Making Your Book Titles Count

I’ve often been asked how I come up with the titles for my novels, so today, I thought I’d look at a few and explain how they came about.

Just the other day on Self-Publishing School, Chandler Bolt wrote a piece titled ‘Book title ideas: Choosing your own & generators to use.’ In his article, he says titles are short hooks that advertise your book by using the fewest possible words, and suggests that potential readers take less than five seconds to decide whether or not to buy the book. Some things to bear in mind, he says, are to

  • make the title memorable,
  • make sure its genre-appropriate and
  • make it intriguing.

I agree with everything he says in his article (it’s well worth reading), and it caused me to reminisce about how I came up with some of my titles.

What Comes First, the Title or the Story?

Good question. I just experimented with a book title generator and, to be frank, wasn’t impressed. It was a basic thing where you selected an adjective and a noun, and it bunged the in front of random words. It generated things like ‘The Enchanted Pencil’, ‘The Imaginary Vase’ and ‘The Crazy Coffin‘. Okay, fun if you’re looking for inspiration and you don’t mind every book title starting with The, but it wasn’t really my style. I could have done better by opening a dictionary at random and picking the first two words I came across.

Actually, let’s try that…

The Queer Informant

The Predynastic Deuterium


The Putty Cushion

Now we’re just being silly. Let’s get back on track. Where in the world did ‘Deviant Desire’ come from?

Deviant Desire

Deviant Desire started out as Something Lamplight, or it might have been Something Gaslight, because I wanted a title that reflected the background of the story, Whitechapel in 1888, during the time of the Ripper murders. As I was writing the book, I thought more about the title, and suddenly ‘Deviant Desire’ popped into my head. I hadn’t read that article I just mentioned or anything like it, so this was instinctive, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Deviant Desire works on several levels. The main character, Silas Hawkins, is a renter and a trickster, so he’s a deviant. He’s also gay and so is the other MC, Lord Clearwater, so according to the lores of the time, they are both deviants. When they meet, they fall for each other, crash, bang, wallop style, so there’s your desire.

Meanwhile… The villain of the piece is killing young men as a way of laying a trap for our hero. He, the villain, has a deviant desire, not only to trap the hero, but a desire to kill, and if that’s not deviant, I don’t know what is.

Twisted Tracks

The title for the follow-on novel to Deviant Desire, Twisted Tracks, took a little longer to come up with, but it works in the same way. A villain is enticing the hero to a confrontation, and he does it with various twisted clues, including an anagram, a twisting of words into other words. Our hero and his friends follow the clues, the tracks left by the villain, and everything climaxes on a runaway steam train which, of course, runs on tracks. Until they run out…


Unspeakable Acts

The trend continues in book three of the Clearwater Mysteries with Unspeakable Acts. The trend of using succinct two-word titles, an adjective and a noun, but without ‘The’ in front of them. While thinking of this title, I wanted to continue using words that the Victorians used for gay men and their sexuality. So far, we’ve had deviant and twisted, and another common thing was to refer to gay sex as an unspeakable act. The story of book three concerns a performance at the Royal Opera House at which someone is due to make a speech, but if he does, he will be assassinated, therefore he can’t, or, in other words, his speech is unspeakable. The performance is of an opera, so the word ‘acts’ has a couple of other meanings (the division of a play, what the actors do on stage), and it all ties together with the background theme of the Clearwater collection, the dangers of being gay in Victorian times.

And more…

I could outline every single one of the 11 Clearwater titles, but it would become repetitive. In summary, though, they all have double meanings: Fallen Splendour (book 4) refers to a line from the major clue of the mystery, ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’, and also refers to someone’s downfall; Bitter Bloodline (book 5) refers to the taste of a Transylvanian wine, a blood feud, and Bram Stoker; Artful Deception (book 6) centres on an artwork and theatrical tricks, while hero and villain try to outwit and deceive each other; Negative Exposure (book 9) refers to being photographed naked, having the negatives of those photos printed and therefore exposed, and because of that, a man’s secret coming into the open, thus, also being exposed.

You’ll note that for books seven and eight, the titles differ. We’ve moved on from the use of deviant et al., and the titles are longer. Home From Nowhere (book 7) was a line that came to me when the characters were speaking. As often happens, I let them speak and, later, edit what they say. In this one, Fecker says to Jasper something like, ‘Like me, you have come from nowhere’, and later, Jasper says to Billy, ‘I feel like I’ve come home.’ Oh yes, I thought, Jasper (the MC) has come home from nowhere, and there we go.

One of a Pair (book 8) is another play on words. Jasper is one of a pair of young men falling in love, and Billy is the same as he’s the other half of the pair. There’s another meaning to the title which I can’t tell you in case you haven’t read the book, but if you do, you will realise the relevance.

Banyak & Fecks, The Clearwater Prequel

Banyak & Fecks was the first time the title came before the story. I’d been thinking about a novel detailing how these two friends met. Deviant Desire opens with them in the East End, and they are already very close by the time we meet them, so how did they get there? My husband said there should be a prequel telling us just that, and I wanted to write something more character driven rather than full-on mystery. I wanted it to be about Banyak & Fecks, as they call each other, so that had to be the title, and it is.

