Benny walked past the old pre-fab house and remembered the day his granddad explained the importance of taking your chores seriously. Like gardening. Or homework. Or keeping in touch.
Something that is often underestimated in fiction is the importance of food and beverages. They are as much part of a nation’s culture and heritage as architecture and art, music and dialects, local costume and customs. Leave out the flavour of food and drink locals like to consume and you’re only telling half the story, robbing yourself of a valuable tool that will draw readers into your narrative by subtle means.
Go beyond mentioning ale, wine, cheese, meat, onions and bread. It is the more intricate detail that helps writers to conjure up an authentic setting, allowing readers to not only see, hear, and feel but TASTE the flavour of a point in time and a real or fictional place.
Food and drink also help writers to characterise protagonists in culinary terms. Think Ian Fleming’s James Bond without his customary shaken but not stirred, super-cool martini or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot without his beloved tisane. Not quite the same, is it?
Perhaps your detective protagonist is a gourmand, astonishing villains with amazing feats of culinary prowess that hint at equally accomplished execution of public duties? Or your hapless Latin protagonist cannot prepare a chorizo Mexicano with tostadas to save her life and is as hopeless at cooking as she is at recognising a good man in your romance novel?
Be literary foodie detective
A foreign character becomes that much more genuine in flavour and scent when your “I-must-be-trendy-or-die” heroine teeters into a Berlin bar on her stilettos, orders a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss, climbs onto the bar stool and smiles broadly at the barman, only to display remnants of Bockwurst between her teeth.
The words fish ‘n chips alone conjure up a picture of Britain’s seedy and run-down seaside resorts, of screaming kids in prams pushed around by indifferent mothers in white leggings and baggy tops, of wheeling seagulls, drizzling rain and fierce gusts blowing litter everywhere. Add a steak and kidney pudding accompanied by mushy peas, followed by a sticky bun and plastic cup of tea and you have a setting that is unmistakably British and noir.
Permit the scent of crispy bacon and a heap of baked beans on toast in the early hours of the morning to lure your crime-fighting hero’s growing paunch off-track, and your reader can digest the fact that even the toughest detective needs comfort food once in a while and shouldn’t be asked to forego his full English for an early arrest of the villain.
A culinary starting point
A great advantage of researching historic food and drink is that often writers come across stuff like “this brewery has been producing Hefeweizen (wheat lager) and dark lager since 1827”. It provides us with a genuine reference point in history, allowing us to concentrate on a small area within a village, town or city from which we can expand into the wider (historical) world of our chosen period setting.
Why not use the street in which the brewery stands as a setting for a scene? Let the brewery’s day-to-day operations become a realistic background to your main action. Without going into a huge amount of detail, your writing will allow readers to hear the clip-clop of dray horses pulling a heavy wagon full of kegs; readers will unconsciously wrinkle their noses at the manure dotted around in this cobbled street and sense the air is filled with the stink of fermented hops, malt and wheat. The fictional employees of such a business could even become walk-on characters in your story’s secondary plot.
By the way, the brewery mentioned here is located on the Northern German Island of Rügen. The Stralsunder Brauerei has been supplying Baltic resorts with beer since 1827, when the brewery was founded.
Let your protagonist drink a dark lager called Störtebecker Hanse Porter, named in honour of 13th century pirate Nicolas (Klaas) Störtebeker, and readers will imagine your manly hero’s rugged good looks and steely gaze. And if your protagonists munch their way through a platter of hearty Braunschweiger, Kohlwurst and Bregenwurst sausages, served with boiled potatoes and steaming kale, readers know the setting is as northern German, Protestant and rural as it gets.
This simple peasant meal will act as a reminder that your story is set in empty, bleak and entirely flat landscapes, lined by deserted white sandy beaches where icy winds rush through dunes even in summer. In this desolate landscape the air is filled with the scent of smoked fish and ham, and the screech of gulls riding the steely grey Baltic waves drown out conversations between windswept protagonists. This is a landscape made for epic, smouldering love stories that don’t end well, leaving a smoky aftertaste on readers’ palates, when they reach the final page.
Equally, no literary excursion to Prague in the Czech Republic is complete without an ice-cold serving of a glass of light golden Krušovice, a lager with a dry straw aroma served to the office of Václav Havel, when he was the republic’s president back in 2003. The beer has been brewed in Czech Republic since 1517 and the brewery once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II, who purchased it in 1581 for the Czech Crown. Now there’s already a historic novel contained in that one sentence! Why did Rudolf buy a brewery? Whom could a writer murder to make this a whodunit with beer?
And while your hero and heroine are gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes over the din of Strasbourg Cathedral’s bells and the merciless fall of the guillotine, why not let them have a fruity glass of Alsace wine, while they’re nibbling slices of grilled Saucisse de Canard? It’s a sausage made from duck, for which Strasbourg’s surroundings and Brittany are famous. Oh go on, it’s the aristocrats’ final meal together, before the doomed lovers’ heads get chopped off!
The importance of food and drink production
From fluffy white ducks and geese that waddle through meadows and farmyards in the Alsace and Périgord regions in France to the sturdy peasants working steep vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, food and drink production has shaped the way our landscapes look and the way people have traded and dealt with each other over time.
Even when writing a science fiction novel set on another planet, food and drink production that nourishes the beings living on that planet should therefore be uppermost in a writer’s mind. Agriculture will have influenced that planet’s landscapes. Food and drink will be an integral part of the culture our story is based on. Who eats first in a hierarchical society? Who gets the biggest cut and who gets only the scraps?
Is drinking alcoholic beverages a sin, a feat of prowess for manly men or a confounded nuisance for those who have to enforce the law?
If this article has provided you with a morsel of culinary inspiration for your next novel, be sure to pass it on. Spice up your romance with mulled wine; remove greasy burger taste from your Belgium detective’s palate. Serve him cuisine à la bière with a steaming bowl of mussels with frieten instead, adding a glass of Liefmans, brewed in Flanders since 1679, for a refreshing aftertaste. Squirt a little wine into your heroine’s barley water to mellow the minx.
Bon appetite, writers!
(picture credits: all animation sourced via heathersanimations.com,
Picture 1: Nuremberg sausages, By Gerbis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13280953
Picture 2: Stralsunder Brewery, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9768916
Picture 3: promotional Sailing Glass/Segelglass identity for Klaas Stoertebeker lager, Bild Segelglas als Identitätsmerkmal der Biermarke Störtebecker, von Günter Haase – Eigenes Werk, CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40978499)
Apart 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 took 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!
Winslow 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!
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)
I’ve been reading my way through some of the wonderful murder mysteries and crimes novels from the Golden Age of this genre, now re-issued by British Library Crime Classics. Among them is the once very popular, now almost forgotten writer John Bude, who wrote some 30 best-selling crime novels in his day which are now all but collectors’ items.
Having just finished “The Lake District Murder”, which is rather different from his other two novels published in this British Library series, I am once again reminded what a huge difference it makes when a writer knows their “turf”, or locality, and doesn’t just work from a map and tourist guide book.
