In the Comfy Chair – Alex Beecroft

Alex Beecroft is my guest today – for the second time, so the first can’t have been too scary.

Our subject today is her latest release, His Heart’s Obsession, about the difficulties experienced by young gay men when part of an organisation that punishes the expression of their desires by death, and the inventiveness required to establish a satisfying relationship.

Hi, Alex, thanks so much for agreeing to sit in my Comfy Chair again.

Elin: I understand from entries in your blog that His Heart’s Obsession has had a rather long gestation. Would you care to tell us a bit about that?

Alex: It’s a saga in its own right, certainly. It was originally a longish short story – about 12K words long – and was accepted by one publisher (I won’t give names) to go into an anthology in 2008. Then the editor in charge of that project became ill and all the writers were offered their stories back.

I took it back and sent it out to a different publisher, who also accepted it. Then nothing happened for two years, until eventually the contract ran out. So I took it back again. This time I decided that the story would make more sense if I expanded it to help get across a better picture of who the characters were. And particularly to help explain why Hal doesn’t trust Robert.

After I’d expanded it into a short novella, I sent it to Carina. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and it finally broke its jinx and has been released. I’m so relieved!

Elin: His Heart’s Obsession is the most overtly romantic of your stories – almost totally focussed on the play of emotions, the development of relationships. Do you find there to be a lot of structural differences between a relationship driven story and one with masses of action?

Sea Battle by Andries Van Eertvelt. From Wikimedia

Alex: There is a difference in that if you have a story with masses of action, the action in itself is a strand of plot which has to be developed sensibly and tied up or resolved at the end. The more strands of plot you have, the longer your story has to be to do justice to them all. So a story which is only a love story can be shorter than a story which is love story plus action (plus mystery etc.) In either case, the progression of the love story must make its own internal sense, so the difference is one of number of plots rather than structure of plots.

Some villains have such a rough time you have to sympathise.
Loki by Mårten Eskil Winge. Wikimedia.

Elin: Villains – incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize? A moustache-twirling nightmare or … ?

Alex: To tell the truth, I don’t generally have them at all. (Which makes ‘how to write a novel’ books terribly frustrating. They assume you’ve got a single hero facing off against a single villain, or at least an antagonist. I have two heroes and no villain.)

Very few of the struggles in my life have been against individuals. Most of them have been against society. So in my books, more or less, my heroes struggle to reconcile who they are with a society that cannot accept them for who they are. I don’t generally need a villain on top of that.

However – if I actually answer that question instead of avoiding it – I admit to quite liking a moustache twirling villain. If you’re going to lay the smackdown on someone, I don’t want to be feeling sorry for him. And I will feel sorry for him if he’s even slightly believable. If there’s a hint of a real human being in there, I’ll want him to be redeemed rather than punished. OTOH, if there isn’t a hint of real human being in there, I’ll find him unbelievable. This is probably one of the reasons why I don’t normally have a villain myself. The whole concept is hugely problematical.

Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?

Alex: I’m between books at the moment. I’ve just finished Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, which was a wonderfully high-concept cyber-punk SF novel with bonus Sumerian linguistic programming. I don’t know what to read next, though I’ve been told his “Cryptonomicon” is also very good.

On the non-fiction side, I’ve just downloaded “In the Shadow of Empires: The historic Vlad Dracula, the events he shaped and the events that shaped him,” in an attempt to bring some historic grounding to my vampire novel. There are very few available books out there on the history of Wallachia. It’s frustrating.

Elin: I sympathise. When I was flirting with writing about Scythia I thought I might have to learn Ukrainian.

I understand that you are on the planning committee for UK Meet and that we only have – ooh about 5 weeks to go. Any interesting developments lately?

Alex: Ooh, well, Silver Publishing have very kindly sent us three [three!] Kindle Touches to give away on the day. One will go into the raffle we’re running to support the Albert Kennedy Trust, and the other two will be prizes in various events. I want one!

Also Clare London has given us a sneak peek of the goody bags we’ll be giving away on the day, and they are seriously cool. We were able to get stylish messenger bags rather than cheap cotton ones because Dreamspinner Press are sponsoring them. I was quite cynical about the idea of goody bags at first, but now I’m all “where’s mine!”

Elin: I know that you are working hard – congratulations on getting an agent, by the way :D – so, have you any WIPs you could tell us about?

