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10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction – No 9 Change

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Change.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, that in a novel things need to change; that to keep a reader interested the characters must change. In reality is is a more complex process than that. As the character changes, then so does everything and everyone the character comes into contact with.

A childhood home that seemed stultifying and dull, becomes a charming haven after the protagonist has endured some hardships away from it. In fact this is the only way a reader can see a character grow – to see the world change through his or her eyes.

It is easy to think that once you’ve established a setting, that’s it. That readers will just see it as background each time the character goes there. But what really brings a novel to life is when the same setting changes as the person re-visits it. Not only that, but it will be changing in different ways to each person who views it. An orphan might think a country house to be grand. A visiting maidservant might see the same house as tatty and uncared-for. Years later, the orphan might re-visit it and think it less imposing, and the visiting maidservant who has now worked there for years has ceased to see its tattiness, but only its warmth. When writing these changes I try to focus on small details that the individual character notices, because these count for a lot and act as anchor points to show how things have changed. The way the stone has been newly-polished on the front steps, the slight scent of old carpet that has been replaced by a smell of air-freshener. Settings change, they are not mere backdrops.

Every single scene and dialogue needs to move the story forward. You’ve probably heard that a million times before. In my view the move doesn’t have to be forward, as long as there is actual measurable change. In literary novels, the plot is usually that each person in the novel has a developing relationship with each of the others in the book. The relationship could be getting closer, or drifting further apart. These tensions are what form the plot. As long as the relationships are changing, and this change in turn is visibly affecting everyone else, then you have life in your novel.

In historical fiction the pivotal changes in political and moral attitudes can be really useful. Revolution, war and religious upheaval cause protagonists to pick sides, and almost always the opposing view is there too, to help the person change. A person who is grappling with the moral imperatives of slavery or suffrage for example, might change their mind (or have their mind forcibly changed for them)  in the course of a book. By the end of the book everything will look different to them. This is what you want. In order to have the maximum amount of change in a character, look for a cause in which he can have maximum investment, and then show how the events of the novel change that view. Find circumstances that force pro-monarchists to become rebels and anti-monarchists to become kings. The power of reversal is that it gives the most opportunity for change. Find the most contentious historical viewpoint you can and give it to your protagonist. Give the opposite to your antagonist. Make them change.

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail No 8 Suddenly

No 10 to come soon!

Picture from BBC : London Then and Now. The old photographs used in the post were taken by renowned late 19th and 20th Century photographers, including Henry Grant, Wolfgang Suschitsky, Roger Mayne and George Davison Reid, who made this image on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, Covent Garden, in 1930.

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Two contrasting novels of the 17th century #HistFic

I am always fascinated by the different writing styles that conjure an era, and these two contrasting books prove that there is no one style to bring an era to life. Both books are great reads and I recommend them.

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

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This is a wonderful novel – richly detailed and full of the jargon and phraseology of the period. Set just as Prince Charles (later to be Charles II) is making his escape during the English Civil Wars, it centres around the difficult choices and strained allegiances that marked the tension of the Interregnum.

“Are we then to bow and scrape before these turncoats?”

“There is no other viable choice,” Piers said. “Ireland is being carved up by Cromwell while France offers nothing more than sympathy. Clearly, this marks our monarch as pragmatic, a trait sadly missing in his sire. We all must agree this is an improvement.”

“Why? Because he is willing to negotiate his morals?” Blount said.

“Life is a negotiation, death is not,” Piers snapped.

James Hart, a highwayman, (modelled on the real-life Royalist highwaymen of the day such as Hind) is defying Cromwell’s Oath of Allegiance, and making his own rules by not only robbing the rich to feed the poor, but by continuing to support the Crown against the Commonwealth. He falls for Elizabeth Seton, a herbalist and healer, who has chosen to leave her family for a distant aunt, rather than be condemned to life in her sister’s staunchly Puritanical household. When the two characters meet, they find they have much in common, and the romance soon grows wings. Elizabeth’s aunt is a supporter of the Knot, a fictional organisation that gives safe houses to Catholic recusants, and Elizabeth is drawn into helping them. However, The King needs James’s assistance, and our highwayman hero must leave Elizabeth prey to another suitor – the preacher who will show no mercy if he were to uncover a royalist, and a woman who supports papists, in their midst.

