At the moment (this is only draft one), the story opens with Andrej aged about 14 (no-one, not even he, knows his exact age) surveying the ruins of his home following an invasion by the Russians who have taken his sister and killed his father. One brother had also died in the fighting, and another, Danylo, is missing. With nothing left and no-one to turn to, Andrej decides he must find a new life, so, when he has established himself, he can return to his homeland and search for what’s left of his family.

Serbka, Ukraine
Late summer, 1881

A Ukrainian farmhouse, 19th century. Fecker’s home before it was destroyed.

They were coming for him again now; he could see activity across the long field towards the village where the smoke still rose, and the wailing was louder than yesterday. They could come for him, but he would not go, and he gripped his grandfather’s knife as he said his farewell to his childhood.
Andrej put the pebble in his pocket. It gave him the strength to leave the past, turn his back on the land that was no longer his, face the west, and walk.

Fecker’s story begins a few years before Silas’, because Silas didn’t leave Westerpool until his mother died in 1884, and I am still playing around with how the two stories will be told. If I write it chronologically, the first quarter of the book will be about Andrej and the second about Silas, and they will meet at the halfway point. The second half will then be about them both, the lead up to the Ripper murders and the night they meet Thomas in The Ten Bells, and are offered the chance to meet Lord Clearwater. I’m still thinking about structure and, when the draft is finished, will see how it reads if I cut the stories together. My concern is that we’ll jump from 1881 to 1884, back to 1882 and forwards again to 1884, and so on. We’ll see.

This story won’t be a mystery, nor a thriller, nor a romance. It will be a simple story of adversity and friendship, and I have to say, some of Fecker’s story that’s already written isn’t exactly cheerful. It’s the story of a refugee walking across Europe to find safety, and we see a great deal of that happening today. As someone who has worked directly with refugees, I’ve seen the conditions, pain, hope and resolve first-hand, so I have some observations to draw on there.

The poor of Liverpool, 19th century. Silas when he was about 11?

Against that seriousness (in which there are lighter, happier moments, colourful characters and friendships), I have to balance Silas. He’s a cheeky scamp with a lot of self-confidence, speaks with the blarney of his Irish mother and doesn’t care what he does to survive, although, to start with, its petty crime rather than prostitution.

‘Ach, Father, if I were to confess me sins, we’d still be here come Christmas. Will you not take a pew?’

Here’s an extract from the first draft. Silas has come to tell the family priest that he is leaving Westerpool the next day.

‘A pair of shoes you’re wearing today,’ (Father Patrick) observed as they walked along the deserted aisle, treading on the tombs of the long-dead and once wealthy of Westerpool. They weren’t new shoes, but they were new for the usually barefooted Silas. ‘Now how did you come by those?’
‘Ach, Father, they were a gift from God, I’m telling ya,’ Silas replied, his accent a mix of his mother’s Irish and local slum. ‘The Good Lord himself left them for me on a windowsill only last evening.’
‘Uh hu.’ The priest was dubious, and rightly so. ‘And this windowsill, would it have been inside or outside the house it was attached to?’
‘Outside, for sure, Father. They were just left there, discarded.’
‘I’ll remind you, you’re in the house of Our Lord, Silas Hawkins.’ When the lad didn’t reply, he hinted with more vigour. ‘And I’ll remind you, you came to me, and as that only happens when you’re wanting something. You’ll be more likely to get it if you attach some truth to our discussion.’
They entered the chancel, and the priest paused with his hand on the sacristy door, unwilling to enter until Silas accepted his terms.
‘Aye, well perhaps the windowsill was a way on the inside of the house,’ the lad admitted sheepishly.
‘A way?’
‘More like…You now, an arm’s reach… Well, maybe it wasn’t a sill but the floor beside the cupboard… Or inside it, I forget now, Father, but they were left there for me by God, I’m sure of that.’

Silas, of course, is a great manipulator and mimic, and I’ve already started having some fun with him when he arrives in London, confident that he will make his fortune.

I’d tell you more, but I’ve already chatted on far too long, and I only wanted to let you know what I was up to. What I will add, however, is that ‘Banyak and Fecks’ is taking more research than any of the others so far. The number of times I’ve had to work out distances between Serbka and Brasov, Belgrade and Genoa, or look up nautical terms, Russian-Ukrainian words and sayings… That’s one thing. The other has been my ongoing research into the East End of London in the 1880s, from the street slang to the way of life, though it was hardly any life at all for the poor.

[I am using an excellent online resource, and if anyone is interested in Victorian London, I highly recommend The Dictionary of Victorian London, a site put together by author Lee Jackson. I have some of his publications on my shelves, and they are invaluable.]

On sale for $0.99c for International Buy a Book Day, September 7th.

There we are. That is an update on what I am doing right now, and there will be more about ‘Banyak and Fecks’ as time goes on. There will also be more about the Clearwater Mysteries Book Eight, ‘One of a Pair’ which you should be able to start reading in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read ‘Deviant Desire’, now would be a good time to start as it will be on sale for International Buy a Book Day, on September 7th, Monday. You will be able to find it on Amazon Kindle for $0.99c, but only for 24 hours.