I’m very grateful to Hazel’s friend Steve (the one with the big mike) who helped me to record this. I hope you will enjoy it.
I’m very grateful to Hazel’s friend Steve (the one with the big mike) who helped me to record this. I hope you will enjoy it.
Well, the big news is that The Great St Mary’s Day Out is available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. And before anyone asks, I’m checking Audible twice a day and will post as soon as it becomes available there as well.
I include a sneak-peek of the opening below, just to whet your appetites and raise levels of frustration across the board.
I walked Matthew around St Mary’s because a few things needed to be made clear.
‘All right, people. This is a baby. A small human. His name is Matthew and he is not to be floated across the lake in a Moses basket just to see if it could have happened. Nor is he to be stuffed into a warming pan and smuggled into someone’s bed. He is not to be dangled off a balcony and presented to the Welsh people as a non-English speaking Prince of Wales. Permission to include him in any of the imaginative events currently being planned by the History Department is to be sought from his father, Chief Farrell, and good luck to anyone trying that. He is not to be used as a paperweight. Or ballast. Or a draught excluder. Everyone clear?’
You have to tell people these things. Especially at St Mary’s.
Also, for anyone in the Cardiff area, I’m at the Octavo Café Bookshop in the Cardiff Bay area on 16th July, giving a quick talk on how I managed to get published – a miracle in itself, given the amount of wine consumed and my general technical ineptitude – having a chat about my books to anyone kind enough to show an interest, and signing said books. Actually, I’m well known for signing anything shoved in front of me – contracts to star in the film of the story of my life, execution warrants, blank cheques and so on and so forth.
I am reliably informed that this is the link for the event, so I have no hesitation in posting it here, secure in the knowledge that finer minds than mine at Accent will check it over on my behalf.
In other news, I’ve finished the Christmas story and sent it off to Accent Press. Entitled My Name is Markham, this one’s a little bit special because all the royalties will go to the Help for Heroes Charity and so I do urge everyone to buy it. Actually, I always do that anyway, but this year, please consider yourself doubly urged. It should be out on Christmas Day, and I’m expecting to be held responsible for any number of disrupted Christmas lunches. We did the same last year and one lovely reader reported she selflessly did her duty in the morning, then flung a tin of Quality Street and the TV remote at her family, and made herself scarce with her Kindle. As well as being special, it’s also a little bit different. The story this year is told by Mr Markham. Watch this space…
The Great St Mary’s Day Out is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
Well, here we are again. Another book done and dusted. I can’t fiddle any longer. I’ve been through the manuscript and scattered commas everywhere and I’ve been back through and taken them all out again. I’ve fiddled, changed words, re-written, frowned and fretted, and now the moment has come to overcome separation anxiety and actually send the thing off to my publishers, the world-leading Accent Press. Yes, that Accent Press – they of the platinum helicopters, caviar breakfasts and private dungeon. Or the Author Recreational Room with Stimulation and Encouragement as they like us to refer to it. And it is true, a couple of weeks with your head in their ARRSE, and the words just fly from your keyboard.
Anyway, completion of the manuscript means I have to send the damned thing off, so it’s time to take the half-dozen lightly oiled young men from the cupboard – I can’t believe I forgot to send them back last time – dust them down, book the band, notify the Queen, shut down Parliament for the day – will anyone notice? – and wave goodbye to my baby.
There will be the usual tearful scenes. I gather my ragged clothes around me and follow the manuscript as it is borne aloft by the aforesaid young men. Today, the minefield has been switched off and we are allowed to cross the hallowed acres of the Accent Press Car Park. Senior staff, wearing their ordinary day clothes of gold lame and casually sprinkled diamonds, emerge from the multi-storeyed Accent Press HQ – think Dark Tower with added battlements and shrieking – and climb into their Ferraris and Lamborghinis for the endurance testing two hundred yard trip to accept the manuscript.
To a hushed silence, the manuscript is formally handed over. At a given signal, pennies are graciously tossed and somewhere, as part of the Encouragement Scheme, a lucky Accent author will be permitted a quick glimpse of the sun.
I grovel in the Accent-approved manner, the young men glisten magnificently, angels sing,
unseen hands fling open the front door, the unicorn rears, the band plays loudly enough to drown the sounds of Accent authors receiving yet more Stimulation and Encouragement, and then it’s gone. The massive doors close with a boom and we all have two point five seconds to vacate the sacred carpark before they let loose the Kraken.
And I open a file, name it Book 8, and stare at the screen …
Here is a special treat for you…
A sneak preview of Lies, Damned Lies, and History!
