Some are disguised as golden cages…
writing for children
Age of Sail
But sometimes adventure requires a lot of endurance, Benny!
(below deck on the Golden Hinde, London)
You can find adventure in the unlikeliest of places, Benny.
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.
Is that what we would have had, if dad hadn’t thrown away all the bulbs by mistake?
The day will come when Sam will pack his suitcase and leave the nest to explore the world. For now, I am content he’s just exploring possibilities.
Linus & the Leprechauns proudly count their Copromote retweets
Hope 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
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!
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!
My Type of Book Promotion
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…
Twimagination’s as dead as a Dodo
Beware, 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.
Bye Bye Red Room
Gloomy news for authors who have enjoyed the warm glow of the Red Room’s pages. With a short notification to all members Red Room’s cosy hearth fires were extinguished this week and the loud, cold brashness of Wattpad was announced, for Wattpad have acquired the Red Room.
The new owners immediately switched off the lights, put out the coals, and killed the Red Room’s purring literary cat, presumably to remind talented authors that their time in literature’s motherly embrace is over and the harsh reality of trashy novels and illiterate word-salad has arrived.
Wattpad is a site that can best be described as a bottomless pit of teenage angst and fan-girling giddiness with very few sparks of talent in sight among its members (at this point I’m quickly naming authors Michelle Barber and William Stadler among those talented highlights, before they send me an angry red raspberry via their WordPress blogs). Generally speaking: If you don’t write gushing books about Justin Bieber or other pop sensations, if you don’t like reading endless sexy scenarios of juvenile fan fiction dreams, Wattpad won’t really be for you.
During the few days that I was a member some months ago, I must have looked through about 150 groups of readers/writers on Wattpad; frankly, I didn’t discover a single group any self-respecting grown-up writer would wish to join and engage with.
Although I got a lot of reads/downloads for the stuff I uploaded, nobody left a single comment, which means no feedback that is constructive, if you have WIP you want advice on. People just press “like” buttons, if you’re lucky, but most readers just consume story after story for free without so much as bothering to press any of the Wattpad review buttons to at least let you know they liked what they read.
For the august literature gang assembled at Red Room to fall into such a black hole must be heart-breaking. Many authors have used the fantastic author pages and blogs they received with their Red Room membership to build up a solid fan base for their work over many years.
These were readers and talented, professional writers who left grown-up comments, constructive critiques, helpful advice – not “cor’ blime me, that was a corker/stinker of a story” or words to that effect. The author page one gets with Wattpad resembles a poorly constructed social media site – not the glorious author profile and blog the Red Room furnished their members with.
So yet another small but beautiful thing has been gobbled up by a big fat American fish that cruises the waters of literature and the world of reading with an unending appetite for Facebook contacts. A huge behemoth of a shark that’s hungry for authors’ connections, but essentially an eating machine that’s not very keen to regurgitate anything useful in return, making the world of literature the poorer for it.
When I dared to complain to the outgoing Red Room team, I got not one, but two defensive emails back, from two different senders no less.
Since the Red Room will close its door any moment now, any new emails from Wattpad will naturally go into my spam folder…which is also a Big Fat Bottom Feeder that gobbles up writing…the type of trash good authors and good readers don’t want to see.
Consider yourself pounced!
Quietly and almost without me noticing, this blog has crept up to the 1,000th follower mark. In the immortal words of Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger: “Consider yourself pounced!”
Naturally, in the nicest possible way and with velveted paws. There may be the occasional outburst of excited whisker twitching and purring though, as I bounce around the room on the bounciest tail of all, with arms flung wide open to give all my lovely followers and WordPress readers a virtual hug. Thank you all for continuing to stop by and for putting up with my boring ramblings (as a person half my age told me a few days ago) and I promise I shall do better in the near future.
But now there’s time for bouncing and purring for two milestones were reached today:
- this blog has increased in followers by staggering proportions and
- some of the ebooks I recently uploaded to Bookrix.com are now starting to appear at a variety of online outlets. Yay!
Finding the right Pitch
This 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:
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?
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.
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.
When 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!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?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.
Be 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?
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.
And 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.
Having 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?
You 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
Since 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.
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.
Yet, 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).
