Landscapes of my Mind


Fox_Hunt_1893_Winslow_Homerfox cub shaking its headApart from a few references to creating fantasy worlds, my blog posts so far have dealt with how real locations can be used in fiction to make a point about either the underlying theme, the protagonist’s inner workings or any other topic an author would like to present in the sub-text. But sometimes we take our inspiration from very different sources for the landscapes into which we invite our readers. Not from an Atlas, Google Maps or an old-fashioned globe this time, the inspiration for my book cover and – at least in part – the plot for “Master of the Foxhunt” came from a famous painting.

The landscape painter and printmaker Winslow Homer (1836 to 1910) is a preeminent figure in American art. His beautiful painting “Fox Hunt”, falling so neatly into the Victorian era my ghost story is set in, was the inspiration for my novella’s cover. The story itself, which had been maturing in my head for a long time, was inspired by a real family of foxes who had taken up residence in my garden shortly after I had purchased a flat in London a few years ago. Since hardly a day goes by where I don’t see the bushy tail or tufty ear of an urban fox disappear around a corner these days, it was about time they fox blowing hunting horntook on a starring role in one of my works.

My London flat had been on the market for a while and so the garden was rather overgrown, when I purchased it. Imagine a whole row of Edwardian and Victorian family homes with 90-ft gardens arranged back-to-back and you can picture a ready-made urban heaven for foxes. The dilapidated shed that stood in the wilderness of brambles and tall grass at the bottom of my garden was soon transformed into a look-out station from which Mama Fox and her three cubs would survey their little kingdom each morning, when the sun would warm their pelts, while I was floating in the bath. My large picture window of my bathroom overlooked the garden and afforded me an excellent opportunity to spy on South East London’s urban wildlife.

The family of foxes didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they were quite the little show-offs, yawning widely and stretching out luxuriously of a morning, turning their little furry bellies towards the warming rays of the early sun, reminding me that their work was done while I still had my working day ahead of me!

winking foxWinslow Homer’s wonderful painting is on display at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts and is one of three Homer masterpieces on show, the other two being “North Road Bermuda” and “Eight Bells”. Oil on canvas and measuring 96.5 b 174 cm, “Fox Hunt” was created in 1893 – eight years after the setting of my romantic ghost story, but close enough!

Homer was largely self-taught (like me…but unlike me, he was a hugely gifted painter!). He spent a short time studying oil painting in the spring of 1861, before being sent to the Civil War front in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for the illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly, then a fairly new publication. The time he spent at the front had a profound affect on him and he produced many works about the meaning of war, its impact on people. He was greatly admired by his contemporaries, who found the force of his work and fierce beauty, the drama and dynamic of his compositions deeply moving. Many of his later paintings carry hints of modernist abstraction and I feel “Fox Hunt” is a splendid example of this.

He often depicted scenes of hunting and fishing, producing many evocative and much admired seascapes in the process, but here we enter an unforgiving frosty world, an icy countryside that is beautiful, but deadly.

“Fox Hunt” was his largest painting up to that point, dealing with the depiction of survival in the wild – a subject largely inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and a topic uppermost on many artists’ minds in the final years of the 19th century.  Set in a harsh winter landscape of the Main shoreline, Homer shows us a fox fleeing from a hungry flock of crows. The crow, harbinger of death in mythology for eons, is here not just a messenger but the actual executioner. Looking at the painting one really feels for the fox, its desperate struggle to escape from the trap half-starved crows have sprung on him by ganging up and hunting him as a pack through the deep snow.

Homer surprises us with this reversal of fortune, making the fox the prey. The fox has such a bad reputation as the raider of chicken coops, the cunning hunter of small prey, the sly opportunist who’ll steal your Sunday roast from your patio if you don’t watch out. It is indeed one of Homer’s most powerful and memorable images and a true masterpiece.

My version, of course, isn’t, as is evident from the book cover! However, given that I had to draw this by hand using a mouse pad and my index finger instead of a sweeping paintbrush…it’s hopefully not too insulting to foxes (I challenge thee, Mr Homer, to try your hand on my mouse pad and do better!). No crows this time, although a cheeky reference to them can be found in my story. As the cover shows, the reversal of fortune in my story involves foxes and humans. Since I find “blood sports” abhorrent and regard those who enjoy them as utterly depraved, expect to find foxes who’ll have the upper paw in my novella.

Homer’s “Fox Hunt” was deemed such a powerful work that it became the first of the artist’s paintings to enter a public collection, when the Pennsylvania Academy snapped it up in 1893. What I love about the painting is that our eye is first drawn to the red of the fox’s fur, then the red of the berries of the wild-rose bush, tiny messengers of hope in this harsh landscape, for they signal spring is on its way. With the change of season comes greater availability of food sources for both fox and crow. But then our eye is drawn to the fox’s dark shadow falling across the snow and that implies imminent death – only then do we really take notice of the crows and understand who is the hunter and who the prey in this painting.

Writers are always asked where they take their inspiration from. For once I can actually pinpoint what prompted me to write about a foxhunt and why I set the story in the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign. Just as Homer’s painting is a complex study of the struggle to survive in a hostile world, how writers get their ideas and are able to create landscapes of their mind on paper is a complex topic and a question that isn’t easily answered.

My story, initially a straightforward ghost story, soon took a different turn, in that the main characters insisted it should be a love story that leaves readers with a warm glow on a cold winter’s day, not a horror story that sends even more shivers up and down their spines. I was rather miffed at first, but hey, when your main characters pull into one direction and you strain the other way, something’s got to give in the end. The wise thing is to give in and let them have their own way!

Master of Foxhunt Book Cover with Title and Author Name

Fancy a slice of romantic Victorian ghost story at $0.99? #ebook #MustRead #fantasy Master of the Foxhunt is out! https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/master-of-the-foxhunt/id1080939714?mt=11 

This is the only sales link I’ve received from the publishing platform I used so far, but the ebook should already be available at Kindle, Barnes & Noble, GooglePlay, Kobo etc. ISBN: 978-3-7396-3465-4

Published well in time for Valentine’s Day and much better for the hips than a box of chocolates…but just as satisfying!

 

(Winslow Homer’s “Fox Hunt” as per Wikipedia commons licence, in public domain, all animations via heathersanimations(dot)com, cover for “Master of the Foxhunt”: copyright Maria Thermann)

 

Leprechauns infiltrate Twitter?


flying pixie manYes, you’ve read that correctly! A week into their second promotional adventure on Copromote the pesky little leprechauns shy 9-year-old Linus Brown meets, when he explores his new surroundings in rural Lincolnshire, have managed to charm no fewer than 67 lovely Copromoters into given the ebook a 6,700% boost. To their utter astonishment, 212,933 Twitter followers discovered a sales link to the leprechauns’ ebook in their “in-box”. There’s still one more week to go, so who knows what these sneaky little so-and-so’s will get up to over the next 7 days?

While Linus & The Leprechauns are busily marketing their children’s book on Copromote, their long-suffering creator and co-author is still assessing writing contests for 2016. Here’s one from the wonderful people at Narrative Magazine, if you’re coming over all “literary” and want to submit to the magazine’s submission guidelines:

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/winter-2016-story-contest

Writing Opportunities for Spring 2016


Fox Book Cover

Master of the Foxhunt

 

Birds are tweeting their little heads off, the first fresh green leaves are appearing on our trees. A daffodil or two may even be poking their heads out of the soil to say hello….time to sharpen the old goose feather quill and start thinking about entering writing contests again. And just when I’m recovering from my nasty “festive” cold and start contemplating getting back to creative writing, Aerogramme Studio have helpfully published a list of writing opportunities for February and March this year:

 

Opportunities for Writers: February and March 2016

Loverly people that they are!

