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Fully 18 months ago I gave an update on my famine project, which consists of two slim volumes. The first was A Purgatory of Misery and the second The Poor Law Inspector. In that post I indicated that the initial draft of the first, an entirely non-fictional account of the events in British and Irish history that led up to the famine, was complete and that I was then embarking on the second, a fictionalised account of the work of Captain Arthur Kennedy in West Clare between late 1847 and mid 1850.
A Purgatory of Misery was published at the end of 2017 but work on The Poor Law Inspector stuttered on and off throughout last year. I finally reached the end last month and passed it to a first reader. At only 50,000 words it is a novella, rather than the full length novel I had hoped to create. That it is so short after such a long time is down to several factors, the main one being the difficulty of presenting the real horror of conditions in that place and time in a way that is not too depressing to read.
The opening chapters were posted to Chapter Buzz at the end of 2017. The book now has a new title, Called to Account, which relates to the fact that Kennedy and the man who came to be his arch rival were involved, in 1851, in a court case as a consequence of an insult delivered in public by Kennedy to the other, who then sued him for libel. I have now structured the book around the court case and Kennedy’s recollections of significant events in his life up to that point.
Once again, it is being posted on Chapter Buzz whilst I work on revisions, including those suggested by my first reader. Follow this link to find it. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can post them there or here.
My guest this week is James Roby. Born in Detroit, James is a veteran of the USAF and served in many locations across the USA from Florida to Alaska, and traveled beyond America’s shores, too. Now he’s back in Detroit, a city that he loves and that is the setting for a series of novels featuring a team of investigators he calls the Urban Knights. We began by discussing his love for the city of his birth.
“ Thanks Frank for giving me the opportunity to spread the word about the UrbanKnights novel series. Well, Detroit IS home. I feel Detroit had a, pardon the pun, driving force in my early development. Good or ill, it’s made me who I am today. We’re all the product of our environment, of the things we’ve seen and done. Detroit for me, is a big part of that. Traveling the country, I encountered a lot of negative feelings about Detroit – a lot of it off base. I tried to be a representative of my hometown and help disperse some of the rumor and flat out lies about her. That’s why so many of my characters are based on real people I grew up with. Not everyone in the city is someone’s ‘baby momma’ or an ex-con. Some of them went to college, raised a family…the same things people everywhere do. That’s Detroit to me.”
Detroit is famous internationally as the USA’s “Motor Town” and fast cars feature in the UrbanKnights novels. I wondered what James drives himself.
“ I’m a Mustang man myself. Blame Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I’m on my third one and my next car will probably be another ‘Stang. I had a Chrysler and a Saturn in there too, but I’m a diehard Mustang fan.”
The American motor industry has suffered many set backs in recent years but James believes its future holds promise.
“ I don’t think it’s dead, by any means. I still see a lot of domestics around…and some of them are electric and hybrid. I hope this technology grows and becomes more widespread, if for no other reason, than to provide the market a choice.”
Detroit, too, has suffered – from a loss of population and some recent political scandals. At the same time the ratio of Black to White residents has reversed, suggesting the exodus was mostly of White people. That is something that inevitably features in James’s novels.
“In a lot of ways, Detroit is a microcosm of America in terms of race. You can see it clearly at the Detroit – Grosse Pointe border, one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. It’s like someone hit a switch. It’s a burden that has impacted the city and by extension, the country. Race and racism is like a big heavy weight around the leg of someone trying to run a race. Bad part is, no one but us is making us wear it. I lived through a lot of those changes, and it breaks my heart. There is, I feel, enough blame to go around.
With race so ingrained in the recent history of Detroit, it’s hard, if not impractical, to write fiction there and not at least touch on it. In the UrbanKnights, sometimes it’s subtle like a conversation. In Pale Horse, the main character, Jordan Noble and an old military buddy discuss why there are so few resources in Detroit to aid in their mission. Sins of the Father and my newest novel, Favorite Son, tackle gentrification, which in part, is driven by race.”
James went on to reveal a little more about this latest work.
“ A new casino is just opening in Detroit and instead of enjoying the grand opening, tragedy strikes. The owner is murdered in his office by persons unknown. The UrbanKnights are on the case and they quickly discover murder is only the beginning and this case will put them in conflict with powers far beyond Detroit’s borders.”
James’s stories are driven far more by characters and their motivations than by a preconceived plot.
“ I heard Dan Brown recently say the ‘story’ has been done. Basically, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s up to the writer to make it interesting. I mean, whether it’s the latest action thriller or a historical drama, the setting may change but the elements are the same: Characters, conflicts, resolutions, etc. So, I feel character and motivations are the primary elements. You want to go on the ride with someone you like and are interested in. I often have an idea, not necessarily a plot, and the first question is, What would the UrbansKnights do? I would hope that’s what would make readers come back too.”
James writes early mornings and at weekends
“ I get up an hour earlier during the week for that quiet time to work on my books. I usually do catch up on the weekend.”
His stories are backed by lots of research.
