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Friday 27 March 2015

Has Bookbzz Buzzed Off?

I’m not sure if I’m disappointed, angry or red-faced embarrassed. Either way I owe all my friends and readers a profound apology.

Remember a few weeks ago I was asking nicely (well OK also threatening with a rather sharp cutlass) for votes for Sea Witch my pirate-based nautical adventure with a touch of fantasy? I often describe the Sea Witch Voyages as: “A cross between Hornblower and Pirates of the Caribbean, with a dash of Richard Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic novels) blended with James Bond and Indiana Jones.” I think that sums them up nicely.

I was thrilled when so many of you offered your support to me (and my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne).  With well over a couple of hundred votes we won. I told Jes to put the cutlass away, which he did and promptly went off to celebrate with a keg or two of rum.
Unfortunately he has to get the cutlass out again and go in search of two who, it seems, are possibly real pirates.

The whole thing, the Bookbzz website, the offer to advertise books and running the competition it transpires, was very possibly all a scam. Or maybe the people running it, Conrad Murray and Paige Doyle didn’t make the money they had hoped for from eager punters and got fed up with it? Maybe the website is down because of computer problems – it’s possible, but many disgruntled authors who have been eagerly waiting to hear about our prize money since the beginning of March have not had emails responded to. No answers on Twitter or Facebook. No response from connections via Mr Murray’s other publishing ventures of Swan's Nest Publishing Canada and Bookmarq. His contact e-mail on Linkedin bounces back as unknown. This from a man who has on his Linkedin profile:

  Core involvement in a series of very successful web start-ups since the very birth of the Internet. Goals, results and profit-driven innovator who can conceive and deliver projects to meet real-world needs without over-stretching the limit of existing technology or breaking the budget. 
   Driving force is always to deliver a massive return on investment. Fascinated by data marketing techniques and customer behaviour. 
   A strong believer in the future of mobile but wants to sidestep the hype, rubbish and non-delivery that afflicted the early days of the internet.
   Primarily interested in innovating mass-penetration mobile products that offer a significant practical benefit to end users as well as a very significant business return for developers and service providers.

All very laudable – except he doesn’t have working e-mail connections, and for the one he does, he doesn’t answer anything.

He also has on Linkedin:

October 2014 – Present (6 months) London, Toronto, New York enables readers to find good books and tell friends about them, and authors and publishers to reach readers who want to buy books.
We call it a tell-a-friend engine -- but it can also generate reviews, manage relationships and news channels between publishers, authors and readers and act as a complete cost-effective viral marketing suite for books.”

Fine, except as the website is closed no one can ‘find' good books, and readers cannot be reached. Tell friends about them? Yes, that’s what I am doing – although I don’t think they meant for me to be telling: “The Bookbzz tell-a-friend engine seems to have run out of buzz, it can’t ‘generate reviews’ or ‘act as a complete cost-effective viral marketing suite for books.’”
In fact it can’t do anything except distress quite a few disgruntled authors because it is no longer there.

According to his CV, Conrad Murray has been a principal owner, chief marketing officer, partner, director, chairman, consultant, business development marketing director, development director, production director, senior producer, foreign correspondent + producer, freelance features writer, and correspondent all for different companies from 1982 to present day.

Conrad Murray as appearing on Linkedin
My, what a busy man. Can we add Possible Pirate and conman scammer to the list? At the very least he seems to enthusiastically start a project then lose interest after a few months and move on to something else.

For Swan's Nest Publishing I have tried my best but I can only find two books by the same author published by the company.

Bookmarq is another book marketing company belonging to Mr Murray. It has a very impressive-looking website but doesn’t actually do much – except publicise Mr Murray’s own articles and attempt to entice authors to use the company for: ‘Boosting Your Sales and Saving You Time and Money’.
Hmm, not sure about that. I’m wasting a lot of time here, and I suspect there are more than a few enraged authors out there who have lost a good bit of money.

Beneath Mr Murray’s e-mails he advertises: (sent to me 19th February 2015)

“ is the destination meeting-place for readers and writers. 
Along with insightful reviews, regular author interviews, articles and 
competitions, we provide comprehensive details of events and services as 
well as vital advice and guidance for aspirant writers, and marketing 
tools for established authors and publishers.
Joining the community should be the first step on, and a 
continuing part of, your writing journey.”