The Larkspur Series

Still trying to keep to the title-writing rules of catchy, intriguing and memorable while sticking to my own deviant desire for titles to have more than one meaning while being relevant to the plot, I moved into slightly different territory for the Larkspur series.

Guardians of the Poor, the title of book one, refers to the real guardians of the poor, those who oversaw, ran and were responsible for the workhouses. It also refers to the two main characters, and how they do something which improves the life of those in a workhouse; they become guardians of the poor in another sense.

Keepers of the Past keeps up the rhythm of the series titles, and refers to archaeologists and a cult member (perhaps), while Agents of the Truth completes the three-part telling of Dalston and Joe’s story. It also refers to archaeologists and men working for the Clearwater Detective Agency.

Seeing Through Shadows

For book four in the Larkspur series, I wanted something a little more atmospheric, and I wanted to get away from the rhythm of ‘Plural Noun of the Single Noun’ of the first three books. Seeing Through Shadows gives us a verb, a preposition and a noun, so a different rhythm, while remaining succinct and a little intriguing. Do we see through shadows? Aren’t we just seeing what they are shadowing? I mean, if there’s a shadow on the wall, are we seeing the shadow or the wall? In the story, we’re not sure what we’re seeing, so that fitted rather well.

I am currently working on Speaking in Silence, which is an oxymoron, because you can’t speak without making a sound. Yes, okay, so we have sign language and writing, but that, strictly speaking, isn’t speaking. Speaking in Silence refers to those things which are left unsaid, and in the story, there are many of them. The most difficult ‘unsaid’ part of writing this novel has been keeping information from the reader; that’s the thing I am not saying; the silence if you like. The reader will find out what’s going on in the end, but I wanted to keep them in the dark for as long as possible. I hope it works. We will have to wait and see. Also in this story, there are lots of things that the characters don’t say, but in the gaps in conversations, they and we understand their meaning… It’s complicated to explain, and you’ll have to wait a couple of months before you can read it when I hope all will be revealed.

Other Titles

I’ve written more than the Clearwater and Larkspur series. You might have heard of or read The Mentor Collection, for example. They are ‘Older man mentors younger man in love, lust and a few other things’, kind of stories. The titles aren’t tricky, though again, there is a pattern. All four are ‘The Mentor of…’ somewhere, and that somewhere takes the classic form of adjective and noun. Here, the adjective suggests loneliness or isolation (reflecting the younger, lost-his-way character) and the noun is something stable, a home (representing the older character).

The Mentor Series

Thus, we have: The Mentor of…

Wild Hill Farm

Barren Moor Ridge

Lone Marsh House

Lost Wood Hall

As Wildhill Farm, Barrenmoor Ridge etc., as they are also place names.

To Finish

As usual, I am rambling on now, and I am sure you got the point some time ago. So, to finish, I thought I’d return to that random title generator and come up with some more Mentor titles. This isn’t just for fun, I also want to highlight what I believe: that the author should come up with the title, and not use one of these random word-pickers, although they might spark ideas for stories. Perhaps. How about reading…

The Mentor of the Perfect Fireplace

The Mentor of the Haunted Coffin

The Mentor of the Happy Wheelbarrow

The Students of the Windy Wind

Remember: keep the title succinct, intriguing, genre-specific and, if you can, consider the rhythm.

See you on Wednesday for more WIP news, have a great weekend and happy reading!

Work In Progress 3.07

Speaking in Silence is now arriving at Exeter.

If you have been following the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey from London Paddington to Bodmin, you will know that it’s been an interesting train ride so far. In the word count scheme of things, I’d say I was now at Exeter, being at roughly 72,000 words, with the destination being 100,000 or thereabouts. After some shunting around in a yard several miles back, I have had a clear run from Bristol, and am now approaching the final reel. The final ‘act’ as they say in film terms.

I started the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey knowing that I wanted it to be about two characters who appeared in the last book, but who we don’t yet know; Henry Hope and Edward Hyde. In this story, Edward is the protagonist, and yet, not only does he hardly speak, he also hardly communicates. That poses a few challenges for the author. Unlike Joe Tanner, who is deaf and communicates through sign language, Edward has taken a vow of semi-silence. The only person he speaks to is Henry, and Henry knows why. We, the reader, come to learn why Edward chose to do this, and we come to understand there is only one thing that will enable him to feel able to speak again. Justice. Therein lies the plot of the novel.

That was what I started with 72,000 words ago, and the rest I have, quite literally, made up as I have gone along, including the characters of Henry and Edward and a hell of a lot of backstory, which trickles out over time. I have used the flashback technique, and it was only while writing those scenes that I came to know the characters. They introduced themselves to me while Henry was telling me his and Edward’s story if you like, and that didn’t happen until I was quite a way into the story. That’s why we had the shunting around a few miles back, and I had to backtrack and change the point of view of some of the earlier chapters. If there’s a lesson there, it’s ‘know your characters before you start’. (A note to fellow authors, if you would like to stretch your character’s bio then you can always drop in for a ‘character interview’. Contact my PA for more details jeninesymi@gmail.com).

