Robin Hood riding through the….

As the theme tune to the old Richard Greene TV series goes…

Well, riding through my imagination at the moment as I’m close to finishing the third book in my Chronicles of Robin Hood series. One more book to do after this. All this labour might explain why I’ve been short of blogs on this site for a while. There’ll be far more coming as publication day gets nearer.

The new book finds Robin in even more danger, as old allies are no longer there for him and the power of his enemies grows even stronger.

So keep watching the blog for more updates.

And if you haven’t read the two books in the series so far please do look – they’re out in paperback and on Kindle.

Please do tell your friends about the books and leave a review if you enjoyed them and bought them from Amazon.

Thank you, John.

Here’s the links if you want to find out more about the first two books…

Writing a Victorian Thriller

I’ve now written two William Quest thrillers set in the 1850s, The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest. I’m in the planning stages of writing Quest number three. Here’s how it all began. I hope this might be helpful if you are planning your own thriller set in the Victorian period.

So how did William Quest come about?

I’ve always wanted to write about aspects of the Victorian underworld, but I wanted a setting that was London and Norfolk. For a long time I had this image of a gentleman carrying a swordstick walking along a London alley. I knew straight away that he was on some sort of quest for vengeance. His name, in these preliminary thoughts was Edward Stanton. Then one day the name William Quest flashed into my mind. It seemed to fit. I knew it would open with a killing but had only the vaguest ideas as to where to go from there.

So did you write out any sort of detailed plot plan?

Not really, and I’m glad I didn’t. I scribbled a few pages of very rough ideas in a Moleskine notebook. Many of these got rejected as I went on. I knew that there had to be some sort of back story for Quest. I had thoughts on what that should be. Then I sat down and it really wrote itself.

Did it come easily?

Much easier than anything I’ve ever written before. Whole characters just appeared, complete with names. I had no idea that there would be a character called Jasper Feedle at all. He just appeared one morning with that name. Walked out on to the pages, complete. Wissilcraft, the spy, was someone else who built up his part. He was meant to be a very minor character, just in a couple of scenes. And then there he is, driving the whole plot forwards.

Did you do much research?

I took a minor in nineteenth century social history as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. I always had a considerable interest in the Victorian underworld so I had most of that information at my fingertips. I have always had an interest in Victorian London and Norfolk and wanted a contrast between the London rookeries and the lonely countryside of Norfolk. Recent visits back to Norfolk gave me ideas for the scenes there and for the climax.

How do you work?

Mornings only! An early start and then only to lunchtimes, then the brain gives up. I usually write between 850 to 1400 words a day. I try to write every day. I really want to do more words.

Do you have a favourite character?

It has to be Jasper Feedle. Mostly because he saved me a lot of labour and came on like an actor, gave the performance, without any great effort from me.

Why the Victorian period?

When I was younger my period was always the 17th century. My university experiences and reading since diverted me to Victorian times. I think it a fascinating period. People think they know it, but…. And there are several periods within the period. The Regency attitudes linger on for a long time into Victoria’s reign. I found that fascinating and it was one reason why I set Quest as early as 1853. Much of Dickens’ work is driven by those attitudes. Worth remembering that there were thirty years of Victorianism after Dickens died. They were rather different years, much as the 1980s were different from the 1940s.

A good time to be alive?

If you were well off. Most of my ancestors were working class during Victoria’s reign. Many had unpleasant and early deaths. But there were wonderful people fighting for reform as well. I wanted to reflect both aspects in the novel. But at the end of the day it is a thriller and not a social novel. But Victorian values are not something, generally, we should wish back. Like Quest and his friends I would like a fairer and much more compassionate world.

But the relics of Victorian Britain are still there?

They are indeed. In Britain we are fortunate that we can walk down the same streets and often see the same buildings as our Victorian ancestors. Walk down many High Streets, look up above modern fascias, and we can still see the buildings they would have seen. A lot of Britons still live in the same houses as the Victorians. Much of our civic architecture is Victorian. We should make sure the planners and developers leave it alone.

Future William Quest novels?

The first sequel, Deadly Quest, is already out and set entirely in London. It kind of wraps up some of the stories which began in the first novel, though both are complete in themselves. In the new novel, the one I’m about to write, Quest finds himself in Victorian York, fighting new enemies and facing fresh menaces.

What advice would you give to anyone writing a Victorian thriller?

Don’t dwell too much on the plot until you have immersed yourself in the period. Sometimes the best ideas come out of that period. Read widely, walk those Victorian streets, look at their art, listen to their music, read their literature. It’s a bit like time travel. You need to be living there in a bit of your mind. Once you can get into that state the ideas should come. Better than trying to force a plot on to the period.

The first William Quest novels are now out in paperback and on Kindle. Click on the links if you want to sample a chapter or two, or order.

