The true bits

Often, when reading a novel, I wonder about the author’s reason for writing on that topic, or telling that side story, or even the whole story. Sometimes there is an obvious truth in there – it seems clear that the author knows of what s/he writes.

Of all my novels Angelica Died is the most taken from life. Yes, The Dream covers places and even some of my own experiences in New Zealand, but it is a different thing with Angelica Died. I wanted very much to get across the feel of a sixties hospital and indeed a sixties ‘special school’. Readers might notice the child character of Mandy who crops up at both places. Although not exactly me, she does have some of my characteristics at that age, and both St Anne’s hospital and Medlar School are based on real places despite being thoroughly fictionalised.

I was in the children’s ward of a hospital for a year from the age of six to seven. There are many parts of Angelica Died that are actual memories. The gardens, the mice and rabbits, the hiding at bathtime, the terror of blood tests, the record player on the ward, the teacher who came in, the stern ward sister, the person who came in to read to us. I also wanted to include the song ‘A Lover’s Concerto’ because it has special meaning for me. At that time I thought it was the most beautiful song/music ever written.

I omitted a lot of my less pleasant experiences of hospital such as getting ‘nits’ and feeling like a pariah; the terrible loneliness when my best friend was discharged; the standoffs with the nurses over wearing the hospital ‘uniform’ – once coming to a tug of war with a nurse who tried to drag my cardigan off my shoulders; the sadness of watching the rest of my family go off and leave me there, on their way to a fair; and so on.

I described Medlar School quite differently from the real ‘special school’ I attended. As I also attended a second ‘special school’ later I mixed them up a little, but still there are many aspects of Medlar School that were also real. The swing bars in the playground on which I spent countless happy hours (and never fell off!); the swimming pool; the forced church attendance; the nurses; the teachers and house mothers, many of whom lived on the premises and worked all hours.

Again, I missed out the unpleasant parts although I alluded to them. Most of the staff were kind but there was the occasional exception. Both schools were very strict and vetted our letters home – I was hauled up before the head of my second school for posting off a letter to my parents that had been unseen by staff. The worst of it was the lonely helplessness. In a way I also used this in The Legacy when I made Fallady an orphan who had been in a children’s home. Of course I had parents but I had no access to them. We weren’t allowed phone calls home at my first school but even if we had been my parents weren’t on the phone. The only access was through the vetted letters, which, obviously, were full of pleasant events and general news.

If one was in trouble with staff, punished or disciplined (sometimes extraordinarily unfairly) there were no parents to turn to, and by the time they heard about it, during the school holidays, the whole sting had gone from the event. In these circumstances, especially as my parents were unable to visit very often and a full term could go by in which I didn’t see them, I turned to sympathetic staff members as parental figures. Hence, it seems, the creation of Miss Gilbertine in The Legacy and Maud Pengilly in Angelica Died. Both are a sort of sympathetic amalgam, with much fictionalisation, of the two female members of staff I clung to at my first school. There was also a male teacher that I idolised as a father figure and who has sadly been dead for many years.

So, those are some of my ‘true bits’, and no doubt more of them will turn up, sometimes unwittingly, in future novels.

A quick note about Kindle prices

All of my books and short stories are tied up in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing scheme, as this has proved to be the best way to sell them. There are a few restrictions for authors on this scheme, the main one being that there is a minimum price we have to charge.

A couple of years ago the British government slapped VAT on Kindle items, which meant the prices of my short stories went up immediately by around 20p and my novels by 30p. At this point KDP’s minimum price became 99p in the UK.

When I brought out A Christmas Gift I agonised over it being so short but still on sale for 99p. I really wrote it for fans of The Legacy and wanted it to be free. However, it’s not possible to have anything permanently free if you’re signed up to KDP, so every now and again, often at Christmas, I have the short stories up free of charge for a few days, which is allowed as part of the KDP scheme.

If anyone is wondering, I actually earn 29p per short story sold. The rest goes to the government and to Amazon.

Writing advice – me? Eek!

I’ve always felt that I was not worthy to give writing advice. What could little old me say photocopier.jpgthat countless others have not already said, and probably better, and with more gravitas?

Still, I’ve been thinking recently about those who are, as I was for many years, slaving in their day jobs longing for a better future, wishing they could bring an end to a humdrum existence and find their muse in writing.

This is my report from the coal face.

