19 June 2018

'It isn't wrong but...' Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick

Gordon the Big Engine
"It isn't wrong - but we just don't do it ...." Edward the Blue Engine
(referring to Gordon the Big Engine's habit of being annoying by whistling long, loud and often.)

Or to put it another way.... Spamming. 
Deliberate spamming that can, in a few cases, come very close to harassment is wrong. It is irritating, intrusive and can be, in the hands of the persistent Troll, downright nasty. We've all had them, those emails that proclaim things like 'use my editing service, I'm the best' followed by another and another pestering email (because you sent the first couple straight to the junk folder) with 'Since you didn't answer I'll put a snide comment on Amazon about how many errors are in your badly written book.'  Why do these people feel the need to trash a book because their spammed offer of (unwanted) 'service' was not accepted? More baffling, where on earth do they find the time to  continue with their nonsensical spamming? Obviously their 'we're the best' business can't be very busy can it?

But where is the fine line between trying to get your hard-written novel noticed and pi**ing people off when you go on and on about it?

The answer is really quite simple. Vary your marketingDon't whistle about the same thing long, loud and oftenRepeated tweets, Facebook posts and re-mentioned-yet-again blog shout-outs can turn potential readers off quicker than Edward the Blue Engine can shunt a train of carriages into the sidings.

Edward the Blue Engine
'But', I hear you wail, 'how do we promote our books then?'
As much as we like to think that we are huge whales swimming in a small pond, most of us are only tadpoles struggling in the enormous ocean that is Amazon. I have to be honest, when someone comes up with a really good answer to that question I'll let you know. (Maybe not straight away - I'll keep it for myself for a bit.)

Readers like to know about authors, how they got started, how they discovered their characters, where they write, what their hobbies are - the interesting bits behind the scenes of that book cover. In the very pre-internet days top authors were regarded as celebs because they sold lots of books and made lots of money. (I bet you can easily name a few high-profile pre-1990s authors!) Until recently - pre 2005 I'd say as a rough guesstimate - the publishing houses took care of all the marketing for the books they published. Their best authors were seen on TV, heard on the radio, featured in newspapers and magazines. Us lesser authors, well, we got two weeks of minor publicity and that was it. If our book didn't sell (because no one knew about it) we could find ourselves dropped like a ton of broken bricks with no offer of a further contract. Advance payments were usually large, four or five figure sums. Today you're lucky if you get picked up, let alone offered a small advance!

But then computers came along with floppy disks (or cassettes prior to that!) and the World Wide Web, followed with emails, newsletters, My Space (remember that?) Facebook, websites, Twitter, Blogs ... Amazon... and Indie Writers who discovered that you didn't need a Big Publishing House to publish and market (or not) your book.

For many years, back in the mid-2000s, Indies were looked down upon as the sludge of the literary world (still are at times, though fortunately, not as often.) This is because back then we didn't quite know how to do it properly. I include myself. My first indie novel was not far short of a disaster - even down to the Comic Sans print (blushes in shame - although it wasn't my fault. It never occurred to me that the assisted publishing house I used then would not re-set the text correctly. That company eventually went bankrupt owing money to disgruntled staff, authors and printers all over the show, so it sums up their poor service.) 

Original cover
designed by an amateur artist -
attractive, but not professional quality
Present professionally designed cover
By properly I mean professionally, to produce a novel that is every bit as good as one published traditionally mainstream. Actually, in some cases, even better. Mainstream is becoming quite shoddy at times. Indie authors are taking control. Experienced editors are used, professional designs for the covers, quality printing - and good marketing. Plus if we get something wrong we can quickly re-edit and re-print. Mainstream publishers won't or can't.

Marketing your book is a subtle art. Yes of course you can tootle your whistle occasionally - but not continuously. There is a difference between pleasantly mentioning and outright heckling.

There are plenty of places on line and more than a few good books to advise about marketing but here are a few suggestions:
  • Send out a regular newsletter (I use Tinyletter it is simple to use) but again, keep it interesting. Sign up to my newsletter or I can recommend Alison Morton's newsletter (she writes alternative history - crime novels set in the fictional modern world of if the Rome Empire had survived. Brilliant books.) 
  • Tweet interesting Tweets, and make sure you re-tweet other people's interesting Tweets. They in turn might re-tweet yours.
  • Have a Facebook page. Again keep it interesting (but not too personal. Once on the Internet something stays on the Internet.)
  • Keep a Blog. OK maybe update it with a new article only once a month, but do so regularly. And no, it isn't a blog that is just about you and your books. Take at look at the index page for this blog. Note how diverse my posts are. Invite interesting guests. Then they might invite you back and automatically you are widening your audience. 

The drawback to all this? 

I wish someone would invent a 36 hour day...


12 June 2018

Tuesday Talk with Jen Black... Who were the Border Reivers

Reiver statue at Galashiels
You may well ask, especially if you live in the south of England.

The reivers lived in those counties that glare at each other across the English-Scottish Border: Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham; Berwickshire, Roxburghsire and Dumfriesshire. Some would include Selkirk. Westmorland used to be listed, but in the 1974 reorganisation the county was lost and now forms part of Cumbria. Helvellyn rises to 3,117 ft (950m), but reivers found the Eden Valley easy access to easy pickings. The Pennines that form the Durham Dales proved more of a barrier, though inroads were made. Every northerner knows the story of the monks at Blanchland in County Durham who cowered in their church until the Scots raiders passed by on their way home to Scotland and then rang the bells in thanks. The Scots heard the bells, turned back and raided the little village hidden in its deep valley.