Since my nose wouldn’t stop running and prevented me from doing much writing this last fortnight, I’ve re-read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and devoured Susanna Clarke’s marvellous “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” books to get me into a “fantasy” frame of mind for my own writing. I managed to write one chapter of my Merlin fan fiction epic “Let The Questing Begin”, despite coughing my guts out during the process, have managed to start another chapter. The epic adventure is nearly at an end, so will soon be published via Bookrix as a FREE ebook . A lengthy writing sample if you will.

I’m still revamping this WordPress site and Willow the Vampire’s own blog, so hopefully there will soon be a few more reading samples appearing here and on Willow’s bloodsucking WordPress site, too.

Incidentally, what I loved about “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” was the wonderful use of location, magical and real, that the author makes in her book. Couldn’t put it down – and while I admit to have at first been slightly daunted by the enormous size of the book (1,000 pages), after the first few pages I was so hooked, I couldn’t put it down. I’d meant to read the book for ages, but never found the time, so this was a real treat. Who’d have thought that sober, grumpy Yorkshire could be put to such magical and fantastical use?

And if you’re wondering about the picture at the top, it’s the draft for a book cover “Master of the Foxhunt” I’m working on. It’s an old-fashioned ghost story with a dash of black humour that I’ve nearly finished (about 50,000 words long as an ebook). So watch out for the sales links appearing for that soon!

Trotting down new Avenues


Goodreads and Scribd cover for Linus and the LeprechaunsAlthough I usually publish via platform Bookrix(dot)com, I’ve long been looking to broaden the distribution. Now my kids’ ebook “Linus & The Leprechauns” is available via Scribd, which is the world’s largest online library, 24Symbols, which is also subscriber-based, and Page Foundry . It will also be available via Tolino, a huge German ebook sales site, but I haven’t received the link for that, yet. I used Draft2Digital, but encountered a few problems because they are so vague about their upload and artwork requirements, which was really irritating.

They give you the option of doing a print version via Createspace…and tell authors in their “step-by-step-guide” that D2D will handle all the book cover stuff as long as authors send artwork in a specific size…D2D then suddenly tell you that you must send book cover artwork according to Createspace’s requirements, when you get to the point of uploading what you had been told was all that was required…

So why exactly should I choose Draft2Digital for this service, when going directly via Createspace means I can sell immediately via Amazon, but I cannot do so, if I publish the print version via Draft2Digital? I still end up doing all the work on the book cover wrap-around artwork…but am disadvantaged, if I use D2D, because they have yet to reach an agreement with Amazon for print books. Grrrrr.

On the promotional front, I am giving little Linus his second Copromote boost with a Tweet about the book’s presence on Scribd. In the first 24 hours, 18 Copromoters chose to retweet my message, which gave me a 1,800% boost for my Tweet and gave me a reach of 129,640 Twitter followers for my message.

Not a bad start – although I ran out of “credits”, so must accumulate more before the campaign can continue. I began this campaign with ca. 132,000 credits on the free program. Once I can see how all this translates into sales, if any, I shall consider taking the “pro” route on Copromote, which costs $49.99 per month for the basic package. Will keep you posted. It only took me a week to accumulate 132,000 credits, so that’s manageable, if I continue to stay with the free version of Copromote.

Trotting down this unfamiliar avenue is certainly paying off. I discovered that with some of the ebook sales platforms I even get an author’s page (which I’ve yet to complete), so yay! What is also good about publishing via D2D, despite the irritating teething problems, is that it allows me to whet readers’ appetites with a “next in series to be published on…” date, so readers of “Linus & The Leprechauns” can pre-order the 2nd book in the series, something that isn’t offered via Bookrix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Writer Resolution


bare trees in snowSo there we are, another year, another royalty dollar I probably won’t earn…sigh. In an effort to find better ways to promote my writing, I have decided to enter some short story contests in 2016. Not that I expect to win anything, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if I won the first prize in the Stinkforth-upon-Avon short story contest 2016, I might get a place in their anthology and get mentioned in the Stinkforth Daily Bugle…(Willow the Vampire readers will get this one…)

Let’s face it, winning a prestigious short story contest does help to win potential book buyers’ attention. People sit up and pay online when your blurb can boast legitimately “winner of blahblah in 2016”. It gives you credentials, it says you’re not one of millions of self-publishing talentless idiots looking for a pat on the back and peer approval from fellow teen writers. Winning an international contest means some literary greats are likely to have read your story…people in the business, people with publishing and critical acclaim clout behind their namefireworks with happy new year messages.

So here are a few contests I’ll try to brave this year:

The Sunday Times Short Story Prize

It is the world’s richest short story competition, with the winner receiving £30,000 (US$45,000). In 2015 the prize was won by Yiyun Li for her story ‘A Sheltered Woman’. The winner of the 2016 Sunday Times Short Story Prize will be announced on 22 April 2016 and entries for the 2017 prize are expected to open in July 2016.

HG Well Short Story Competition

This one is for stories between 1500 and 5000 words. The 2016 competition theme is space. The shortlisted stories will be published in an anthology. There are prizes in three different categories including £1000 (US$1500) for the best story by a writer aged 21 or under. Entries close 17 July.

Manchester Fiction Prize

It is a major international literary competition open to anyone aged 16 or over. The winner receives a cash prize of £10,000 (US$15,000). Stories can be up to 2500 words in length. The organisers also offer a Manchester Poetry Prize. Entries for both competitions close on 23 September.

Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition

It is an annual short story competition open to writers from around the world. First prize is €2000 (US$2100), publication in the literary journal Southword, and a week-long residency at Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat. Entries are accepted from May to July annually.

And that’s enough to be getting on with. If my lovely clients leave me a bit of spare time, I might write a story for submission to the Bridport Prize and a couple of literary magazines, but more of that in my next blog post. Included in my NY resolution to write more for promotional purposes is also submission to KindleSingle. Since they have an editorial process, there’s a certain amount of street cred to be earned from publishing single short stories via Kindle.

If you’re planning to also enter all or some of the above contests, may the best writer win!

Linus & the Leprechauns proudly count their Copromote retweets


candles with happy new year messageHope you’re all having a great festive few days! As promised, here’s a final update on my Copromote adventure for my children’s book “Linus & The Leprechauns”:

My original tweet was sent on 11th December and the campaign finished on 24th December. Had I not constantly run out of virtual credits, my Tweet would have been boosted even more, but as it is, 85 lovely copromoters retweeted it to their network of followers, giving my original Tweet an 8,500% boost and a reach of 187,817 followers on Twitter. In addition, I bagged more than 100 Twitter followers, quite a few WordPress followers and also got “liked” loads of times. Most of the copromoters, whose own promotional Tweets I had retweeted via my own network of Twitter followers either thanked me or “liked” the Tweet or retweeted it again, giving me additional exposure. It’s been amazing, so I can honestly say, this is one medium that really, really works with regard to creating a bit of buzz for your book/product.

Ho, Ho, Ho, see little Linus go! I don’t know if the campaign had anything to do with it, but I’ve seen a steady increase of readers on Bookrix, the platform I used to publish my ebook. It has been named as one of their “recommended” reads and is every so often coming up in the top five positions, which means the book covers appears on Bookrix’s own landing page.

I will do another Copromote boost for “Linus & The Leprechauns” when the print edition is out. All in all, not a bad way to finish the year…onwards and upwards, slaving away over part two of Linus’s adventures…

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

 

 

There’s no stopping Linus & The Leprechauns thanks to Copromote


Copyright Sarah Chipperfield

What advice will scarecrow give you for your ebook? A promotional road less well travelled?

 

 

It’s not even been a full week of promotion and my kids’ book “Linus & The Leprechauns” has clocked up some impressive stats:

As of this afternoon, when I’d suddenly run out of credits (only 53 left, yeiks!) and had to quickly top up with some more copromotion Tweets, the tally stood thus:

47 copromoters have kindly retweeted by original Tweet of last Friday to their own Twitter networks. That has given me a reach of 91,404 Twitter followers, enhancing my own Tweet by 4,700%.