Cryssa Bazos is equally at home writing battle scenes as writing romance, and the pace keeps the reader turning the pages. The book is chock-full of historical facts, and these are seamlessly woven into the plot. Fans of English Civil War fiction will lap this up, and it would also suit readers who enjoy classic historical fiction by for example Kathleen Winsor, Georgette Heyer, Michael Arnold or Pamela Belle.

The Witchfinder’s Siser by Beth Underdown

Witchfinders Sister

“For it is a choice, I think, to close the heart, just as it is a choice to open it. It is a choice to look at what distresses you, and a choice to shut your eyes. It is a choice to hold tight your pain, or else let it slip your grasp, set it free to make its mark upon the world.”

Set in 1645, this is a story based on the real events surrounding the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his fictional half-sister Alice. After her husband’s death, Alice returns home to Manningtree after many years absence, and hopes to find a good home with her brother. Her position in the household is precarious, but worse, Matthew has changed from the boy she remembers, and what she encounters now is a zealot, hell-bent on ridding the county of witches.

Beth Underdown succeeds in putting us in Alice’s shoes; we feel her discomfort that she must be witness to her brother’s manipulation of the evidence and his tortures of the women in his enthusiasm to get a confession. Alice is a believable character – she is not a modern woman, she too is fearful of the devil and sensitive to the unseen, and this makes her complicity with events more likely. Matthew was burned in a childhood accident, and Alice loves her brother and wants some sort of redemption for this oddly scarred human-being she remembers. Instead, she finds herself caught in his powerful world-view, which sounds plausible but which feels so wrong. In this isolated community, gossip, suspicions and accusations soon spread, with chilling results.

“The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.”

The writing style is simple and sparse, but each word is carefully chosen. The reader has to think carefully about the ramifications of the revelations in each scene, and this makes the pace a leisurely one, but one to savour. The slow build of suspense is masterfully done. This novel will appeal to those fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, who can find parallels in the English equivalent, and would suit fans of Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier, or Rose Tremain.

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Book Club Gold – A year’s free books

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I’ve teamed with 11 other authors to bring you books you will want to talk about. You can download one, or all of the books. Our aim is to provide thought-provoking reads and get people talking, so each book comes with its own set of discussion questions. These books are all well-written and have been vetted for quality. Many of them have won awards or prizes or are from award-winning  authors. Ideal for book groups, you could take one book a month, and there’s a whole year’s reading here. Or you could just enjoy thinking about the themes solo or with a friend.

To go directly to the page to choose a book, tap or click the image below.

But hurry – this offer is only open for 4 days!

Book Club Gold small covers

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Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 7 – mistaking it for a genre

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The gothic splendour of Kenilworth Castle

Like most readers of historical fiction, I have my favourite eras. I love the seventeenth century, the Tudors and the medieval period, with the occasional foray into Victoriana, WWII and Greek myth. So I am unlikely to purchase anything set in the Napoleonic era,  Roman times, or the Dark Ages – that is, unless you work extra-hard to persuade me!

Also, I have a penchant for dark gothic stories set in castles or old houses (you can blame an early passion for ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’ for that!) so a historical romance would have to be quite gritty for me to want to read it.

So – I’m a fussy reader – like nearly everyone else. This is a problem for historical fiction writers who want readers to find their books. We have to not only find those readers interested in history, but also those limited few with an enthusiasm for our particular era and tastes.

But more importantly than this, there are different types of stories even within this narrow readership. Some readers are looking for concept-driven stories – books for the book club market often naturally fall into this category. Some literary historical novels are driven by the psychology of the characters, and some, such as historical mysteries are all about the intricacies of the plot. Some readers enjoy epic novels with a wide sweep, some enjoy books focused on one historical personage, such as Anne Boleyn. ‘Wolf Hall’ is not the same as ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, is not the same as Sansom’s ‘Dissolution’.

So, deadly sin no 7 is thinking that all readers of historical fiction are the same. They are not, and paying attention to what the reader expects is courteous. It is a question of tone, and working out where your novel falls on the spectrum. A historical thriller might contain explicit sex and gore which would be inappropriate for a novel of manners set in the time of Jane Austen. Your novel may be concept-driven, plot-driven or character-driven, in differing combinations. Each historical novel is individual, and creates its own atmosphere and reality.

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Picture from Gina’s Library – click to check out her blog which features historical fiction

The thing that all historical fiction readers require though is genuine immersion in the past, and a momentum that will carry them through the story. So the key to understanding your reader and your tone is to look at other popular writers who have written the kind of book you are writing. Analyse the other author’s successful book in detail. What creates the tension and momentum? How much description? How much inner dialogue? How fast does the book move?