Alex: Thank you! Well, I’ve just sent “Pilgrims’ Tale” off to my agent. I don’t know if that counts as being ‘in progress’ but it’s certainly not out yet. I’ve got as far as writing back-cover copy for that one, which goes:

The helmet of Raedwald – possibly. Sutton Hoo.
Picture from Wikimedia

In Dark Ages’ England, warriors were the highest form of human life. They fucked whoever they pleased, women or men, but they were no man’s bitch. If a man allowed himself to be fucked, then he must be some craven little lickspittle coward – a boy, a slave or a whore – not a real man at all.

Reluctant berserker, Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome warrior, has spent most of his life trying to hide the fact that he would love to be cherished and taken care of by someone stronger than himself. Slight and beautiful harper, Leofgar, has the opposite problem – how can he keep the trained killers off him long enough to get them to acknowledge he’s as much of a man as any of them?

When Wulfstan kills his friend to cover up his secret, and Leofgar flees rather than submit to his lord’s lust, they meet on the road to the pilgrims’ shrine at Ely. Pursued by a mother’s curse and Leofgar’s vengeful lord, they must battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld with the aid of music, a single sword and a female saint. And if they fall in love on the way, there’s still that murderous shame to overcome too.

I’ve also got a completed first draft of a light-hearted fairy-tale called “Elf Princes’ Quest.” I’ll be editing and polishing that for a couple of months (and hopefully giving it a better name. Titling is not my forte!)

Then I’ve just started to write the first draft of a vampire novel set in 18th Century Wallachia. I quite like the title of that – “The Glass Floor,” but I’m no longer certain that there will turn out to be a glass floor in it. I’m only about a chapter and a half into that one, but I’m enjoying it a lot, and appreciating the fact that I’m learning all sorts of things about Romania in the process of research.

Elin: Finally – could we please have an excerpt of something?

Alex: Well, as we’re talking about His Heart’s Obsession, here’s Chapter One of that :)

~*~*~*~

“Mmm… Oh…yes.”

Robert Hughes stirred on his cot. They were at anchor and the night was still and quiet, or he would not have been able to hear the low murmuring of Hal’s voice from the next cabin. Tropical heat suffused the wooden womb in which he lay, made him kick off his one sheet and sit up.

He had never claimed to be a good man. Quite the opposite, he was as deep-dyed a rogue as a man could hope to meet in the British Royal Navy. So he did not hesitate to swing himself out of the narrow coffin of his bunk, land light-footed on the warm planks, and gently move aside the sea chest that lay against the canvas partition wall.

“Ah…” It was a little insinuating murmur, hot as the night, Hal’s woodwind deep voice broken from its daylight authority and gasping, breathless and needy. “Please…”

I’m doing this for his own good. Behind the chest, the canvas wall had been ripped, and a hole half the size of Robert’s fist stood out from the shaping battens. He had found it there six months ago and not reported it, because sometimes—like tonight—the wanting grew too much. Then he would draw the chest back and kneel here, with his face to the gap, watching Hal Morgan sleep.

It was a stolen intimacy, but those were the only kind he had, so he cherished them.

Hal had a child’s fear of darkness—he slept with a lantern freshly trimmed above him. Always had, in all the five years they had served together. Indeed, it was his shadow on the white canvas, his silhouette—dark against the pale background that moved as he moved, bending down to unbuckle shoes, drawing its shirt over its head—showing itself, slender and well shaped and unselfconscious, that had moved Robert to encourage the fraying hole.

Even now he would touch the silhouette and feign to be touching Hal’s spirit or his naked skin. He dreamed about it at times—of Hal asleep in the other room, and his shadow reaching out from the wall, coming to enfold Robert and fill with tenderness all the places inside that ached when he watched it.

But it seemed Hal had his own dreams.

Scrunched up in the tight corner of his tiny room, Robert kissed the fabric, then put his eye to the hole.

Dim rushlight seemed bright to him after the darkness of his own sleep. He made out Hal’s sheet, crumpled on the floor where he had kicked it off, allowed himself to look up by careful degrees, rationing the torment and anticipation.

Hal’s hand first—held at an awkward angle where his elbow must be jammed into the raised edges of the cot. Such beautiful hands he had—expressive, mobile, clever hands, tanned and capable. Awake, they punctuated his speech with movement and emotion—exclaiming, illustrating, never still. Here, drawn in sepia by the brown light, his fingers clenched and released as though they held tight to a lover’s flesh.