Set in the Lake District in the north of England, the novel is less of a whodunit and more of a how-did-they-do-it. In it, Inspector Meredith must break some pretty solid alibies and solve the murder of a garage co-owner, whose death was dressed up as suicide.
As Martin Edwards says in his introduction to this entertaining novel, John Bude “not only knew but clearly loved his Lake District”. And that makes all the difference, for he knows not just the geographical, but also the social landscape of this part of Britain, allowing his readers a glimpse into what life was like at that time in this desolate but beautiful region. There is the middle-aged woman who cooks and cleans, mends and washes in the household of two men for just ten shillings a week; there are the two garage owners who scratch a living for just £16 profit a month, shared between the two of them – which means that each of them had just about a couple of quid to spend per week in 1935, when this novel was first published. There are numerous hotels and pubs that make an excellent living in spring and summer, when masses of tourists arrive, but whose proprietors must fall back on local custom during the rest of the year. Times are hard in rural surroundings like these, and we are reminded of this at every turn but in an understated, subtle way.
What is also interesting is that John Bude, in an era when the amateur sleuth was all the rage among writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, chose to make the policeman Inspector Meredith the central figure of his novel and the painstaking efforts of the police to make the crime stick to the villains so they could be rightfully convicted. No dashing Lord Peter Wimsey here or little old Miss Marple. This feels very much like a real detective at work, doing boring stake-outs hiding behind hedgerows or sifting through endless paperwork.
The other central character, if you like, is the Lake District itself, its peculiar geographical quirks as much part of the investigation as the villains themselves. Loving – or detesting – the location a writer uses as background makes all the difference. Even if you create a whole new world for your fantasy novel, you need to feel passionately about the location in one way or another, or you might as well set the whole thing in a void…or a Tesco supermarket isle. Be as passionate about the location as you are about the characters you drop into these fictional landscapes. Your readers will follow their every footstep, so you need to be the world’s best tourist guide!
I didn’t adhere to this rule too strictly in the first outing for Linus Brown, when he meets the leprechauns in his new Lincolnshire environment for the first time, but location will play a big, big part when Linus and the leprechaun colony set out to visit Ireland and Castle Blarney in the second outing for my 9-year-old protagonist. Thankfully, I have been to Ireland, albeit not to the castle, but having visited a lot of castles in my day, I can “wing” that part of it, I’m hoping. The Castle has its own website, fortunately with lots of history and some pictures…research, even for a children’s novel, is vital.
Finally, at the end of week two of my second promotion for Linus’s first novel, my Copromote adventure bagged me of their Twitter networks. A round of applause to all of them and a big, fat thank you. followersCoPromoters who retweeted my original Tweet with the sales link to Scribd(dot)com to
Yes, 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:
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:
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!
Although 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.
So 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 names.
So here are a few contests I’ll try to brave this year:
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.
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.
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.
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!
Wishing everybody a wonderful Christmas time and every success for next year’s creative writing!
A little update on my Copromote efforts for my kids’ book “Linus & The Leprechauns”: 81 copromoters have retweeted by original tweet, boosting my tweet by 8,000% and giving a reach of more than 161,000 Twitter followers. Not bad for a few seconds work, eh?
Here are two more good sites for book promotions, entirely free, although there are paid-for options which don’t cost much:
I’ve not had a chance to add my books, but will do so asasp. They look good sites and the latter is also an info resource for writers.
Ho Ho Ho and all that, and may my Santa wish list come true for next year: Peace, happiness and prosperity for all!
Provincial towns and sea ports tend to retain their intrinsic character far better than big cities, where greedy developers can’t wait to knock down historic buildings and whole streets disappear in a matter of days to make way for the new. Believe it or not, every brick and cobblestone of your home town is imprinted on your psyche, but you are probably quite unaware of it.
Spotting historic Connections
In small towns like Ramsgate at the Kent coast much of the fishing community spirit has survived to this day. Locals eye newcomers with customary suspicion and don’t like anyone who’s different. Few urban settlements in Britain retain as many historic buildings in their centres as Ramsgate does and this may be one of the reasons why attitudes towards strangers are as crusty and Victorian as the buildings that dominate the town’s two chalk cliffs. In total, there are 900 listed buildings in the town centre, much of which, incidentally, was designed by notable architects Mary Townley, August and Edward Pugin.
Overlooking the sea from their chalk cliff eeries, there are lovely Georgian seafront mansions that would have welcomed royalty like the young Princess Victoria and people like writer Wilkie Collins, painter Vincent van Gogh and, some decades later, actor John Le Mesurier. Today the town is home to actress Brenda Blethyn OBE and Janet Fielding, the former an enthusiastic supporter of the local fleapit cinema, the Granville Theatre, an art deco building much in need of financial support and refurbishment.
But right in the centre of Ramsgate there’s the late Victorian Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission and the adjacent Smack Boys Home that would have taken in some of the poorest people in town and it is this building that is so inspirational within the historic harbour.
Soaking up the Spirit of a Place
One feels positively Dickensian as a writer just looking at its red brick facade. Stand along this dockside for a few minutes on a stormy day and feel the wind chill you to the bone. Lick your lips and taste the salt the breeze deposits there; scrape wet hair with icy fingers from your frozen face and squint at grey rain clouds with streaming eyes. Just a mo’ – you’re almost there, all it needs now is for one of those two-storey-high waves that pound the jetty at high tide to soak you to the skin and you’ll know exactly what the life of a young smack boy was like!
Except, nobody would be clouting you around the ears when you’re doing something wrong or the crew and skipper think you’re not pulling your slender weight in a gale force wind aboard one of the fishing vessels that go lobstering or fishing for herring.
You go to a comfy hotel bed with a full belly and rise in the knowledge that you have warm clothing and oil skins that will protect you from the worst of the elements when you join a fishing crew for a day’s excursion. When you leave the harbour, it is to go home to your loved ones. The smack boys had none of that.
The history of this small home for boys is yet to be written and published, but one could come up with at least half a dozen short stories and a really good Victorian murder mystery just by standing there and looking at the home’s mosaic band at first floor level that is inscribed with the important words: The Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys Founded 1881.
It’s the only one of its kind in Britain. It’s handsome plinth with string courses, pilasters, mock machicolations and battlements belies the poverty that the boys experienced and the wretched backgrounds some of them came from. What a wonderfully pushy man the Canon Eustace Brenan must have been to get this project approved by the town worthies! No doubt Charles Dickens, who used to holiday every year in the neighbouring village of Broadstairs, would have made much of such a character in his novels.
Now listed buildings, the charming little Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission are rarely open to the public these days, but last summer I was fortunate enough to attend a Jazz concert held at this church. The 3-storey Smack Boy Home, which is located next door and also above parts of the church and mission, is no longer refuge to shivering small urchins working on fishing boats. It has been turned into offices and storage space and is sadly not open to the public as a museum.
The church opens its doors throughout the summer months (June to September) on Sundays at 6.00 pm, when sailors and anyone in need of a tranquil, spiritual hour and a cup of tea can visit and see some of the model ships, old photographs and other fishing memorabilia on display. Also, a special Christmas service is held every year for the many people who make a living via Ramsgate Harbour and those who have their boats moored there all year.