Check out another author’s amazon reviews for what makes that book a success. Here’s an example of an ordinary reader’s amazon review from Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with A Pearl Earring:

Girl with a Pearl Earring‘This book appears so simple on the outside, it’s only after you finish it that you realise how complex and rewarding it is. On reflection, a plot that centres around the creation of one painting could easily be very weak, but told through the eyes of a 16 year old maid – wise beyond her years as it turns out – it’s a charming slice of 17th century life in Holland. It plods along a bit in the middle and loses its grip on the reader somewhat, and don’t expect fireworks, shocks, plot twists, etc because there are none; just a slow, tantalising build up of sexual tension between the artist and his subject, and nervous tension between every other member of the household – servants and masters alike. All I want to do now is see the painting for real so that I can look into the girl’s eyes …’

This tells you a lot about the appeal of this particular book – complexity of the relationships, the tension between the characters. No fireworks.  If you were writing literary historical fiction, this gives you a fair idea of your reader and what they might enjoy. The key to reader satisfaction is to both think of your book as unique, and yet also to be scrupulous in assessing how your novel fits in its tiny niche within the broad scope of historical fiction.

You might also like:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Deadly Sin 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Deadly Sin 5 – The Length of Time

Deadly Sin 6 – The Aura of an Era

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Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux

I was offered a review copy of ‘Rembrandt’s Mirror’ by Kim Devereux, and was so fascinated I asked Kim for an interview about her debut novel and the experience of writing about such a well-loved artist.

Deborah: We get an intimate portrait of Rembrandt in this book, rebuilding himself after the death of his wife. Which facets of Rembrandt’s personality came as a surprise to you whilst writing, and do you think the women who came later in his life changed him?

Kim: I was surprised by something Rembrandt did. Simon Schama describes it as ‘a deed of great moral ugliness.’ It was omitted from many 19th century accounts of his life, as was his relationship with Geertje Dircx. Neither fitted in with Rembrandt’s status in Holland as a national hero. This ‘deed of great moral ugliness’, also comes as a surprise to Hendrickje. When someone you love does something truly reprehensible, it poses an interesting dilemma. Do you stop loving them? Do you try to change them? Do you wait for them to say sorry and only then restore your affections?

It made Rembrandt a more interesting character and I feel also a more convincing character because human beings are complex and often behave in contradictory ways. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Did any of the women change Rembrandt? Well, yes and no. He was quite uncompromising which is a great strength in such a visionary artist. I get the feeling he was able to depart from convention and not worry about it, or the consequences in the slightest. I must admit I find this quite attractive in an artist and in a man. It’s freedom from the fear of being disapproved of. So if this was the case perhaps he could not be influenced by anyone, not even his partners in life? I wondered about this. In particular when it came to a scene where there is a disagreement between Rembrandt and Hendrickje. I found his state of mind so difficult to work out that I asked my boyfriend at the time to improvise the scene with me that I was working on.

My boyfriend grudgingly agreed to play Hendrickje and I slipped into Rembrandt’s shoes. Hendrickje was quite angry and I found myself responding and speaking to her in the conviction that I had done the right thing but what surprised me was that all of it was accompanied by a great warmth and softness. It was just the way Rembrandt felt towards Hendrickje, a fact of life. I think not everything can be explained and there are those times in life where I just find myself liking someone for no particular reason. Maybe I am a romantic but I think that’s love. And I believe that love changes people. So it changed Rembrandt and Hendrickje.

You work in films as well as being a novelist. Did you see the novel in your mind’s eye as a film? Or was it a more painterly experience for you as the writer?

I actually first wrote Rembrandt’s story as a screenplay so I had already visualized it in my mind. In terms of what goes on in my mind when I write: I set up a scene in my head. For example, two characters in a room with a fireplace that is belching smoke. I usually inhabit one of the characters as I imagine the scene but I also see it visually and I watch it unfold. I might write as I do this, simply recording what I experience.

You convey the tactile experience of painting brilliantly. Which of the paintings did you find yourself the most taken by, and can you give us a detail from one of the works which you found particularly interesting?