I’ve never been one for rules. They don’t really seem to apply to me. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had to stand in front of someone’s desk while they talked at me, sometimes for some considerable length of time. The only good thing is that usually, it’s only me involved.
But not this time. This time I was in serious trouble. This time I’d done something really bad. Never mind that I thought it was for the best of reasons. This time I’d really gone too far.
I couldn’t complain. Not long ago, Dr Bairstow, who always saw further than anyone else at St Mary’s, had tried to warn me, saying, ‘You need to take care, Max. Great care. You are beginning to tread the line between what is acceptable and what is not. From there, it only takes the smallest step to find you have stepped over that line and that you have done the wrong thing for the right reasons. I am warning you, in future, to be very, very careful.’
I should have listened to him and I didn’t. This time, I’d not just crossed the line – I’d practically pole-vaulted over it.
And this time I’d involved Peterson – whose future at St Mary’s was looking very shaky indeed.
And Markham who, thanks to me, would now probably never succeed Major Guthrie as head of the Security Section.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. People had lost their jobs. Roberts, my youngest historian had given in his notice. He’d insisted on trying to take all the blame. There had been a brief shouting session with Dr Bairstow and then Roberts was gone, hurling himself through the front doors and crashing the gears of his car in his haste to get down the drive and out of the gates. With the state he was in, I shouldn’t have let him go, but there was no holding him.
And David Sands – long-time friend and ally. He’d resigned, too.
And possibly the worst of all, the Chancellor of the University of Thirsk, Dr Chalfont, who had fought our corner on so many occasions – she was out as well. She’d stood her ground and argued for us – which was good of her because she’d been more furious with me than anyone else, Dr Bairstow included – and the knives that had been waiting for this opportunity for years came out. She’d been allowed to retire. Ill health, they said, but that was just for public show. I’d got her sacked as well. And Dr Bairstow was only hanging on by the skin of his teeth.
I’ve done some stupid things. I’ve been reckless, but never have I ruined so many lives or left such a trail of destruction behind me.
I suppose the story begins with Bashford’s attempt to emulate William Tell.
I’m continuing with Lisa’s questions which I should have done weeks ago, but I hit a bit of a purple patch with Book 7 and then got caught up in a possible sequel to The Nothing Girl. Sorry!
Do I have a day job?
Yes, I do – writing. And it’s a night job as well. I’d like to be able to say I write 24 hours a day because I fear nothing less will satisfy some of my readers, but it comes in peaks and troughs.
I write first thing in the morning – anytime from 5.00am onwards. I usually pause around mid-morning to contemplate the possibility of housework, reject the whole idea, and write until lunchtime.
I laze around for a while, watching TV or painting, thinking out plots and dialogue, blogging (doing it now!), and answering emails. Chocolate is usually involved. I tut at the state of the house, wonder why the fridge is always empty, and pick up my writing again around 6ish.
The most important part of the day is bathtime – especially now that a friend has given me a waterproof notebook – because I can sit up to my ears in bubbles – not an attractive picture, I know, but you did ask – and let my mind drift wherever it wants to go. I’ve had some amazing ideas in the bath. Is it me or does that sentence sound slightly improper?
I do try and switch it off when I go to bed, curling up with a good book, but I’m often woken up by Max or Markham yammering away about something or other and I have to rummage amongst Kindles, laptops, sundry notebooks, bent biros (I keep sleeping on them), tissues, research notes and other writing paraphernalia to get it all written down before I forget it.
I mention all this only so everyone is aware that I don’t really spend all my time lolling around and watching TV and consuming the product of the cocoa bean.
How much of Max is in me?
This is not easy to answer. I say not much – Max is brave, organised, likeable and so on. I’m grumpy, argumentative and don’t have red hair.
Other people say quite a lot – they can hear my voice in the things she says. I should point out her language is worse than mine.
We’re both short because they say you should write what you know and I have no idea what it’s like to be tall.
Do I love tea as much as St Mary’s?
Why did I publish A Bachelor Establishment as Isabella Barclay?
A very good question!
There was a bit of a discussion when I submitted the manuscript, but basically it came aboutbecause ABE was so different to anything I’d written before, that it was felt some readers might be disappointed. Especially male readers. I was instructed to think up a new name, and believe me, it’s not easy. I wandered around the house, seriously depleting the world’s supply of Jaffa Cakes and then emailed my editor for help.
‘Something soft and romantic-sounding,’ she said, helpfully, so that was Dirk Thrust kicked into touch.