To give you a flavour of the novel, and without giving anything away, here’s a short excerpt from the first draft – unedited so excuse any errors. The skeleton is a character who will remain nameless for now, and I have changed the name of the second character to ‘John’ so as not to spoil things for you. John, the villain, is going to see the other villain at his new lodgings in Greychurch:  


The skeleton’s previous lodgings above the ‘Princess Alice‘ had, John thought, been about as low as a man could go, but when he took a deep breath and entered the ‘Hops and…’ as the broken sign described it, he realised he had been wrong.

His foot fell on a rat, but it didn’t squeal because it was dead, but the child playing with it gave him a mouth of abuse, which he ignored. Dishevelled heaps, rather than people, sat at the few tables, some sucking on pipes whose fumes hardly disguised the stench of damp clothes, sweat and something else he didn’t like to think about, while across the room, no more than ten feet from the door, two men stood at a trestle table that served as a bar, while three rested against it on the floor, either drunk or dead. The most unnerving thing about the place, however, wasn’t the landlord with wooden teeth, only one eye and one hand, nor even the miasma of fire, pipe and opium smoke, but the silence. No-one even looked at him, no-one jereed at a well-dressed man from the west of the city entering their destitute realm, and nobody, apart from the child, made a sound.

These people, if he could call them that, might still be able to hear, he thought, and so he prepared to whisper to the disfigured landlord. As he leant over one of those asleep at his feet a movement to his right caught his eye. One of the heaps unwound itself from the table it had been slumped across and dragged itself to its feet. It said nothing, but a skeletal hand emerged from the sleeve of its black gown and beckoned to John like death, before gliding towards a door beside the makeshift bar.

Pleased to be with someone he knew, albeit vaguely and nefariously, John followed the skeleton through to a passage, and down a set of steps to a cellar. Ahead, the scurry of clawed feet suggested their path was clear, but still, when they arrived below ground, several pairs of pink eyes glinted in the candlelight, watching from the crevices for the time they could reclaim their dominion.


The Princess Alice pub was one of the pubs frequented by prostitutes in the East End of London at the time of the Ripper crimes

More on my WIP blog next Wednesday, but don’t forget to be here on Saturday for my other weekly post.

The Old Nichol and a Dirty Old Man

How Research and Detail Improve your Novel

A notorious slum and a dirty old man have led me to write a new book, ‘Speaking in Silence.’ To follow the progress of this novel, the fifth in the Larkspur Mystery series, tune into my Wednesday WIP blog, but to know how research and detail improve your novel, read on.

The Old Nichol was an infamous slum area of Bethnal Green in East London, and I’ll get onto that part of my research later. First, though, I want to tell you what inspired me to write ‘Speaking in Silence’, and it starts with a man on a train.

One night in April 1891

On the night of April 20th 1891, a young man by the name of Christopher Richmond was travelling by train from Horsham in Sussex to East Croydon in Surrey. He was followed into an empty compartment by a man called Charles Fyffe, later described in the newspapers as ‘elderly.’ This man, it seems, had a penchant for young lads. Christopher was 16, worked for the railway as a goods clerk, and had a disability. During the first part of the journey, Christpher said, the man carried out various acts of indecent assault upon him. The precise details are not mentioned in the newspapers of the time, as they considered these things not palatable for the Victorian reader, but despite Christopher’s objects, Fyffe continued his advances even after the pair changed trains at Three Bridges. When they reached East Croydon, Christopher made a complaint to the authorities, and Fyffe was arrested. The young man did the right thing, and was prepared to testify in court, which he later did. You’d think that would have been the end of the matter.

Far from it.

Here’s an extract from a newspaper I found in the British Newspaper Archive, dated 29th April 1891.

Mr C.A. Fyffe, the accepted Liberal candidate for East Wilts, who was summoned to Croydon Police Court yesterday, charged with a serious assault in a railway carriage between Horsham and Croydon, on Monday week, did not appear.

Who was willing to appear, however, was a heap of character witnesses prepared to speak to the high literary and social character of the accused, viz., the Dean of Westminster, Professor Jowett, Sir Horace Davey, Sir George Grove, Mr Benson, London Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr Robinson, editor of the Daily News, and others…

A little more research made it clear to me that there was more to this case than a well-to-do older man pulling out the big guns to save his reputation, and more reading uncovered a few more facts. Fyffe had worked for a newspaper. When arrested, he gave a false name to the police (three times), and later, tried to kill himself.

Right, I thought, this is a case that needs looking into.

I spent some time in the online newspaper archive, and looked around elsewhere for mentions of this case. I found a very detailed presentation of it on Rictor Norton’s wonderful website where he lists incidents such as this as reported in the newspapers of the time, and he’d found more information than I could track down. I have taken inspiration for other stories from this site (the idea for ‘Guardians of the Poor’ came from here), and I suggest anyone writing gay fiction set in the 19th century bookmarks his site as essential reading. Click the link in the citation to lose yourself in historical fact.