I tired joining the membership area. Nothing happened.
Not sure how Mr Murray can offer ‘vital advice and guidance’ when he doesn’t answer a single e-mail.
The first step’ – yes, the first one backwards if I were you – at a run.

And how much has he made from authors signing up for Bookmarq and Bookbzz? More than short-change I wouldn’t mind betting!

Here’s some of the advertising for Bookbzz and the competition;
 (typing errors are theirs, not mine!)

“If you haven't already done so we strongly recommend you Become a Premium Member (from $7.50 a month) to increase your book's visibility
Consider also the following promotions for the duration of the competition to secure more votes and as a means to generate lasting ongoing sales:

Socialbook Viral Book Marketing Campaign
Pop a banner to plug your entry. Your supporters can easily pop a banner and share it with all their followers. Announce and enable your readers to easily prommote your entry and encourage others to vote for your book. $25 onetime setup. Requires Premium Membership Subscription (from $7.50 a month). Click the link above to find out more.

PageTurner "Look Inside" Book Extract Reader
Elegant portable reader which works on our website, your website (and any other website) as well as social media. Enables potential readers to read a good opening chunk of your book. $25 onetime setup. Requires Premium Membership Subscription (from $7.50 a month). Click the link above to find out more. Book Club Interview and Publicity promotion
Reach our dedicated readership when you announce a give-away or price-drop promotion to our book club members and we will organise a publicity promo and email blast plus featured pages on our website and in our newsletters. Typically these promotions run over a month for maximum reach and impact.
In week one our Senior Reviewer introduces the book.
In week two we release an interview conducted by our reviewers with the author.
In week three readers can ask questions and
In week three to four the author answers.
$100 onetime setup. Requires Premium Membership Subscription (from $7.50 a month). Click the link above to find out more information.”

Add all that up: a nice little earner!

Fortunately, I am not financially out of pocket. I paid a fee of $25 to Bookbzz to enter the competition and I steadfastly ignored those repeated marketing emails to sign up for a Bookbzz marketing package. All the above I can do for myself for free.

Then there’s Mr Conrad’s partner, Paige Doyle.

I was approached by him some months ago when he was seeking authors to back the Bookbzz project. I was approached, I think, because of my capacity as Managing Editor of Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, plus I am quite prominent on Facebook, Twitter ( @HelenHollick ) etc in my capacity as an author.

I was happy to support the project in principal, anything to help Indie authors get noticed is (usually) a good thing. I was happy to put my books there as well, and yes, it was fun to be part of the competition. It would have been nice to have received the offered prize, but as I was only expecting a refund of the entry fee I’m not too bothered about that (although some of the other winning authors will probably be upset at losing out).

So who is Paige Doyle? He hasn’t replied to any e-mails either.
On the Bookmarq website there is this:

Paige Doyle is the Managing Editor at and as such, decides what we publish. He previously worked in the music business where he managed an Irish diva and superstar until his nerves became too frayed. No not Dana, the other one... Read Full
More posts by the Author »” No point clicking the read more links – they don’t go anywhere And I thought Conrad Murray was managing editor?

Paige Doyle as on Bookmarq
You know I get somewhat suspicious when e-mails are not answered, profile pages do not have a photo of a real person, and even the details on a website about the managing editor have a cartoon instead of a photo.

It makes you wonder if the person behind the name is real? Or is he maybe the same as someone else? Paige is a rather good alias for an editor isn’t it?

Should I have checked out how legitimate this was? Should all of us who entered have done so? Probably, but has anyone any suggestions of how we could have done that? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I suppose the one big alert, had I looked, would be the fact that nowhere is there a telephone number. Surely companies that publish and/or market books should have a working contact phone number?

There was nothing specific to cause concern on-line before the competition and the website closed (and the emails stopped being answered) to suggest a “con”. Well there is now! I (and several other authors) intend to make a reclaim of entry fees from PayPal, and I shall be adding enough links and labels on this article to hopefully flag up that Conrad Murray and Paige Doyle, along with Bookbzz, Bookmarq and Swan's Nest Publishing, may not be all they say they are. Please feel free to reblog, RT, share and all things like that to help bring attention to these two men  (one man?).