Every time I copromote somebody else’s Tweet about one of their books or other product, I find that the Tweet’s originators either thank me with a message or click the “like” button, giving me additional exposure. I’m also having a good take-up rate of both Twitter and Copromote followers.

If you are thinking of going for the “Pro” version, I got a wee message this morning saying that there’s currently an 80% discount for that one. The next step up from “Pro” which usually costs $49.99 per month, is priced at $99 per month, which starts you off with a reach of 500,000 credits, and unlimited “boosts” for either your Twitter/YouTube/Vine or Tumblr promotions (or a combination thereof).

Traditionally, kids’ books don’t do so well when it comes to book promotional sites  – many sites that promote books for free or for a small fee don’t even have a YA or kids’ category, so it can be hard to find a good  launch pad. All in all, I find that “Linus & the Leprechauns” are forging ahead far better than expected with Copromote.

Go Linus, go!

NB: Linus Brown is named in homage of the Peanuts and Charlie Brown’s friend “Linus”. Have been to see the Charlie Brown film currently in the cinemas and it’s adorable. Staying true to the original, the film recaps some of Charlie and Snoopy’s adventures, aspirations and dreams. Lose yourself for 93 minutes in this charming world of childhood traumas and small victories!

 

 

Copromoted Leprechauns


508px-Leprechaun_ill_artlibre_jnlHere’s a brief update on how my Copromote efforts are doing for my “Linus & the Leprechauns” ebook:

As per my earlier blog post, I “boosted” one of my Tweets with the help of Copromote last Friday. Since then, 30 copromoters have retweeted my original Tweet, thereby increasing my original reach by 3,000% and allowing me to reach 62,099 people. I’ve also gained both Twitter and Copromote followers in the process.

Whenever I copromote somebody, I have a look at how they’re doing so far. Some of the more popular products (music videos, fitness and health-related stuff, sci-fi and romance books) are retweeted/reposted by so many people, their reach can be 700,000+, even with the free Copromote package. Not bad going, given that such promotions can result in a 1% sales take-up rate. The paid for package ($49.44 per month) allows authors unlimited boosts and starts them off with 200,000 credits, so it’s possible to “boost” promotional Tweets/YouTube videos/Vine entries/Tumblr posts for several different products every month with the paid for service.

Using the free package, I had only 8 credits left this morning, but with some quick copromoting efforts, I’ve cranked up my credits again, so hopefully my little campaign can continue today with more people retweeting my call to arms.

If you want a good laugh today, why not read “Linus & The Leprechauns”  – a book singularly lacking in pots of gold but making up for it with plenty of farting jokes – or simply start promoting your own stuff via Copromote…the results should put a big smile on your face!

Leaving a disappointing Road far too frequently travelled


A grey day for authors who take the Inkitt route

A grey day for authors who take the Inkitt route

Here’s an update on that most peculiar and frankly useless of all new author platforms: Inkitt.

After uploading my submission for their “Wanderlust” competition, I discovered that authors were only granted 200 characters (incl. spaces!) for their bio and there was no space at all to credit the illustrators or artists whose work people had uploaded as their “book cover” for each submission.

Worse, the competition rules prevented those who had fan fiction elements or any other copyright issues to report from doing so. We were told in the contest rules to “upload this on our profiles” but there was no space at all to do so. And when I pointed this out to the site’s support team, I received a patronising message back saying “I’ll see if it’s in the budget”, which was headed by “dearest, dearest Maria”.

Some snotty-nosed girl who is not only helping to judge the entries but also writes on the site had sent the comment and apparently disabled the reply box in order to shut up this critic. Only the first 10% of entries, equating to only around 20 entries on the first page of the site, will be seen by the judges and then, wait for it, all the winner is supposed to get is a “badge”. Yay…(voice trails off and starts belching in disgust).

Entries for the “Romance: Entwined” contest, on the other hand, can expect to be taken more seriously. Why? Because they have to submit at least 40,000 stories to qualify. The site’s founders clearly don’t take the fantasy genre writers seriously, since they could upload at whatever length they wanted and whatever they wanted, including poetry.

The fact that there is no children’s writer section and that all ratings start at 13+ also suggests Inkitt is only interested in writers of the most commercially successful YA genres, but not anyone else. Simply because the majority of their “clientele” is going to be poached from Wattpad’s youthful fan base.

The goal seems clear: just get as many people as possible to upload certain genre writing as possible, don’t allow them to put profiles with any hint of contact details on the site, because authors whose work has any merit may otherwise be contacted directly by literary agents. They might get snapped up before Inkitt can get their claws into these authors and represent them, I guess, in an agent capacity. All it takes is ONE author’s success…think “50 Shades of Bilge” and count how much 10-15% agent’s fee equates to…they won’t have to continue building their site. The site’s founders can simply retire rich and happy there and then.

Can you hear an authors' platform going down the toilet?

Can you hear an authors’ platform going down the toilet?

Two literary friends of mine, both excellent writers in their own right, looked at quite a large number of the entries, and saw that this was yet another Wattpad-thing-without-artistic-merit. So, when we got an email from one of the founders of the site telling us that, instead of sorting out the urgent copyright infringement issues and total lack of author bio-capacity, they were working on some idiotic button that did nothing to address these issues, I deleted my contest entry and told them to also delete my profile. The email, rather predictably, also urged people to “read” and not just click the “vote” button without staying longer on the site.

Naturally, when people don’t read the stories to the full, the founders of the site cannot prove their supposedly super-duper-foolproof-bestseller-finder software actually works. This is, of course, where the whole thing falls flat on its face: my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of readers on these sites are people who simply consume FREE reading material ferociously without EVER voting or liking or “hearting” anything at all, simply because they are too lazy.

And the majority of those youngsters who do vote or like or “heart” authors’ works do so only for their own friends’ work, and quite probably without bothering to read the stories. If the friend wins a competition or gets offered a publishing deal…well there are selfie opportunities galore and reflected glory in heaps to look forward to.

Enough ranting. Here’s something more cheerful for storyteller hearths:

If any real bookworms out there were trying to find my story, following my earlier blog posts, they can now read “A Road less well travelled” online, for FREE, by becoming Bookrix members. I’ve uploaded the story as an ebook, which is now titled “Linus & The Leprechauns”. It’s free to become a member of Bookrix and the English language side of the platform has a really friendly community with a good mix of young and older, more experienced writers.

Here’s the link to it: http://www.bookrix.com/_ebook-maria-thermann-linus-amp-the-leprechauns

I’ve also uploaded the story FREE for Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/404710?chapter=12

Hearts, likes and whatever honest review words you feel you’d like to leave will be gratefully accepted:)

(Illustration on this page: Black and white version of book cover for “Linus & The Leprechauns”, illustration copyright Sarah Chipperfield, reproduced by kind permission)

Calling all Fantasy Travellers: Please choose A Road Less Well Travelled!


This is the specially commissioned art work for the story, created by the fabulously talented illustrator Sarah Chipperfield.

This is the specially commissioned art work for the story, created by the fabulously talented illustrator Sarah Chipperfield.

Yay! I’ve done it, I’ve mastered the complicated upload process at Inkitt.com and have finally managed to publish my children’s fantasy story “A Road Less Well Travelled”!

Here’s the link to it, should you like to read it:

http://www.inkitt.com/stories/23849

So now I’m humbly asking all you travelling bookworms out there, please READ, LOVE and VOTE in the Inkitt “Wanderlust” writing contest. Even if you don’t like my story, there’s bound to be some talented writer’s entry that will appeal to you. Kick off your dusty wanderer’s boots, pour yourself a cup of reviving coffee by your very own storytelling hearth and bookworm your way through some Fantasy genre stories. Never read anything from this genre before? Be a daredevil and, just like Linus, the 9-year-old hero of my story, take a road less well travelled to discover new literary horizons.