Rictor Norton (Ed.), “Prosecution and Suicide of Eminent Historian, 1891”,

Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 10 September 2021 http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1891fyff.htm 

If you head there and read the full reports, you will get all the details of the case, but what attracted me to this story was my own outrage. More facts come out as you read the history, and it becomes very clear that Fyffe pulled in the ‘old boy’ network to protect himself. You can, in my opinion, see the bias in newspaper reports, such as one that came out in the Western Chronicle which uses phrases such as Mr. Fyffe was made the subject of a terrible charge by a lad… Unnerved at his frightful position… a moment of the direst confusion… the deep sympathy of his political friends and foes are with him… No-one who knows him believes him for one moment to be guilty.

There is no such sympathy towards young Christopher, whose testimony was called into question. Why didn’t he get out of the carriage at the next stop? (His disability meant it would have taken time, and he might have missed the train.) Why didn’t he report it before East Croydon as there were several stops along the way? (Because East Croydon was his final destination, and to report it elsewhere would have meant he didn’t get home that night.) Maybe he was complicit or tried to blackmail Fyffe? Christopher swore he was not and did not. From his testimony, he sounds like a very upright young man, after all, he was in a decent clerical job at the age of sixteen.

Outrageous newspaper bias in favour of a man who wrote for the Daily News, I decided. I would have written a strongly worded letter to the Western Chronicle had I not been 131 years too late.

The intrigue continues…

It turned out that the ‘elderly’ Mr Fyffe was 42 (another report puts him at 45, either way, hardly ‘elderly’), and the reason he didn’t appear at the first hearing was because he’d tried to cut his own throat. Later, when he was able to appear, he was brought in on a stretcher. (Drama queen?) His old cronies testified to his good character, and when the case came before the grand jury to decide if it should go to trial, even the judge said something like, ‘Well, we know this kind of thing goes on…’ as if it were nothing.

In charging the grand jury, Mr. Justice Mathew said that what first struck one about the case was that the acts were improbable, seeing that the charge was made against a man of mature years. [Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter. 18 July 1891]

Not only were the newspaper reports biased in favour of Fyffe, so was the Justice. It was improbable that a respected, mature man, standing to be elected as an MP might fancy a lone 16-year-old trapped in a railway carriage by his disability at night and try and touch him up…? Improbable my arse.

In the end, the case never went to trial. Not only was Christopher pilloried in the press and his good name called into question (he was counter-accused of being complicit by asking for ‘a present’ in return for sex, an allegation he denied) but he never got his justice, and that’s what’s at the heart of ‘Speaking in Silence.’

There’s a lot more to this case, and for my novel, I have used it as inspiration, mixing in some facts, but bending the truth in places for dramatic and fictional effect. If you were wondering, Christopher had lost a foot (not sure how, possibly an accident on the railways as his father worked for the company and they lived in railway dwellings in Brighton). Living away from home in a decent job aged only 16, he presented a very reasonable case in court, but because Fyffe know all those important people and was (later) an MP, an Oxford Fellow and an author, the chances were clearly weighted on the side of the villain.

You are Allowed to Fictionalise Facts

To be honest, reading the case makes my blood boil. Happily, though, I found out that Christopher eventually married, and emigrated to Australia, where he may well still have descendants. As for Fyffe… He died the following year ‘from the effects of his self-inflicted wounds.’ We may celebrate at that, but it still left Christopher with no justice.

For ‘Speaking in Silence’, I have moved the incident back a few years, so it forms part of the backstory of my mainly silent character, Edward Hyde (the Christopher Richmond of the story). It was, I thought, about time we found out about him and his constant companion, Henry Hope. Henry and Edward are 18 and 20 respectively and have a genius for science. How, I wondered, is that going to be useful in getting justice for Edward? That is one of the mysteries the reader will, I hope, enjoy as the story progresses.

The other part of the novel is the backstory of Edward and Henry, and for that, I turned to a copy of ‘The Blackest Streets’ by renowned author, Sarah Wise.

The Old Nichol

Even if you have never lived in London, or even England, you may well have heard the nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ This rhyme was first published in the ‘Pretty Song Book’ by Tommy Thumb in 1744, and it seems to have appeared simply as what it is: a rhyme that lists several London churches. One theory is that the song was written to help strangers find their way around the city, but whatever it was created for, it mentions Shoreditch.

When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch

The bells in question are those of Saint Leonard’s church, a grade one listed building built in 1740, and a good friend of mine used to live right next door. As I only lived a mile away up the Kingsland Road, and as Julian’s flat was on the way to our regular drinking haunts around Shoreditch and Old Street, I was forever in the area. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was visiting the part of London once known as the Old Nichol, one of the worst slums in the city up until it was demolished and replaced by the Boundary Estate in 1900.

If you look on Google maps and search for Shoreditch or St Leonard’s church, you’ll see the A10 road running south to meet with Commercial Street, and to the east of the church, Arnold Circus, making a wheel-like pattern on the map. That was just about the centre of the Old Nichol, and some of the original roads still exist, namely Old Nichol Street to the south of Arnold Circus, and Boundary Street which runs parallel to the A10. You can find a map of the Old Nichol as it was in 1889 at Horrible Hackney, also there is a plan of the Boundary Estate in 1890. Shoreditch is on the western edge of the imagined ‘Greychurch’ of my Clearwater novels, and on the eastern side of it, I have Limedock (Limehouse). ‘Greychurch’ is a location for several Clearwater stories, and now, part of the backstory of Henry Hope and Edward Hyde. You were wondering when they were going to come back in, weren’t you?

