Friday, 30 October 2015

Guest blog from Jenny Kane

I'm very happy to have Jenny Kane back as a guest blogger this week.



Jenny is the author of the best-selling Cup of Coffee series (Another Cup of CoffeeAnother Cup of Christmas, and Christmas in the Cotswolds), the modern/medieval time slip novel Romancing Robin Hood. Her latest novel Abi's House, was published by Accent this summer and a special Christmas novella, Christmas at the Castle will be available from 14 November.

With so many books to her credit, you could reasonably ask where all this creativity comes from. Apparently it's genetic.

Inheriting the Creative Gene

Officially, I have been a writer for the past eleven years. Deep down however, I suspect I have always been a writer; I have certainly always been a creative person. How could I not be, when I was influenced from childhood by my grandmothers? Both of them, like me, were physically incapable of sitting still and doing nothing. Plus they had imaginations that would have made Roald Dahl proud.

From an early age I remember watching my maternal Nan performing plays, poems, and comedy sketches on stage for the WI, all of which she’d written herself.

I vividly recall sitting in the audience of one charity production where my Nan’s poem, ‘Hats’ was performed to shrieks of laughter and delight. I was only ten, and as I sat and laughed alongside the rest, I was struck by how wonderful it would be to be able to make people happy like that- if only I wasn’t so shy...

My paternal Nan, on the other hand, was a knitter extraordinaire. There was nothing she couldn’t produce out of wool with just the aid of a pair of needles and a decent drama to watch on the TV at the same time. I never saw her glance at what she was knitting, and I certainly never saw a pattern. The jumpers, gloves, toys, or whatever she was making, seemed to magically appear at a speed that would be the envy of any conjurer. Her creativity boggled my young mind.

Both my grandmothers loved to read, but neither of them had any time for books that contained waffle. If a story didn’t grab them instantly it was jammed back onto the library shelf before the second page got so much as dabbed with a damp finger.

Standing with my Nan in Princes Risborough library, getting restless while book after book was dismissed with the words “If you ever write a book Jenny, make sure you get to the point faster than this lot!” ringing in my ears became a regular feature of my grandparental visits. This advice stayed with me, and I have always made an effort to grab my reader’s attention before the end of the first chapter. I have to confess, that as a reader, I’m just as picky as my Nan’s were. I am notoriously hard to please!

A love of words, crosswords, and word puzzles in general- usually completed at a coffee shop table - was something that was very much part of my childhood. This love of wordplay was inherited by my Mum, and has been passed on to me as well. I spent a great deal of my childhood (and indeed my adulthood) playing with words in cafes, so perhaps it is not surprising that I ended up writing a series of stories set in the fictional Pickwicks Coffee Shop.


My latest novel, Abi’s House (Accent Press, June 2015), was written in dedication to my grandparents. Set in the Sennen Cove area of Cornwall, Abi (recently arrived from London), creates a new life for herself not far from Penzance, where my paternal grandparents lived.

On Abi’s arrival in Cornwall, she meets Beth, a young woman who has recently inherited her grandfather’s cobblers shop. My maternal grandmother’s family owns Wainwright’s Shoe Shops in Buckinghamshire, where I spent many hours with both my Nan and my Grandad, who was the chief cobbler!

Both of my grandmothers influenced my writing, and the way I approach the production of my stories, more than they ever knew. Their creativity and encouragement (my maternal Nan was forever telling me I’d make my mark on the world with words, long before I even contemplated trying my hand as a writer) carried on into the next generation, with my Mum, an excellent artist and needlewoman in her own right, cheering me on.

And now, proving that the creative gene is strong on the female side of my family, my daughters have picked up the baton. Both had poetry of their own published before either of them reached their teens, and now one is writing a screen play. Watch this space!

But what about the male side of might family you ask? From them I hope I learnt the importance of something equally important- the value of always being a little bit kinder than you need to be.

Jenny xx

***

Links to all Jenny’s books can be found on her web site- www.jennykane.co.uk

Keep your eye on Jenny’s blog at www.jennykane.co.uk for more details.

Twitter: @JennyKaneAuthor

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JennyKaneRomance  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Five books I recommend - and an astonishing offer if you buy them this week

It's sometimes easy to forget that the point of this blog is to sell my books. So this week, I'm unashamedly selling books – though only one of them is mine.

Until next Wednesday (28 October) Accent are offering five of their historical novels for the bargain price of 99p (99c in the USA) for all five. One of them is Burke in the Land of Silver. So, effectively, you can buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p and get four other books thrown in for nothing. It's stunningly good value. Is there a catch? No, there isn't – except that all five books are by authors who have several novels out with Accent and if you enjoy them you may well want to read more.

What's included in the bundle besides the first of the James Burke series?