I had a bit of a think and sat down to make two lists. Forenames and surnames, and then I started to put them together. I have to say I was rather taken with Clare Alexander but she turned out to be someone famous in the publishing world so that was out. Second choice was Gianna Rossi because I saw myself, dark and mysterious, penning deathless literature, but somehow it wasn’t quite right.
The name Isabella was on my list and I thought, ‘Well, why not Isabella Barclay?’ I honestly never thought I’d get away with it, but I did. And yes, I do have some ideas for a couple of Regency Romances, but they have to wait their turn.
That’s the end of Lisa’s questions – thank you very much, Lisa – and before anyone asks – yes, I’ll be straight on with Book 7 as soon as I send this off. It’s coming on quite nicely, and I’ve even made a bit of a start with Book 8.
Happy Weekend everyone!
Sorry there’s been such a long gap since my last post – as most of you know, I’ve been to Cardiff Comic Con and what an exhilarating and exhausting experience that turned out to be.
Firstly, thanks to all the people who turned up at our table, introducing themselves and wanting to chat. It was lovely to meet you all and talk about favourite books and characters in the series. It really does seem that everyone takes something different from The Chronicles of St Mary’s.
Secondly – every other person was in costume and they were all amazing. There were Dr Who’s – in every incarnation – together with Daleks, Cybermen, and Weeping Angels. There was every conceivable character from Star Wars and Star Trek (and unlike Penny in The Big Bang Theory, I do know the difference!) Interestingly, most of the Spocks were women and a significant number of Princess Leias were men. If anyone has any theories as to why that should be so … Game of Thrones was popular and there were several people who’d either come as Transformers or had collided with the contents of their cutlery drawers!
What was most noticeable was the friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone there. A great time was obviously being had by all – even the six-month-old Caped Crusader, beaming at everyone from his dad’s arms and wearing his tiny Batman socks.
Anyway, I arrived home and spent the next few days recovering. I have absolutely no recollection of Wednesday at all. I think I missed it completely. That, my hideous cold and the fact that PEOPLE HAVE BEEN MUCKING AROUND WITH THE CLOCKS AGAIN are all contributing to my already very slender grasp on who and where I am and what’s going on. I suspect that this year it will take even more chocolate than usual to see me through.
I wrote all that last night when my life seemed a little less phlegm-philled than before. Buoyed up by this false dawn of recovery I sallied forth to yoga and spent a lot of time upside down and opening my chakras. Not simultaneously, obviously. Staggering back into the street several hours later with my sinuses blocked and my chakras gaping, I paused only for the traditionally healthy post-yoga treat of egg and chips and a Kit Kat before taking to my bed.
This may be my last blog ever. God knows what I have but it’s pretty nasty so it’s probably best if no one kisses their screens in fond farewell.
…and special Christmas present for lovers of St Mary’s.
A little while ago, I had a thought. Not something that happens too often. I left my smoking laptop, wandered around, made some tea, wandered around a bit more, looked in the fridge, averted my eyes, and finally gave in. I sat back at my desk, pushed aside all the stuff about the Pleistocene Park, Bosworth, and Thurii, and started with a completely clean slate.
The result was a short – no, actually quite long – story about the origins of St Mary’s. How Dr Bairstow assembled his team. Where the money came from. They’re all there – Markham, Guthrie and his security team, Dr Foster, Professor Rapson and Dr Dowson, even Mrs Mack. There’s even a very quick appearance at Waterloo by some old friends. As you can imagine, it was enormous fun to write – there are all sorts of little jokes in there that mean something to me, even if they’re completely incomprehensible to normal people.
Anyway, I sent it off, not completely sure the geniuses at Accent Press would like it, but they did. They liked it so much they arranged for me to go to London to record the story myself – sorry if anyone is expecting another immaculate performance from Zara Ramm – you’ve got a chipmunk with a Bristol accent for this one.
I have to say, it was tremendously enjoyable – the studios are incredible and all the lovely people at Audible made me very welcome. Recording was very much easier than I thought it would be. Note to self: watch what you write in future. Phrases like ‘the unfamiliarly familiar’ should be avoided at all costs. What was I thinking?
As I said, it’s a long short story – about twenty thousand words – and it took a couple of hours to read through. Sadly, there were photos afterwards and I was offered yet another opportunity to display my total unphotogenicness. And yes, I made up that word, partly because I’m a writer and I can and partly because, as yet, the English language contains no word to describe my complete unphotogenicness. A deficiency now rectified.
The Kindle version will come out on Christmas Day. A special Christmas Present from me and my publishers, Accent Press, to all my lovely readers out there. To say thank you for all your support and encouragement.
Click here to order the Kindle edition for only 99p!