Sarah Chipperfield, the amazing young woman who created the banner art work for my Inkitt entry, has already worked on some other illustrations for me, completing two great covers for the soon to be published “The House Detective” (children’s book) and “Inspektor Beagle ermittelt: Ein lauwarmer Krieg” (German language whodunit for grown-ups). She’s also done the first drafts of fantastic illustrations for an Early Readers book we’re doing together, which stars a very blue, very cute little alien called Flippety Floppet. If you beg me very nicely, I may let you borrow Sarah for book cover illustrations for your own novels! (Bribery works very well with me…like voting for my story in the Inkitt contest, hehe).

And speaking of writing contests: did I mention yesterday that the Thriller Writing Contest at Bookrix wants contestants to use one sentence from the HP Lovecraft story “The Music of Erich Zann”? Well, if I forgot to mention it, you’ll know now.

“A Road Less Well Travelled” will eventually be published in ebook and print format as “Linus and the Leprechauns”, but I’ll let you know nearer the time, where it’s going to be published.

Gripped by a strange Wanderlust


heathersanimations.comFor a while now I’ve been looking around for stress-free writing contests I might like to join and, by a lucky coincidence, I came across this one: http://www.inkitt.com/wanderlust?utm_campaign=fantasy&utm_source=twitter when I was merely looking through my daily aboutme(dot)com views and compliments for my own page and Twitter follow requests. Having hooked up with Inkitt via Twitter and looked at this fairly new, Berlin-based website for writers, I liked what I saw and am now furiously writing a short story for their Fantasy contest, a competition closing at noon on 24th September.

I had two story ideas about the subject “Wanderlust” right away. this, by the way, is a German word, meaning being suddenly gripped by the desire to wander, to leave the familiar surroundings behind and explore new horizons. The story entries I’ve read so far on the site have been hit-and-miss with regard to the meaning of the title – I suspect the writers didn’t really know what Wanderlust means.

It’s an expression that probably stems from the century-old tradition of Germany’s apprentices making their way in the world and completing their apprenticeships to the level of “master craftsman” by seeking out new masters in their professions in other parts of the country – or other mini-kingdoms, since Germany hasn’t been a united country for all that long and used to comprise of many different kingdoms.

Artisan guilds were incredibly powerful and had widespread connections across many of these mini kingdoms and dukedoms. Crafts like being a carpenter, joiner, blacksmith, silversmith etc dressed up in their Guild’s unique outfits, complete with colourfully dressed hats, and take to the wide open roads in search of a new employer where they could complete their apprenticeships. You can still see them to this day, though not that often as one did, when I was a small child some 50 years ago. Wanderlust is what sent me to the UK all those years ago…and here I still am, although my itchy feet have taken me to all sorts of places in Britain over the decades.

If you can think of a suitable Fantasy genre story for the theme “Wanderlust”, why not enter in Inkitt’s friendly competition? There’s no entry fee and, alas, no cash prize, but readers on the site vote for your stuff and leave, hopefully constructive, comments. See you at Inkitt then, WP’s fabby fantasy authors!

Too much of a wizarding good Thing


Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Review of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

One of the celebrated classics of the fantasy genre, Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, is my final choice for inclusion in this “location” focussed series of book reviews. It’s Le Guin’s first novel of the Earthsea series (four books in total) and, I’m sorry to say, a perfect example of how one can have too much of a good thing.

This is a fantasy author who has so fallen in love with the fictional world she has created, she treats us to endless descriptions of island after island that make up Earthsea’s vast archipelago. I had to force myself to read to the end, caring neither about the protagonist Ged’s fate nor that of Earthsea. Clearly, there was only enough plot to fill a short story, not a novel. To disguise this fact, Le Guin enlarged her meagre story with endless descriptions of island locations.

At Sea without a Paddle or a Compass

Plot: Young Ged, a mage with unrivalled powers, makes a terrible mistake as a young boy, summoning a dark and evil shadow from the realm of the dead, which now haunts him and threatens the safety of Earthsea, unless he can find a way to send the thing back to where it came from. To keep him safe and give him a chance to rid himself off this shadow, his mentor sends him to Roke Island and a wizard school, where Ged promptly summons the beasty again, which then mauls him and escapes into the world of the living.

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

It’s really a modern morality play, with Ged finally discovering his own true self and that too much power invariably corrupts. Puffed up like a giant puffer fish, the story takes us from Ged’s home island of Gont right across to the West Reach and then back again to the East Reach and finally to The Open Sea, as Ged and a variety of handmade little boats flit around the Earthsea world. He meets a few dull characters and an evil sourceress and king, has his pet killed and finally meets up again with an old school chum, Vetch, before confronting the dark thing that haunts him.

As dry as an Icelandic Fish

If this book had been published in the mid-70s and not, as it was, in 1968, I doubt it would ever have become the bestselling fantasy classic that it is today. The only thing, in my opinion, that lifts it out of mediocricy, is that all protagonists are non-white, an utterly new and astonishing concept back in the days when apartheid blighted the planet and race relations in the USA were pretty bad.

Since Ged is not a very likeable hero, it is hard to feel any compassion for him or to identify with this proud, jealous and hot-headed wizard. The reader is forced to constantly leaf back to the map so thoughtfully provided by the publishers, since Ged flits from island to island during his quest and it’s easy to get muddled. All of them are rather boring places, excepting two, where Ged has his greatest adventures. The rest are windswept, barren rocks in the sea or places with a few fields and small towns where nothing ever happens. What was this author thinking???

Almost devoid of dialogue and certainly devoid of all humour, the novel bobs along like Ged’s little boat on the open sea, now and again throwing up an Earthsea legend like a flying fish, before sinking back into paddleboarding pace. Reading this book is like chewing on dried Icelandic cod without the hope of getting one’s hands on a life-saving pint of ale.

Spoilers ruin the briny Broth

Towards the end, when there’s finally a bit of tension and build-up of drama, Le Guin spoils the briny broth she serves up by informing us that Ged’s future holds various famous adventures. Great, he survives and so does Earthsea? Thanks a bunch for this spoiler, Le Guin, I might as well close the book at this point and read something a bit more entertaining now!

As empty as a sucked-out Lobster’s Claw

The dark shadow's watching you, Ged!

The dark shadow’s watching you, Ged!

Fantasy authors are often accused by non-genre writers, who believe they’re far more literary worthies, that they are obsessed with location. While it is true that location plays a far greater role in fantasy novels – the writer has to invent a whole world with its own rules, political and religious environment, animals, plant life etc – endless descriptions of locations will not please readers and certainly shouldn’t be used to substitute plot.

Le Guin’s story lacks content, it is as devoid of substance as a seagull-mugged oyster. And I fear, Le Guin falls squarely into the quarter of accused fantasy writers who have chosen fluff over meaty content. Every time when she should be moving her plot foward, she meanders off into Earthsea legends or songs or yet more descriptions of rocks in the sea.

It is the protagonists that readers engage with, the action and drama between them that make readers turn the page. No matter how lyrical a writer thinks their prose it, the reader will always choose action over location descriptions. In fact, I remember passing over the lengthier descriptions in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s books, leaving such trivial matters for a second reading.

Location should always serve to enhance the reader experience and catapult the plot forward, not stand in for the plot or help the author to puff up a short story into a full length novel. For that reason, I won’t bother reading Le Guin’s remaining Earthsea stories. Having experienced about 60 locations of the island’s archipelago during the course of the first novel, I prefer to read something a bit more earthy.

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

While I apreciate that this first volume was supposed to introduce the reader to the Earthsea legends and magical archipelago, endless flitting about from island to island without any kind of action happening, once Ged gets there, is really not my idea of a ripping good yarn. Location, location, location, in this instance, is just a step (sea mile) too far.