A compassionate Victorian with a Vision
Sitting close by the foot of Jacob’s Ladder on Westcliff, the church was built by Canon Eustace Brenan, vicar of nearby Christ Church, in 1878. The Smack Boy Home, Church and Harbour Mission would provide spiritual guidance and physical assistance to the men and boys who made up the crews of the sailing smacks that fished out of Ramsgate Harbour in the latter part of the 19th century.
It was very hard work, especially for the youngest Smack Boys, who were apprenticed to the skipper of each boat. When the boys were ashore, they could look forward to at least a modicum of comfort in the rooms above the church and, a few years later, in the specially built home for them next door.
Over the years the home extended a welcome to sailors who had been rescued, mostly from the wrecks that had come to grief on the notorious Goodwin Sands that lurk beneath the surface of the sea not far from Ramsgate. In World War I. some 3,300 survivors were fed, clothed, sheltered and medically attended to at this small building, an astonishing achievement by anyone’s standards.
When 50 or so registered smacks left Ramsgate Harbour with every incoming tide in 1863, there would have been a skipper and four members of the crew on board, most of whom would have been smack boys of varying ages. By 1906 this number had swelled to 168 sailing smacks – Ramsgate was a popular seaside resort by then and needed plenty of seafood for its tourists. Just imagine how many boys that makes who had no home to go to when they came ashore other than Canon Brenan’s Home for Smack Boys.
Canon Brenan put pressure on the Board of Trade, when he realised that there was nobody looking after these boys when they came ashore. Many of these boys seem to have been orphans and were probably coming from orphanages and workhouses straight onto the sailing smacks, when they were deemed old enough to earn a living (probably aged 10!). No other British fishing port copied this excellent idea, so Ramsgate’s Smack Boy Home is quite unique in its modern and charitable approach to one of the hardest professions on earth.
Recalling Childhood Memories
There are still a few elderly residents around who were smack boys and it would be wonderful if the Ramsgate Historic Society recorded their story before it’s too late and these precious memories are lost for good. We rarely hear from children in history books, and interviewing the surviving smack boys seems such a worthwhile thing to do.
Combined with the Goodwin Sands disasters, the smugglers’ caves all around and the illustrious personages who stayed in Ramsgate at one time or another, there is rich material here for novelists. In this port the past is still casting a long shadow over the present.
The town’s inhabitants have experienced such truly astonishing events since the building of the smack boys’ home that it is hardly surprising many of them keep one foot firmly planted in the mists of time and rarely risk a reluctant toe dipping into the here and now. Our surroundings shape us in many different ways as individuals and communities. The best writers know how to exploit this to their advantage. Still suffering from a blank page and a horror to fill it with words?
Next time you’re out for a stroll because you’ve got a small attack of writer’s block, take a good look at those all too familiar facades in your street. What lurks behind them historically and how has that influenced you? Start with the boy/girl in the mirror and before you’ll know it, that empty page in front of you is no longer staring back blankly. Smack in the middle of your familiar home town, you can discover something new and exciting about your community and yourself.
Here’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!
I’m sure I mentioned the virtues of Copromote before on this blog, but I really have to sing their praises once more. That’s an online promotional “location” I can wholeheartedly recommend. It works on the principle that with every sales link/tweet/tumbler blog/YouTube video or Vine entry you promote for others, you build up credits which you can use to “boost” your own sales links etc. Obviously., by retweeting or re-sending your link, you have a potential reach that far outstrips your own number of followers, giving you greater exposure for your product, but also allowing you to grow your social media network.
Yesterday I tweeted an update for my aboutme.com page with a sales link to my “Linus & The Leprechauns” book. Already 13 people have retweeted it, giving me a 1,300% boost to my original tweet and an audience of just under 47,000 people. You need to build up about 40,000 to 50,000 credits before you can run a 14-day promotion, but you get a “warning notice” when you’re running low on credits, so you can top up with a few hurried co-promoting moves. It’s a friendly place too, where people start following you quickly and you’ll find lots of artists will always promote other artists’ work. The wider the interests you state in the given categories, the greater your chance of getting “good” promotional links that you are happy to promote for others.
The free of charge version limits the number of boosts per month and the number of credits per day one can do, but the next step up, the $49.99 per month package, allows copromoters a far greater scope and therefore a potential reach of millions of people. Try the free version a few times, as I’m doing now, see how it impacts on sales (or not) and then decide which package is best for you.
Copromote used to be linked with WordPress but for some strange reason this is no longer the case, which is rather a nuisance, since I can’t get on with Tumblr at all. Squeezing what I want to say into my 140 character Tweet is a bit of a challenge, but I’ve sussed out now that I can do this quite well via updates to my aboutme.com account. If you’re running a YouTube, Vine or Tumblr account, you’ll have even better ways of promoting your book/product than I have at present. One of these days, this techno-phobe will get her head round opening a YouTube account…
So far I’ve only posted blogs about fabulous places that inspire our writing, but what about places we loathe, places that we know only too well, locations full of awful people intent on making their fellow human beings’ lives difficult or unpleasant?
Lady with a Van
If you’ve watched “The Lady in the Van”, a film starring Dame Maggie Smith, you’ll know that playwright Allan Bennett used his experiences of living in a particular part of London to pen a wonderful book on which the film is based.
When a homeless lady in a van arrives in a fashionable part of Town, snobbish residents at first want to get rid of her, later they begin to vie for her attention with attempts to be charitable. It makes them feel less guilty about being wealthy and having reached a certain position in life. Some 15 years later, the lady in the van is still there, parked outside Allan Bennett’s home, and she’s just as ungrateful as ever for any type of “charitable acts” inflicted on her.
As Bennett’s book shows, places we loathe, or are made to feel uncomfortable in, can be just as inspiring as the delights of Paris or Venice, Florence or historic Bamberg and serve to illuminate either our own state of mind or that of our fellow citizens (or both, as in the film/book).
The people in such places often deserve to be taken to task for how they behave. Parts of Allan Bennett’s story are set at the Kent coast, in Broadstairs, where Dame Maggie Smith, dressed as a homeless woman, is seen to enter the local fleapit cinema in the film and stand at the beach, looking wistfully out to sea. It’s an area where people retire to, and they don’t like seeing young people, or change or anything in fact that shakes them out of their daily routine. Indeed, the brother of the character Maggie Smith portrays in the film has retired to Broadstairs, where she visits him on occasion. He admits having had her committed to an asylum because she was “just so odd”. Here, being different is clearly tantamount to committing a crime.
With such a population, the place is ideally suited as a setting for a great satire or comedy. Such locations are perfect fodder for writers. Snobbery exposed, or uncaring attitudes or one-upman ship among neighbours…the possibilities are endless.
Other locations are excellent backgrounds for particularly brutal crime stories. One could be describing how society has broken down to such an extent that even horrific crimes no longer shock those who live there, Ian Rankin style. Ruth Rendell often uses the fictional location of provincial Kingsmarkham as a mirror of what’s going on in the mind and private life of her Chief Detective Inspector Wexford and demonstrates how the town’s proximity to London is changing rural societies over time.