Alternatively I might get a very cross response from some legal person saying I’m committing slander or libel (or whatever it is) by implying that this competition and the various marketing sites are not quite kosher. Bring It On… because I would dearly love to have to retract this article and for myself and the other winning authors to be contacted and awarded our rightful money prizes - or at the very least a truthful explanation and a public apology.
Somehow, though, I don’t think any of that is going to happen.

Bookbzz - this shower of probable scammers -
 is NOT BookbUzz 
which is - as far as I can tell - 
a different and legit company.

(I will add here that most of these book marketing companies 
are used by authors not READERS 
so there is very little point in paying out to use them. 
I can highly recommend Indie B.R.A.G. below though!)

So all in all, my apologies to you all for this red-herring wasn’t real competition. I am gutted, I admit – the only competition/award Sea Witch has won (apart from a much cherished 100% genuine Indie B.R.A.G.medallion ) and it turns out to be what appears to be fake.

at least this one
was genuine!

Still, you my supportive readers and friends are real and your votes were genuine, so I suppose that counts as something to be proud off. Just a shame that glow of pride has been somewhat tarnished by huge embarrassment on my part.

well, tomorrow is another day. I don’t think I’ll enter any more awards though. The disappointment when you don’t win is awful and the disappointment when you do win is just as bad.

One final thought though.

Authors have a very good way of taking revenge…

(If you want to feel sorry for me and offer a consoling hug, you could do so by putting a really nice review of Sea Witch (or any of my books) on Amazon. Preferably 4 or 5 stars with “I voted for Sea Witch!” as the tag line... can but try to gain something positive out of the negative. 

(as for the Winner logo at the top of the page and on my sidebar 
I'm keeping it - because the votes and the support were genuine. 
Also the people at  Bookbzz have made a delightful error - 
there is no mention of their company on the logo, 
nor an embedded link, so it is only advertising my win - not their fake website!)

Tuesday 24 March 2015

When You Hit That Wall....

I received a lovely Facebook message this morning, from a reader who has just started my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy. She thanked me because she was enjoying the story and was delighted because she had gone through a phase of 'Reader's Block'.

I replied with a thank you (of course) but also I knew exactly what she meant - as a reader and a writer as I've hit that wall from both sides: the reading and the writing - and both can be pretty painful!

There have been several occasions when I just couldn't read. I couldn't find anything that interested me enough. Possibly the books I was trying to read were either not on topics I was interested in or - more likely - just poorly written. Usually when I hit these barriers I re-read something that I knew would grab me by the throat and refuse to let go - a Rosemary Sutcliff, Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons, an Elizabeth Chadwick, or for something non-historical fiction, a Dick Francis or Anne McCaffrey. Or, one of my own. (Not being boastful, but The Kingmaking, Harold the King and Sea Witch I wrote purely because these were the books I wanted to read... but couldn't find them.
So I wrote them myself.)

The only problem with smashing through the Reader's Block Wall now is, once I get hooked into a book I can't put it down, which means I get nothing else done...

One other reason for the Readers's Block Wall recently is because I've taken over as Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews. Now I mean no disrespect to indie writers at all (heck, I'm indie myself!) but some submitted novels are ... well... um... not very good. One page in and I'm already bored.
There again the next Indie novel submitted could be absolutely brilliant, so it's Evens Stevens.

As a writer though... hmmm. 
I've not had Writer's Block these past (too many) months, but I have been finding it difficult to get on and WRITE.

Here's a list. (I assure you they are facts, not excuses...)

  • because I don't say 'no' often enough and there's always something someone wants me to do
  • because I offer to organise things - like blog hops etc 
  • because being an indie writer I have to do all my own publicity and marketing - and it takes up a lot of time!
  • because there's always so many interesting people to 'chat' to on Facebook and Twitter (and via e-mail)
  • because the view from my window here in Devon is so wonderful I keep looking at it
  • because there are jobs to do round the farm
  • because I get distracted too easily

Well Ok, some are excuses...
I am knuckling down to getting on with the fifth Sea Witch Voyage On The Account

Well I will be, as soon as I've written this blog article...

I had a severe, genuine case of writer's block while writing my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy though.