Quietly, Robert reached up and touched the place on his own shoulder where Hal clung demandingly to his dream-lover. A wave of arousal, oily as despair, curled up from his balls to his throat, drying his mouth. I should stop looking. He would knock me down if he knew.

But his gaze travelled on upwards to where he could see the curve of Hal’s throat, his head tilted back, his neck offered in submission to his lover’s mouth. Only the top of his chest was visible above the side of the bunk, the neckline of his nightshirt askew enough to show flesh as pale as his linen, and sweat like a dew of gold in the lantern light.

He lay on his back, his legs pulled up, one resting against the hull, the other against the board of the cot. His shirt had fallen down to pool in his lap, leaving the braced lines and undefended skin of those long legs bare to Robert’s gaze. Never had a thief more cherished a stolen intimacy than Robert cherished this. He personally slept half-clothed, breeches on, to be prepared for any emergency in the night, but now he stroked a hand up his inner thigh, pretending it was Hal’s bare leg. Fumbled at the buttons of his fly, pressing now uncomfortably hard against his aching yard.

“Nnh! Oh please. Please!”

Hal’s mouth was soft, half parted. His tongue touched his lower lip as if licking off the savour of a kiss, but his eyes were pinched closed, his brow creased as if in pain. His low whisper had grown louder, taken on a growl of frustration. Even—to the sensitive ears of a man obsessed by his moods—an edge of tears.

Not even in his dreams, Robert thought, soothing the ache between his own legs with a practiced hand, does his imaginary lover make him happy. I would. I would if he would let me. I would take that invitingly open mouth and fill it with bliss. I’d worship him from that vainly offered arse to… God, how I’d fill that until he screamed.

“Please. Oh W…”

Bloody hell, he was going to say it! Robert’s fantasy burst like a sail in a storm. Hal was dreaming, he didn’t know his voice had risen, and he was going to say it out loud. Oh, please, William. And God alone knew who else was listening in, idly in the dead of night when there was no other source of entertainment. Boult was as close on the other side as Robert was on this, and Boult would have quite a different reaction to learning of Hal’s fantasies than Robert did.

Buttoning himself back up fast, Robert got stiffly up from his knees, lurched out of his cabin’s sliding door. There was a light under Boult’s door—he was awake. Must be listening by now. Bloody hell. Robert crashed into the wall by Hal’s cabin, loud as he could. Then, to be sure, he made a noisy performance of rolling back the door and fell against the sword-belt hung up inside with a great jangle.

When he looked up, it was to find Hal sitting, shirt pulled down over his knees, dark eyes startled and haunted with something worse than sleep. Awake, thank God, and unincriminated. Now all that remained was for Robert to get himself out of here without casting suspicion upon himself, and at that he was infinitely practiced, having been something of a prankster since before he was breeched. That time at university, for example, when he had put down turf in young Smalting’s room and filled it with sheep. That had been most amusing.

So as Hal exclaimed, “Hughes? What on earth?” Robert feigned drunkenness, grabbed for the doorjamb as if to hold himself up, and slurred, “What’re you doing in my cabin?”

The brief glimpse of Hal’s misery, flayed and tender, was whisked away, to be replaced with a more familiar irritation. He had, Robert thought, the kind of face on which anger looked as enthralling as a smile.

“You woke me up, you sot! Your cabin is next door. Idiot!”

It was something just to have that fierce regard concentrated entirely on him. Robert clung on harder and smiled. Hal’s hair had been mussed by the pillow, crushed gold. He never got a chance to see it in the daytime because of the wigs. He could stand here and look forever, and as he now had a perfectly good excuse, that was what he did.

Hal shook his head and gave a small, long-suffering smile. “You’re drunk as David’s sow, aren’t you? Did you hear any of that? Next door. Your cabin is next door.” He reached for the housecoat that lay across the foot of the bed. “Do you need me to take you?”

Oh yes. Come back to my bed with me. Let me show you what I’m really thinking. I’ll banish that phantom from you. I’ll burn it away.

But no. If the others hadn’t been listening before, they certainly were now, and this was not the place, or time. It never was. “Sorry. No. I can… Don’t need any help. Perfectly capable of bedding to my walk on my own.”

The thought weighed him down as he returned to his own humid, empty bed, spoiled his satisfaction in a rescue so neatly pulled off. It never was the time to tell Hal how he felt. When would it ever be?