The Return of Novellas and Novelettes

‘Why did he only write a novella?’ was a comment on an otherwise favourable review we had a couple of years ago. A fair question and one we took as a back-handed compliment. We’ve been debating novellas and short novels recently, when as indie writers and avid readers, we note trends in the publishing world.

In the last few years we’ve noticed that novellas are becoming increasingly popular among indie authors. It’s interesting to think about why fashions change in publishing. A cynic might say novellas are quicker to get on sale – that’s true and an important factor – but far from the only reason.

Demand is driven partly by readers and most authors try to write books that will sell in the current market. Unfortunately, demand is also manipulated by the big publishers. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, historical fiction was very popular. Later, it almost disappeared from the shelves with publishers not wanting to take that genre. It’s hard to believe there were some years when readers went off historical novels when you look at their resurgence today, led by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.

Novellas and short novels are an old literary form which is making a welcome come-back for various reasons. It’s worth taking a closer look at what is generally meant by the terms. There are no hard and fast rules. From the writing guides I’ve read, leading indie author commentators mostly suggest that 20,000 words is the starting point for a novella.

I’ve no quarrel with this, though we feel that a 30-35,000 word-count is right for us. In the two novellas we’ve published, that space was a natural length to produce a well-rounded story, neither padded nor truncated. We felt it was a length to give good value to our readers, which is important to us.

A short novel is hard to define, though it’s currently suggested that 80,000 words is the minimum length for a novel. I guess a short novel is what used in Britain to be called a ‘novelette,’ anything upwards of around 40,000 words. This is an atmospheric old word that is reappearing in indie author’s book descriptions and we’re pleased to see it back. ‘Novelette’ conjures up nostalgic thoughts of garish covers and  exciting yarns like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar – The Saint – and hard-boiled Chandler and Hammett. Fast-moving adventure stories used to lend themselves to shorter fiction – perhaps until modern publisher-pressure.

Some authors do use the terms novella and novelette for as little as 25-30 pages.  This seems an unwise strategy. Though their work looks longer on the sales page, I’ve noticed angry reviews where readers’ expectations are misled. To pre-empt complaints of being short-changed by a short story, it’s worth making the length eye-catchingly clear in the blurb.

So, why write a novella? The main reason surely is because a writer wants to explore an idea that doesn’t lend itself to an average-length novel but is beyond the limitations of a short story. A story has its own natural length and far better to offer that to your readership than pad a plot in order to charge a higher price.

It’s natural to perceive larger goods as being better value but some of our most iconic fiction has a surprisingly short word count. Think of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (135 pages) and The Sign of Four (154), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (138) and The Power-House (108), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (180) or Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only 65 pages.

This doesn’t apply only to detective novels and thrillers. One of my favourite novels, J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country has  85 memorable pages. Ghost stories too, often work better at medium-length. Incidentally, few speak of these superb stories as novellas or even short novels. We’re simply glad we have them – and many writers intersperse shorter works between longer novels.

In the world of classic crime fiction, the majority of Agatha Christie’s novels are around 190-220 pages. Several written during or shortly after the Second World War are 160, perhaps due to paper shortage. Their quality is certainly no less, they include the much-loved The Body in the Library. Simenon’s Maigret novels are known for their slim volumes. Both writers had a high output.

A quick look along the shelf at many  crime novelists writing from about the 60s will show that their early novels were shorter. You can see this in the canon of Ruth Rendell. Fellow Rendell fans will know that she decided to incorporate themes of social ills in her later Wexford novels, doubling the length of her early titles. I loved them all and it’s a joy to know you’re getting a thick novel from a favourite writer. Yet I’ve come to think that Rendell’s early  mysteries are stronger. The plot of a murder and its detection has a natural progression which is often better for not being expanded. Another of my all-time favourite detective novelists is Emma Page. Her titles are often 180-200 pages .

Don’t get me wrong – I love to curl up with a fat novel. Two of my favourite writers are Trollope and Wilkie Collins, who average 500-700 pages. Trouble is, I rarely get time to re-read them these days and I’m not alone in that. I’ve also seen  – again in the last few years – that many new crime novels look satisfyingly thick until you open them to find an unusually large font and wide line spacing. Do the big publishers think readers won’t notice? I imagine this trend is to justify the staggeringly high price of new hardbacks – and possibly to recoup going on a table display in Waterstones’?

Readers’ expectations seem to be changing in  ways, especially relevant to indie authors who deal mainly in ebooks. We’re living in an over-worked, stressed, time-poor society. Reading – thankfully for our mental health – is as popular as ever. Maybe even more so with people who weren’t drawn to books, finding they enjoy reading on devices. Many people now want a medium-length read they can enjoy on their phone while commuting. Others want to relax with a novella over an evening or two. Sadly, fewer have the time to commit to a lengthy novel.