I was taken by all of the paintings and drawings that function as chapter headings in the novel. I have always loved The Jewish Bride, which has now been renamed as Isaac and Rebecca. I have seen it on three different occasions and each time the experience was quite different. Rembrandt achieves this by using shadows, painting parts of a face in an ambiguous way (similar to the Mona Lisa’s smile) and this means we can project our own interpretation onto the painting. The Jewish Bride in particular draws me into a dialogue each time I look at it. I can happily contemplate it for half an hour and watch it change; first the woman’s smile seems a little sad, almost wistful, then again it seems an expression of her happiness at the deep communion with the man next to her. What moves me every single time though is the way his hand rests on her breast. So still, as if he could listen to her very state of being with his palm. I also love the paintwork of the golden sleeve. The paint is applied with a palette knife, almost sculpted into a three dimensional landscape. I experience a sense of freedom when I look at work like this, because it so boldly departs from anything that has gone before.

In the novel a sense of the numinous seems important both from a religious and an aesthetic point of view. How does Hendrickje’s Calvinism affect her view of Rembrandt and herself?

On the negative side women’s attitudes towards sex and relationships were shaped by religious doctrine. Calvinism in particular viewed sex as sinful, especially outside of marriage. So it would have been extremely shocking for Hendrickje to discover what Rembrandt was up to. And also because sexual feelings were something to be feared than for her discovery that she has them causes inner conflict and turmoil.

On the positive Rembrandt’s art, especially late in his career, has a sense of the numinous. This is true of paintings such as The Return of the Prodigal Son. And his very last work too Simeon and the Christ Child in the Temple, despite being heavily damaged, has that numinous quality. I love that word by the way ‘numinous’. The thesaurus describes it as airy, divine, ethereal, incorporeal, sacred and otherworldly. The way the blind Simeon holds the saviour, as a baby, in his hands. The way the paintwork seems to dissolve around him (an impression that is enhanced by the damage) suggesting that he has already one foot in the next world or perhaps he is inhabiting this world in a way that is alive with beauty.

These are just my personal musings, sparked by Rembrandt’s art and it’s what is so fascinating; that a piece of painted canvas becomes an experience, a space that allows one to get in touch with something within oneself.

Will you stick with historical fiction? And if so, which period are you researching now?

I’m toying with setting my next novel in the present day but it too will explore fundamental questions of what it means to live and to love.
Find out more on Kim’s website
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UK Independent Publishers – a ‘do they add value?’ check

 

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I meet regularly with other novelists to critique our works in progress, drink tea, and discuss the various merits of the biscuits. Recently at one of my novelists group meetings we were discussing independent publishers who might publish a full length novel. I argued that there were not that many, but one of the other group members recently emailed me to say that the Independent Publishers Guild UK (www.ipg.uk.com) have a staggering 580 members!

So why do I say there are not that many ?

The answer is, because in my opinion very few add value for a novelist, and some add so little value that they are in fact proxy self-publishing.

There are of course loads of independent publishers that publish everything from memoirs to military to experimental.(eg local-to-me Cicerone Press that publishes mountaineering guides) And a lot of other so-called ‘independent’ publishers that are actually assisted self-publishing companies e.g. the well-respected Troubadour, Silverwood. (But these self-publishing services will cost you – and rightly so, for the various services they offer.)

But in fact there are very few independents that publish full length novels, don’t charge the author anything at all, and do add value.

 

These days most publishers of  fiction offer e-books as a matter of course, (and some only e-books) so lets assume that as a given, that they will at least upload your book to Amazon. Publishing is easy these days, so publishers have to do more than just upload an ebook and offer a badly-designed POD paperback to win my vote.

 

So what exactly do I mean by ‘add value?’

 

PHYSICAL VALUE

a) Offer distribution of physical books to bookshops (ie I don’t have to carry my books to my local bookseller myself)

b) Offer proper editing, proof-reading, interior layout and typesetting (i.e not just an edit through an online programme such as Autocrit, or reproducing your Word Document as a book)

c) Offer a print run (however limited) that is not just Print on Demand such as CreateSpace. By the time the publisher adds their cut, it makes the books too expensive in comparison with other traditional publishers, and therefore they fail to sell. Who will buy a £12.99 paperback when similar titles sell for £7.99?

d) Offer an individual marketing strategy for your book, including promoting it to bookshops and libraries, in other words not just bunging it on their website and newsletter and hoping for the best.

I reckon many  independent publishers fail on one or more of those counts. They rely on you to sell your books to family, friends and your network, and then take royalties for the very little effort they have put in, which usually just involves adding a cheaply-designed cover and uploading your word document as a book to kindle, POD and their website. I admit these things take time, and incur costs for the publisher. But in most cases you would be better off self-publishing than giving this type of publisher a substantial part of your royalties when they add so little value to what is in the end your product.