Twimagination’s as dead as a Dodo


Edwards'_Dodo public domainBeware, this is a rant! Twimagination is as dead as a dodo as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not having a good time with technology this week.

Firstly, it took me ages to find a WordPress template that would at least vaguely work for my new German language blog Inspektor Beagle ermittelt.

Secondly, I have just wasted my valuable time signing up to Twimagination, Twitter’s new application for authors and poets. If you launch a new application aimed at one of the largest user groups on your platform, it seems like a good idea to test the wretched thing actually works, wouldn’t you agree? Not the Tweet-Empire.

So far there are less than 500 authors on it by the looks of it (I called up English and German language options), so perhaps others like me tried and gave up or word is out that it’s not a good place to be. Who knows. What I do know is that I shan’t be back.

What’s worse, after advertising grandly that one can upload one’s book links with cover, description and blurb, the wretched thing won’t work. Try browsing and then uploading a cover for your book and you’ll see what I mean. Naturally, the Tweet Team have NOT installed a friendly HELP button anywhere, so I’ve simply written a rude message to my own timeline and hope that somebody way more tech savvy will see it and give Twitter what for, as they say in English.

What has irritated me more than anything is that there is no proper explanation anywhere of what one is to do to use the new application to its full potential. We don’t all work at Twitter, are probably not all related to their cyber geeks…so how are we to know what Twitter intended us to do, especially when things don’t work as they should do?

Even more irritating, when you add the link to your book into the little box, a message comes up that tells you Twitter may alter the link to another online bookseller, if that happens to be one of their partners. This means if you’re trying to point readers to your print edition or promote yourself as a writer for a specific publisher, Twitter may well alter it to $0.99 or ebook edition on Ebay, where somebody else may have illegally posted it, just because Twitter’s got a partnership with Kindle or whoever they partner with. The whole point of using this damn platform for brand building and promotional purposes from a writer’s point of view is to use social media more effectively, and to target a specific market segment, while at the same time showcasing one’s work to a wider audience.

Twimagination clearly has a lot to learn when it comes to writers’ imagination and aspirations for their work.

And, while I’m ranting about bl**dy cheeky platforms, would you believe those awful Wattpad people apparently tried to link to my post Bye Bye Red Room! Deleted at this end faster than you can say sign-up-with-Jukepopserials-you-guys for there you’ll be treated with respect.

 

 

Finding the right Pitch


220px-HMCoSecondEdHobbitsThis blog is predominantly about location and what role location plays within our writing. However, location is also important when it comes to selling your book: namely where to start looking for readers and what slot in the market place your book might fit into. In other words, this post is about aiming at the right pitch so that author, literary agent/publisher and readers sing from the same hymn sheet:)

Time and again I read blog or Google+ posts where writers have written a book without determining FIRST who they are writing for. Now they are sitting on a doorstop of a novel and have no idea where it would fit into the book market. They bemoan in their blogs that they’ve had nothing but rejection letters and cannot think why their 140,000 epic can’t find a publisher or literary agent.

Their location problem is twofold:

Firstly:

Any publisher or literary agent will want to know what readership the manuscript is aiming at and would not take a writer seriously if they haven’t taken the time to acquire the most basic industry knowledge. If the writer can’t be bothered to concern herself with her potential readership BEFORE starting a book, why then should a literary agent or publisher spend their valuable time reading her manuscript? 240px-MaxMoritz

Ask yourself this:

Would you want to take a taxi ride with a driver who has never even looked at the street map of the city you’re in?

Would you want to buy shares in a company where the board of directors never bothered doing market research to discover who might actually buy their product?

If the answer is NO to both questions, then:-

Take time and trouble to make sure the story you are planning to write can be positioned correctly in the market place BEFORE you’re even outlining your plot. If you don’t get the readership issue sorted out first, you’re inviting trouble.

220px-Fairy_Tales_(Boston_Public_Library)Re-writes take much longer than getting it right in the first place. And that’s what a literary agent or publisher would ask you to do, if your story is essentially good and well written but doesn’t fit into any niche/genre or marketable slot. Always think of your book as a marketable product first, before considering how your friends and loved ones might look upon what you’ve written. An author is a seller of products – if you think your words are too precious to be changed to please your readers…get out of the publishing game!

A publisher or literary agent doesn’t want to waste time with lengthy re-writes, for it means getting editorial staff involved and that costs money. And books that weren’t written for a specific target audience will inevitably have to be rewritten.

12 notebook and pencilWhen you submit your story to a professional, you should be able to state clearly in the covering letter what type of reader your book is for, e.g. what age range are you aiming at? Will the book appeal to boys or girls, men or women, horror fans, sci-fi geeks or romance readers?

What other essential landmarks do you need to consider BEFORE writing your book?

Ask yourself this:

Are established children’s or YA writers addressing abstract issues in their best sellers?

Nope, they are not, for such subjects are firmly for adult book readers. Seasoned YA and children’s writers deal strictly with issues that children and young adults can relate to and understand.

Are best-selling children’s and YA writers presenting epic doorstops of 140,000 words to their young readers?

Nope, they know better than to irritate their precious pint-sized readers with such book lengths!

Think LITTLE HANDS…don’t like to hold HEAVY books. Children are conservative in their reading habits. Like me, they prefer their books to be tangible and physical not virtual. Forget about selling tons of e-books to wee readers. Kids love real books best. Quite right!

Astrid Lindgren wouldn't have made such a rookie mistake!

Astrid Lindgren wouldn’t have made such a rookie mistake!

The best location you can be at for your research is a children’s and YA book shop or the relevant section in your local library. What’s flying off the shelves? Who’s sticking their chocolate-covered nose into picture books and who is really hogging teen novels?

AND RESEARCH BEFORE YOU START WRITING.

When you submit a manuscript the literary agent or publisher wants to find out what YOU are about as a writer. Nobody wants to work with a rank amateur who doesn’t want to spend the time doing even the most basic of research into marketing and promoting their book. Researching your potential readership is as essential to selling a book as writing a gripping story and having writing talent.

So at the risk of repeating myself:

If you’re currently gnawing your pencil with a big frown on your face, pondering if the 140,000 word epic fantasy novel you’ve written could possibly be promoted to a YA readership or even be squeezed into the children’s literature market, think again. How long is the average children’s or YA book? Well, it’s not 140,000 words, for that is an adult reader’s book length.

Age range 8 – 12 will tackle books with a max. word length of 80,000, which is the minimum requirement for an adult length novel for most publishers. So your 140,000 word epic should not be aimed at the children or YA market – if you must bother young readers with such an epic doorstop, then write it as two books of 70,000 words, each one a complete story in itself but marketable as a series of two. For younger age ranges storybook texts have typically no more than 600 – 1,000 words. And the 5 -7 age range will go up to around 10,000 words in books that still carry pictures.

Secondly, where should you pitch your book?

Don’t send out your manuscript willy-nilly to every publisher that crops up on your Twitter feed.

Take time to research the literary agents and publishers who deal in the genre or age group you want to write for.

Who do the agents represent?

The right pitch can be worth millions...

The right pitch can be worth millions…

If their portfolio contains authors who write similar books to yours, e.g. picture books or age group 8-12 or YA readers, then it’s a safe bet they’ll be interested in your manuscript.

If the majority of their authors are crime writers, non-fiction authors or romance novelists, don’t send in your YA manuscript. It seems so terribly obvious and yet, so many writers out there get this wrong. If the literary agents’ or publishers’ website says “we currently don’t accept submissions” – then DON’T bother these good people with your manuscript!

Send your manuscript only to those literary agents and publishers you have identified as relevant for your type of readership and who currently ask for submissions. You stand a far better chance of getting accepted and won’t get frustrated with zillions of rejections.

green bookBe sure to follow each and every submission guideline you are given by the individual literary agency or publisher and submit your manuscript EXACTLY as requested or you’ll end up at the bottom of the slush pile or worse, in the reject pile without being read at all.