UK editions
This happened over twenty-five years ago, but the memory is very clear still.

US editions
I wrote  then (still do) because characters will not leave me alone until I've written the story: it is a bit like being pregnant. Once conceived, it has to be born.

Back in the eighties I'd had an idea to write about King Arthur. But not the Holy Grail, Knights in Armour, Lancelot and the whole chivalric caboodle. (Tell the truth, I can't stand those stories) I wanted the 'what might have really happened' view. 

I had 'discovered' that IF Arthur had been a real person he would have lived in the fifth or sixth century as a War Lord at the time between the Going of the Romans and the Coming of the Anglo Saxons. This fact intrigued me. I researched more - became even more intrigued - then wanted to read novels about this type of Arthur. Mary Stewart had started it all with The Crytstal Cave and Hollow Hills. Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword At Sunset added fuel to the lust... but there wasn't much else. 

Yes, there was Stephen Lawhead's Taliesin and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon - good books, but not what I wanted, and Mists of Avalon annoyed me. Why? Because her portrayal of Guinevere was just not how I saw her!
My Gwenhwyfar was a fiesty red-head who had a sword and knew how to use it!

So I started to write my own. The book, as I said above, that I wanted to read. I
never dreamt that my scribblings would ever become real published books. That was a dream a probable never-to-be-achieved one.

The first, original, cover
I'd written much of what is now The Kingmaking  ... took me about eight years... but then, suddenly, gave up. What was the point? 
Who was ever going to read my twaddled rubbish?

I put everything away (this was the very early days of word processors and computers - I had an Acorn (LOL I now have a different Acorne given that that's my pirate's name!) 

It must have been around  September 1989. I hadn't written anything for about six months.Then I saw an advert for a Writer's Group Evening Class. It was only over the road at a local school. I went along.

Mistake (sort of). The others there were not potential novelists. They were more along the line of 'need to get the anguish out of my system' types. Broken relationships, family problems... The tutor set us an exercise: "Write what you feel, let your emotions flow and pour out of you!"

That wasn't much help to me. I wanted to write, not outpour... I sat there for a bit. Thought, "Come on Helen, you have to do something!"

But what? I had no idea what to write. Not a single word.
So I just rote down words.
Any words.
Whatever word came into my mind.

(I can't remember what they were... let's say....)
then came this word:
Arthur... and then this:

With an exhausted grunt of effort, Arthur, the Pendragon, raised his sword and with a deep intake of breath brought it down through the full force of weight and momentum into the skull of an Anglian thegn. Another battle. Arthur was four and twenty years of age, had been proclaimed Supreme King over Greater and Less Britain three years past by the army of the British – and had been fighting to keep the royal torque secure around his neck ever since.
The man crumpled, instantly dead. Arthur wrenched his blade from shattered bone and tissue with a sucking squelch, a sickening sound, one he would never grow used to. Oh, the harpers told of the glories of battle, the victory, the brave daring and skill – but they never told of the stench that assaulted your nostrils, bringing choking vomit to your throat. Nor of the screams that scalded your ears, nor the blood that clung foul and sticky and slippery to hands and fingers, or spattered face and clothing.
He turned, anxious, aware that a cavalryman was vulnerable on the ground. His stallion was somewhere to the left, a hind leg injured. The horses. Hah! No harper, no matter how skilled, could ever describe the sound of a horse screaming its death agony. There was no glory in battle, only the great relief that you were still alive when it was all over. Sword ready to strike again, Arthur found with a jolt of surprise there was no one before him, no one to fight. Eyebrows raised, breathless, he watched the final scenes of fighting with the dispassionate indifference of an uninvolved spectator. No more slopping and wading through these muddied, sucking water-meadows; the Angli were finished, beaten. The rebellion, this snatching of British land that was not theirs for the taking, was over.

The tutor asked us to stop after about ten minutes; 
"Sorry, no way!" I said, "you carry on, I've been trying to do this for six months, I'm not stopping now!"
I wrote three full A4 pages. went home and wrote several thousand more. A few months later, thanks to a recommendation by Sharon Penman, the manuscript I'd finally completed was accepted by an agent, who informed me I had a potential first two parts of a trilogy, (what?!!!) and placed it with William Heinemann

And that paragraph I reproduced above? I know it is almost, word for word, exactly what I wrote in that evening class writer's group because it became the opening chapter for book two, Pendragon's Banner.