First-Hand Accounts

Henry and Edward lived for a while in a room in the Old Nichol, and when I first started thinking about how that would have been, I turned to my usual resources for first-hand research. In this case, VictorianLondon.org and a copy of Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] – Curiosities of “Alley” Life. Those of you who were paying attention a couple of years ago when I was writing ‘Banyak & Fecks’ might remember James Greenwood. He was, allegedly, one of the first investigative reporters, and spent a night in the casual ward of the Lambeth workhouse to experience and report on what casual paupers had to endure. I used that piece of writing to inform a scene in ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and Greenwood and other sources to inform the workhouse scenes in ‘Guardians of the Poor.’ Here, Greenwood writes a report of his findings after a visit to Devonshire Place, one of the worst courts in the heart of the Old Nichol.

There was but one bedstead in the room — a mite of a place; I measured it with my walking stick and found that it was three and a half one way and four sticks the other, and yet it was made to accommodate mother, father, and eight children.

… a tiny room above and below, with broken floors and blackened walls and ceilings so shattered that every step overhead causes the rotten plaster to crumble and fall…

Reading a first-hand account is probably the best place to start your historical fiction writing. Your job is to help a reader imagine where your characters are, as well as who they are and what they do, and with a little research, you can add facts into your story that will help it ‘pop.’ Such facts come from people like James Greenwood and Sarah Wise, and the book I mentioned, ‘The Blackest Streets.’

That book is deeply researched and so well written I’ve found it a bit un-put-down-able, and I’ve learnt much from it. Not only about Poor Laws and government boards, the rather useless legal framework in place to force landlords to repair homes, and the work of officials and charitable bodies in helping the poor, but also a great deal about the people my characters would have lived among. Not everyone was a ragged, starving pauper withering away on a death bed and devoid of hope, as today’s films might have us believe (although there were plenty of unfortunates like that, of course). What comes from reading reminiscences of the place is the ‘get on with it and make do’ attitude of many residents. The way neighbours looked after each other (when they weren’t beating up each other or their families), the ‘honour among thieves’ mentality if you like, and the way the criminal gangs worked, and the police kept a distant eye.

The book explains the housing conditions, and in one section, describes how, in some dwellings, the lavatory was in the back ‘yard.’ To get to it, the residents had to descend to the windowless cellar, and bent double beneath the ground floor floorboards, walk through the cellar to the back door. This they would do as quietly as they could so as not to disturb the family who lived in the cellar.

From Charles Booth’s poverty map

It’s that kind of detail that I like to put into my novels: real and detailed, and in this case, almost unthinkable. This kind of research pays off, and these kinds of details really bring your story to life.

As I work my way through ‘Speaking in Silence’, I find myself putting in such things as the factual times of trains my characters take. For this, I refer to my railways’ guru who sends me the times and changes necessary for a fictional character to get from A to B on March 22nd 1891, as taken from the timetables of the day. Or, as another example, I find a character standing on Blackfriars Bridge contemplating how far away the railway bridge is, and how high above the Thames he is standing. The old railway bridge isn’t there anymore, just its pillars, but the road bridge was roughly 14 meters above river level.

Research Leads to Detail

Research leads to detail, and detail leads to a more fulfilling read for your reader. It also leads to the author doing a lot of reading and learning a lot of facts along the way. As a final example: Did you know that when someone talks in their sleep, they are giving you a somniloquy, or, I suppose, somniloquising? Well, you do now, and you never know when that snippet will come in handy.


Sources:

The British Newspaper Archive
https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

Rictor Norton, “Prosecution and Suicide of Eminent Historian, 1891”,

Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 10 September 2021 http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1891fyff.htm 

Horrid Hackney

https://horridhackney.com/f/the-appalling-victorian-slums-of-the-old-nichol-shoreditch

Victorian London org

https://www.victorianlondon.org/publications4/low-11.htm

Work In Progress 3.06

Speaking in Silence

The WIP news this week is that I am up to 55,000 words and chapter fifteen of the Larkspur Mysteries book five, Speaking in Silence. On our train journey from London to Cornwall, we have reached somewhere around Bath or Bristol, and that’s appropriate because it means I’ve just met the villain of the piece coming the other way. Chapters 14 and 15 are set on a train journey from Cornwall to Devizes, in Wiltshire, and in the story, the train has recently left the city of Bath.

You know when you get halfway through a draft and suddenly think to yourself, ‘Something’s not right’? Well, I had that twice during the last week, so some of my workload has been fixing a couple of things, or rather, fixing one, and thinking about how to fix the second.

In the first instance, I’d left what they call a plot hole and needed to go back and fill it in. This meant adding an extra chapter so that what a character did next would make sense.

In the second instance, I realised I have started the story from too many points of view. Simply put, it opens with the villain, cuts to Silas’ POV, then to Frank’s, then back to Silas’, and then there’s a backstory section from Henry and Edward’s points of view. The story was originally to be about Frank and his involvement with someone else’s story, but now I am further in, I realise it’s not about Frank at all. So, the earlier scenes that are from his POV need to be from someone else’s, Henry in this case, and so they need rewriting.