Or how about a romance gone wrong – where the location is deceptively pretty but harbours dark secrets? Rural areas are ideal for that. Charming isolated farmsteads and villages, as Sir Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes put it, are often the setting of unspeakable crimes.
Nasty things that have upset us in a specific place bear within them the kernel for a great story, allowing us to deal with whatever happened to us in a constructive way.
Lady without a Van
I’m still digesting what happened to me, so don’t know yet what fictional work will come of my unpleasant experience. The following is a true story and happened to me just a hop and a skip away from where the sainted feet of Dame Maggie stood in the sand. No doubt at some point I’ll see the funny side of it, but right now, I’m just disgusted.
Because I’m using the Kent coast as background to a series of books (Inspector Beagle), I visit Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate occasionally to do research at local libraries and to take photographs of locations. It made sense to use the area, because I used to live in Ramsgate and know the Kent coast reasonably well. I can honestly say that I hated living in Kent, because the majority of people who reside along this part of the coast, called the Isle of Thanet, are truly awful.
If they’re not criminal and destructive, they are usually snooty and UKIP voters happy to embrace all that is reactionary and anti-foreigner. While I am used to people reacting to a German national with suspicion or even dislike, the Thanet way of “welcoming” visitors goes way beyond that and has little to do with my nationality. Anyone not being Thanet (in)bred and born is classed as an undesirable intruder.
Here the term foreigner means everybody who doesn’t hail from the Isle of Thanet. That includes even you, Londoners, and people visiting from Canterbury just up the road. There are many Thanet residents who have never taken the train or bus out of Thanet and to them, anything and anyone even slightly different is a threat. No matter that they are residing in what is supposed to be a seaside resort open to tourism. They resent people coming here to enjoy beach and facilities. Sit down with a book at Broadstairs’ Dumpton Gap beach on a sunny day and locals will glare at you until you leave. It is one of the most unwelcoming places I’ve ever been to – and that includes the former East German state.
In the summer, when National Express coaches disgorge South East London’s day trippers, I have seen locals stand around at the seafront and openly make hostile comments about such visitors…tourists who are spending hard-earned money in these resorts to support local economies. Would they bother if they knew how racist are large section of locals are? Doubtful.
So this is what happened to this pedestrian lady, permanently without a van:
I was camping to save money on accommodation. I walked along the seafront early in the morning, when it was still dark. Camping in the cold season isn’t a lot of fun, so one tends to leave far earlier in the morning than one would, when being in a tent is quite comfy. Realising that I was too early for the first cafe to open and serve breakfast, I sat down in one of those shelter things dotted along the Ramsgate promenade up on the East Cliff. I noticed, as I was sitting down, that on the street level (one level up from where I was sitting), a woman and her dog had just arrived for their regular morning walkies.
Taking out my little torchlight, I checked my watch to see what the time actually was and whether it was worth getting out my glasses and book to while away the time until the cafes opened. I heard the woman get out her mobile to make a call, but didn’t take any notice. Little did I know that my turning on the torch had alerted her to my presence and sent her inbred Thanet pea-brain into overdrive. No, deciding I might as well be comfortable and warm for the 20 minutes or so I had to wait, I took out my little travel blanket that I use when I sit around in underfunded, freezing cold Thanet libraries, and draped it across my legs.
What happened next?
A police car arrived and I was questioned at length. Their opening gambit was, if I’d seen a suspicious man with a large backpack. But this turned rapidly to my being questioned about my identity and what I was doing there. Why? Because the idiot dog walker had called them, reporting me as a potential suicide who had been “spotted near the railings overlooking the cliff edge”. I wonder, did Dame Maggie Smith have the same problem when visiting Broadstairs on a windy, rainy day? Ah, she’s a smart woman, she probably didn’t risk sitting down anywhere other than the ice cream parlour we see her patronising in the film.
I hadn’t been anywhere near the railings overlooking the cliff edge, having walked in a straight line through a small park, along the landscaped garden area that formed the dog walker’s level of promenade and directly up to the little shelter where I sat down. The dog walker would have been quite aware of this, having seen me arrive at the shelter at the same time as she arrived on the landscaped level overlooking the promenade.
However, mistaking me for a homeless person who was sitting where she obsessively walks her dog (in the pitch dark!), she needed a valid reason for the police to scare me off. How dare a person sit in a spot where she walks every day!
Why a woman should choose to walk her dog (without a torchlight) in a pitch dark area, when she could simply walk the beastie along the lawned area on the upper level lit up by streetlights is anyone’s guess. To me it simply proves that she has little common sense.
Had she simply reported me as a “homeless” person sitting there, the police wouldn’t have bothered to come out. Reporting me as a potential suicide made sure of their immediate investigation. I had seen the dog walker a couple of times before, so knew she always walked her dog there at roughly the same time every morning. My presence, a small change to her routine, frightened her so much, she risked lying to the police.
A Van of mistaken Identity
Ironically, her arrival was what had prompted me in the first place to check my watch with my torch, because I realised I had walked faster than usual and arrived far too early. I normally saw her depart, not arrive. And it had also made me feel safe, seeing another woman and knowing dog walkers were around. Otherwise I wouldn’t have sat down for a little rest where the shelter was, in the dark, but would have walked on to the harbour where there are lights and benches and CCTV.
She had reported me “as a man with a big backpack”, yet I was wearing a floral skirt so couldn’t possibly have been the person she claimed to have seen – nor did I have a backpack. Had she really seen me standing under a streetlight by the railing, she couldn’t possibly have mistaken me for a man. The police should have been able to work that out for themselves, and also noticed that one cannot actually see the railings from where the woman claimed to have seen the alleged suicide attempt. However, they chose to ignore these obvious facts. Doesn’t leave one with a lot of faith in Kent’s police force to do detective work, does it?
Lady ready to drive her van the hell out of Dodge
Instead of questioning the veracity of what was clearly a false claim made by the dog walker, the police (2 of them!) insisted on taking down my details, asking me where I was headed, my address etc etc. Throughout this procedure, the dog walker, who was quite obviously “the concerned member of the public” referred to by the police, stood there cool as a cucumber and threw in morsels of polite chit-chat such as “that’s a nice bag” (pointing at my large bag which was full of books I as going to review that day) and “where did you walk from this morning…oh, that’s a long, long walk, no wonder you wanted to sit down.”
She may have felt guilty about reporting a blameless member of public at this point, but still not guilty enough to apologise for the hassle caused to me. Why? Because I have a non-Thanet accent.
When I voiced my annoyance that a member of the public who had sat down harmlessly on a park bench for a couple of minutes (literally!) was being harassed in this manner, the police got stroppy and of course, having a foreign accent in a place famously anti-visitor, didn’t help matters either. They actually checked their records if anyone had reported me missing! Presumably from some institution where all foreigners should be detained as dangerous lunatics. I’m the first to admit that as a writer I’m as loopy as the next creative person, but this really is taking things too far. I sat quietly on a public bench at 6.25 am, not rampaged around the seafront at 3.35 am, roaring drunk, toting a gun!