(picture source Wikipedia; animation source heathersanimations.com)

Am I too late for Spring Cleaning?


Willow the Vampire & Sacred Grove for Buchrix I’d been looking for ages through new WordPress themes to find the right new layout for Willow the Vampire’s blog site and now I’ve finally found it. Am still tweaking things, but it’s beginning to look much more like I wanted the site to look like in the first place, all those years ago when I first braved the world of blogging. It’s good to “spring clean” one’s blog from time to time, to think of new themes or perhaps to catch up with old ones that have been lying abandoned, but not forgotten, in the dusty drawers of one’s writer’s mind.

My latest WIP, The House Detective, is another of those semi-abandoned projects that I recently unearthed during a spring clean – and now I’m writing again, with chapter nine progressing nicely and with ideas for a second book. No doubt there are writers out there who are organised and can stick to one book project at a time, but I am a “fluttermole” who gets so many ideas that they have to wait their turn, get written as an outline and then shelved until the hamster wheel inside my head builds up enough momentum to spew out the next writing phase.

der kleine maulwurfAnd just like Mr Mole abandons his spring cleaning for going on adventures with Mr Badger, Mr Toad and Ratty the Great, my mind tends to stray into other imaginary worlds where my fictional heroes leave their current setting and have their big and small adventures somewhere else, before coming home and sheepishly finishing their “homework” with dull-old-me and the setting originally intended for them.

two big booksHaving started on this belated spring cleaning of my mind (and my dusty, coffee-stained laptop drawer), I have begun to prioritise the writing projects under the heading “bits with the greatest chance of commercial success”. Not that this has ever been a motivating factor in my writing before; I write mainly because I MUST or I’ll get carted off by men in hospital uniforms and bundled into their smelly white vans. But I feel that it’s time to bring some order into the chaos and since there has to be some heading with a number one, two, etc below, I might as well “follow the money trail” and see where this takes me. A writing friend of mine has been sending her book to various agents for the past couple of years, and after long deliberation I have decided to do the same. Will keep you posted on any rejection letters that are meaningful or entertaining:)

When was the last time you had a spring clean of your writing drawer? Did you unearth any gems?

Willow book cover1You can find Willow the Vampire’s shiny new blog here at WordPress: http://willowthevampire.com. Stop by stop by and meet the residents of Stinkforth-upon-Avon. Be sure to take some garlic along or you might find yourself the main course at Willow’s dinner table.

 

(artwork copyright Maria Thermann; animation sourced from heathersanimations.com)

 

Watch the Soap in your Writing


bat-1 bat and moonSince Easter was the usual rain-soaked affair here in the UK I indulged in a little downtime and re-watched old “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes on Netflix. After several years of absence from Joss Whedon’s “Buffy-verse” I greatly enjoyed meeting Buffy, Zander, Willow, Anya, Tara, Angel and Spike again.

What struck me watching this ground-breaking series this time round was that truly great writers always allow their characters to grow and develop to their full potential within a story arch but only within the boundaries of that particular character’s personality. Integrity is a much underrated quality, yet it is that very character trait in both writer and their creations that will lure readers and TV audiences back again and again.
For example, a small town girl or boy is far more likely to reach conclusions and make choices based on their upbringing than suddenly come up with a solution that falls totally out their normal experiences and understanding, something that would be more logical to adopt for a big city girl or boy. We are very much influenced by our surroundings – our natural habitat if you like – and our choices in life reflect just that.

Honey good, soap bad

Writers and TV producers who don’t seem to have grasped this simple principle (what I usually call the Jane Espenson school of bad writing and producing) have strong female characters like Gwen (played by Eve Myles) in Russell T. Davies “Torchwood” suddenly turn into blithering, simpering idiots in Torchwood Series 4 (under the ill-fated leadership of producers Starz). Audiences and critics hated series 4 so much that Torchwood came to an abrupt end – I bet most people didn’t even bother watching all of series 4, because it was so bad; I stopped watching half-way through the second episode.HumanRobot

It had lost all of its Cardiff-induced charm and Welsh cultural heritage, and its main protagonists were transformed to suit American audiences without the slightest attempt being made to keep what the existing fandom would have perceived as the essence or main character traits.

Sometimes we, the audience, notice that lines that were obviously written for totally different characters are now spoken by another character simply because the writer or producer didn’t want to waste what’s in the script but can’t grasp who should “speak” the lines (BBC’s Merlin producers Capps and Murphy, according to some of the show’s actors). It throws a story out of balance, makes the reader or TV audience instantly switch off their suspended belief.

They stop identifying with the characters and thus the “magic” is gone. In TV terms this means the viewer either switches off, goes to make a cup of tea or stops watching the show completely. In book terms it means you’ve lost a reader who won’t buy the next book from your series. You want to build a honey trap and lure your audience into your story, not cover the road in soap flakes and trip them up en route.

Doctor, this girl has lost her head…and backbone

As soon as our favourite characters do or say things that are out of character, we the writers or TV producers had better come up with a believable explanation or we’re screwed. Example of hit-and-miss characterisation: “Willow” in Buffy the Vampire is grieving so much over the death of her lover that she uses her magic powers to such terrible ends, she nearly destroys the world. She hunts down her lover’s murderer and flays him alive.

green bookYet, almost at the very beginning of the next series she’s seduced by a pretty but awful girl called Kennedy and the two start a relationship without anyone ever mentioning the dead lover again. Since Kennedy is supposed to be in her early teens (15) and has neither magic powers nor interest in the subject, the relationship is reduced to a purely physical one – totally out of character for Willow.

When I began to analyse my instant loathing to the Kennedy character I realised it was not simply because she was portrayed as a lesbian predator (beware of cliché) but because Willow’s character had suddenly taken a total nose-dive in my estimation. We’d gone from a young woman who grieved over losing the love of her life to a Willow character who seeks instant gratification with somebody whom she normally wouldn’t have given the time of day to, let alone start an affair.

While some allowances have to be made for people grieving, I simply stopped believing in the Willow character as it had been portrayed within the Buffy-verse. She had lost her head and her backbone.

This type of writing – in TV, film sequels and in series of books – could be called the “soap” effect, where writers run out of ideas or can’t be bothered to think within the boundaries they’ve set for their primary and secondary characters. Writers will use the next sensational thing, the next explosion in Hollywood terms, to carry the plot. It happens most frequently in soap operas, where the pressure to create ever bizarre and sensationalist plot lines makes script writers lose their heads completely.

The internal journey your characters undertake throughout each and every book in your series should remain within the boundaries of each person’s traits of character.

In the Buffy-verse both slayerette Cordelia and vampire Spike are on the road to redemption, but they continue to be sarcastic and uncomfortably insightful; the former is a vain, shopping obsessed brat, the latter a serial killer at heart. Their wish to atone for earlier sins does not turn them into fluffy bunnies. They ultimately remain what they were, but gain greater knowledge of themselves that may help them to become a more useful member of society.

So if your readers like their slayers to be strong, vampires to be dark and brooding and slayerettes to stand up to scrutiny, remind yourself once in a while throughout your series-writing that trying to rub soap into your readers’ eyes won’t sell more books long-term. Fans you’ve won can be easily lost when strong characters turn flaky and weak characters’ faces are no longer covered in mud (or egg, if you’d like to return to my initial Easter theme).

How homely can a northern Castle be?


St Fagans Castle rear entrance

St Fagans Castle rear entrance

In my recent blog post about St Fagans, the National Museum of Wales, I promised to tell you a bit more about St Fagans Castle, which is a Grade 1 listed building and ranks as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan manor houses in Wales – or anywhere, really.

Unfortunately, one isn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so all I can offer you here are some pictures I took of the outside and the lovely gardens. It’s a truly inspirational place for writers of fantasy and historic fiction, for it represents a real Welsh family home rather than the great fortresses built by the English to keep the Welsh from transgressing across the border and revolt.

