It has been an odd few months. I took early retirement at the end of July. Well then, you’re probably thinking, he must have been writing up a storm! No excuses now! Not that simple, I’m afraid! Firstly, we moved house in July and have been busy settling into the new place (while trying to get rid of a lot of stuff – downsizing is difficult!).
Secondly, we have also bought a place in the south of France and have been out here for most of the autumn doing a bit of re-decorating, a lot of furniture-buying and a heck of a lot of gardening. Not that I’m complaining; the weather has held and we’ve had many wonderful days out in Carcassonne (our nearest city), at the Med and in the Black Mountains. But all of that has been very distracting, I’m afraid!
All the same, I’m pleased to announce that the anthology is just about finished. My plan is to let Christmas get out of the way and launch it in January, giving me plenty of time for editing, cover selection etc.
I’m really pleased with how the collection has come together. It will feature 18 stories; 6 have been published elsewhere, either as my reader magnets or in other publications. That leaves 12 that will be seeing the light of day for the very first time. Of these, 5 were written specifically for this collection. Including a new Darkisle short story!
Watch out for news of the title and a cover launch sometime in December.
Well, What Festers Within was published about two months ago. I’m very pleased with the response! The book seems to have activated increased interest in the whole series, which is very nice to see. I won’t be running away to the Caribbean on the proceeds just yet, but things ARE on the up!
Thoughts now turn to my next project. I have ideas for the fourth book in the series… but to be honest, I think I’ll take a break from long form fiction for a few months. Now I’ve proved to myself that I can write an 80,000 word novel (and longer!), I think it’s time I returned to short stories for a while. What with my existing Darkisle short stories, some unpublished work and few planned new stories, I reckon I could have an anthology pulled together in the next few months.
So, that’s what I’ll be doing in coming weeks; writing at least three new short stories and leaving my subconscious to churn over Book 4. Talking of short stories, I’m delighted that an audiobook narrator has recorded a reading of Hobb’s Top on her YouTube channel. Do please check it out! She has done a great job, I think. You can hear it by clicking HERE.
And finally, you get to the point in your novel where you place the final full stop at the end of the final sentence in the final paragraph. You sit back and look at that last page with a range of emotions. Some sense of achievement, a good deal of relief and – for a moment, at least – the uncertainty of what happens next now your months-long project has finally ended.
And then the realisation hits that it hasn’t ended, and your immediate future is one of editing, editing and more editing.
When it comes to writing, there are good times and then there are less-good times. Looking back over the writing of my last two-and-a-bit novels, I can trace the good times to holiday breaks.
For The Gathering of Shadows it was a long New Year’s Eve Weekend in a Reykjavik apartment. That yielded two chapters. For Those Under The Hill, a glorious September week on the Northumberland Coast between lockdowns inspired three chapters. And now, for Book 3 (I really must come up with a title sometime…), a weekend in a different part of Northumberland brought a chapter that, in very short order, led to two more.
I suppose none of this is very surprising. I mean, it’s quite a cliché, really; the author taking themselves away somewhere to get some actual writing done. Normally, I’m eking out a few hundred words at a time, working around the day job, family stuff – that sort of thing. A nice leisurely break somewhere gives me the sort of time and space to get my head down and build some momentum in a writing session. With a bit of luck, the words start to flow and next thing I know, I have a new chapter. And still have time for the pub.
Which, in a roundabout way, is me saying that Book 3 is coming along nicely. Sixteen chapters (plus a prologue) of nicely. 70,000 words of nicely.
I had better get a move on with that title, hadn’t I?
I don’t know how it is for other authors, but I find there comes a time in writing a novel when I feel that the initial uphill phase is done, that I’ve crested the summit and am now writing downhill, so to speak, with the slope helping me.
I think that’s where I am with Book 3 now.
I’m not saying that the words are now pouring out by the thousand – there are still slow days, still times when I need to pause and work a scene through a few times. But, nevertheless, it seems to me that the hard work has been done – the establishing of the characters, the setting up of the plot, the laying-out of crumbs of information that will hopefully lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Once I’m in the downhill phase, it sometimes feels that rather than creating a story out of my head, I’m instead recording events as they happen. Albeit imaginary events! The characters’ trajectory through the story is in place, I understand their personalities well enough to know how they will react… all I need to do is let things unfold!
