I had intended to write my blog on Tuesday, but somehow my dippy blonde brain got muddled between US and UK time. So I am now writing this on Wednesday, except it is almost 2pm here in Cathy Helm’s living room in hot and humid North Carolina (thank goodness for efficient air conditioning). Back home in the UK it is now nearly 8pm. By the time I get to post this I’ll have no idea what the time is where-ever you (the reader) happens to be reading this. So I give up. It might still be Wednesday, it could be Thursday – it could be, well, whenever!

I think suffice to say I am having a great time. (Although missing home, family and animals very much.)

BleeBear in his holiday bed
The flight over was somewhat bumpy. In fact I think it might have been smoother by sea…. Even before I got on the plane I hit problems. No one told me I needed a Visa to enter the US. Not even the airline website said so. In fact I DID look it said ‘Visa not necessary if visit under 90 days or as vacation only.’ Turns out I did need one.

The airport staff were very helpful (which makes me think they know perfectly well that there’s no information saying a visa is needed) apparently they have to deal with this issue on a regular basis. All I had to do was fill in a form, pay $x and hey-presto I would have my Visa. A really nice young man assisted me –unfortunately he was also on duty at baggage check-in so couldn’t give me his undivided attention. It was a task that eventually took us a mere 20 minutes to accomplish. Pity my flight had already taken off.

Again, the Heathrow staff were helpful they booked me into a hotel and re-arranged the same flight for the next day. No idea how I kept cool and calm. I just kept telling myself that my flight had been delayed for a reason.

Missing home - Devon on the morning I left
Sunday, everything went fine and there at Charlotte Airport was Cathy, her mom-in-law Julianne and mom Lynn to meet me. First stop: the ladies restroom.

Jet lag didn’t seem to be a problem, and BleeBear gave his approval to our guest bedroom bed. (Yes he came with me. Ideal neck-rest cushion for long flights.) (see photo above)

Hot and humid here in North Carolina. I do miss sitting outside in fresh, cool, Devon for morning coffee, but better to enjoy indoor air conditioning rather than frizzle outside.

Wednesday, Cathy and I set off for the Historical Novel Conference in Denver, Colorado (sound of John Denver singing in my head ‘Rocky Mountain High! Colorado….!’ 

Very disappointing to discover that although Denver is the ‘Mile High City’ it is also quite a few miles from the mountains. I could just about see them. Never mind, on one of my previous US trips I took the train from Salt Lake City to Chicago – which involved going alongside the Colorado River and up through the mountains. Incidentally, we also stopped for about an hour at Denver Station.

First night, TV were announcing a tornado warning. I was interested (all good research and the hotel looked safe and solid enough). Well I guess the storm was on the other side of the hotel because beyond a few half-hearted lightning flashes and a couple of low thunder grumbles nothing much happened. (I think there was severe flooding in downtown Denver) From where I stood at the window though – Devon beats Denver as far as thunderstorms go. It didn’t even rain on our side of the building. There was a super rainbow afterwards though. Sadly not a very super photo to go with it :-)

Denver Rainbow from our hotel window

Thursday and most of Friday Cathy and I ensconced ourselves at a table in the hotel’s outdoor cafĂ©, nice and cool, and we could see all new arrivals – including Geri Clouston and husband Bob of Indie B.R.A.G the main Conference sponsor, and Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage – and several other treasured Facebook friends.

Breakfast: l-r Alison, Johan, (waitress)
Anna, me, Cathy, Geri
Friday evening – the reception and buffet dinner. Probably a very little thing to most people but the delightful author and actor C.C. Humphreys (read his books, they’re good!) opened the Conference with a poem…. Which is hereWe are Historical Novelists, Fiction is our Game” 

The lovely (and somewhat handsome) C.C. Humphreys
 (now unashamedly my favourite author!) 

Saturday: in between meeting so many wonderful people (mostly Facebook friends -fabulous to now put faces to names) I was co-speaker for one of the panels  talking about the brass tacks of indie publishing with Geri Clouston, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage and Dan Willis. We had a rapt and interested audience – hope we managed to answer most questions. Our main emphasis was ‘if you are going to publish as indie/self-publish do it properly and professionally’.

Alison, Geri, Anna, Me
I made mistakes when I first went indie - Big Time mistakes, which is one of the reasons I want to help new writers who go down the indie line with 'lessons learnt' advice. It saddens me (and frustrates) that there are still those who sneer at or mock indie writers - especially those who use the derogatory "they are only indie because they can't get a traditional contract".
 For a kick-off I am what they term 'hybrid' : traditional in the US, indie in the UK. I was traditional in the UK but because of a useless agent I was dropped by Heinemann. My choice? Give up writing (not an option) or go indie. Thank goodness I DID have that choice! 