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Tuesday 17 March 2015


My Tuesday Talk Guest this week :
I.D. Roberts

One of my favourite literary arguments that I’ve listened to, or been involved with myself, is over history versus fiction, about how much a writer is ‘allowed’ to manipulate historical events for the benefit of their own story. How much can they get away with?

Well, provided the writer doesn’t make a real howler, then why can’t you manipulate real events to suit your story? After all, history is only created when a man writes of it. Isn’t it? And, of course, when writing Historical Fiction you can always, for example, have Hitler surviving the war and growing old in a seventeenth storey flat on some rundown housing estate on the outskirts of Moscow. 

Who’s to say he didn’t anyway? Historians? Prove it.

Yes, I’m being deliberately belligerent here, but what I’m getting at is that historians and writers have often clashed because historians, the academics, more often than not spend years, decades even, on dedicated hard research. They have compiled to the best of their knowledge the definitive guide to their chosen subject, be it Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, Vlad the Impaler, Florence Nightingale, or Martin Luther King. And then along comes some jumped up author who steals their favourite subject and dumps a bunch of fictional characters in the middle of their world, manipulates events to suit their story, and even go and put words in the mouths of those historical figures, too.

And worse still, these authors often sell more books than the academics ever did or ever will. The cheek of it! The total injustice!

Caesar wouldn’t have said that! Wellington wouldn’t walk in that way! Boadicea wouldn’t dream of sleeping on her front! Hitler never ate spare ribs! Moses detested salami!’ But how do they know

Ok, maybe they do about Moses, but you get my drift.

And if one can tell a good story, a believable story, then who’s to say that it’s wrong to change events slightly, to make historical figures act in certain ways, do certain things? If the reader believes it, is swept along with it, especially if what is written is grounded in truth, in recorded fact, then why not change events to suit?

Yes, the writer needs to be aware that first and foremost they are telling a story. So, for example, if a battle that I have thrown my characters into is taking place but it lasts, as many did, for tedious days on end, then I could perhaps condense it into a few explosive hours. And if I need, say, a particular regiment in a particular place for dramatic effect, then that regiment could easily be shifted over a few feet. Does it matter? They are still there, still on the battlefield. We all (authors, I mean) do it, we have to, otherwise our stories just wouldn’t work, they would lack drama and pace.

Authors are, after all, writing to entertain, not writing for academic accolades.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating revolution here, I’m not saying that, for example, you can move the D-Day landings to the Brittany coast or even further south to the Atlantic coast. They could, of course, if I was penning alternative history or fantasy like, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB. But what I’m saying here about manipulating events slightly is that history should be treated as malleable and not as an irremovable stone. One must always be true, be respectful and protective of ones chosen era, that goes without saying, but one must also not be afraid of it.

Aside from my Kingdom Lock stories, which are set in the Middle East during the First World War, I have recently adapted my grandmother’s memoirs of her time as a trainee nurse in London during the Second World War. She’s 95 years-old now and her memory isn’t what it always was, so the facts of her own personal history and the events she lived through are somewhat blurry. And why wouldn’t they be? She was writing about events that occurred some 75 years earlier. I can’t even remember what I was doing 75 days ago. Can you? Without the aid of a diary or a journal? And even then, how much was actually true and not slightly changed? Not intentionally, but because recall can play tricks. 

Take a story told by one person that is then passed on to another, then another, then another… I’m talking good old Chinese Whispers. Most likely the story will bear little resemblance to the first person’s rendition when it reaches the tenth person. Things change, not necessarily on purpose, but because memory can play tricks, and also because one person’s skill at storytelling might be more flamboyant than another’s.

So, for my grandmother’s memoirs I had a vast amount of historical documents to refer to in order to help me put flesh onto the faded memories of that world in which she lived, worked and studied as a 21-year-old. But I still had to create conversations, I still had to move events slightly – not major historical ones, but personal ones – to add drama to fact, to add thrills and suspense to the drudgery of everyday life. Is this changing history? Not at all. It’s interpreting it.