So there you go folks. Christmas afternoon – find a quiet corner away from everything (and I’m laughing as I type that!), a glass of something good in one hand, your Kindle in the other and enjoy …
For the free Audible copy click on the image above.
I wrote a few stories as a child. Mostly they dealt with grand themes such as giant robots taking over the earth. Everyone always died horribly at the end. At the age of ten, I wrote a story for a competition in ‘The Pony’ magazine, which was supposed to be about the future of the horse. In my story, the earth had suffered a nuclear apocalypse and everything had perished. I painted a moving picture of the last horse dying in the icy wind, guarding the body of her dead foal. It ended:
Earth’s last horse was dead.
Earth was dead.
It didn’t win.
I entered a poetry competition at school – no, that’s not true. I was given to understand that failure to enter the poetry competition was not an option. The subjects were typically girlie – Clouds, Magic, Kittens – that sort of thing.
After not very much thought and even less interest, I came up with the following, thus doing for cannibalism what Hannibal Lechter did for flower arranging.
In the jungle dark and deep
A cannibal village lies asleep.
But there among the cooking pots
A man’s dead body hangs and rots.
With bones and blood all strewn around
The village sleeps without a sound.
And then, next morning, they awoke
And took the body down to soak
In blood, for over half an hour.
Then coated it in self-raising flour.
Then the women sat and licked it
But the rival village came and nicked it,
So that was the end of that.
A definite improvement in style over Earth Apocalypse, I think everyone will agree. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had Kubla Khan and I had The Cannibal Village. You can see how people would easily confuse the two.
I’d changed schools by this time so a completely different teacher was able to put a red line through my one and only poem and write ‘See me’ at the bottom. I sometimes think the teaching profession was never grateful for the opportunities I offered them.
Most of my school essays were returned with ‘See me’ written at the bottom. Or occasionally at the top if they were particularly exasperated. I do remember having an entire story rubbed out by my form teacher – we wrote in pencil in those days – because, she said, it was full of slang and inappropriate language. It was my second year at junior school and I would have been seven or eight so I’m not sure entirely sure how inappropriate my language could have been. The story concerned a group of children forming a gang to rescue a donkey and she objected to ‘gangs’.
Out of a desire to be as irritating as possible, I put together a little something in which seven year old children spoke to each other in beautifully phrased, well-rounded and grammatically correct sentences (or as close as I could get at the age of eight) and with the vocabulary of the Poet Laureate.
She didn’t like that, either. I saw her again.
Mostly, however, it all went on inside my head – which I think we have already established is not a tremendously healthy place to foster ideas. I was far too impatient to sit down and physically write anything, so in my head it all stayed. And then I had to go to work. And then I had to work some more and it all just got buried.
It wasn’t until I painted that wall in Harrogate – and I really feel there should be some sort of plaque erected. Or a small statue, perhaps – that it all became too much to hold in any longer and I started to write, the results of which you see before you today.
So while it’s not true to say I’ve always written, I have always dreamed.
Yes and yes.
There – I think that answers that question!
Seriously, if I know the event I’m writing about takes place on a rainy day then I have to say so obviously, but from that moment on, a lot of it comes out of my head. Actually, that sounds quite unpleasant, but you know what I mean. When I wrote about the Great Library at Alexandria burning, I was actually there. How hot would it be? What would I smell? How easy would it be to see? To move? What hazards would there be? What could go wrong? What might go right – because, believe or not, sometimes that does happen. What are Max’s reactions to what is going on around her. What will she do next?
So yes, I was there when the roof came down and she was on fire. I was there when she was slowly roasting in her fire suit, unable to breathe properly, sweat stinging her eyes, panicking because her gloved hands couldn’t unfasten her smouldering suit. I was there.
Sorry – I do get carried away – be warned!
At the moment I’m writing about an event in which the weather conditions were the cause of the historical event, so at the moment, I’m looking at storm surges, flood defences, that sort of thing. Again, pages of notes will probably result in half a sentence, but that’s the way it goes. I will go on to try and establish some sort of framework. I’ll draw up a timeline, what happens to whom, when, and where they were when it happened. I’ll make a plan or map and work out how the characters move around. I’ll make sure, as best I can, that what I propose to do is feasible. Having then established a framework, I close my eyes and imagine the terror, confusion, devastation, the cold dirty water …
This actually sums up what I’m trying to do for (and occasionally to) History. As I said in What Could Possibly Go Wrong, yes, we read about Joan of Arc in History books. The story always ends with – and she was burned at the stake in 1431, but that’s just a statement of fact. Dull, dry and boring. Close your eyes. What would it actually be like? How long does it take to burn a body? How did the people present react, always bearing in mind, of course, that our present day values and principles are not those of 1431. Events that would cause shock and horror today were treated much more casually then. Alternatively, of course, a throwaway joke that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow today could win you a fun weekend for one with the Inquisition and end in having your tongue cut out. A town under siege by William the Bastard (or Conqueror as he probably preferred to be known) thought it would be hilarious to poke fun at his less than noble origins. When the town eventually fell, he continued the joke by having their hands and feet cut off.