I know quite a few well-known traditional authors who are turning to indie for their mid- and back-list novels which have been dropped by their (short-sighted) mainstream publishers. And maybe one of the main reasons many of us go indie is because, yes the publishers do not want to publish our books but quality of writing has nothing to do with it... traditional publishing houses like to put their square-peg books into square-peg holes because of marketing. Many indies are cross-over subgenre - my own Sea Witch Voyages are historical fantasy/ nautical adventure.  I received rejections because the publishers said the books would be hard to market as they were not clearly one genre or another. When I took over as Managing Editor for Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews I was determined to ensure we only review the better books (sadly there are some not very good indies... but there are also more than a few not very good traditionals!) and this is one of the reasons I introduced the HNS Indie Award. As far as I am aware we are the only genre-specific group to have such an award - very few even review indies, let alone give awards. I do not want the award to be a competition, I see it is as a goal to achieve where all historical fiction authors have a chance of being longlisted/shortlisted. All a writer has to do to be considered is to write a darn good story and produce a quality novel.

Anna and me (and other authors) signing books
that's Stephanie Dray on my left

It saddened me that there were a few, shall I say, ‘unpleasant’ remarks about Indie authors at the conference. I bit my tongue and smiled sweetly. I put these remarks down to authors who feel threatened by us though! I would have liked to have turned round and said ‘look what Indie has done for the music industry. No one sneers at the many, many top groups who produce albums independently because the record companies were not broad-minded or far-sighted enough to produce material that fell outside the normal market.’ Well, the same applies to us indies.
My only caveat to all that is Indie writers MUST prove we are just as good as traditional mainstream – if not better!

Anyway, for the HNS award, congratulations to runner-up A Day of Fire by E Knight, Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and Kate Quinn, (some of whom are mainstream authors. Does the ‘not good enough for mainstream apply here?) and our winner, unanimously agreed by our judges, Vivien Crystal and Amy Bruno – Anna Belfrage’s Revenge and Retribution  the sixth book in the ‘Graham Saga’.
Commiserations to our two other finalists Marschel Paul’s theSpirit Room  and Tristan and Iseult by J.D. Smith  Both judges said it was very hard to choose between the four books.

HNS Indie Award
Amy Bruno and Anna Belfrage
Sunday morning I had a very brief chance to chat with a few lovely people, but I had a plane to catch and the cab came early: I promise I will be emailing you all soon but
Tomorrow (Thursday) I’m off to celebrate us Brits giving the Colonies away. 4th July in Williamsburg! Looking forward to it!

See y'all next week! (Hopefully on TUESDAY!) 

A View of America

I'm here. safely landed at Charlotte airport, North Carolina after a bit of a bumpy flight and a huge sigh over paperwork at Heathrow Airport (thank you to the wonderful young Muslim member of staff who admirably looked after me - even though his shift had finished!) 

Cathy Helms, my dear friend and fantastic graphics designer was at the airport to meet me, along with her Mom Lynn and Mom-in-law Julie (lovely to meet them) ... and the heat. North Carolina is hot and humid. Bit of a change from damp and breezy Devon!

Customs at  Charlotte was fun. I had arranged for assistance as my misty sight makes me a bit panicky (its difficult when you can't see clearly) so I had an escort (which meant queue jumping) but I had to be honest on the arrivals form that I had to fill in: had I recently been on a farm. I couldn't really avoid 'yes' could I seeing as my address is Windfall Farm. Had I been in contact with livestock? Again yes - so that meant I had to go through two lots of customs to confirm that no I had no soil, seeds or meat. No the shoes I had on were not the ones I wear in the pastures (as I said with all the recent Devon rain boots are the main footwear not fancy best shoes!)

So that done and baggage reclaimed we set off for 'home'...

Cathy's new-built house is wonderful and she and her husband have made me so welcome. My room surpasses any hotel! And as for Julie's cooking.... 5 star chef definitely!

I'm not used to sitting indoors all day I must admit - usually we lunch on the veranda or out the front of the house back in Devon, but then I'm not used to being cooked in what is similar to a furnace outside either! Indoors is cool (in all senses of the word!) 

lunch at home in Devon (with guests
We've squirrels on the lawn, I've seen a cardinal bird, heard the crickets (and we fended off the wasps determined to build a nest under the veranda table) and all in all.... having a wonderful time!

We are off to Denver for the Historical Novel Society Conference tomorrow - tune in again next week for my second American Instalment!

What is in a novel? Fact v Fiction?

 A good friend of mine read Sea Witch the first of my pirate-based Sea Witch Voyages a short while ago. I was a little stunned by his response – but it got me thinking.

 (Ok no sarcastic remarks relating to that last statement please!)

There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether Historical Fiction should be more fiction than fact, or more fact than fiction - and I guess I am including movies & T.V. drama here as well as novels. We all know how entertaining Braveheart was – and how completely unhistorical! On the other hand, read an Elizabeth Chadwick or a Sharon Penman and you know you are getting your money’s worth regarding fact perfectly blending with the fictional made-up bits.