A Change of Scenery can work Wonders for your Character
A change is as good as a holiday, or so the saying goes, and I admit leaving the torrential rain in Wales behind me and entering the sunny, albeit slightly grimy landscapes of the capital has done wonders for my mood and inspiration.
Although as a rule, I dislike London, on this occasion I’m having a pretty good time of it, as I’m staying in a part of town I hadn’t been to before, so there’s lots to discover. I’m exploring new smells and new sounds, eccentric new neighbours and unusual shops and advertising signs. There’s so much to make a note of: inspiring architecture, both old and new, and colourful traditional markets full of fragrant food stuffs I’ve yet to taste.
It made me think how a change of scenery can breathe new life into a serial – after a few instalments our readers might have fallen in love with the characters we have created but if we don’t keep our readers and fictional characters on their toes, the familiar surroundings our protagonists use to get from plot beginning to plot end will eventually appear stale and less challenging for both writer and reader.
If your hard-boiled, alcoholic detective inspector usually solves his gruesome crimes in New York, New Delhi or Hong Kong, why not take your hero and their team out of their comfort zone and send them off on a police seminar in rural surroundings or a holiday to another country or state? To add to the conflict, give your detective a rookie partner who drives your hero nuts or a temporary new boss who hates your hero’s guts.
Changing locations means doing more research, but this can also be fun, as both writer and reader face new challenges together. A new location forces a writer to come out of their comfort zone and really think about their characters and their inter-relationships. While their skills normally allow your team of sleuths to either clash or work well together in their familiar territory, new surroundings can expose different strengths and/or weaknesses.
Because certain things aren’t possible logistically or the climate of the location enforces certain choices, the whole set up requires far more thought than familiar surroundings the writer – and reader – knows well. A writer may have to do far more characterisation than in previous books, thus really giving readers what they crave, namely a greater insight into hero, secondary characters and possibly even the villain, if it’s a recurring one.
If the plot centres on a murder committed in a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, just popping down to the shops will involve snowshoes, skis, sleighs and putting on several layers of warm clothing. Few people manage to look alluring and sexy, once they are swathed in bobble hats and woolly scarves, thermal undies and three layers of socks. This is the moment when you can send up your hero, making them more “human” in the eyes of the reader by revealing flaws, phobias or a surprising lack of skill.
If your hero doesn’t know how to ski and negotiate the steep slopes outside the chalet, the villain will get away clean and your hero must pick up the pieces by employing the famous “little grey cells”. However, you could also have a lot of fun with a chase down the mountain side, as your hero is forced to take a crash course in snowboarding or skiing, if the bad guy is to be caught.
In other words, use unusual locations to your advantage to reveal a new side to your hero/heroine.
Take Venice for example, where there are more waterways than roads. The choice of vehicle means you can either show your hero’s tenacity and ability to think on their feet or you can reveal they are not very good with modern gadgets like GPS, they can’t swim or are hopeless at map reading and finding their way around Venice without a tourist guide.
Every time your hero takes a wrong turn and lands on their belly like a fish out of water, a writer can use that particular location to reveal something about the main character’s foibles, weaknesses or strengths. Your hero might crash-land in a Venetian glass factory and express real regret at having destroyed 500 years of exquisite artefacts, revealing your hero to be cultured despite their rough edges. Or your hero might pilot their speedboat into a pizzeria and deliver a sarcastic one-liner about fast food.
If you want to teach your arrogant protagonist a valuable lesson in team work and how to be a humbler person, or if your hero is out to impress a girl but you feel he doesn’t quite deserve her yet, make it a gondola chase – life in the slow rather than the fast lane. Not only will this insert some much needed humour into your detective story but it will also allow you to take down your hero’s ego a notch or two, sending them on a brief journey of self-discovery.
As writers we are often told to “use what we know best” as the basis for our books, but I believe the opposite is also true…coming out of our comfort zone and entering new landscapes hand in hand with our hero can work wonders for our writing.
(source of all animation gifs: heathersanimations.com; all photographs royalty free stock photos)
How homely can a northern Castle be?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
(copyright for all photographs: Maria Thermann; animation gif source: heathersanimations.com)
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.
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!”
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!
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!
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?
In a fantasy line up of writers giving your characters and worlds a “make-over”, which authors would you choose and why?
Hear my Writing loud and clear?
No, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
(photographs copyright Maria Thermann, source of animation: heathersanimations.com)
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