Another life is possible, but it is not easy. The main reason to stick with the day job whilst writing – advice given by most writers these days – is that writing does not pay much. Traditionally published or self published, the result is not, for most of us, a sudden landslide of money, fame, and swanky socialising with celebs. On the contrary, it is often a lonely, self-doubting, poverty-stricken experience. Whether you can tolerate that depends on how much you enjoy writing – whether the end justifies the means.

It wasn’t easy for me to write while I was working full time at jobs that weren’t suited to my temperament; I just couldn’t switch off the work woes. Part time work was much better, so if anyone else is struggling with their muse, as long as you’re willing to endure the poverty, part-time could be the way to go.

The simple pleasure of doing something you truly enjoy, the excitement of holding your Me holding Angelica Diedown book, of seeing it in libraries and bookshops, and of reading reviews from people who have enjoyed your work are all the upsides. I didn’t think the downsides would be quite so down when I started out on this path, as in order to actually start writing properly I had to believe in myself, and convince myself my books were going to do well. After all, who would be motivated to try hard at anything if they believed they would fail?

At this point I’ve neither failed nor truly succeeded, at least to the extent of earning an actual living and maybe enough to travel and buy a house, but I have succeeded in completing three full novels, and they sell enough to pay some bills so I consider it a partial success. When I sat at my office desk for all those years fantasising about being the next Anne McCaffrey I thought it would be marvellous. Well I’m not yet the next Anne McCaffrey and it’s not marvellous, but it’s still an achievement to have three novels out there and know that people read them and they even make a bit of money!

So my advice is, go for it if you’re willing and able to cope with the downsides, and maybe, just maybe, the upsides will eventually become the greater.

Progress on the sales front

I just realized that I haven’t blogged since August, so it seemed like a good idea to add another progress report.

I’m glad to say that things have picked up considerably lately with regard to book sales. I’m not sure why, mind you!

It seemed to start when the original Snowbooks versions of The Legacy and The Dream were remaindered (and in some cases were on sale in pound shops), after which there appeared to be a flurry of interest and more reads of this blog. It’s possible that people bought the Kindle versions of the books via word of mouth after that. Whatever the reason the sales graph has risen, and in December The Legacy reached the rank of no. 1 best seller in time travel romance on Amazon.

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The Legacy’s Amazon ranking over the past year

It has been hard to keep going at times, particularly while struggling financially, but I’m now feeling newly encouraged and hope to have my next book out later this year.

Thanks to everybody who has bought my books – I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

New Zealand here I come…erm…sometime…maybe

Most people who know me well are fully aware of my fixation with the land of the long white cloud. I’ve joked that my catchphrase should be ‘When I was in New Zealand’, although by now they’ve heard most of my stories, perhaps more than once. I incorporated some of my own experiences into my second novel, The Dream, and now I’m casting about desperately to think of a way that I can get back to NZ this year as it’s been eight years since my visit.Waiau River, Manapouri

It was my dad who first told me about New Zealand, as he had wanted to emigrate there with his friend in 1953 but had been rejected on the £10 scheme due to his asthma. His friend had still emigrated, and I always knew him as ‘Uncle John’ (and have dedicated The Dream to him). For some reason all my dad’s talk about the country really sank in with me, and I always wanted to go there, and even from my teens the part that interested me most was Westland in the South Island. Finally I took a huge leap in 2007 and left my job to take an extended trip, most of which I spent in the South Island.

By that time my dad had lost touch with his old best friend John and couldn’t remember his address. I was determined that when I got there I would track him down for my dad, who by then was in his late seventies and had started to show signs of what we hadn’t yet realized was a form of dementia. I had little to go on except that John lived in a place near the Wairau River in the general vicinity of Blenheim in the South Island. After hours of assiduous searching I’d worked out from a couple of other clues of my dad’s where I thought that might be on Google Earth, and when I finally got to Blenheim shortly after my arrival in the country I went to the library and looked up my uncle’s name on the electoral roll. Having found it easily I discovered that my online detective work had been correct: he did indeed live in the location I had picked out. He wasn’t, however, in the phone book.IMG_0707

I texted my parents in excitement and then set out for the address, which was well off the beaten track. Eventually I came to a literal track that petered out on one side and ended on the other at a gate marked ‘private’. The gate was firmly locked and seemed to have electrified wire across it (readers might notice I have used this in The Dream). I wasn’t even sure that I was in the right place as I clambered up the nearby levee and looked around the deserted landscape. I couldn’t see any house beyond the gate, and the place was silent apart from my frustrated sobs. I had so wanted this, both for my dad and for me, and now I was apparently stymied at the last hurdle. I wiped the tears off my cheeks and sent a text to my parents telling of this disappointment, but I couldn’t bear to just leave so I scoured through my bag for something to write on, and found a piece of scrap paper on which I scrawled who I was, and my phone number, and then I thrust this note into the lock of the gate, imagining that it would never be found anyway, and sloped off into the heat haze in my hire car.