Which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying that I’m about three-quarters of the way through the first draft. Don’t go holding your breath just yet though! There’s still the editing, beta-reading, more editing, waiting for advance reviews…. Come to think of it, my initial estimate of publication this spring is starting to look a tad optimistic!
Josine felt that a celebration was in order, so after work we treated ourselves to dinner at our frequent haunt: Lumley’s Café on Oxford Road, just a few doors down from our office. We entered a little after six to find the place bedecked with paper chains, paper honeycomb bells and sprigs of holly.
“Finally!” exclaimed Josine as we took our seats.“I was beginning to think that the English were skipping Christmas this year.”
“Good grief, it’s only the 11th!” I replied. “And besides, there have been Christmas window displays in the shops for a week or so. Lewis’s always puts on a good show, go and have a look there if you want to feel festive.”
“I might just do that. I don’t know, I pictured Christmas in England differently, you know? Decorated trees in people’s windows, carol singing in the streets, a brass band on every corner…. And snow.” She gazed out of the window at the evening drizzle.
I snorted. “And a cheerful Cockney urchin taking the biggest turkey in the shop to Bob Cratchit’s house? Life over here isn’t one big Charles Dickens story, you know. People won’t decorate their trees until Christmas Eve and you’ll be lucky to see any snow before the New Year.”
She sighed. “Well, I’m sure it will be swell when it finally all gets started. I’m just saying that Boston will be lit up like one big fairground by now.”
At the moment that rarest of things is happening; the time of year I’m currently writing about in a novel is the same as the actual time of year. I do find it helps a bit, actually. So, to celebrate this fact, above is a relevant snippet from Book 3. Christmas was a big deal in 1920s Britain, but nowhere near the big deal it is today. And not as big a deal as it was becoming on the other side of the Atlantic, as Josine is discovering…
It was daytime. It was always daytime. Sometimes it was morning, with colours washed out to grey by mist. Sometimes it was afternoon, with the stark yellow sun in a crisp blue sky. Sometimes it was dusk, with the first hints of purple stretching out above and the moon starting to glow silver.
This time of year lends itself to horror stories and a lot of people seem to make a big deal about Halloween these days (hint: I’m not one of them). I’ve seen more than a few Tweets to the effect of people wishing it could always be Halloween. Which sparked an idea for a story. Be careful what you wish for….
Anyway, the excerpt above is the opening of the resulting short story, which I’ll be making available FREE to my newsletter subscribers in the next couple of days. If you want to get free stuff like this, just fill in the contact form on this site’s home page and say hi!
And yes, I nicked the title from the War of the Worlds track by Justin Hayward. But the story itself has nothing to do with it, should any copyright lawyers be reading.
Whilst I would never claim that my Darkisle novels should be classified as Historic Fiction, the fact remains that they are set in our world, during the 1920s. Very few people still living will remember that period, but all the same it’s a time we all know SOMETHING about . That means the reader has every right to expect that the background of the stories feels authentically Twenties-ish. Jack, my protagonist, shouldn’t be able to hop on a jet airliner, or cross the Channel on a hovercraft, or flash a credit card, or even make a direct telephone call to someone. Should a reader encounter something they know is wrong for the period, it will jar. And that jarring will take them out of the place that I, as the writer, want to transport them to.
Okay, it could be argued that getting the FEEL of the period is more important than getting every single fact correct. Does it matter if Jack made a telephone call without going through the operator, so long as the conversation he then had used the right words for the time and moved the story along? For many readers, perhaps not. But for some, it will. I see it as my job to keep jarring to an absolute minimum – and the only way to do that is to check the facts. I suppose, if I had wanted an easier life, I’d be writing either contemporary fiction (where I already know the technology and language in use) or fantasy (where they’re what I damn well say they are!).