~*~*~*~

His Heart’s Obsession is available from Carina Press, here.

Alex’s website is here

Elin’s list of Comfy Chair interviewees is here

Review: His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

Kingston, Jamaica, 1752

Robert Hughes, a lieutenant–and rogue–in the British Royal Navy, is in love with his gorgeous fellow officer, Hal Morgan. Hal only has eyes for their captain–a man who’ll never share their inclinations. Night after night aboard the Swiftsure, it kills Robert to listen to Hal’s erotic dreams of a man he can’t possibly have. Determined to protect his friend, Robert stages a seduction.

But Hal demands proof of love before he will submit to the rakish Robert.

Mission accepted. After all, how hard could it be to show what’s inside his heart? Yet Robert’s move to claim Hal’s love leads to the threat of exposure, and mortal danger from the French. Will a heart obsessed ever accept defeat?

Review by Sal Davis

Isn’t that a gorgeous cover? Sunlit ship and compass rose and the tenderness of that pressure of nose and chin on the nape of the neck. No cannon fire, no flashing cutlasses and a pretty good indication of the content.

This is the most obviously romantic of the author’s stories. It is about love – unrequited aching passion that drains souls of joy and makes every waking moment a torment.

Hal Morgan adores the captain of the Swiftsure but William Hamilton only views him as a most trusted friend and subordinate and, to add insult to injury, consults Hal about the best way to court a girl! Hal suffers for his love – OMG how he suffers – little knowing that there is another man in the next cabin just desperate to show him a good time.

That man is Robert Hughes, a landlubber promoted over Hal’s head, a practical joker and an unashamed voyeur. When first seen – peering through a hole he has made in the partition wall between the two cabins so he can evesdrop and observe Hal’s wet dreams – Robert comes across as unpleasantly creepy but then Hal’s self indulgent moanings over the oblivious Captain Hamilton are a bit creepy too and last a lot longer.

I’ll be honest – it didn’t take me very long before I wanted to give Hal a damned good smack and tell him to man up. I was rooting for Robert for most of the book especially when he came to the decision that the only way to win Hal was to show him that he could take their shared profession seriously. I also really liked Captain Hamilton, who came over as a decent, god fearing, naval professional.

I enjoyed the story and, as usual, was blown away by the language, clear and precise yet somehow luxuriant. The historical details were nicely presented, not so much as to make me feel educated but enough to place the action firmly within its period. I wish we had been shown a bit more of Robert’s change in attitude to his profession and I was looking forward to a bit more shipboard heroism than I got, BUT the novella is designed to be a romance and I don’t think any romance reader will find anything to criticise as the two young men arrive at their accommodation.

Buy at Carina

Yule be Happy to Know…

CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!

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Welcome to The Advent Calendar 2011!

The posts will go up around 14:00 hrs GMT daily – so no peeking in advance! And we will know if you try! Come back daily to check for new posts, and every day there will be a prize up for grabs for at least one person.

There will also be a BIG FESTIVE MYSTERY PRIZE (ok, not that big) so there will be a question posted every day. Save them up, email them in to me on Christmas eve on erastes at erastes dot com and be in the running for a bag of goodies.

   


       
         
   
     
Double day!

   

Double Day!

 

Review: By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

1748

Lieutenant Conrad Herriot and Seaman Tom Cotton have been master and servant for over a decade, and friends for almost as long. When Tom is injured during a skirmish, Conrad forgets himself and rushes to Tom’s side, arousing suspicion about the true nature of their relationship.

All Tom wants is the chance to consummate their love and embark on a new life together, outside the law that condemns them. Yet he fears Conrad won’t risk his career and his honor to become Tom’s lover.

Conrad believes his lust for Tom will damn his soul. There’s also their difference in class—a gentleman doesn’t socialize with a common tar. As Conrad struggles to refute the gossip on the ship, he must decide whether to commit the crime the crew’s already convicted them of, or part from Tom for good to save both their necks…

Review by Erastes

Just a small niggle, and this is nothing to do with the review or the mark – but I fail completely to see why Carina insisted on the American spellling of “honor” on the title and the blurb, and then used English spelling–including “honour” in the book itself. Very odd indeed. (plus the year is wrong, the book is set in 1750) Bad Carina, no biscuit.

I had to have some niggles, after all, because there’s not much else to niggle about here. Lovers of Alex’s writing–whether you like it for the mile deep descriptions, conflicted officers, multi-faceted characters–it’s all here.