For my Sea Witch Voyages, I twiddle with the facts of history, my sailing detail is as accurate as I can get it – but there is also a huge wedge of outright fantasy. The Voyages are not meant to be taken seriously; they are nautical adventure with a big dash of make-believe.

But here’s what has stumped me. These books are pirate-based (my lead character becomes an ex-pirate by Voyage Two, Pirate Code but that is immaterial in this context).

Here’s the gist of what my friend said:

I finished Sea Witch yesterday. I loved it. The plot is terrific… There are so many twists and turns, yet the whole novel has a consistent flow to it. The senses of time and place are superb, in fact could hardly be bettered. I heard the noises and felt the movement of the ships. I felt I was on the sea, and the nautical jargon was pitch-perfect. It’s good to have been entertained and educated at the same time.
Normally I would have disliked the paranormal stuff, but actually I enjoyed it even when, towards the end, the contest between Tethys and Tiola came to dominate the action. It was a thrilling battle of wills with an awesome, nautical backdrop. “

So far so good… but…

I found Jesamiah Acorne a loathsome character (the word is not too strong) from beginning to end. Didn’t that put me off? Strangely not, for reasons which will become apparent. I never wanted Tiola and Jesamiah to come together, and when they parted at Cape Town (that passage was particularly brilliant and unexpected), I didn’t want her to be reunited with him at any stage. There are several reasons why I disliked Jesamiah so much…”

That stunned me. Didn’t like my darling character Jesamiah? The love of my (fictional) life? My hero… my…. Well, you get the drift.

 My friend went on to say:
I don’t find piracy attractive in the slightest. I feel the same way about gangsters and the Mafia. They do horrible things purely for personal gain. No ‘Robin Hood’ motives there. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable and unimaginative by failing to take into account the harsh conditions of the time. The opening scene, which is exciting and graphic, reveals him committing barbarities with only the basest motive.
The character of Stefan van Overstratten is introduced in a reasonably favourable light, unlike Phillipe Mereno, who is quite clearly repulsive from the start. So in the competition for Tiola’s affections, it was natural for me to side with Stefan rather than Jesamiah from the beginning. Only in the second half of the book was Stefan shown to be more nasty. As for Jesamiah, I waited in vain throughout the novel for some noble or redemptive act. He never performed one, his only ‘virtues’ being that he was a good seaman and captain and loved the heroine. But for me he was well ahead of Stefan in the nastiness stakes almost throughout. Only when he was in trouble with the repulsive Phillipe and then finally confronted him did I want him to succeed.

Well that was pretty blunt. I was a little bit huffy – but this is when I got to thinking to myself: “Hmm. Has he got a good point.”

The majority of Historical Fiction readers want the facts interwoven with their fiction (as writers do we have a ‘duty of care’ to give the facts as best we can?) It does bother me that there are some, shall we say ‘ungenerous’ people out there (mostly on Social Media) who take delight in trashing an author’s hard work because of the tiniest of slips – this I do find irritating. The key word is FICTION. Fiction means made-up, untrue, not fact. If these people want pure, 100% fact then read non-fiction not a STORY.

But where, then, do we stand with writing fiction that is meant to be a “fun tongue-in-cheek read” where the lead character is clearly NOT factually written nor meant to be taken seriously/factually?

I don’t see my Jesamiah as a brute of a pirate. Yes he’s pillaged and plundered, yes he attacks and kills innocent people… but so does James Bond, Indiana Jones, the Three Musketeers,  highwaymen…Game of Thrones... In movies, stories, etc we think of pirates as Romantic Heroes: Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow, Jesamiah Acorne… Don’t we? (and what about Vikings and Vampires?)

 Jesamiah is a made-up character. He isn’t real, the stories are meant to be read with an air of suspended belief. But perhaps they shouldn’t be?
Perhaps I should have written something more factual? Although that would have made Sea Witch a completely different novel of course.


Jesamiah has a rapidly expanding fan base. I’ve never had a reader react so “factually” before – well, none who have actually responded to me. (Apart from my ex-agent who loathed the book – but she wanted me to write it for children. I was adamant it was for adults. ) Come to think of it, isn’t Treasure Island full of gruesome characters?

So here’s my question – do we happily accept the made-up when it comes to the in reality bad-guys becoming the heroes of fiction? Are we happy to totally suspend belief when it comes to the romantic rogue of a hero? Or should we be more careful about portraying more factually in our fiction the people who were – let’s face it - the terrorists of their time?

Has my friend missed the point (that the story is made-up fiction and is not meant to be taken seriously)  - or has he made a very thought-provoking and valid  point? (that even if made-up and not meant to be taken seriously why do we 'romanticise' these louts?)

Pirates? Valentines or Villains?
I am really grateful to my friend because he has made me think, and to see a different side to what we tend to blindly accept as OK because its fiction.

But what say you?