Nothing, not even a handout of £5 million by some local benefactor would induce me to move back here. If I had had a van in 2007 when I left Kent to move to Wales, I would have erased Kent from my sat nav map to ensure my little van would never be able to find its way back.
Nothing but a Van-load of Trouble
It really was farcical to be told by the police that they are “concerned about everybody’s welfare” and must investigate claims of persons liable to harm themselves or others, when they clearly don’t give a damn and never turn up when hordes of youths (mostly grammar school uppity types) regularly rampage through the town centre smashing windows or throwing paint all over shop fronts. I know this as fact from talking to local cafe and shop owners and my own observations.
Throughout the summer gangs of youths from wealthy homes, sometimes as many as 20 or 30, party along the West Cliff every night of the week, leaving huge amounts of litter everywhere and keeping long-suffering residents awake with their shouting and screaming, loud music and revving of motorbikes.
Do the police turn up for that? No, they do not.
Instead, both the council and police apparently told West Cliff residents to put a sock in it and put up with normal “seaside resort” summer activities, even if these “activities” involve drunken brawls and public drug-taking in the streets. Indeed, I was told by one resident that the council told them off, when residents rang up to say they had formed a committee to clear the rubbish on a daily basis, as they were fed up seeing the mess every day those youths left behind. How dare residents take initiative was the council’s response. Clearing rubbish away was strictly council business. Residents were apparently ordered to stop cleaning up the lawned areas immediately!
Nor do the police bother to help homeless people sleeping in doorways in sub zero temperatures or in torrential rain conditions. There’s an old homeless man sitting regularly on a bench in Ramsgate town centre – does the police come and ask him, if he’s alright? No, they do not! I have seen them walk right past the old man without so much as a glance in his direction.
So why investigate me?
This is why: the dog walker lives on the well-to-do Ramsgate/Broadstairs border, where homes are large and rather expensive….where people are posh and have double-barrel names, and send their obnoxious offspring to local grammar schools to raise them in their UKIP image. The shelter I sat in was closer to Broadstairs than Ramsgate. Which is why the police never bothered to query the dog walker’s report. A general consensus to hide local poverty, homelessness and other problems caused by chronic corruption among those who should ensure there are jobs and housing means false reports like the one made by the dog walker are apt to be believed, when the person making the report is from Broadstairs (where those in charge of local finances apparently live).
Her call to the police was taken at face value, especially as the person she reported turned out to have a foreign accent. Broadstairs is Kent’s big draw tourism-wise and “The Lady in a Van” film will obviously ensure a new generation of tourists will come next summer. Broadstairs postcodes call the shots around here, their hotels, restaurants etc pay large amounts of business taxes.
Ironically, given the subject matter of the film, the presence of homeless people or emotionally unstable persons is strictly “verboten” and must be stopped. I’ve even seen local vigilante gangs walk along the cliff top in summer, wearing night-vision goggles, so they can find homeless people sleeping rough in the undergrowth of parks and along the seafront and drive them off.
When I questioned how I could possibly be the person the “concerned member of the public” had reported, I was told by one of the police officers, I “fitted the description”! Hang on, your colleague said the report was about a man with a large backpack…isn’t it therefore ludicrous to suggest a short middle-aged woman in a floral skirt without a backpack should suddenly fit that description?
Oh, the fear of the unknown…the sudden appearance of change in our lives.
Lady dismissing the Van of Oblivion
So let me offer an official statement to Kent police and all dog walkers along this stretch of coast – and please do take this at face value: If I ever feel like committing suicide at any point in the future, it won’t be in a dump like Ramsgate, Margate or Broadstairs. I wouldn’t want to be seen dead anywhere in Kent!
That’s why I sold up and moved away and am busy writing a series of books that ridicule the area. Sorry to disappoint, but I really am not ready to get into the van of oblivion and hurl myself down a cliff, especially as I’m neither called Thelma nor Louise.
However did Dame Maggie Smith get away with walking around Broadstairs dressed as a bag lady? She must have had a huge entourage protecting her from Thanet’s unpleasant dog walkers. Possibly a solicitor on stand-by to bail her out of jail in case Dame Maggie fitted somebody’s description of a suspicious looking man?
I wonder how the dog walker would feel, if I rang up the police and reported a “dangerous dog had tried to attack me at the seafront”, even though the claim giving a description of her dog would be false. She would be upset and disgusted. Now you’re getting it, Thanet pea-brain. Please hold on to that thought.
(In the interest of fairness, I would like to stress that many of the younger residents, the new generation of adults if you like, are quite different and rather ashamed of the attitude their elders display towards visitors. I have met some lovely young people here, who are as helpful, friendly and tolerant of foreigners and non-Thanet visitors as can be.
But I still wouldn’t want to be seen dead – or alive- in Kent.)
(copyright for photographs: Maria Thermann)
Norfolk has been a holiday destination since the 1930s. The picturesque village of Blankeney gets very busy in the summer months – well, what passes for a summer in Britain – and has many wonderful 17th and 18th century buildings visitors can explore. The North Norfolk Coastal Path runs along this part of the British coast, travelling along the Blakeney quayside and zigzagging a course through the local salt marshes.
Just to the west of the historic resort lies the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, where a lovely miniature and heritage railway lines rattles along the coast for some 11 km, offering spectacular views over this amazing and mostly flat landscape.
Why am I telling you all this in the middle of rain-soaked October, when you’re busy scooping out pumpkin flesh and thinking about hot toddies?
My favourite murder mysteries are nearly all set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, so when I came across Ian Sansom’s book The Norfolk Mystery in one of my local charity shops and read the blurb for it, I simply couldn’t resist, I had to read it. And what a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read it’s been!
Gently lampooning some of the most famous writers of murder mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Peter Wimsey’s creator Dorothy L. Sayers, Sansom’s manages to cook up a first rate cozy that makes you laugh out loud at times and sit still deep in thought at others.
From bearding a seemingly genteel and well-to-do Norfolk village society that is really nothing more than a hotbed for Hitler’s warped and racist ideologies, to commenting on every little thing he sees en route while solving the village’s mystery, Professor Swanton Morley is a fabulous creation and amateur sleuth.
With his newly acquired assistant and reluctant side-kick Stephen Sefton, a young man traumatised by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Professor Morley sets out to “discover” Norfolk in an effort to create the ultimate county guide for it. They get as far as the village of Blakeney in the north of Norfolk, before they stumble over a dead reverend, hanging inconveniently from the rafters of his own church, just when Morley wants to interview the man for his book.
Trapped in the village until Norfolk’s Constabulary allows them to travel onwards, Morley and Sefton set out to solve the mystery surrounding the clergyman’s death. This becomes even more pressing, when the reverend’s servant is also found dead within 24 hours of his apparent suicide.
I particularly liked the use Ian Sansom makes of the locality, the special landscape that is the Norfolk Fens – contrasted nicely by Sefton’s visit to Foyles in London, where he soon gets lost in the aisles that hold the bewildering number of books The People’s Professor has spewed out over the years.
To me, it read like a literary representation of Norfolk’s Fens, where rivulets, canals, streams and wetlands go off into every direction, leading the unwary traveller by the nose and easily to their doom, if they don’t follow the local guide’s instructions (at Foyle’s this would be the young woman behind the counter, who helpfully offers to write down instructions for young Sefton).