Hey ho! That’s how it goes. Now, having told you this, I am going to get on with chapter 16 and move the story into its second half.

Work In Progress 3.05

Speaking In Silence

We are now well on the way to Devizes in Wiltshire. In fact, we will be there at any moment. I am comparing the journey of Speaking In Silence to a train ride from London to Bodmin and looking at my old map of the GWR lines, I’d say Devizes was about a third of the way there or 35,000 words in first draft terms. When we reach Bodmin (estimated time of arrival, 100,000 words), we will have to make the return journey via the second and following drafts, but that’s for much later.

Devizes is also appropriate because that is where my villain lives or lived in real life. At least, he was a member of parliament for the area back in 1891 when the story is set. When I say ‘in real life’, I am basing my character on a newspaper article and on a character from it, but because of what he does in the story, I must point out that the real man didn’t do this in real life. He might have done what he was accused of in the newspapers of the time, but the case was never tried, so who can say?

Research this week has seen me looking up chemical reactions, reading first-hand accounts of London’s East End in the 19th century, and the etiquette of a country house Friday-to-Monday, what we now call a weekend. The word ‘weekend’ only came into use just before 1920, so it’s another of those words I can’t use, like ‘okay’, ‘teenager’ or, to a certain extent, ‘adolescent.’ ‘Homosexual’ is another one I shouldn’t use (common usage after 1900, only specialised medical use a few years before), and when my books are filled with homosexual adolescents recounting their okay teenage years at the weekend… Well, I revert to the thesaurus on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Jenine has been researching letters patent and advancement of titles, the process of lobbying for someone to receive an earldom and how that happens. Poor thing.

It’s been a busy journey so far, and we nearly had a derailment around Newbury when I found myself stuck. I had planned an ending, but as the characters started telling me their story, I realised the ending was wrong. I had to think up another direction, and we almost jumped the tracks. Now, though, we’re back on them, and the destination is the same, only with a slight detour. As usual, I can’t tell you too much, but I can say that what the near derailment has done, is force me to write characters as knowing what is going on in the story while not being able to tell the reader. You see, in this book, it’s all about what’s not being said that’s important, and yet an awful lot is said. Hence, Speaking In Silence.

The journey continues…

Work In Progress 3.02

Work In Progress 3.02

Week two of the creation of ‘Speaking in Silence’ and I’m afraid I will have to be rather silent on the subject. I said in my last WIP blog that I intended ‘beginning on the book proper in a couple of weeks.’ I still do, and the couple of weeks has now become one week. I intend to start on it on Sunday. Meanwhile, I have been reading about railways, investigating a few other matters I need to know, and inventing scenes in my head.

So, the WIP news this week is that there isn’t any WIP news this week, but I’m looking forward to knuckling down again in a few days. Summer is fast approaching, and that means I’ll be up at my usual summer morning time of 4.30-ish, at the desk by five if not sooner, and will have all morning and, when it’s not too hot, all afternoon to dedicate to the next Larkspur adventure. I’ll be keeping you informed as I progress through it.

Work In Progress 2.14

Seeing Through Shadows – Release

I’m pleased to tell you that the Larkspur Mysteries book four, Seeing Through Shadows, is now uploaded on Amazon. It should be available for you in Kindle, KU and in paperback in the next couple of days. (edit, it is now live!)

As you can see from the title of this brief post, this is week 14 in this book’s life. (The 2 refers to the fact this is my second book since starting the WIP blog, the 14 refers to the week.) Some books, they say, write themselves, and Seeing Through Shadows was one of them. I started with an idea, made some notes and did some research, as I always do, and drew a simple outline. After that, the characters took over, I kept them in line with the structure I wanted, and I was strict with myself when first-drafting, which meant less time had to be taken on the following drafts and edits. I think I’m finally getting this process down now, and once an idea has formed, it’s taking me less time to write a novel.

What’s interesting about ‘Shadows’ is that the idea came about back in 2018, before I’d even thought about the Clearwater Mysteries, let alone the Larkspur mysteries. I’d just finished writing ‘Curious Moonlight’, a kind of ghost story and first love mashup, and considered writing a sequel.

Curious Moonlight is about two guys meeting, and having their relationship hampered by a troubled and troublesome ghost called Billy. I thought it might be fun to have the three team up as spectral investigators, with Billy being ever present and always naughty. I invented a location (Blackwood Abbey), and a history of a ghostly sighting, drew a plan of the estate and mapped out the story, but never sat down to write it.

In a way, I am glad I didn’t, because Blackwood Abbey eventually became Larkspur Hall, and what I was doing back then was only planting the seed of an idea. When you read Shadows and learn the history of the Larkspur ghost, it is actually the same history of that created for the Curious Moonlight sequel that never was. The twist at the end of Shadows was to be the explanation for the Curious ghost (kind of), and the Larkspur estate is more of less what I’d made up for Curious. Confused? Never mind, it’ll become clear when you read Seeing Through Shadows.

Meanwhile, you can find Curious Moonlight here.

“He’s back. He’s angry, and I am fleeing for my life.”