Conrad is, as most people were, god-fearing and believing in concepts of immortal souls and all that jazz. He’s been humming and hah-ing about letting his manservant (horrors!) Tom know that he finds him quite delightful for many years and it takes a big sea battle for his feelings to surface–much to the chagrin of the captain and the amusement of his crew (leading to a subsequent lack of respect.) The irony is that he’s already been suspected of the crime–suspected and judged by his shipmates–and he hasn’t actually done anything. Stung by the injustice, and in danger of having Tom forcible separated from him by the captain, Conrad decides he’d rather be hung for a sheep than a lamb e.g. he might as well do the deed, if he’s already assumed to have done so. Better a short life but a merry one, as it were. Or, as he puts it should he:

“…save his heart and lose his soul? Or save his soul and lose his heart? “

The book is–I think–told entirely from the 3rd person viewpoint of Conrad, and although that felt right for the length of the book, it meant we did get a little shortchanged with getting to know Tom. All we had to go on was Conrad’s perceptions of what Tom thought and felt.  This actually pays off nicely at Tom’s reaction at the climax of the book, so I can see why this device was used, but it still leaves Tom as a little bit of an enigma in these days of dual pov books.

As usual, Ms Beecroft’s prose stuns with its seemingly effortless phrasing. Some of the descriptions are so beautiful I felt like giving up writing forever, but then her writing always makes me feel like that. She manages sometimes to mix descriptive words that are so wrong, but in her hands they feel entirely right. It’s a real gift.

Sex-wise, I think this is probably the smuttiest book that Alex has ever written, as she leans towards the more veiled sex scene as a rule, but the sex here is postively coarse (but great!). To quote one of the judges on Strictly Come Dancing “It was filthy and I loved it!”

I did feel the book was a little short, but I’m not going to mark it down for that, it was written deliberately as a novella and you can’t squeeze a quart into a pint pot. With the word count that she has, Ms Beecroft has done marvelously, and her naval descriptions — as always — are first class. There’s a bit that actually made me feel sick (sea-sick, that is) with a fantastic section where the protagonists are in their cabin and the ship is literally rolling and pitching on near enough a 90 degree angle – the floor becomes the wall and then goes all the way back. The casual way the experienced sailors deal with this, holding fast to the lines of the hammock — and each other — shows skill to portray without being confusing. It was so well done that I could feel every gravitational pull–and consequently felt rather queasy. It amused me how much more realistic it was done well in prose, than on the USS Enterprise, where everyone just leans from one side to another!

If you haven’t encountered Alex Beecroft’s longer works, particularly the Age of Sail novels (False Colors, Captain’s Surrender) then this is an excellent introduction to her remarkable talent at a reasonable price.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gay Historical Panel at GLBT UK MEET

On 23rd July, the 2nd annual GLBT UK MEETUP was held and it was a resounding success. In a year we went from 12 attendees to over 40 and we are planning even better next year.  Here’s the panel hosted by Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane and Erastes. Hope you find it useful.

Alex Beecroft: Characters in your Historical Novel

1. What makes a historical feel like a historical? Characters.

If you were to ask me “what is the most important part of establishing your book as a historical?” I would have to say “it’s the characters.” I really don’t think that any amount of scene setting, even if it’s done in the most exquisite detail and with scrupulous historical accuracy, can convince the reader that they are in another era the way you can by having a character whose attitudes are historical and firmly embedded in their time.

I have read books where the setting certainly appeared to be 100% authentic and full of detail, and yet the characters who moved through that setting were so modern in their thoughts and actions that the overall experience of reading the book was similar to going to a mediaeval theme party. Where the character doesn’t match the setting you get a sort of cognitive dissonance that just screams fake fake fake, and it’s almost worse – imo – when the author has clearly got all the other stuff right. If they’ve gone to all that trouble and researched their physical world so well, it makes it even more jarring and unpleasant to see it populated by characters who would fit right at home in a contemporary if they only changed their clothes.

Some historicals I’ve read go as far as having aggressively modern main characters – characters whose role appears to me to walk through their world criticizing the way everyone else behaves and holding them up to 21st Century standards. These are the characters who are horrified at the barbaric practices of the doctors of their era (forgetting that these practices are the pinnacle of modern knowledge to the rest of their society,) who are unaccountably squeamish about standard forms of discipline (such as giving a child a thrashing, clipping a disobedient wife about the ear, or flogging a criminal) and who, for some reason, know better than everyone else in their society about matters of hygiene and diet, and are not ashamed to look down on their ignorant compatriots with all the smugness of a different century.