Morley is as eccentric as it gets and so is his daughter Miriam, a young woman with very strong views on most things, including how to chat up young men while driving her prototype Lagonda at break-neck speed. And while Sefton ends up in the arms – and bed – of pretty much every young woman he meets during the Norfolk trip, he seems to have a peculiar antipathy for Miriam.
Fortunately for us readers, Ian Sansom has already completed a new adventure, Death in Devon, so I can enjoy another highly entertaining and thought-provoking read soon and find out, if Miriam succeeds in turning Sefton’s badger-coloured head.
Since Professor Morley wants to complete guides for all 39 counties…Samson has his work cut out and eager readers have plenty of awfully big adventures to look forward to.
A little while back I mentioned that I wanted to do another review of a book where a writer had used a specific location to demonstrate a particular point. I didn’t like “Tulip Fever” by Deborah Moggach much, but she does use the city of Amsterdam in an interesting way to mirror what is going on with her protagonists.
It’s not only the streets that reflect the plot’s main action – the city of Amsterdam is in the grip of tulipomania (tulip fever), a love-affair as truly, madly, deeply felt by its citizen as the love-affair Moggach’s two protagonists, young Sophia and painter Jan, are about to plunge into.
Set in about 1636 during the height of tulipomania, the main action takes place in a rich merchant’s house in the Herrengracht, one of Amsterdam’s most splendid residences overlooking a gracht or canal, then a major thoroughfare within the city. And Moggach mirrors the action not just literally, she reflects it figuratively – what Amsterdam’s respectable burghers get up to is reflected in the ever-present water as well as in numerous paintings commissioned from artists who’ll later become some of the most famous painters in history, including on Jan van Loo(s).
Every Hans, Frans and Cornelis wants their painting done – including the rich, elderly husband of Sophia. She promptly falls in love with the young painter, Jan van Loos, during the first sitting and clichéd romance, revenge and divine retribution ensue from this point onwards.
What I did like about the novel was the ever-present water as a metaphor for life and death. The peculiar quality water has when reflecting both objects and light suffuses the book, making it an illuminating read in more ways than one.
Maria, the maid, dreams of living in her mistress’s house with her as yet unborn six children. In her dreams, Maria and her brood swim through the house in a strange underwater world free of man’s obsessions with tulips, wealth and status. For Maria, water means freedom from domestic servitude and happiness in the bosom of her own family.
Water means life, but also death to many. Storms sweep the Dutch coastline frequently, killing Amsterdam’s residents indiscriminately, as the seawater is driven into the grachts. Whole districts get flooded in the process. Dogs, cats, humans rich and poor, they all meet their fate, when water sweeps clean the streets of Amsterdam.
Water means earning a decent enough living for a large number of people. Run a barge up and down the Amstel River or trade in the grachts. Maria’s lover Willem earns his living from selling fish. Disappointed in love and robbed of his savings and dignity, he later goes to sea to seek his fortune as a soldier. Water can help people to change their lives.
The merchants get rich – or lose everything – by trading with foreign countries, sending out fleets of ships to exotic places.
Water, water, everywhere…water-logged streets, overflowing hearts, fortunes lost at sea, tear-stained lovers’ letters and new types of paintings where herrings take centre stage. Water determines the fate of them all.
By contrast, the painters of the day, artists such as Jan van Loos or Rembrandt, record the mundane terrestrial, the domestic lives of Dutch burghers – whoever can afford to commission a painting, does so; those who can’t afford to pay, may be lucky enough to attract a painter into their dark and dingy hovel – some artists are keen to record Dutch life of the lower classes.
Everybody wants their lives to be captured for eternity, holding off the grim reaper in their own way. Even the land these splendid merchant houses have been built on has been snatched back from the sea and wetlands. If they can do THAT, why not hold on to life for a little longer with the help of paintings? It may only be one fragment of a life captured on canvas, but in their minds that one moment can hold off the inevitable drowning in ever-lasting darkness.
It’s the age of discovery, especially in the field of botany. For a brief period in history, Dutch people succumb to a strange mania, buying tulip bulbs for enormous sums and speculating on the flowers as if they were gold or diamonds. Historians and psychologists all over the world are still debating what prompts human beings to enter into such bizarre manias.
We can see some of the wonderful flowers these explorers brought back with them in Dutch paintings of the period. Somehow this humble wild flower from dry and arid Turkey and Afghanistan captured the imagination of people like no other plant has done before or since in human history. Neither rose, poppy, lotus nor orchid has caused such manic behaviour or ever commanded such prices. Did the Dutch fall in love with tulips simply because the flowers grew in desert-like conditions in their natural habitats? Did the wild tulip represent a secret longing for terra firma, a place not dominated by water?
Moggach’s book creates a strange world out of this fluid, ever-changing medium.
You can practically taste the salt on your lips and smell the herring, when Sophia hastens through the dark and empty streets at night to spend time with her lover, when lanterns twinkle on passing barges, when raucous laughter fills the air from all those sailors stepping off vessels that have been to parts of the world, where new types of tulip are only just being discovered.
Sometimes a lover embracing you, sometimes a monster swallowing you whole: the grachts of Amsterdam are the veins and blood vessels that run through each and every one of its 17th century citizens.
I also liked the idea to set a novel in an era of extraordinary events, when a city is in chaos over something other than war. In this case it’s tulipomania, in Boris Akunin’s novel “The Coronation” it was the crowing of Csar Nicholas II and the start of the first rumblings of the Russian revolution that made Moscow a perfect location for a kidnapping mystery and metaphor for a heart in turmoil. Part 2 of this post will go into tulipomania itself and what historic Amsterdam was like around 1636.
Will this Ink-stain never go away? Despite asking their “support staff” to remove my profile from their site, and not to contact me again, I’ve had several emails by Inkitt. Apparently, even unsubscribing doesn’t curb their enthusiasm. Now I’ve just found a mile long message here on WordPress, sent apparently by some site-related person. Naturally, I have trashed their comment equivalent of “War and Peace” without bothering to read more than the first few words of the first sentence. They’ve wasted enough of my time. Any more emails or promo type stuff posted to my WP sites, Twitter or my personal email address will be reported as spam.
Get it into your heads Inkitt-people, I do not like your site, don’t want to be seen on it, don’t want to communicate with the site’s operators, friends, uncles, aunts or mothers of the founders, or the founders, judges, janitors or tea ladies nor any of its author members in any shape or (plat)form. Got it?
Now for something far more interesting and enjoyable. After wrestling with my Scribd upload yesterday (I hadn’t done that for quite some time, so couldn’t remember how to do the cover part), I discovered that Scribd’s own store works with Draft2Digital now. Looking at the D2D site I was pleasantly surprised to discover that when you upload your manuscripts via their site you can have ebook as well as print book conversion at the press of pretty much one simple button. Yes, without bothering to do any weird and wonderful formatting of your Word doc. Better still, these are the sites the books would then sell through:
- Barnes & Noble
- and CreateSpace!