Another factor in the rise of novellas/novelettes is satisfying the readers who expect frequent titles. Again, this phenomenon only applies to indie authors. Traditionally, readers have expected to wait for a yearly treat from favourite authors, or even a couple or more years. Especially if they’re longing to follow a series and the author has more than one on the go or fancies writing a stand-alone.

These days in our frantic-paced culture, the received wisdom is that readers expect more than a single ebook a year from authors they like. Industry trends strongly suggest that ebook readers’ expectations have gone haywire. We’re told that standalones won’t sell well and we need to get a series on sale fast or our name will be forgotten by readers who enjoyed our first title. And we all know, some readers expect our carefully-crafted months of work to be handed over for 99p! Publishing shorts does go some way towards retaining readers’ interest.

We will always love writing novels but have really enjoyed working on two novellas so far – one for each of our main detective characters. It feels refreshing and fun between the long-haul – maybe like running a half-marathon. Many indie authors are interspersing their fiction with novellas and short stories. It can be a great way of trying out an idea for a spin-off series or exploring a secondary character in greater depth. This is something we’re considering with our historical adventures and Victorian thrillers.

And we’re not alone. In traditionally published crime fiction, famous names such as Alison Joseph and Lesley Cookman have started novella series between their novels. I’m looking forward to Lesley Cookman’s second novella in her The Alexandrians Series which is out on 31st Jan (now on pre-order). She’s had the inspired idea of taking the Nethergate seaside theatre featured in her wonderful Libby Sarjeant series and using that as an Edwardian setting.

Between all these factors, I think we’ve only seen the start of authors producing novellas and short novels. Thanks to technology, writers now have a freedom to write as they choose. An opportunity unseen since the nineteenth century when small presses abounded and individuals sold topical chap-books in the street. It’s exciting to think that indie authors are leading the way.

What do you think? Don’t be shy – we’d love to hear thoughts from other authors.

 

Winter Mystery Reading

If you enjoy a wintry mystery, do look at our new detective novella The Holly House Mystery. Available on Kobo and Kindle as well as in paperback.  Thanks to everyone who has bought the book so far.

The novella is set on the Sussex downs in the last days of 1931 and features Inspector Eddie Chance who first appeared in The Seafront Corpse.

An affectionate homage to Golden Age detective fiction and the enclosed world of country house murder.

If you enjoy the book please do leave a review on the online selling sites and Goodreads. And if you could share this and tell your friends about The Holly House Mystery we’d be very grateful. Reviews help Indie Authors stay in business.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

December 1931. Inspector Chance investigates a country house mystery in a snow-bound Sussex village. Family and guests are gathered for Christmas at Holly House. A body is discovered near the ruins in the grounds. And only one set of footprints in the snow…

Can Inspector Chance solve the murder before Scotland Yard is called in?

The Holly House Mystery is a 34000 word novella, complete in itself, the second title in the Inspector Chance Mystery Series.

What Readers are saying about Inspector  Chance’s first appearance in The Seafront Corpse

“An excellent depiction of good old fashioned detective work.”

“An enjoyable trip down memory lane, authentically written.”

“Excellent period detective piece. Couldn’t put it down.”

“The mystery was good, the characters were GREAT!!”

To order just click on this link:

 

The Third Quest

The Third Quest

Although I’m still writing the third Robin Hood novel, I’m looking ahead to the third book featuring my series character William Quest. All I’ll say at the moment is that in this one Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers, in one of England’s oldest cities.

Guess which one?

Hopefully, if I’m not overly detained in Sherwood Forest, Quest number three will be out in the summer. I’m already doing the research and have been walking around the location.So keep tuned to this blog and the Gaslight Crime blog for updates at http://www.gaslightcrime.wordpress.com

In the meantime, if you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links below. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books please do leave a review on the sales pages online.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business. 

And do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

Anyway, here are the links:

 

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Walking, landscape and writers.

Usually at this time of year I thumb through the pages of this medieval classic. Not least because the setting of the tale is probably around Leek in my birth-county of Staffordshire.

I’ve been re-reading a recent translation of this medieval poem, which is appropriate for everyone who loves the British countryside.

Many years ago I struggled through it in the original Middle English, which I think is hard work even if you can manage quite well with Chaucer and Langland – as I could at the time.

This recent translation is by the poet and Oxford don Bernard O’Donoghue (Penguin 2006). This translation concentrates on the tale itself and the rhythm of the original, veering away from the alliteration and half lines of the original. I think O’Donoghue captures the spirit of the poem well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful tribute to the English countryside. As Sir Gawain rides on his quest to the castle of the Green Knight we get wonderful pictures of the landscape of England, and possibly Wales, grand vistas of nature and the seasons, with a bit of sexual seduction, courtly love and romance – in the historic sense of the word – thrown in.

The poet is unknown but his words live on.

And this is a very good time of the year to read his words. The castle in the picture, by the way, is not in Staffs but in Cumbria. It just looks appropriate.

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