Best of the lot (and I hope I'm not offending any of the others) is Just One Damned Thing After Another. I keep on enthusing about this book. I read it because it's published by Accent, but I'm so glad that I did. Jodi Taylor knows a lot about history and sticks it into her novel, but it's hardly most people's idea of historical fiction. It's a time travelling romp that owes more to Doctor Who than any other literary source. The quintessentially English heroine hops from disaster to disaster as she travels through time, pausing to recuperate with regular cups of tea. The history is well-researched and interesting, the action is dynamic and gripping, but most of all it is very, very funny. I'm working my way through the whole series. It's brilliant and the bundle is worth buying for Jodi Taylor's book alone.


Jane Jackson writes historical romance. Unlike some romance writers, I know that Jane researches her books carefully. Crosscurrents is set around the Industrial Revolution and, while it has its share of ebony curls, broad shoulders and muscular thighs, it also has an astonishing amount of details about hot air-engines and their advantages, or otherwise, over steam power. Ms Jackson has a fine eye for clothing and furniture and fills her story with details of both, painting a deeply textured word picture of Cornwall two centuries ago. Her books are very popular and Crosscurrents is a good introduction to her world.


I haven't read James Green's Another Small Kingdom, but I reviewed a later book in his series set in the early years of the USA on behalf of the Historical Novel Society and I was impressed. His work is definitely worth a read.



George Rees is new to me. I've only had the chance to read the opening pages of An Eye of Death and that has certainly encouraged me to read more. It's a murder mystery set around the world of Elizabethan theatre.



So that's four books free when you buy Burke in the Land of Silver for 99p. Or, if you prefer to look at the other way round, Burke in the Land of Silver free when you buy four books for 99p.

Click on myBook.to/HistoricalSet to be taken to the appropriate Amazon page. But do be quick: the offer expires next Wednesday. Once you've bought the books, they sit in your Amazon library like any other and you can read them whenever you want.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Me, myself and I: writing in the first-person.

Back at the beginning of September, somebody on Twitter asked, ‘Is writing from 1st person viewpoint a bit too "masters degree" writing and not suitable for commercial fiction?’

It was a question that surprised me a bit as my John Williamson stories are written in the first person and I never thought of them as ‘Master’s degree’ writing at all. But it didn't seem the sort of thing that you could sensibly discuss in 140 characters, so I had to let it go. But now I’d like to return to the question where I can give a considered answer. (Just one reason why I prefer blogs to Twitter.)

The White Rajah is a story about James Brooke, a real person in the mid-19th century. It was the first book I'd ever written and I found it difficult to get hold of Brooke’s character. An editor told me that all the incidents around Brooke seemed to work, but there was a hole where he should be. I just didn't know how to fix this. Then I tried putting a fictional character (John Williamson) at the centre of the story as the narrator and have him describe what was happening to Brooke. I'm not saying that the result is perfect, but it seems to work. I certainly found it much easier to write.

Telling the story from the point of view of this fictional narrator meant that it fell naturally into the first person. I've long been a fan of Macdonald Fraser's ‘Flashman’ series, which is all written in the first person, so it seemed to me a natural thing to do. It's much easier in the 19th century when, I think, people were more inclined to put their thoughts on paper, often in quite a formal way. In The White Rajah, Williamson is looking back over his life from a moment of crisis and writes about his experience in order to decide how he should move forward. It seemed to me credible that he would do this and I certainly wasn't trying to produce a ‘Master’s degree’ novel.



The White Rajah was successful enough for my publisher to ask for a sequel. I had already decided that I would like to write about the Indian Mutiny and John Williamson's position at the end of The White Rajah meant that it was quite credible that he might have moved on from Singapore (where we left him) and arrived in India in time to be involved with the events that were unfolding there. Having written The White Rajah as a first person narrative, I naturally carried on in the same way with what became Cawnpore. Rather to my surprise, I found Cawnpore massively easier to write, partly because of the first person narrator. By now, I felt I knew John Williamson and as soon as I started writing in his voice it was easy to see things as he would have seen them. In Cawnpore Williamson is the central character, rather than observing someone else, and it was easy to write as him. The central theme of the story is the difficulty that most of the British had coping with the India they were governing. Williamson, after years in Borneo and alienated from the British community in India by both his class and his sexuality (he is a homosexual from a farm-worker’s family) is both inside and outside the European community and through his eyes we see both Europeans and Indians struggling to behave decently whilst failing utterly to understand each other. Williamson offers the chance to see the events of the Mutiny through someone who is at once distanced from them, yet intensely emotionally involved. I would have found this much harder to do in the third person.

Are first person novels inherently uncommercial? I don't think that this is the case. I've already mentioned Flashman, which was spectacularly commercially successful, but there are others. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is a particularly impressive example. Bridget Jones would be another.


First person narrative is harder in action-adventure type novels as these do not favour overly self-reflective heroes, but Andy McNab’s Nick Stone shows that the approach can work even in the sharpest of commercial thrillers.

Writing in the first person imposes quite a tight discipline. Most obviously, it means that you have to maintain one point of view throughout. Nowadays (it was not ever thus) frequently changing point of view is considered a failing. I have seen writing advice that suggests you could draft your story in the first person to ensure that you keep tightly focused on your main character and then, if you need to, rewrite it in the third person. It's an interesting approach, which I think might help some people. It certainly does not suggest that writing in the first person is intrinsically difficult.