There are many ‘independent’ publishers that look convincing, but are actually not that good for the author. Eg take a look at this fairly typical independent publisher  It looks great, until you read under their submissions guidelines: ‘Depending on how many we think it could sell, we offer varying levels of contract. About one in ten of the titles on the list have a subsidy from the author, directed either towards more editorial or marketing work than we can normally provide.’ Non-fiction sells well, so perhaps 1 in ten is actually most of the fiction, but of course you wouldn’t know that if you were the submitting author.

 

or this one: ‘A traditional partnership agreement entails the same benefits as a mainstream agreement. However, as the writer you may be asked to cover part of the cost of publishing the book. We follow all traditional industry etiquettes with regards to the promotion and marketing of the title in addition to all other avenues involved in the process.’

 

From another niche Independent Publisher website: We believe that as an author it is your responsibility to ensure that your work is of a reasonable standard before submitting to us. We can recommend a proof editor if you wish but that would be outside of our arrangement with you and you would contract them yourself.’

 

If you are going to pay, why not self-publish or use openly assisted self-publishing like Silverwood Books?

 

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PSYCHOLOGICAL VALUE

Of course I am not negating the psychological value of having your work accepted by a publisher. After receiving a lot of rejections (and we all get them!) it feels brilliant to have your book accepted by somebody. Anybody!  A friend of mine recently had her novel accepted by a small independent publisher. She was over the moon until she read on Link’d In that her commissioning editor had just left school, had never worked in publishing before, but had done  two weeks work experience for a book promotion company. So if literary validation is important to you, don’t forget to Google who is reading your manuscript and whether they are actually more qualified to make a judgement on your work than your local newsagent.

However, there can certainly be psychological (and monetary) value  in accessing a like-minded community. If you have a book that suits a niche audience, then there can be value in a niche publisher and in becoming part of that network, but check the network is not just other hopeful authors like yourself.

For real psychological value

a) See if the books from that publisher have won any prizes or been nominated for an award (or sold millions – we wish!)

b) Check whether any of the books been endorsed by writers or critics you have actually heard of, not just ‘Brilliant’ – Amazon Reviewer

b) For niche markets, eg horror, fantasy, experimental, check that the publisher seems to have good networking links with their community. Eg Do they blog? If so, check out their blog.

 

CONVENIENCE VALUE

OK, so you are technologically inept, and it’s much easier to hand it to a publisher and let them do it, if they accept your submission. But if it doesn’t get edited or properly laid out, if it has a bad cover, if it only reaches a few other writers who go to their website, and if it is too expensive to be attractive in bookshops, the convenience soon becomes inconvenient. You haven’t the control to do anything about it, the way you would have had if you had self published – and you are still paying them via your royalties.

 

However, for full length commercial/literary novels I can safely say the following independent print publishers do add value – not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order. They all have beautiful websites and beautiful books that you sometimes see in bookshops – a good sign.
Bloomsbury*, Alma, Myrmidon, Honno Press, Parthian Books, Myriad Editions, Allison and Busby*, Serpent’s Tail, Valley Press, Canongate*, Legend, Salt, Cinnamon Press, Accent Press, Cillian Press.

 

Some of these require you have an agent right now to submit (those marked with asterisks), some don’t, but for a bigger list of  small independent publishers check out Nottingham Writers Studio. If you want to see a list of other small presses, check out Lollipop. And here’s a complete list of UK publishers competing in The People’s Book Prize.
Anyone who can recommend more excellent independent publishers to add to this list – please do!

 

So before you sign any contract, ask if it will add value.

 

Thank you to crime noir writer Tess Makovesky for prompting this post. Find her at www.tessmakovesky.com
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Past Encounters by Davina Blake

PastEncounters_Ebook

If you were born in the 1950’s as I was, you will no doubt remember wartime stories passed down to you from your parents.

My parents were not old enough to fight in the second world war, but their stories of gas masks and rationing, dried egg sandwiches, and night-time forays into the Andersen shelter at the bottom of the garden, stuck with me. In particular, one story fascinated me – the one about a neighbour of theirs who was taken prisoner early in the war and spent five years in a forced labour camp for the Germans. He struggled to get over his experience more than those who had actually been fighting, and I always wondered why.