For my Lock adventures, it is a particular historical figure’s own memoirs that I turn to for inspiration and guidance. Major General Townshend published his experiences of life in Mesopotamia during the First World War in 1922, when he was retired and living back in England. It’s a fascinating, often amusing read, for Townshend, though meticulous, fastidious and, at times, inspiring, is also a pompous popinjay and a man who historians mostly deride as a failure – he did, after all, oversee the biggest disaster in British Military History at the time when, in 1916, he surrendered Kut to the besieging Turks.

But I rather like him and although his book is full of self-gratification, as I suppose it would be – it’s his memoirs after all – it’s extremely informative and insightful as it puts me right there with him in dusty Mesopotamia and tells me how he saw events or, I should say, how he recalled events. Others, of course, whether it be in history books, in letters, or in diaries, give totally different accounts to what Townshend has said happened, and their opinions of events are often hugely contradictory. So who’s right? The man who was there? Or the man who wrote about the man who was there some fifty years later?

Can they both be right? But can’t they also both be wrong as well?

Take any story, any key event, that a number of people have witnessed or been involved in and they will all tell varying versions. So history is not the Holy Grail, the definitive answer. It is an interpretation. And more often than not an interpretation that changes from writer to writer, particularly when new evidence comes to light. History is a living, breathing creature.

Yes, many, many history books are written in a captivating, engrossing, even occasionally page-turning way, but many aren’t. Many are detailed yet ponderous tomes, fascinating, but not necessarily entertaining. And that’s not to take anything away from them, for without historians, historical fiction couldn’t exist. I truly believe that. Historians are my inspiration, my lifeblood; they are the essence of my storytelling.

As a writer you are learning all the time, not just about your craft, but also, particularly if you are producing Historical Fiction, about your chosen era. And, of course, history is changing all the time, too. For example, it has recently been announced that the plague wasn’t caused by rats at all, but by gerbils. So, does that make all those books, fact and fiction, written about the plague up until now obsolete? Not at all, they were just based on what was believed to be true at the time. And who’s to say that some other fact may not come up in ten, twenty, or thirty years that makes that new truth a falsehood, too?

Therefore, I would argue, that for authors of fiction, it’s our duty to tell a damned good yarn first and foremost. After all, history is just that, ‘His Story’, and it is, as George Orwell once said, written by the winners.

I.D. Roberts

I.D. Roberts was born in Ivanhoe near Melbourne, Australia in 1970 and moved to England when he was three. From a young age he developed an obsession with war comics, movies, Tintin and James Bond.
 At various stages in his life he has worked as a filmmaker, an industrial temp, a cinema box-office cashier, a runner, a caretaker, a football correspondent, a police line-up volunteer, a cricket commentator, a soundtrack reviewer, and a sub-editor. For the past decade he has been the film writer for the TV Times magazine. In 2012 he was signed by a literary agent.
 He holds a BA in Film from the University of Westminster and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. 
 His debut novel, KINGDOM LOCK, an action-adventure set during the First World War, was published in May 2014 by Allison & Busby.
 The second Kingdom Lock adventure is done, and he recently completed an adaptation of his grandmother's memoirs. It tells of her time as a trainee nurse during the Blitz, and is due to be published by Little Brown (Sphere) in August 2015. 
 He lives in rural Somerset with his wife Di and their dog, Steed. 

It’s a familiar situation, with familiar names. Yet these are not contemporary tales, but historical fiction based on fact, set in Iran and Iraq when those countries were called Persia and Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and while battles rage across Europe, three empires - the Ottoman, the German and the British - fight for dominance in the Middle East.
In the centre of this comes our hero, Kingdom Lock, a former civil engineer who now works for the British Intelligence Service known as the White Tabs. Having recently rescued Amy Townshend, the daughter of a top ranking British officer from Turkey, Lock is sent by his superior, Major Ross, to Persia. His mission: to stop a German spy from inciting rebellion and seizing control of the precious oilfields. But to complete his task, the Australian-born Lock has not only to battle resentment and enemies on his own side, but to keep one step ahead of the war raging around him. And to make matters worse, Lock has fallen in love with Amy, something her fiance will not tolerate...