Yes, Createspace! No more tearing one’s hair out over their upload and cover-design process for print books, yay. It seems almost too good to be true. I still haven’t been able to sort out all those irritating pixel-related cover problems of my Willow the Vampire book with Createspace, so this is such good news for me. Negotiations with Amazon and various other outlets are also currently going on with Draft2Digital to expand the book sales territory further, according to the site. Royalty arrangements are satisfactory and generous to authors, another plus point.
Now all you savvy self-publishing people out there here at WP probably knew this and it’s an old publishing hat to you, but to me finding a site like Bookrix, where ebook uploading is incredibly easy and painless, is a true labour and nerve-saving blessing. As far as I remember, Bookrix doesn’t sell into Oyster or Tolino, the latter is a huge German book sales market, so that’s another plus point. Only draw back is that print books only come in one size at D2D. Not so good for children’s authors, who are usually looking for a variety of book sizes in order to please readers with small hands and big appetites to point at large pictures. Still. I can live with that.
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:
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.
There are two parts to my blog post today, although you could say they are vaguely related, as both parts are about thriller writing.
Firstly: Calling all thriller writers:
Thriller Writing Contest for Bookrix Authors: The Music of Eric Zann (German: Die Musik des Erich Zann). It’s free to join Bookrix.com as a reader and/or author – it’s a German/English language self-publishing platform. You can upload your submission in either German or English – or both!
Writing Contest Theme: Choose a sentence from Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s story “The Music of Erich Zann” as inspiration for a short story. Use this sentence within your story. You have from 15.09.2015 to 10.10.2015 to post your story to this thread: http://www.bookrix.de/post/group;content-id:group_9738093986,id:1769300.html http://www.bookrix.de/_group-de-thrilling-stories/
Remember, you must become a member of Bookrix, before you can enter the contest. The winner gets not only a virtual pat on the back and potentially lots of readers and reviews on Bookrix, especially when delivering your story in German, but can also look forward to a book prize:
Im Sommernachtstraum / Die Bürgschaft 11,80 EUR, 210 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-940445-80-3 http://www.amazon.de/Sommernachtstraum-Die-B%C3%BCrgschaft-Jugend-Roman-Theaterst%C3%BCck/dp/3940445800/
Also available as an eBook. EUR 0,99 http://www.amazon.de/Sommernachtstraum-Die-B%C3%BCrgschaft-Jugend-Roman-ebook/dp/B006MRNQ6K
And while you may not be keen on the book prize, if German isn’t your first language, you should remember that the majority of Bookrix readers is under 40 and therefore able to read English pretty well – lots of potential readers and therefore potential purchasers of your own books! Phil Humor, the organiser of the contest, has thoughtfully provided various links to Lovecraft’s story:
Here’ s the German Wiki Link and short story description:
Die Musik des Erich Zann (Originaltitel: The Music of Erich Zann) ist eine Kurzgeschichte von Howard Phillips Lovecraft, geschrieben im Dezember 1921 und erstveröffentlicht im März 1922 in der Zeitschrift The National Amateur. Sie gehört zu den beliebtesten Erzählungen Lovecrafts, wurde vielfach nachgedruckt und in mehrere Sprachen übersetzt, unter anderem ins Deutsche und ins Französische. Bis in die Gegenwart hat sie Schriftsteller, Illustratoren, Filmemacher und nicht zuletzt Musiker zu eigenen Schöpfungen angeregt.
Plus some more info in German and English:
http://www.hplovecraft.de/index.php?id=werke (downloadable short story in German)
- P. Lovecrafts Bibliothek des Schreckens “Die Musik des Erich Zann” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUbZ9IylQzA Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHPr4cndkm4
Secondly: Two Sides to a Heart, Two Sides to a City
Back to my “location” focused blog theme now: recently I read two very different books that both used the setting for their books as brilliant metaphors for the “internal” journey their protagonists undergo in the course of the story. I’d like to delve into the first one, which is a brilliant thriller by the Russian writer Boris Akunin, whose popular “Erast Fandorin” adventures have wowed not only hordes of readers but also international critics over the years.The novel in question is “The Coronation”. You can read my general review at my Goodreads page, if you like.
The narrator of the story is Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin, a butler at the Green Court in St. Petersburg of Tsarist Russia. It’s the week before the coronation of what will be the country’s last Tsar, for soon the tides will turn against the monarchy; chaos will break out across Russia and many members of the ruling Romanov family will be murdered. Nicholas II reign lasted from 1.11.1894 to 15.3.1917. The coronation in question happened on 26th May 1896, (old style date lists this as 14th May 1896)
However, the novel isn’t about that. It’s more about the build up to all the horrors still to come – at first glance.
At second glance, however, it is a wonderful novel about one man who rediscovers his heart. His early love for a high-born lady was thwarted some 30 years before the plot starts. It broke his tender adolescent heart and he closed himself off to all human emotions other than “adoration” for those he serves. As Afanasii is forced to get involved in the adventures of Erast Fandorin, he learns to love again. Throughout the book Afanasii refuses to acknowledge that he is capable of love, however, and it is this refusal, which ultimately saves his life and soul in a tragic twist of fate.
With every fence or drain pipe he has to climb during the adventure, Afanasii not only gets used to seeing Moscow – and imperial Russia for that matter – in a different light. As his limbs get accustomed to the unusual exercise, so does that other muscle, the human heart, get used to the unfamiliar feeling of loving.
Author Akunin shows us the grand imperial palaces and parks as they were when Tsar Alexander was about to be crowned emperor in Moscow. By way of contrast, we get to see the murky side of impoverished Moscow, where gangs of thugs rule supreme, calling themselves “king” over their subjects of cut throats, pickpockets and pimps. Sounds familiar to modern day Russians by any chance?
Akunin also uses the different palaces to show us how rivalry between the Romanovs was expressed in more or less subtle ways. This rivalry greatly added to the poor decision making that was ultimately the monarchy’s downfall. For example: upon arrival for the coronation, the Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, who is the zar’s uncle and Afanasii’s employer, the butler discovers the Green Court’s members and staff have been put into the Small Hermitage Palace, which has only 15 rooms to accommodate them all. Even the butler and his assistants have their own servants…so where are they all to sleep? He suspects that this was a vindictive manoeuvre by the youngest of the Grand Dukes, who can’t stand his older brother Georgii, but is in charge of all that happens in Moscow as the governor general of the capital. His decision to put the Green Court into such an easily accessible, and poorly defended palace, has far reaching, tragic consequences.
Naturally, Akunin also uses Moscow’s buildings and streets to demonstrate the immense gulf that lay between the Romanovs and the enormous number of aristocrats the Russian ordinary people had to support with their labours. Virtual slaves, they hardly earned enough to eat and clothe themselves or have a roof over their head. And there is another brilliant metaphor Akunin uses to show us something important that happens to his protagonist, whenever he changes location:
With every part of the adventure, Afanasii, who lives and works in several palaces throughout the year, as the Romanovs travel from residence to residence with the change of the seasons, the butler loses or ruins parts of his clothing. To Afanasii, his courtly clothes mark him out as a man of distinction; he believes they give him his dignity and he uses them like armour against emotional involvement. Shedding his outer layers of skin or emotional armour, if you like, always comes with a dramatic change of location.