I mean, yes, if you really hate a particular era so much that you’d enjoy writing a book about how rubbish it was, by all means do so. But don’t create a character who could not have existed in that time to do it with. It would be far better to use a modern main character, who came by his attitudes honestly, being sent back into the past by freak wormhole incident or TARDIS.

2. So how do you write characters who don’t think like modern people?

This is tricky of course because you as an author think as a modern person does, and – as a modern person – you abhor many of the attitudes of the past (such as gay people are rubbish, women are rubbish, slavery is necessary, leeches are good for you etc.)

The first thing you have to do is to parcel all that up and leave it aside for a while, while you read as many of the original sources as you can get hold of. If the original sources exist, then listen to the voices of people from that century. You usually find that in some things they are indistinguishable from the voices of modern people – they still worry about their appearance and their income and what their families are up to. They have the same needs for love and wealth and respect that we have. But if you listen harder you can start to pick out the framework of assumptions that governs the way they go about fulfilling those needs.

For example, I read a journal of an 18th Century woman bewailing the sexual double standard between men and women – so far so modern – but she concluded that men ought to behave with more chastity rather than women with less. So far so unusual, so strange – so much an attitude that if you read it in a book you would be instantly convinced that you were in a different time. Just a little throwaway thought, and it’s different enough from what we take as written nowadays to make you feel like you’re in a different time.

Or, for a different example, it’s become quite fashionable to claim that Ancient Greece or Rome was a sin-free happy time for gay people. But that’s because we’re modern and we’re not paying attention to the nuances. Suppose you’re an Ancient Roman senator, and you fall in love with a barbarian gladiator – you’re fine if you want to be a top, but shame, shame upon your name and your ancestors if you don’t. There’s another attitude that makes no sense today, but if you based your characters internal or external conflict on it then the book could only be a historical, because it’s a conflict specific to that time.

3. Modern attitudes in historical characters.

This doesn’t mean that your characters have to have some kind of standard set of era-specific beliefs. In no age has everyone all believed exactly the same thing. For example, in the same century, there were people who loathed slavery enough to dedicate their lives to fighting it, people who dedicated their lives to fighting for it tooth and nail, people who might not have campaigned but who bought slavery-free sugar when they could, and a large set of people who were too busy with their own lives to have a position either way.

You can give your characters almost any attitude you wish, so long as you can show how they came by it given the conceptual framework within which they have to work. For example, gay people in the past had to come to some kind of reconciliation or rejection of their society’s views that allowed them to accept themselves, but how they achieved that will be specific to their time and society. They can’t – eg – say “God is love, therefore my love is holy,” before Christianity. They can’t say “this persecution is against my human rights,” before the invention of the concept of human rights.

On a less serious note, your characters probably shouldn’t say “ew, this cheese is full of mites, take it away!” in the 18th Century. In fact they should probably say “ooh, lovely, I do like to see a cheese with a bit of life to it. Bring me a spoon!” If they did, you’d certainly know you weren’t in 21st Century Kansas any more. And that is my whole point.

Erastes on Striking a Balance

I’m going to talk about balance, because sometimes I think writers have difficulty striking a balance when writing. not just historical either. It’s a Fine Line between THIS IS MY RESEARCH LET ME SHOW YOU IT  – and just getting the details right.

Don’t get e wrong—you got to do the research. You’ve got to try your very best to get those details right. Readers are forgiving if they can see you’ve worked like stink, but have made one or two silly errors. In Muffled Drum I made a big thing of the Red Light District in Berlin – and too late too late two people pointed out that the street I mentioned was actually in Hamburg and not Berlin.

But readers will be less forgiving if it’s patently obvious that you haven’t even bothered to use Google to check the most basic of facts.

But you shouldn’t over do relating that research to the reader and it’s this that is a little unfair to the writer, because you are going to learn a LOT more than you’ll ever put in the book.