Facebook : click here
Twitter: @kingdomlock

BUY the book:

"Lock is a superb character, a WW1 James Bond, if you like. Stunningly enjoyable."
Books Monthly

COMING SOON: audio CD (release due in May)

So what's your opinion? 
What is the prime importance 
for Historical Fiction - 
the Fact or the Fiction?

Leave a comment below ...

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Where do you get your ideas? Research!

 My Tuesday Talk Guest - R.J.Lynch

An Historical Novel Society Indie Award 
Shortlisted Author

John Lynch writes contemporary fiction under his own name and historical fiction as 
R.J. Lynch

His novel, A Just and Upright Man, the first book in the James Blakiston series set in north-east England in the seventeen sixties was an HNS Editor's Choice and short listed for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award.

John says, ‘Most historical fiction is written from the viewpoint of the rich and aristocratic, or at least the well-off. I wanted to write about the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap – the agricultural labourers, shepherds, cotton spinners and miners from whom most of us are descended. Of all the reviews the book has had, the sentence that gave me most pride was this one from Romance Reviews Magazine: 

This novel is on a par with Thomas Hardy's meaty offerings 
of country life and the hardships of the less well off: 
those beholden to the super-rich of their day.

I don’t suppose there’s a single fiction author who hasn’t been asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” If your stories are set in the present (as the ones I write under the name John Lynch are), it’s a question you sometimes have to dodge because you’ve written something that isn’t very nice about someone who wasn’t very nice and the someone who wasn’t very nice is still alive. Historical fiction (which I write as RJ. Lynch) is much easier; you give the single word, “Research”.

Is it true? Well, in a sense it has to be true because readers of historical fiction know the time they like to read about and if you get wrong some detail of clothing, food, furniture, policing or a hundred other things then – believe me – someone will draw your attention to the error. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for embroidery.

I spend a lot of time in archives around the UK looking at records. Sometimes what I find is routine and sometimes it isn’t – the times when it isn’t are the exciting ones – but it’s worth following even the boring things at least a little way because you never know where they might lead.

Here is one such case: Henry Walters married Rosina Challoner on August 12th 1852. I know that because it was fifteen years after civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Britain and I have a copy of the marriage certificate. It doesn’t tell me how old they were – merely that they were “of full age”. It does say that Henry was a printer, that bride and groom both lived in Gough Street which was part of the parish of St Pancras in Middlesex and that the marriage took place in the St Pancras parish church. It also says that the marriage took place after banns, which means there was nothing furtive or hurried about it. So what made me place this marriage certificate in the centre of my desk and look into it more closely?

There were four things that excited the researcher in me. First, the marriage was conducted by H.W. Gleed Armstrong and he failed to add the word “Vicar”, “Rector”, or “Curate”. I hadn’t come across Gleed Armstrong before this but it didn’t take long to find out that – both before and after the Walters/Challoner marriage – he was rector of a parish in Buckinghamshire.

So why was he officiating at a Middlesex wedding?

Then there was the fact that both bride and groom said that their fathers (Richard Walters for him; Henry Challoner for her) were dead. Of course, I didn’t know how old they were and it was far more likely than it would be today that parents would be dead when children married. Nevertheless, all researchers know that “Dead” under “Rank or Profession of Father” on a marriage certificate does not necessarily mean dead in the sense of expired, ceased to be or passed on. Sometimes “Dead” simply means, “Mind Your Own Business”.

Finally, there were the facts that the witnesses did not include a member of the groom’s family and that Rosina signed the register by making her mark. Was it not odd that a printer should be marrying someone who could not write her own name?

Odd or not, I decided to follow the lead to see where it went and I was glad I did. What I found is that Henry Challoner was not Rosina’s father and could not have been for the simple reason that he did not exist.

Rosina’s mother was Louisa and she went for convenience under the name of Louisa Challoner. In the 1851 census she described herself as a widow and listed three children: Rosina, Matthew and Agnes. Well, okay. Agnes was eight, so she was born in 1842 or 1843, so Henry must have been alive then. So why doesn’t he show up in the 1841 census?