Years later, I moved to a small town ; Carnforth in Lancashire. The town itself used to have a big ironworks, long since gone, but now its one claim to fame is that it was once the scene for the famous film ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.  When I went to look around the Station Heritage Centre and found out more about the filming, I discovered the film was made in the last months of WWII. So now I had two ingredients – the story of a prisoner of war, and the story of the making of ‘Brief Encounter.’

Research led me to discover that  in February 1945,  when David Lean was filming ‘Brief Encounter’, on the very same day  we were sending bombs to decimate the beautiful cultural city of Dresden. What if these two events could be brought together? So, I had the third ingredient and an idea was born, the story of a wartime couple torn apart by war. But not just that – ten years later they are married, but neither has any idea what really went on for the other during their separation, or what it will mean for their future relationship. Wartime stories by necessity deal with larger themes of love and death, and people under extraordinary pressure. Rhoda and Peter have always hidden their pasts from each other, partly from self-preservation, and partly to shield the other from the truth. When Rhoda finds a letter from another woman, and the facts begin to surface, will Rhoda and Peter survive knowing the other’s darkest secret?

I was very attracted by the visual style of the film, ‘Brief Encounter’, its light and shadow, the way it made locations significant and tell their own story, so I have tried to keep that in my descriptions. The theme of the film is that hard choices have to be made about loyalty if a relationship is to survive, and I wanted my book to reflect this.

Whilst writing Past Encounters I interviewed people who remembered wartime Carnforth, and drank more tea and ate more biscuits than is probably good for me, whilst scribbling frantically in my notebook. I was also incredibly grateful for on-line sources such as ‘The People’s War’. Memoirs of prisoners of war and soldiers who endured the Great March of Prisoners of War through frozen Germany, also helped give a backbone to the book.

One of my aims is to show just how amazing ordinary people can be, if you scratch beneath the surface. By the end of the book Rhoda and Peter have found and lost loves, fought for survival, endured tragedy, and discovered the hidden depths that make a bond between two people true and lasting.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

www.davinablake.com

twitter: @davinajblake

blog: www.davinablake.blogspot.com

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Forget the Sensational – in Praise of Quiet Books

One of the things I’ve noticed about the new self-publishing phenomenon, and also about traditionally published books fighting for their corner in the ever expanding book market, is that many of them seem to be shouting.

The covers are shouting, the tag-lines are shouting, and the titles are shouting.

This is only natural I suppose, in a world where there is so much competition.  But I do not want all my reading to be ‘sensational’, or ‘gripping’ or ‘devastating’. Every good diet needs variety, and with Christmas approaching and my fire lit in my cosy front room, I want something which I can savour  and take my time over. I do not want to be rushed from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger.

One of the things that books do best is explore emotions and relationships from the inside – psychologists have recently come to believe that reading expands emotional intelligence.

So it was with some relief that I picked up ‘The Birds, The Bees and other Secrets’ by Frances Garrood, because this is exactly what this book does. This is what I would describe as a ‘quiet book’ in the the best possible way. It follows one person’s journey from childhood and her relationship with her mother up until the end of her mother’s life. The mother is eccentric with a bohemian lifestyle and this has an indelible effect on young Cass. What I loved about this book was that it was totally engrossing. I actually felt like I had lived through the sixties and seventies with Cass and her family by the end of the book. Cass’s coming of age is beautifully described, along with her particular problems, all caused by one of the stream of lodgers that her mother takes in.

Character is the glue that holds this novel together, along with sensitive writing. The specificity of the characters’ reactions to the events in the book made me feel like I knew them. This is the sort of good quality fiction that can get lost in amongst all the other books with big blocky type on the covers and sensationalist plots. Genuinely moving, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

 

Another gem of a read, also what I would call a ‘quiet book’ is ‘The Idea of Perfection’ by Kate Grenville.

Two unlikely characters meet and find love in this endearing and astute exploration of male and female behaviour. The book is about saving a bridge which is in danger of collapse, and also about how human beings can build bridges between one another. Harley Savage, a tall, unfashionable woman, wants to establish a heritage museum and conserve the bridge which is falling down. Douglas Cheeseman, a socially inept engineer, has been sent to demolish it.

The bridge is a brilliant symbol and is used in all kinds of sublte ways through the book. The title makes the reader consider what we might value, and what is worth conserving. This view of what might constitute culture is thought-provoking. Kate Grenville is a winner of the Orange Prize, and this novel is a brilliant piece of quality fiction.

Both of these books are literary but accessible with wonderful characters, so if you like a quieter pace, and to really get to know people in your books, look no further.

What are your favourite ‘quiet’ reads?