Escaping bad choices, Luke Grey arrives in the Cornish fishing village of Madenly determined never to fall in love with a straight man again. But then he meets Peran Box.

Peran’s passion for investigating historical mysteries is his only escape from a loveless relationship. But then he meets Luke.

Attracted to each other’s differences, the two embark on an intense friendship which sparks hope for Luke and ignites Peran’s gay-curious feelings.

But then they meet Billy, dead for three-hundred years and determined to keep them apart until the mystery of his murder is solved.

Seeing Through Shadows

The Larkspur Mysteries Book Four

I thought it was time I told you a little more about ‘Seeing Through Shadows’, the fourth book in The Larkspur Mysteries series, the series that continues from the highly popular ‘Clearwater Mysteries.’

The previous Larkspur story, ‘Agents of the Truth’ concluded on 31st October, 1890, and ‘Seeing Through Shadows’ is set in January 1891.

However, October 31st was an important date for its main character, an erudite young man of twenty-two called Chester Cadman. As Lord Clearwater was hosting his annual charity ball at Larkspur, and as Dalston Blaze was chasing a potential assassin, Chester Cadman was in London, working for a mapmaker and indulging in one of his favourite pastimes: debunking the spiritual entertainments offered by Mr Maskelyen and Mr Cooke.

These stage productions were popular in Victorian times, and you can find advertisements for such things in the newspaper archives, and elsewhere. Chester was attending one at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and while there, met another, equally handsome, young man called William Barnes. The following day, Chester’s life changed—but I’m not going to tell you how because I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, was an exhibition hall built in the ancient Egyptian style in 1812, to the designs of Peter Frederick Robinson.

The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly

Long demolished, this West End venue was home to a museum, art exhibitions, Victorian ‘freak shows’ and magic shows. Victorian magic duo John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) and George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) hosted a show at the venue for 31 years. It’s been claimed Maskelyne invented the illusion of levitation, as well as the coin-operated toilet lock. [Memoirs of a Metro Girl, a London culture and history blog.] January 1891

When I began ‘Seeing through Shadows’, I had no idea how it was going to unfold. Then, after writing the first chapter, I knew where I was heading, and spent a couple of days at the writing desk, plotting, planning, and inventing a fair amount of history. Along with factual history, I invented 18 Viscounts Clearwater, their birth and death dates, and the year they came to the title. I also had to refine and define the history of Larkspur Abbey, how it was affected by the Dissolution, when it was extended, altered and re-landscaped, and several other historical points. Why? Well, because the novel’s action plot focuses on a recurrence of a historical haunting, and that’s all I can say about that, for now.

Back to that first chapter. When I started it, I didn’t know who my main character was to be. I often do that; I think of a name, age, big event from the past and set that character against a plot device on which to hang a mystery, and decide who is to be his impact character. (An impact character’s role is very simple: they are there to inspire, enable, or somehow make another character change. Usually the other character is the main character or protagonist.) The first paragraph I wrote for ‘Seeing Through Shadows’ came from nowhere, but I knew it was a good place to start, because all good stories start with a railway journey. ‘Shadows’ opens with:

The Cornish Riviera Express en route to Cornwall January 1891

Chester Cadman turned his attention away from the passing scenery and wondered if he hadn’t made another terrible mistake. His travelling companion was a quiet stranger to whom he had handed his wellbeing and future, and he had put his life in the hands of men he knew nothing about. Again.

The Cornish Riviera Express

A Classic Mashup

I guess ‘Shadows’ is one of my classic mashups. Along with a mystery that needs solving, we have a story of developing love, and there are a couple of sexually charged scenes in this novel. Not full-on descriptive scenes as there are in ‘Deviant Desire’ or my Mentor series, but something more subtle and, I hope, imagination fuelling. There is also some humour from our regular cast, Frank Andino ( read his recent interview here) and Fleet, and we meet two new academy men, Henry and Edward, who, I imagine, will come to the fore in a future novel. Dalston and Joe are in the story now and then, too, but they are about to head to London for their new lives, which may well lead into the third series, ‘The Delamere Mysteries’ next year.

Meanwhile, at Larkspur Hall, Thomas Payne becomes our protagonist because Clearwater is away in London dealing with something which will become a Delamere Mystery in the future. Barnaby Nancarrow, the country’s youngest butler, makes an appearance, and some other Hall characters are developed a little more. While all that’s going on, Chester is adjusting to his new life, conflicted about his feelings for someone, desperate to please Clearwater and repay his kindness, and generally turning heads among the academy men.

Seeing Through Shadows’ is one of those stories where, along with the main character, the reader is invited to work out what the hell is going on. Unlike ‘Agents of the Truth’, there is no villain as such, and no-one’s life is in danger. ‘Shadows’ progresses through several twists, and chapters tend to conclude with a ‘What if?’ or an emotional or mysterious cliff hanger. There are also inserts where the mystery is seen from an unusual perspective. Only short sections, but ones which are intended to lend atmosphere and, of course, mystery. These were interesting to write as events are seen from the perspective of an owl, a fox and a cat. I’ll leave you with just such an excerpt. I’ve not yet fully edited this, but here is what I have at the moment. It’s from the end of a chapter later in the story, the night before the ‘great reveal’ when the mystery is explained, and it’s one of the inserts as seen from an owl’s point of view.