Back to Joan – sorry, I do wander. Doesn’t your heart go out to my editor? – I researched the event, dates, times, places, etc., drew up my timeline, built my framework, and then inserted Max and the other historians into the picture. From that moment on, my control over events tends to evaporate because, if I’ve done my job properly, everything should unfold in my head, one scene after another as I frantically scribble or type (depending on where I am) trying to get it all down before it dissolves like so much smoke in the wind. And it does. It only takes the telephone to ring, or a voice in the street and it’s gone. That happens heartbreakingly often.
The non-historical events that occur at St Mary’s, of course, are completely fictitious. Mostly. Although yes, I do know someone who did actually run into a horse’s bottom and it’s going to cost him a great deal of money to keep me quiet. The ideas usually shoot into my head while I’m having a bath. No, I don’t know why, either. Interesting material for someone with psychological qualifications, I should think. I keep a pad and pen on the toilet for these little moments and twenty minutes later, I’m sitting in cold, scummy water scribbling away, damp and wrinkled. And that’s just the notebook. My idea to keep a whiteboard in the bathroom was subject to serious mockery.
Does anyone know if there’s such a thing as waterproof paper?
One of my lovely readers has sent me a whole raft of questions about how I write my books which I’m going to try to answer to the best of my ability. There are five or six of them and since she was kind enough to write, I’d like to do justice to them. I’m going to post the replies here . I hope you find them useful. And interesting, too.
The first question was about research. How extensively I do I research the events in my books and what resources do I use.
I do a lot of research. I generally have an idea of where I want to send my historians, and what will happen to them when they get there. From that starting point, I read around the subject, looking for info that will support the story. Sometimes, I find something that directly contradicts what I want to do and with a huge sigh and a quick curse, I have to abandon that particular storyline.
I use only a fraction of my notes, otherwise it’s too easy too sound like a history book, which I really don’t want to do at all. I want people to find History interesting. I know my treatment of events and people is very superficial, but I want to engage people’s interest, and if someone is keen enough to go on to read more after they’ve finished the book then that’s wonderful. From there, they may go to study further and, with luck, will find History as interesting as I do.
Unfortunately, the best resource of all, public libraries, are not available to me. No, I’ve not been banned – just to be clear. Most of my research is done online as I pursue various threads, wandering down interesting but irrelevant paths (I have no self discipline whatsoever), sometimes modifying my story as ideas occur. My sources range from published papers to Wikipedia and everything in between. I consult professional organisations where I can – the Richard III visitor centre were very helpful. I emailed a gas company about the best way to kill someone with an electric fire and once I’d reassured them I had no intention of doing any such thing, they were great. My technical advisor, Phillip Dawson, advises me on police and military procedures and the safety mechanisms of 9mm Glocks. The writer, Tom Williams was of huge assistance with The Stirrup Charge at Waterloo, in my new prequel The Very First Damned Thing. Even the House of Commons got in on the act when I contacted them to check whether women were allowed in public areas in the 19th century.
Research permeates every aspect of the St Mary’s stories. I can’t just say, ‘We ran up the staircase and opened the door at the top.’ because the century will define whether the staircase is of wood or stone. Is it a spiral? Which was does it spiral? Is the door at the top made of wood? Studded? Arched? What size? Must they duck to get through? The door latch – what style? Can it just be lifted or must they turn it as well?
The sad thing is that after all that, I hardly use any of it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of material I had on the War of Jenkins’ Ear and at the end of the day it was just a throwaway line somewhere and I never used any of it.
And it’s not just St Mary’s. When I wrote The Nothing Girl, I knew nothing of donkeys or LandRovers or how to get married in a Register Office or forensic accounting. And for A Bachelor Establishment, I spent days checking out Regency menus.
Really, when you think about it, my ignorance is boundless.
Anyway, I hope that answers the question about research and no one’s eyes are bleeding. I know I go on a bit. The next question is about the detail in my stories. Give me a day or so to put something together and thank you for sticking with me so far.
St Mary’s prequel The Very First Damned Thing is out next month on Audible.