I can think of a couple of examples. In ‘Tribute’, the middle story in my ‘Hobbs Top & Other Horrors’ collection, I wanted a ten shilling note to pass hands. A nice old-fashioned touch, I thought, as the note was phased out in the 1960s. But something made me check – and lo, the ten shilling note wasn’t issued until 1928. And ‘Tribute’ is set in 1923! So, back I went and changed the text to ‘two crowns’ – which was the same amount of money, just without the flourish of waving a piece of paper. Would leaving a five-year-too-early banknote in the story have been spotted by many readers? Probably not. But it was wrong and I knew it was wrong, so it had to go!
Something similar happened when looking for a disparaging word for a policeman that Jack could use. ‘Plod’ sounded perfect… until a quick check revealed that its use was inspired by the character ‘PC Plod’ in an Enid Blyton book that wasn’t published until 1949. Darn it!
Luckily, I’ve found a great resource to help me. It’s Ngrams, an application in Google Books that has values for the frequency of use of words in a number of languages over several centuries (and, for English, offers either British English, American English or both combined). It really is a boon!
Let me give you an example. In ‘Those Under The Hill’, Jack is lent a bag to use when out walking. But what to call it? Now, to my modern mind if I have a bag with straps that I put my arms through so I can carry it on my back, I call it a backpack. But that has a modern ring to it, so I checked it on Ngrams, which returned the following:
Uh oh. ‘Backpack’ wasn’t used at all until the 1970s and really only took off in popularity this century (as you can see, Ngrams gives different returns when you search on a single word, depending on case. Not sure if I like this feature or not). Ok, my second choice word was ‘rucksack’, so I checked that out next. A useful feature of Ngrams is that it lets you compare multiple words. So, if you’re torn between two or three choices, you can see which would be most likely used at a given date. Here’s the result for both ‘backpack’ and ‘rucksack’.
Ok, so for my novel set in 1922, ‘rucksack’ looks alright. Its usage line twitches into life just after 1900 and the word was slowly increasing in popularity by the 1920s. Hmm, but then there’s ‘knapsack’ – that’s quite an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? I ran a comparison of that with the other two words.
Right! So, while people aren’t all that likely to say ‘knapsack’ nowadays, back in the Twenties it was the go-to word. Armed with that knowledge, Jack takes his trusty Webley revolver and a map, throws them in a knapsack and heads for the hills.
Here’s another example; should a novel set in the past use the word ‘jail’ or ‘gaol’? Well, Ngrams can help with that:
As you can see, in the England of 1922 the ‘gaol’ spelling would have been preferred – but ‘jail’ was by no means unheard of, so I can get away with it if I want. Incidentally, this is often seen as a case of an Americanism pushing out an older British spelling; not true. Both spellings have co-existed since they were coined in Middle English. What is true is that the eventual preference for ‘jail’ in the USA sparked the decline in ‘gaol’ elsewhere.
I should also point out that words that you think are dead and buried often seem to be used more frequently nowadays than you might expect – this could be down to the number of articles on the internet saying something like “gosh, nobody says ‘knapsack’ or ‘gaol’ anymore”.
Finally, I should just mention that Ngrams isn’t limited to single words. Here’s how it would have helped with my ‘PC Plod’ research:
So, there you have it! I think Ngrams is a pretty cool resource if you want to set a story in the past. I’m not saying my 1920s characters will now never utter a word or phrase from a later era (or an earlier one – that can happen at times!). But at least the chances of it happening are a good deal less now I know about Ngrams.
As such, it was a relief when the steamer made the sanctuary of Darkilby. The harbour was quiet, with no tramp steamers or colliers present. Even the large freighter called the ‘Sleih-Marru’ – something of a fixture during my previous visits – was absent. All there was to be seen was the town’s small fishing fleet and a few sailboats of varying seaworthiness. As we disembarked along with a handful of other passengers a sudden sleet shower greeted us like a slap in the face.
As with any part-time author, writing progress is at the whim of other things in my life, and the last couple of weeks have not been easy ones. But I’ve managed to complete Chapter Two! Above is an excerpt from it: Book 3’s ‘back to Darkisle’ moment.