Why aren't more books written in the first person?

One of the main problems is that sometimes you really do want to be able to move your point of view. In many stories (including my own James Burke books) the hero is not alone. Sometimes you want to follow what is happening to other major characters. This means breaking away from the main character and is pretty well impossible in a sustained first person narration, although some authors have dealt with it by alternating chapters of first person narration with chapters told from another point of view.

The reader may need to have information which is not available to the hero and this is difficult to cope with in the first person. Sometimes the narrator will say something like, "I did not know it at the time, but Dr Death was already using his evil personality ray to turn my own men against me." Sometimes such an approach can be made to work, but there are obvious problems with it and it can be used only sparingly, if at all.

There's also the question of tension. Although readers generally know that the hero will survive to the end of the book, the fact that they are telling the story does rather take the edge off incidents where they face imminent demise. I've heard of a story in the first person which ends with the protagonist’s death, simply breaking off in mid-sentence. I've never read it, or met anybody who has, and I can't help feeling that if it really exists it probably has very limited appeal.

Writing in first or third person is an author's response to the technical problems of telling the story in a way which flows naturally and draws the reader in. It's not a decision between a commercial or a literary form. That said, I found that when I wrote the more blatantly commercial James Burke books, I moved naturally to the third person. Even so, I've produced enough examples to demonstrate that the answer to the question on Twitter is no, it's not ‘Master's degree’ writing and, yes, it is suitable for commercial fiction. If you're a writer, it's worth experimenting with. It gives you a new way of looking at your characters and allows you to experiment with different styles. If you're a reader, don't be put off by books in the first person. It is no more true that they will inevitably be dull and mannered than it is that every book written in the third person will be exciting and contemporary.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

HMS President

For five years I've been going to dances aboard HMS President at her permanent mooring on the Thames Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge. Only now, though, have I learned about her history, thanks to a tour by the captain.

The President was originally called the Saxifrage and was launched in 1918 as a Q-ship. Her mission was to patrol the sea lanes off southern Ireland (this was before an independent Eire) playing the part of a merchant vessel. German U-boats would surface to board merchantmen, placing explosives aboard any that held materials they considered as “war supplies”. The idea of the Q-ships was that once the submarine was on the surface, the Q-ship would run up its naval colours (a legal requirement) and open fire on the sub. Its main offensive capability, though, was not its gun, but its prow. As the ship was not really a merchantman, it carried no cargo and its lower deck was filled with a huge engine that allowed it a dramatic turn of speed. A hidden rudder allowed it to turn very tightly and ram the submarine.

Model showing her original appearance as 'HMS Saxifrage'

Q-ships were so called because they sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. The ships had two crews: a civilian crew who showed themselves on deck, and a naval crew, including gunners, who had to remain out of sight below deck. (The fixing points for the navy’s hammocks are still preserved.) Even when ashore, the civilian crew had to behave as if they were the crew of a genuine merchantman and at sea one would even appear on deck dressed as a woman, to convince any U-boat captain watching through his periscope that what he was seeing was a genuinely civilian vessel.

Despite these efforts, the Germans soon grew wise to the idea of Q-ships and the Saxifrage was never threatened by a U-boat on the surface. Instead, like the other Q-ships, she started to patrol more conventionally armed with her deck gun and depth charges. Soon, though, the war ended. By 1922, Saxifrage’s sea-going days were over and she was permanently moored on the Thames as a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship. Royal Navy Reserve ships in this role are traditionally named President, so Saxifrage was re-christened and remains HMS President to this day.

During World War II the President was brought back into service for gunnery training. A wooden cabin had been built on her aft deck and this was replaced with a metal structure because of the danger of incendiary bombs. The cabin was later converted to the ballroom where I dance.



The President was decommissioned in the 1980s. She remained in the same berth and, being, by now, a London landmark, she was allowed to keep her name, although she is officially HMS President (1918) to distinguish her from the new naval shore establishment which has taken the same name.

View through one of the few remaining portholes.


The President’s engines are gone and her portholes have mostly been replaced with larger windows suiting her new life as a floating office and entertainment venue. Her lines can still be made out under the new superstructure (some of it added by the navy to provide more room for drill and offices in her shore-base role).



HMS President is one of only three Royal Navy warships surviving from the First World War. As part of the centenary celebrations of the war, she was painted in a modern interpretation of the ‘dazzle’ camouflage that she wore in her original role. Until 2014 she was painted in Victorian battleship livery with a black hull, white superstructure and a buff yellow funnel and masts She was the last Royal Navy ship to maintain this livery.

If you want to see her, you had best do so before January. Work on the new Thames sewer means that she will be leaving her berth at the beginning of 2016 and the owners are taking the opportunity to put her in dry dock. With luck, she will be back on the Thames, as good as new, later in the year.