The butler’s courtly clothing either gets lost or torn while climbing over fences or scampering up or down drain pipes or his clothes get stolen in the dangerous streets of the suburbs. We are told how much fashionable clothing costs – and while in comparison to what court butlers earn it is not such a lot, in comparison to what the ordinary man or woman or child in the street earns, it is an unimaginable fortune.
It is rare for me to close a book and then want to read it all over again in an instant. This is such a book. If you want to learn how to use your chosen setting/location in many different, subtle ways to say something important about your protagonist’s inner workings, this is the book to read. It is also rip-roaring fun to read, despite its very serious theme and setting. Read it prior to writing your own thriller and your submission to Bookrix should be in with a very good chance of winning!
“Today at 11am PST, we are launching a brand new Romance writing contest!
“Entwined”: http://inkitt.com/entwined We can’t wait to start reading early submissions. Who will be the first to submit? If you have friends who love to read or write romance, let them know by forwarding this message, or by retweeting this tweet: https://twitter.com/Inkitt/status/642346605291696128
Thank you so much for helping us spread the word! Looking forward to reading your submissions. Best of luck,
Ali Albazaz Founder & CEO | Inkitt.com Kulturbrauerei (Haus 1, Aufgang D) Schönhauser Allee 36 • 10435 Berlin Mobile: +49 170 8647236 ”
So get writing, soft-hearted WordPress authors, for Inkitt only ever give us a month to get things done…although kindly, they allow writers to upload at any length and stuff that has previously appeared elsewhere and wasn’t specifically written for the contest. Finding it hard to get started? Imagine it’s snowing outside and you’re snuggling up to your stud-muffin; he’s feeling sleepy, so why not tell him a bedtime story that will send him off to nod with some very lovely dreams about you and him, cuddling in front of a storytelling hearth, entwined with a glass of his favourite wine?
Remember though, whatever you enter, should conform EXACTLY to the competition rules, topic and submission guidelines or you’ll throw away your chance of winning. Good luck to all of WP’s romantic writer’s hearts out there!
It seems that when I last blogged I omitted to tell you that apparently Inkitt(dot)com membership is by invitation only. You can get an invite, if you follow them on Twitter and give them a chance to check out the quality of your writing via links to your blogs/published work. So far so good.
Entering into their fun and free “Wanderlust” writing contest is fine by me, but there are more sinister things afoot. Authors, be afraid, very afraid, for the publishing world is changing again and as usual, not for the better. Inkitt promises us a brand new publishing concept that is supposed to revolutionise the way in which authors come before their audiences. No revolution is bloodless, and sadly, this one will kill off talent in favour of publishing platforms raking in the $ and £. Here’s why:
This morning I opened an email from Inkitt, a platform promising to get talented authors before publishers and literary agents, telling me that now they’re looking for authors to upload their novels by deadline 1st October 2015. The more votes, the greater my chances of getting a publishing contract, apparently. And the beauty is that all their lovely members will help me improve my novel! Yay.
Why oh why would I want to allow other users, who at best equal my talent and writing prowess and at worst, resemble those hopeless entries we see on telly’s “Britain’s Got Talent” making a total idiot of themselves, mess around with my already written novel? I’m not being arrogant here – the majority of these platforms are populated by teenagers barely able to string three sentences together. And all three of those sentences are usually about their favourite TV show or pop star.
Are Inkitt’s users critical readers trained in proofreading and editing? Nope.
Would anyone in their right mind have suggested to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to change his compositions in favour of some layperson’s idea of what music should sound like? Would the world have been presented with sublime works like Don Giovanni or Die Zauberfloete? I don’t think so, do you?
Are Inkitt’s employees professional literary agents with clout in the publishing industry and the connections to make this children’s writer a critically acclaimed, bestselling household name for generations to come. Nope.
Inkitt’s angel investors have no publishing background by the looks of it either, nor do any of their employees. Their only claim to fame is that one of their senior personnel designed the original Twitter logo once upon a time. Does this instil me with confidence in them making good on their publishing contract promises. Nope.
Worse, we already know that the concept of too many cooks spoils the literary broth. We know so because Hollywood subjected us to two decades of prequels to the sequels, all made with the same accountant-inspired knitting pattern of plots that were so predictable, we knew the ending of the blockbuster before we’d even watched the adverts!
Hollywood executives would allow small, hand-picked audiences to determine the ending of films. As a result, we were presented with rubbishy fodder for the uncritical masses, until small indie films stole the show at award presentations and made comparatively large amounts of money with well-written, original scripts at their openings and via DVD sales. Suddenly Hollywood execs pricked up their ears and polished their designer glasses. Could originality really be making a comeback in the movie industry? Yeiks, better find a scriptwriter who can still think outside of the accountant-manufactured box!
At SOOP they want authors to merely pitch an idea and let the trolls on their site decide, which novel idea an author should go with…ever heard of ORIGINALITY, dear SOOP (Silly Oiks Offer Pooh)? Jane Austen, Wordsworth and Dickens are revolving in their graves as I’m writing this!
READING, READING, READING critically the very best literature has to offer will help new authors to improve their own writing, not the well-meant but by and large meaningless comments left on sites like Wattpad and their ilk. Let those who want to publish teenage-angst-ridden drivel and Justin Bieber sex fantasies do so at places like Wattpad. Allow those of us who have talent that should be nursed by other talented, professionally trained people strive for excellence and critical acclaim.
With the latter comes longevity in the business, even if “50 Shades of Grey” type authors do make the big bucks fast. Will anyone want to read that puberty-driven drivel in 20 years time? Nope.
Are really talented authors driven by money, money, money alone? Nope.
It’s the literary journey from A to B, from thought onto page, that ultimately makes us tick. Alright, a bit of loot along the way also helps, but it’s not what drives REAL writers to put finger to keyboard and ink onto the page. It’s the art of writing, and yes, it is an art form, dear SOOT and Inkitt, not purely a $$$$ venture, that keeps talented writers sane and busy scribbling.
Writing is our way of making the world work for us, in our image, to our design. Little G.O.D.s that we carry inside make us do it (or do I mean D.O.G.s?), not the promise of bestseller lists, literary wine & nibbles evenings or book signings.
Inkitt informs us that “previously self-published novels also qualify” to enter in their new novel writing competition. Uh, last time I checked, every self-publishing author who sells via platforms like Amazon’s Createspace, Bookrix or Neobooks for example enters into a legally binding contract.
Self-published authors publishing on respectable platforms like Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords etc are not permitted to allow their books to be published for FREE in one part of the world/Internet and sold for hard currency in another. It seems Inkitt’s people don’t even bother checking the basics of the self-publishing world either.
Even platforms where people publish for free may stipulate a certain amount of time has to elapse before authors are permitted to publish elsewhere. The prospect of discovering the next deliverer of drivel that sells has seemingly completely blinded Inkitt’s team.
Would I rather chew off my writing arm than publish a novel (for FREE) on Inkitt? Yep.
Ranting over. It’s safe to come out again, dear fellow authors.