The original manor house was constructed in 1580 on the site of a much earlier castle that dated back to the 13th century but was destroyed in 1536.

St Fagans Castle front entrance with cistern

St Fagans Castle front entrance with cistern

Like all aristocratic families, the manor’s Victorian owners followed the motto “if you’ve got it flaunt it” so they spent much of their income on remodelling and refurbishing their manor in the 19th century, when Cardiff’s high society grew fat and rich on the proceeds of mining and shipping. Inside the manor house visitors get to see collections spanning four centuries, including original furniture dating back to  when the house was first constructed.

Italian Garden urn

Italian Garden urn

St Fagans walled gardens

St Fagans walled gardens

Upon entering St Fagans Castle one feels that this has always been a family home – it doesn’t feel like a museum’s piece or one of those grand country houses, those stately homes of England, many of which were erected with money from the slave trade and adorned with Adams fire places and gilded Venetian mirrors that were paid for with the lives of thousands of African men, women and children. One could, of course, argue that the manor houses of Wales were built and paid for by virtual slave labour and exploitation of Welsh miners, for most  aristocrats based in Wales seem to have had a finger in the mining-pie at one time or another and loathed to spend money on improving living and working conditions of their “subjects”.

While most medieval castles and 18th century country estates are cold, echo-y and cavernous, St Fagans is a cosy country house, a family home that once belonged to Lord Robert-Windsor, who later became the Earl of Plymouth. He kindly donated St Fagans Castle along with 18 acres of land to the National Museum Wales in 1946. Perhaps trying to make up for past wrongs done to the Welsh mining public?

 

A Welsh cottage kitchen centuries ago

A Welsh cottage kitchen centuries ago

Come on a lovely spring day – choose the middle of the week or you get trampled by the crowds – and stroll through the gorgeous gardens that surround the castle on all sides.

The Italian Garden was created in 1902 and features several ponds. It was restored – to much acclaim – in 2003 and still contains many original features. So far I’ve yet to discover the thyme garden, but I have located the secret walled rose garden, an absolute delight on a hot summer’s day, as one can escape both the crowds and the hot sun for a quarter of an hour and recover in this tranquil and shady place.

Throughout the grounds of the museum there are wonderful man-made landscape features to explore; the real beauty is that one seems to come upon them unawares, as if by magic they had just appeared out of the mist. From fish ponds and mill streams to pretty fountains, from covered walkways and mulberry groves, to vinery, cottage gardens and vegetable patches from WWII, from woodland areas and farmyards to Anglo-Saxon round-house villages and 19th century shopping mall – soak up St Fagans’ past, breathe in deeply and inhale every-day-Welsh-history and when you get home, let it flow out of your fingertips and populate your laptop’s memory.

St Fagans Castle duck

St Fagans Castle duck

Gardens tell us so much about the Welsh people who once lived in these homes; rich or poor, Elizabethan castle dwellers in their embroidered finery and furs or humble prefab bungalow citizens in their 1950s petticoats, they all have one thing in common: they are part of Welsh history and equally important, when a writer needs inspiration for their characters!

St Fagans Castle is not imposing, not even that richly furnished. It has nothing of the grand regal gesture of Caerphilly Castle about it nor is there a whiff of Castle Coch’s romance and memories of courtly love present at St Fagans Castle. However, for my money St Fagans Castle is a real homely northern castle, one where I could envisage having been part of a busy household – perhaps as medieval seamstress pricking an amorous squire with my needle to put him in his place or maybe as cook preparing the master’s spit roasted piglet or plucking pheasant’s feathers after the hunt. Not unlike a modern day writer plucking the best bits from ordinary people’s past and using their lives to create a new hi-story.

Don't forget to bring some bread for the pond life in the Italian gardens

Don’t forget to bring some bread for the pond life in the Italian gardens

If folklore, heritage and locations like this one influence and inspire your writing, be sure to visit St Fagans Folklore Museum one day, but if you can’t visit, here’s a virtual tour:

http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/2241/

(copyright for all photographs: Maria Thermann; animation gif source: heathersanimations.com)

Fan Friction


Feel the fan love?

Feel the fan love?

While many authors don’t give a flying fig about fan fiction and are quite happy to let their fans’ imagination run riot, I was rather surprised to read the other day that some best-selling novelists object to this form of flattery and think it’s a rip-off.

Vampire writer Anne Rice is reputedly just one of a whole pantheon of authors who won’t allow fan fiction under any circumstances. Under a new ruling Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories can now be shamelessly exploited for the purpose of fan fiction, provided the characters and scenarios date back to before a certain time of original publication.

Which famous road movie am I thinking of?

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, the fried Kentucky version

This will permit fan fiction writers to indulge in whatever they like to do with Sherlock and Dr Watson, for provided they do not impinge on what Conan Doyle wrote after the stipulated date, fan fiction writers have been given a free hand. Note how the BBC’s series “Sherlock” skates always within the permitted perimeter and doesn’t venture out into the later Sherlock stories at all. The mind boggles, how Sir Conan Doyle would greet the Cumberbatch treatment his sleuth has received in an attempt to make the famous detective stories more enjoyable for a modern audience.

My first reaction was: “Get over yourself authors, fan fiction is not plagiarising! Something original and fun is being created here. Somebody’s just enhancing your storylines, having fun with your characters and worlds because they love them so much. You should be flattered and humbled!”

Willow's gone mad!

Willow’s gone mad!

But then I started thinking how I would feel if somebody, a total stranger somewhere in the universe, started writing Willow the Vampire stories that were based on my little heroine and my Stinkforth-upon-Avon-verse.

  • What if they turned my feisty Willow into a silly giggling bimbo?
  • Or painted her lips and nails Barbie-pink?
  • Or forced my poor defenceless vampire to carry a Gucci handbag instead of her customary fang-some grin?

You say Flattery, I say Fiddlesticks

Let’s face it, the worlds and characters we create are the fictional equivalent of our children. Would we want some total stranger invent a weird scenario for our kids to star in? I think NOT.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so big-headed as to assume a sudden onslaught of readers would rush to create Willow the Vampire fan fiction, but stranger things have happened in this universe, right?

Just think of the annual occurrence of the Easter Bunny laying eggs or the mysterious place where single socks go when you’re sure both members of a pair made it into the washing machine!

Fan Fiction writers hitting the jackpot with Kindle World?

Fan Fiction writers hitting the jackpot with Kindle World?

After grinding my teeth for a while and a few involuntary growls escaping my lips, I could sympathize with Anne Rice and Co.

When Flattery back-fires

Most fan fiction, it has to be said, is truly awful and was written by hormone-infested teenagers who fantasize about the characters in an unsavoury way. However, there is also some outstanding fan fiction being published on various reputable websites; some of the fans’ writing turns is actually better than the original!

And this may be the real crux of the fan-fiction matter, the reason why some writers, namely those with a fragile ego and jittery writing hand have such problems with the concept of fan fiction. Before Anne Rice rushes to the phone to call her lawyers, I’m not naming names here!

It's raining royalties!

It’s raining royalties!

But it has to be said that, despite huge “box office” success, some best-selling authors aren’t actually that good as writers. They just happened to be handing in their manuscript at the right time and place, and were lucky to find a literary agent or publisher who really went to town on the marketing and promotion side, because the manuscript captured the prevailing Zeitgeist. Hey presto, a best-seller is born, even if critics pan the book and subsequent movies make us yawn.

So maybe, if a multitude of readers for some peculiar reason should suddenly decide to write Willow the Vampire fan fiction, I should view this not as flattery or affront, but as a way to capture different facets of my heroine, namely those that have escaped me, but were noted by readers. Maybe I should accept that as a writer I can learn something from what a reader imagines when reading my stories and meeting my characters?

author Anton Aardvark wrote "From here to Ant-ernity"

author Anton Aardvark wrote “From here to Ant-ernity”

In a fantasy line up of writers giving your characters and worlds a “make-over”, which authors would you choose and why?