Not all was harmonious with the night, however, and the owl ruffled its feathers in a shiver of disquiet. Off to the west, something unrequited was advancing through the fragile air. It was still at a distance, but it was coming from across the moor, beneath the ground, making its steady path towards the hall as it had done before. Unstoppable, it would appear and disappear; it was real, and it was ethereal; it was alive where it lived, and yet it would die if it stayed there. Something that couldn’t be laid to rest until it was understood, its appearance was inevitable.
Nervous, the owl screeched its disapproval, and fell from the battlements, wings spread. The uplift took her high above the sloping tiles and the last of the drifting woodsmoke, the treetops and moorland, and she circled wide and slowly to the Academy House where her interest lay. Passing the sleeping outbuildings, the yards, and windows dark with the hour, she came to one aglow, and landed on the sill.
Within, flames swayed on the last of their wicks, languid as they burned away time. Their faint light withdrew from corners to candles as they died, and drew their cast across carpet, over chairs, through a field of jumbled clothing, to the cliff edge of the bed. Ascending as it faded, the light lasted just long enough for the owl to see the shape of two men, naked, entwined, fulfilled and dreaming.
The ground was laid for the inevitable, and knowing there was nothing she could do but watch, the owl dropped from the window and once again became one with the night.

‘Seeing Through Shadows’ is due for release later this month.

Work In Progress 2.5

Dusk in the woods

Here’s an update on Larkspur Four (still untitled). I am now up to just over 42,000 words and approaching the halfway mark. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a nail-biter like ‘Agents’ or some of the other Clearwater books. It’s more of a slowly evolving mystery of things and people that go bump in the night. ‘Things’, because our new character is investigating the sighting of a ghost from the past which is threatening Larkspur Hall, and ‘people’, because he has met someone at Academy House who has started to stir his heartstrings. Therefore, book four will be a gradually unfolding mystery with plenty of history (real and imagined), a budding love story, and a twist that I hope no-one sees coming.

If ‘book four’ has a background theme, it is one of perceptions. Among it all, I have expanded an idea I used in ‘The Clearwater Inheritance.’ People have commented on my use of an owl in that book; there’s a scene where an owl flies over the estate at night and we get to see into the Hall and what’s going on without being inside or in a character’s point of view. I have used the same device twice so far in book four, but not just with the owl.

Fox and Owl (credit to Anand Varma)

I’ll leave you with a short extract from draft one — and remember, this is only a rough draft. (A fox is looking down on the ruined abbey at night.)

Head down, ears up, whiskers out, it stalked and scrutinised, climbing higher to the edge of its realm, until it reached the last of the day and sat in the sanctity of night, listening to the empty moor behind, surveying all below and fearing none above. Not even the up-lit white of the circling owl, its competitor and nightly companion, vigilant, silent and deadly.

Beneath, its equal, the fox crouched low and watched a spectral shape of lighter against darker appear from lower down. It spread around a figure hastening towards its hunting ground, the marred masonry of man, and the fox’s hackles rose in defiance of the intrusion. Forehead furrowed, a growl in its throat, it readied its voice, but no sound came.

As deftly as it had darted, the light died among the shifts and shapes of flint and granite, until the last speck of trespass had melted into the earth, and there was nothing left of the night but the owl high above, and the fox contemplating the business of its nightly hunt.

On Friday you can catch another preview on fellow author, Ofelia Grand’s website. I will be her guest blogger, hope to see you there!

For now it’s time for another cup of tea and back to my boys, have a good day, Jack

Work in Progress 2.3

Chester Cadman: A New Character at Larkspur

In this week’s update, I can tell you that Larkspur Four is currently at 28,000 words of its first draft, or chapter eight of a novel which is building in a file I’ve called ‘Chester Cadman.’ That’s not the title of the book, it’s the name of the main character. He’s a newbie to the Clearwater world and the Larkspur Academy, and comes with an interesting history that’s already led me to plenty of research.

That research has, so far, included mesmerism, seances and other related mysteries, The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and mapmaking and cartography in 1890s. Also on my list for background reading is the political situation in Egypt at that time.

All I can tell you about Larkspur Four right now is that it revolves around sightings of a medieval serving girl wandering through the grounds and ruined church. An apparition from the past which has been reported over the centuries, and a mystery that needs investigating.

While that’s going on, we’re introduced to a few new characters, while the main Clearwater men are elsewhere, apart from Thomas Payne who has been left to run the hall. Some of the newer Larkspur characters are still about, with Fleet, Frank and Clem at Academy House (along with Dalston and Joe for the time being), while at the Hall, Nancarrow and the newer footmen and others play supporting roles.

But Chester Cadman is my main man on this one, and being handsome, enigmatic and in need of friendship, attracts Frank’s attention – of course. Frank is going to be there right by his side, loyal, desperate to be loving and, maybe, destined to be disappointed. We shall have to wait and see.

I will be back on Saturday with a regular blogpost. In the meantime, on Thursday I will be the guest at fellow MM author, Elle Keaton’s facebook group. Join us at Highway to Elle for chatter and a giveaway, hope to see you there!