Now let’s look at Rosina herself. Rosina Crawley was born in 1831 in Islington Workhouse and baptised in St Mary’s Parish Church in Islington. Her mother, who at that time called herself Louisa Crawley, was 17 and unmarried. Louisa said Rosina’s father was Arthur Hemp, a horse dealer from Beckenham, and the Poor Law overseers believed her because they made an affiliation order against Arthur under which he had to pay 2/6d per week for Rosina’s upkeep.

In fact, he only paid it when he was sent to jail for debt. (None of this information yielded itself easily; it came, inter alia,  from the Poor Law Examination of Louisa Crawley when she was pregnant with Rosina).

The name Challenor only appears three times. First, in the 1851 Census, when Louisa calls herself Louisa Challenor and claims to be a widow – but there is no sign of a wedding in the ten years before that, she was Louisa Crawley in the 1841 Census, and no death of a Henry Challenor or Matthew Challenor is registered. Second, when Matthew marries: on his marriage certificate he says he is the son of Matthew (not Henry) Challenor who is dead. And, third, when Rosina marries Henry Walters, claiming to be Rosina Challenor and, like Matthew, saying that her father is dead (although she calls him Henry and not Matthew).

Frankly, I think Henry Challenor was a figment of Louisa Crawley's imagination. 

At 17, she was a single mother in the Islington Workhouse. On her death at the age of 63, she was living in comfort in Birkdale, which is really quite a posh area in Lancashire, with a son-in-law who employed eight people.

And here is where the answer “Research” to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” breaks down. I’ve got the facts – or as close to the facts as I’m going to get – and now I take my researcher hat off and don the one that says Writer. What can I do with what I have found? Well, suppose we guess that the Walters family disapproved of a serial unmarried mother. That does, of course, raise the question: how did Rosina marry Henry Walters in the first place? How did they even meet?

We can’t know how they met. But when they married, Henry Walters was 35 and a printer and Rosina was 21. With my writer’s hat on I’m going to say that Henry was a sad old bachelor, that Rosina was a looker, and that he fell for her and her mother made sure she got him. I can hear it now: ‘That’s not a half crown trick, Rosina. That’s a meal ticket. Land it!’

It also suggests an answer to the question: Why did they leave London and move to Liverpool? My take, once again, is that the society a master printer moved in would not take kindly to Rosina and her mother, so they moved 200 miles to a city where they were not known and invented a more polite history than the one they actually had.

That is what I intend to do with what I have found. (And, of course, Arthur Hemp – horse-dealer and impregnator of young women who just may already have been on the game – will have a starring role). Another writer, though, could take the same research and come up with a completely different story. If you decide to go this way, let me know what you do with Henry and Rosina. (And I’ll give you a clue to help you start. I haven’t discussed Henry’s early life here but there is reason to suppose that his background is no more polite than his wife’s).

A Just and Upright Man (the title is from the Book of Job) is the first in a series of five books set in the northeast of England.

It is 1763. James Blakiston, overseer of Lord Ravenshead’s estate and a newcomer to the Durham parish of Ryton, is determined to solve the mystery of old Reuben Cooper’s murder – but he has no idea how to go about it. As enclosure threatens to make the poor even poorer, Blakiston follows one misguided hunch after another. The only thing that he can really be certain of is his love for the beautiful and spirited Kate Greener – a love he is determined to resist, for Kate is the daughter of a penniless labourer and Blakiston has in any case not recovered from being thrown over by the woman he believed loved him.

A Just and Upright Man is a romance; it’s a crime story; but most of all it’s a picture of 18th century England not looked at (as is usual in historical romance) from the point of view of the wealthy and powerful but seen through the eyes of those at the bottom of the heap. Kate Greener, Tom Laws, Lizzie and Florrie–these people were as real and as human as Lord Ravenshead and the Earl of Wrekin and I hope I have brought them to life – the reviews suggest that I have. I’ve said a little more on this subject HERE.

The Historical Novel Society shortlisted A Just and Upright Man for its 2015 Indie Award. A couple of hundred historical novels went into the pot and the short list was down to nine. Unfortunately A Just And Upright Man did not make it into the final four - but hey, short listing isn't too bad an accolade! The winner will be selected and the award presented at the HNS Conference in Denver, Colorado in June 2015.


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For more about :
the HNS Indie Award and complete longlist and shortlist  click HERE
HNS Conference Denver click HERE