A Homely Northern Castle Revisited


Come and warm yourself by the fire

Come and warm yourself by the fire

I redesigned and renamed this blog to honour the age-old Welsh tradition of storytelling, usually done when the harvest was in and people gathered by the fireside or hearth after a good feast. Where’s this particular splendid fireplace from?

Ages ago I promised you a return visit to this castle because the pictures I’d found at the time didn’t really get across how vast the site and castle really are. This is a fireplace from one of the master chambers and I guess it’s big enough to roast a medium sized wild boar or goat, if you don’t fancy climbing down draughty stairs to reach the kitchens (right next to the smelly dungeons).

It was just fantastic to see the room proportions, the height of the ceiling, the narrow winding staircases and enormous fire places – it will all find its way into my very own take on the Arthurian legends soon, so watch out for those to appear at a Jukepopserials outlet near you!

For once we actually had a summer in Wales so one fine day in early September I went happy-snappy to one of the largest castle-moat complexes in the world (the largest in Britain, if I’m not mistaken): Caerphilly in Wales.

I won’t bore you with the background data in this post – just feast your eyes on medieval architecture that’s just so “awesome” as our American friends would say. And yes, bits and pieces from the BBC’s hit series “Merlin” were filmed here!

Approach from the townside

Approach from the townside

The castle complex may look abandoned, but you’ll soon find it’s not unprotected:

Castle guards asking for your credentials

Castle guards asking for your credentials

If you cannot prove to these sentinels that you are there for entirely honest purposes (such as feeding them titbits of tasty bread or taking pictures of their glorious feathered-ness), you’d better buck up your ideas.

WHAT - No Bread? Let's get the castellan at once!

WHAT – No Bread? Let’s get the castellan at once!

Having committed the grave sin of not arriving with bribes, I watched these sturdy Canada geese rush off in search of the castellan.

Should I risk a swim across the moat before the guards return?

Should I risk a swim across the moat before the guards return?

I didn’t hang around and hurried along the path through the park, snapping away at the castle as I went.

Quick, there's nobody manning the bridge!

Quick, there’s nobody manning the bridge!

Finding one of the entrances unguarded – it was fairly early in the morning, the castle guards were probably still enjoying their bacon and eggs – I rushed through the park and up to the gate.

Sneaking past the guards and their breakfast kippers I stole up the tower

Sneaking past the guards and their breakfast kippers I stole up the tower

To show you how vast the complex is, here’s a picture taken from top of the tower:

View towards the town

View towards the town

Deciding that perhaps I might be allowed in if I paid my dues, I strolled confidently up to the main gate and demanded entry. Here you can clearly see the famous “leaning” tower.

Eat your heart out, Pisa!

Eat your heart out, Pisa!

An honest traveller with a bona fide ticket is eventually allowed into the great hall – sadly, the breakfast feasting was already over and a servant was clearing away the debris (NOT Merlin, before all you Merlinians get over-excited).

Great Hall as seen from the ramparts

Great Hall as seen from the ramparts

Great hall after the first breakfast sitting

Great hall after the first breakfast sitting

A harassed servant clears away the left-over baked beans

A harassed servant clears away the left-over baked beans

Next time I’ll show you a few of the fortifications, reconstruction war machines and chambers reserved for lesser members of the household. Hope you didn’t mind revisiting this homely Welsh castle:)

Hear my Writing loud and clear?


knights fighting over dead dragonNo, I’m not referring to audio books here! A visit to Wales Millennium Centre’s fantastic music festival, where you can see and hear an excellent selection of Welsh talent entirely for FREE – yes, you read that right: for FREEEEEE! – prompted me to think more closely about using all the senses in one’s writing. If you can positively hear the swords clashing when looking at the picture right now, you’ll know what I mean.

The one I often neglect is the “audio” aspect, which is created in the reader’s mind when they read things like

“Humming his latest tune, Bite me and I’m yours, Willow’s dad bit into the waitress’ neck with gusto, ignoring her screams and pleas for mercy”…

or when you present readers with a woodland scene in your fantasy novel, where birds tweet or wind howls around an old barn.

When singer Blanche Rowen performed some medieval songs from England, Wales and France here in Cardiff this week, I realised how sophisticated these ancient “rustics” hopping about in a medieval Breugel landscape really were, not at all what we imagined them to be. It’s not until you listen to such music that you really “get” what those people were about, something that can be reflected in one’s writing, fantasy or reality-based historic.

Follow that up with a visit to your local museum – or if you are truly privileged and live in Cardiff – with a bus ride to St Fagans Museum and you’ll be leaving with a fantastic array of ideas both music and historic displays have given you.

St Fagans entrance and current museum's bldg

St Fagans entrance and current museum’s bldg

Hang on, I promised you a blog post about St Fagans Museum and here it is!

This amazing open-air museum is already the most popular heritage attraction and ranks as one of Europe’s finest. Go there on a warm and dry summer weekend or one of their event days and you can hardly move for the crowds arriving by the coachload. Every year some 600,000 people visit the museum and now, thanks to National Lottery Funding and amazing amounts of private investment, there will be lots of fantastic changes happening at the museum.

Eventually, visitor numbers would simply overstretch the current buildings and facilities, so the museum is going to expand their present buildings and give us exciting new exhibits like the early medieval court of a famous Welsh prince and

St Fagans ancient barn

St Fagans ancient barn

The museum occupies the beautiful grounds of the St Fagans Castle, which dates back to the late 16th century and is a gorgeous manor house the generous Earl of Plymouth donated to the people of Wales.

In the near future there will be a full blown Celtic village with round houses, and a much enhanced historic landscape that links all the historic buildings together in a better way than it has up to now.

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one of many ancient cottages

one of many ancient cottages

The site spans 100 acres of parkland, so you can spend all day there, strolling from the castle’s secret walled gardens into the woodland areas and discover more than 40 historic buildings that span several centuries of Wales’ tempestuous history.

St Fagans Castle

St Fagans Castle

This is what Elisabeth Elias, president of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), had to say about the exciting times ahead:  “I believe that this project will create a Museum that is of truly international significance, and will be a gateway to other cultural destinations across Wales – a Museum for all the people of Wales and the world.”

 

St Fagans resident

St Fagans resident

As an author whose work is inspired many historic events and heritage in general I’m especially happy that Llys Rhosyr, a site in Anglesey, North Wales, will be reconstructed and erected on the museum’s grounds.

St Fagans Castle front entrance

St Fagans Castle front entrance

The great hall dates back to 1200 AD and features nine-metre high stone walls and a thatched timber roof, so quite a challenge for archaeologists to recreate.

St Fagans Village

St Fagans Village

For young people and school children this will be an amazing new feature of the museum, as schools and community groups from across Wales – probably eventually from across the world – will for the first time ever be able to stay overnight at St Fagans to experience what it must have been like to live in 1200 AD at a princes’ court.

Apparently, the most popular buildings include St Teilo’s colourful church and a terrace of six iron-workers’ houses from Merthyr Tydfil, but for me it’s always been Oakdale Workmen’s Institute from Caerphilly, which was built during the First World War and was made possible because workmen would contribute out of their meagre earnings so that everyone in their community could get an education.

St Fagans Italian Gardens

St Fagans Italian Gardens

 

Men's Outfitters St Fagans

Men’s Outfitters St Fagans

Given that miners and their families were effectively working for slave wages that is such an amazing achievement, I feel extremely moved every time I enter this lovely Art Nouveau building.

You can find out more about St Fagans and the events they hold throughout the year here:

http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/stfagans/

(photographs copyright Maria Thermann, source of animation: heathersanimations.com)