I have to reference Dan Brown here, who does—and i have to grit my teeth to say this—write a damned good page turner. I actually own all of his books, because they are like crack. But whereas he writes a racketing good read and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and find out what’s happening next, he lets himself down with his signature move of telling us everything about everything.  I remember reading one of them, don’t know which…and it told you about the engine of the car he was driving and the type of plane he was on, down to –it seemed, every grommet and washer. I found myself flipping over pages of STUFF HE HAD TO TELL YOU BECAUSE BY GOD HE’D DONE THE RESEARCH AND YOU SHALL SHARE IT rather than simply absorbing some of the facts as the flavour of the book.

I got the impression that he was saying to the reader “Look, i slaved over this book. i did research about Russia and China and every conspiracy theory known to man. Look, I seriously worked hard. I spent hours in libraries. you need to see my research or you’ll think i just made it up!!!! It will all be wasted if I don’t write it all down!” and that’s not good, that’s not the message you want to give. I don’t want the author to intrude at all.

I can relate to this, and I felt much the same when I first started to write, but luckily my mother was around when I first started and she pointed out that we didn’t need to know every single detail and she went through and deleted many descriptive words and passages. After that I found it much easier. The trick to it for me was to walk across my own room and described how I did it. I left the sofa, walked past the tv and the dining table to the kitchen. What I didn’t do was to leave the Gillows sofa, walk across the Wilton carpet designed by XXXX in 1792 and the flat screen 32” plasma screen Sony TV (I wish) and into the bespoke B&Q kitchen stencilled with green and yellow flowers.

Modern books don’t do this (or at least they shouldn’t!) and so neither should historicals. Whether the chair is made my Chippendale or whoever doesn’t really matter. Unless it does, of course. If the story revolves around Chippendale and perhaps the theft of a chair made by him, or whether the provenance of the chair is IMPORTANT then that’s fine. But if the detail doesn’t add anything to the story — and in fact, as often happens (Dan, I’m looking at you) intrudes and distracts from the story — then leave it out.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t make the description lush and tangible. Alex, for example, particularly in her 18th century paranormal “Wages of Sin” WORKS magic with her details. How cloth feels, how candle light looks and smells (never forget the smells) what happens to wig powder when it rains. But none of it is infordumping. She is simply creating a real and entirely believeable and visual world that the 21st century reader isn’t familiar with. The details immerse the reader, so they are actually there, and they are participating in historical events rather than distancing the reader, and makingit more clear that they are simply reading a book.

A good beta is worth their weight in gold. A good beta (and not just one who will tell you how great you are!) will tell you if you’ve turned into Dan Brown and you are oversharing that research.

The depressing fact of life is, that 99 percent of the research you will do for your book will (should!!) never appear on the pages of your book, but you can’t skip that research because it will make your book and more 3-dimensional, and in response to that, more enjoyable to read.

 

Charlie Cochrane on Setting the Scene.

Erastes and Alex Beecroft had proper, typed up notes. I had scribbles, which I’ve just rescued from the recycling bin, and lots of busking, Gist of what I said was:

My heart sank at the start of Downton Abbey, when almost the first scene involved discussion of the Titanic sinking. Wouldn’t have been so bad if that had happened later, when we’d got to know the characters, and why it mattered to them, but as it was it just felt clichéd and lazy. Please, writers, if you can’t create a sense of era/place subtly, just put London, 1912 or what/wherever it is and get on with the story.

 

Also, can we have some less clichéd images/descriptions for setting place? Big Ben + Routemaster bus + cockney newspaper seller shouting “King Edward abdicates” = London, 1936 has been done to death. Anyway, using such obvious symbols risks making huge mistakes; I’ve read stuff set in the time of Queen Anne where the hero hears Big Ben striking (he must be psychic as it wasn’t even built then). Check everything, even the “obvious”.

The past can surprise us, though. I’d love to write a book full of seeming anachronisms (like watching a floodlit rugby match in 1880) so people could shout me down and I could prove them wrong.

It’s the people and how they think/act which best depicts an era. Go to contemporary sources for the best way of getting your head around this. For example, if you want to write about a late Victorian bank clerk, you could do worse than use Three Men in a Boat as your source.

There was more. There were jokes. Can’t remember a word of them.

Alex Beecroft’s Book Swap

Poisoned Ivy by Scot D Ryersson
Deadly Nightshade by Victor Banis
Faster than the Speed of Light by Parhelion

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What to if you want any of these books

REPLY to this post with suggestions of what you have–it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had a post on the community, you can also offer your books on the replies. The owner of the post will then choose what they want (probably will take a day or so) and then I’ll connect the two of you and you can arrange your swap or gift.

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