George MacDonald Fraser described the reivers in his book The Steel Bonnets: “...they are not the most immediately lovable folk in the United Kingdom. Incomers may find them difficult to know; there is a tendency among them to be suspicious and taciturn, and the harsh Border voice, whether the accent is Scots or English, lends itself readily to derision and complaint. No doubt there are Cumbrians who are gay, frivolous folk, and Roxburghshire probably has its quota of fawning, polished sophisticates; they are in a minority, that is all.”

Qualities such as those he described were forged in harsh times that passed most of Britain by. From the late thirteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, the Borders were frequently a war zone. During those times armies marched in both directions across the Border lands, burning, stealing and despoiling as they went; armies must eat, and the people of the Borders bore the brunt of it. 

When a man’s crops and livestock were seized, there was nothing he could do to support himself and his family but relieve his neighbours of the goods he needed. If the neighbour was in the same situation, then they joined forces and foraged further afield. Nationality was not a consideration in such desperate times; Scot raided Scot as much as the English and the English were not averse to raiding an English farm if needs must. Scots helped the English raid north of the Border and Englishmen aided Scots raids south of the Border. Families such as the Grahams had members straddling both sides of the line and no one ever knew for certain who they would support on any given day.

In times of peace, the raiding went on. Habits once formed, die hard. Feuds developed, some across the Border divide and some within it. The Maxwells feuded with the Johnstones in one of the bitterest and bloody battles known in Scotland, yet now no one knows how or why it began; possibly a power struggle for supremacy between two powerful tribes that turned the Debateable Land into a wasteland, according to Lord Dacre in 1528. Twenty years later Lord Wharton was busily fanning the flames to secure England’s interests and both clan leaders found themselves in and out of English prisons on an almost regular basis.

National policy tried to stop the lawlessness. The Borders were divided into six administrative areas known as the Marches and England and Scotland both appointed three Wardens whose task was to defend against invasion in time of war and put down crime and maintain law and order in peace time. Some were good men and others were the worst raiders of the frontier. A Warden often used one reiving family to help them catch another. Tracking thieves on horseback in the dark across trackless and boggy wastes was not an easy task and no Borderer was about to betray another Borderer unless it brought him profit or it played into his feud. Sex took no notice of national policy and intermarriages across the Border were common. Cattle rustling and protection rackets abounded. The words blackmail and kidnapping came into the English language via the Borders. Overpopulation of the more fertile dales and greedy landlords contributed to the problems and so did the Tynedale custom of dividing a dead man’s land among all his sons “whereby beggars increase and service decays.”

Their homes were makeshift things in many cases. Often burned down, they were replaced astonishingly quickly, built of clay and stones, sometimes turf sods with roofs of thatch. Larger villages had more substantial dwellings of stone and oak timbers. The Bastle was smaller, built on the same lines as a peel tower, which was more secure still; built of stone with massively thick walls. There was only one entrance at ground level, with two doors, one a yett – an iron grating - and the other of oak reinforced with iron. A narrow curving stair known as a turnpike led to upper floors. Usually they curved clockwise so a defender retreating to an upper storey had his unguarded left side to the wall; the man attacking up the stair was at a disadvantage with his sword arm to the wall. 

a Bastle house
The Kerrs, notoriously left-handed, built their turnpikes anti-clockwise. 

Smallholm Tower
The standard of living was generally higher in towns such as Berwick or Carlisle, but the daily food ration of a soldier in the Berwick garrison in 1597 would not satisfy us today; he received a daily ration of a 12 oz loaf, 3 pints of beer, 1½ lbs of beef, ¾lb of cheese and ¼of butter. If that was what the English army lived on, consider the diet of peasant farmers whose crops have been trampled into the mud by an army passing through.

The people of the Border have not changed much in four hundred years; the Elliots Armstrongs and Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs are still where they were in the sixteenth century and it can be said that they form a distinct cultural and social bloc that is different from the rest of the British people.

About Jen Black
"I write historical romances and historical novels variously set in Scotland, Dublin or the north of England where I have lived all my life. With so many wonderful periods of history to choose from I don't stick to one; from Vikings to Victorians, I love them all! I'm rarely without a camera in my pocket and delight in displaying the pics on my blog. The beautiful Tyne Valley around Hexham features heavily, as do my holiday haunts and I can't ignore my beautiful Dalnatian dog, Tim"

Jen's Blog: http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jen.black.775
Twitter @JenBlackNCL

Find Jen on:

A few of Jen's novels:

A Victorian-romance-mystery with both humour and drama!
In 1893 Daisy dreams of a career as an artist but runs up against the rock that is Adam Grey, who distrusts women and thinks wives should be content with home and family life. When a valuable painting goes missing in the country house where they are both guests, Adam turns detective and Daisy must prove that she is not the thief Adam initially believes her to be.
Does she want love and marriage or to fulfil her dreams? Can Adam get over his distrust of women?

Melanie Grey takes up a post as housekeeper to Lord Jarrow in remote Northumberland in the hope of a quiet life. Hiding her miserable past, she is surprised to discover the Master's life is not blameless and her curiosity will not let her rest until she finds out what he is doing. Unexplained night time activity involving kegs of whisky, rude Excise men, a shooting that almost kills Jarrow - will he let her into his life? Or will she always be just the housekeeper?

The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to marry wed to another, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them.  His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay - marriage to his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear.  Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.