To my surprise and delight, within a couple of hours I had a call on my mobile phone from Uncle John. He was just as keen to see me as I was to see him, and we met that evening for a meal. He drove me around the area that night and the following morning pointing out places of interest, and we never stopped talking! I went back to see him again later in my stay and it was one of those happy but rare experiences where you meet someone and just automatically get on well together, despite the age difference.IMG_1944

I’d love to see him, and of course New Zealand, again this winter. Whether I can find a way or not is still moot!

Progress report

I haven’t been blogging very frequently lately, so maybe it’s time for a progress report at least.

I’ve just had the best sales yet on a Kindle Countdown Deal, with The Legacy selling over a hundred copies in total. I realize this doesn’t sound like I’m into the megabucks range – I’m a long way from that! – but compared with the way things were before I got back the rights to The Legacy and The Dream, it’s amazing. Back then I would get excited when I had a couple of sales in a month, so a hundred in seven days feels like pretty good going.Cover for The Legacy

Like most writers I want to make a living from doing what I love, and of course so far I am nowhere near that point, but there is improvement, albeit that at times it seems almost imperceptible.

I am currently working on two novels, both of which will have time travel elements. I enjoy writing ‘stranger in a strange land’ stories, where the main character has to put it all together herself (I haven’t yet braved writing from a male perspective!) and keep up appearances, so one of them is in that form. The other one is far more tricky but involves a dystopian near future and the 18th century. I’m still working out all the details with that one due to the complexity of the ideas so watch this space!

I also still have a children’s science fiction story work in progress that I hope to get finished at some point, and ideas for further novels occur far too often for me to keep up!

I’m going to carry on with self-publishing for now. I may submit work to agents at some point but although I would very much like my books to be in libraries and bookshops (as the versions of The Legacy and The Dream published by Snowbooks were, of course) and my paperbacks to sell better (available via CreateSpace) so far my experience of self-publishing has been good and enjoyable, and of course more lucrative, even though still a long way from enough to live on!

Turkey Day – or how a load of trussed-up turkeys voted for Christmas

I’ve tried to avoid politics on this blog, despite being intensely occupied with the state of my country, but today I can’t keep silent. Today I am ashamed to be British, and like many I’m casting about wondering where I might find an exit. The people of Britain have been thoroughly stitched-up, whether they are Scottish, English, Welsh, or from Northern Ireland. Mostly though, it is the English – and I am English – who are the turkeys here.

There are those on the left who are trying to introduce cheer by reminding us of 1992, and how we got through the next five years to end up with Tony Blair’s Pyrrhic victory in 1997. I well remember feeling much the same in 1992 as I do today. I recall telling someone off who had voted Tory and him being astonished that I was so passionate about it. To him it was not of much importance. To me it felt, as today, like the end of the world. Only I can’t be cheered by remembering that because this time it is worse. This time too many policies that can’t be easily reversed are bringing about a dramatic decline in the NHS, in the welfare state, and in the treatment of disabled and jobless people. Not to mention what TTIP, fracking, or scrapping the Human Rights Act will do. Back in 1992 the country still had plenty of heart. Today’s result suggests a lot of English voters have developed such cold hearts that I fear we will never warm them up again.

Although only twenty-four percent of the British population actually voted Conservative, another twelve percent voted for even more hardline and cruel right-wing UKIP. What happened to compassion? Has Mrs Thatcher’s famous phrase ‘there is no such thing as society’ finally taken root in the English consciousness?

We will all pay a price, and those who voted Tory, the turkeys, will not be exempt from the ensuing pain. No one will be able to escape the upcoming cuts. Britain will be a travesty of a country with poor services, police who don’t attend burglaries, a shortage of everything from doctors and nurses to paramedics and teachers, a threadbare so-called ‘safety net’ for people who fall on hard times, with all the time a gang of hecklers on the sidelines, jabbing their fingers at the unfortunate and telling them it’s their own fault.

But any of the turkeys who voted yesterday for the mother of all Christmases could get ill, could become disabled, could lose their jobs. Any of them. So when the turds hit your fan, turkeys, don’t bother gobbling, because it will be too late.

Happy Turkey Day. Gobble gobble.