“ I’m definitely a ‘pantser’. I get an idea and run with it. For example, I was walking down the street after seeing something on the news and the idea struck me – what if there was a terrorist attack in Detroit? What would [my leading character] Jordan Noble do, given his history in counter-terrorism? I just went from there. During the writing, after the thrill of a new idea wore I started asking questions: Why would a terrorist attack Detroit? How would that impact on the large Middle Eastern population in and around the city? Then there was the question of what agents of government would respond? What equipment would they use? You get the idea. So yeah, I have to research. A lot. I love Google. There is a ton of information out there. I also have some personal resources – people I met in the service, Police officers back home, that sort of thing.
It’s almost like an onion, each layer reveals another. My latest book, Favorite Son, took so many changes after the research started, it’s not even the same story! Research created a connection between me and the story. I go deeper and the story becomes more real.”
Like most of us indie authors, James wishes he could afford more professional help, especially with regard to marketing.
“ I fought this long and hard and finally gave in. I am currently working with an artist to redesign my first three covers. I’ve had a lot of ‘it’s ok’ responses to the covers I’ve designed. ‘It’s ok’ doesn’t sell novels. I’m also looking at some marketing services. If I had to give advice it would be, what you can do yourself, do. Otherwise, hire someone who is good at it. Also, unless you have a few thousand dollars just laying around, you’re going to have to prioritize. For me it was covers and marketing because that’s what gets the books in folks hands. You can also bypass some costs by tapping into different writing communities. I can’t put a price on how useful my writing group is. Check out social media for groups in your town. It will be worth it.”
(Images of the old covers are alongside, so you can judge for yourself whether they qualify as “okay” or “special”, FP)
James’s favorite writers are Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Fleming, and Walter Mosley. but the one he would most like to meet is Walter Mosely.
“ Just to hear the story of how he brought Easy Rawlins, to compete in a media where there are so few African American heroes. And how he connects with his audience, what worked best for them in their marketing…that sort of thing. I have seen writing good and bad but the mystery I struggle with is the marketing. I truly believe that’s the difference between a sold book and a stack in your basement is the marketing.”
An ideal day for James would be different depending on whether or not he had won a lottery prize.
“ I guess in the real world, waking up late, watching the Saint (starring Roger Moore, of course) with the wife and my dogs. And being in Detroit, of course, I have to get a couple of coney dogs at Kerby’s. Throw in a steak for dinner and man, that’s a day. But for a fantasy, I’m seeing a cruise ship, a beach and long days of doing nothing.”
Asked to name something about him that might surprise his readers, James reveals his love of dogs.
“ My wife and I have fostered over 20 dogs. We volunteer with a local organization that spare dogs from being destroyed. Once they’re rescued from shelters, we provided them a home and help socialize the little rascals, until someone adopts them. Well, except for the two dogs we ended up keeping!”
I hope you have enjoyed reading about James. You can discover much more, and links to his books, on his website.
Rebecca was the second Indie Author to feature in my “A Date With . . .” series during 2018 (the original interview is here). I recently asked her for an update on her career and her hobbies. This is what she said:
“Once again this year, royalties from sales and page reads of Touching the Wire for the whole of January, will be donated to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’d love some more sales, but this year, sales of it seem a bit slow although I am getting page reads via Kindle Unlimited, all of which count towards the donation.
My books are being read, and that is the important thing. I feel as if I’m making a little headway.
Last year, I published The Dandelion Clock, and it’s had some amazing reviews*. (The ending made me cry, by the way) Sales are steady , and I’m embarking on Amazon ads in the hope of spreading my words to a larger audience – I watched a webinar this afternoon about Google and Amazon keywords and categories – interesting stuff if I can put it into practice, but promotion is a tricky business and very time consuming when I’d rather be writing. I suppose it’s part of the price to pay for deciding to be an Independent author.
My WIP, Kindred and Affinity, is inspired by another branch of my errant forebears. This time, it’s my father’s side of the family that’s under scrutiny and comes up not so squeaky clean. My paternal grandfather was a Methodist and signed the pledge, mainly because his father was an alcoholic who beat his wife, got drunk, and fell off a roof. (He was a builder) My paternal grandmother’s father married sisters at a time when it was against the rules of kindred and affinity in the book of Common Prayer, hence the book title. He married his dead wife’s sister in 1891, and it wasn’t legal until 1907 so it must have been done in secret somehow. There had to be a story there, didn’t there? It’s taken me a while to tease it out, and I’ve discovered a lot about a woman I only knew as Auntie Annie, who died aged ninety when I was about seven. If I’d known I was going to write her story, I’d have asked her what it was… But you’ll have to read Kindred and Affinity to find out more. I’m 66,000 words into it and hope to publish it later this year.
This story is the first time that I’ve had no idea of the beginning or the end, but only a part of the middle – usually I have a beginning and an end and no idea what will happen in between. My books are somewhat seat of the pants writing style as dictated by the stupid decisions my characters make. I have various projects in mind to follow next year, but I’m not sure which one I’ll choose. They’re all contemporary fiction – mainly mystery, which will make a change from writing historical fiction. I have the titles and the covers for inspiration, but so far the stories are no more than a vague idea in the back of my mind.
Last year, I revisited all my published titles and edited them. You know the sort of thing – moved a few commas, cut out repetition, tightened the writing a bit. It took several months but was worth doing, and I enjoyed reconnecting with my characters. I had On Different Shores professionally edited and learnt a lot in the process – money well spent – hence my subsequent self-editing spree. I also brought out a box set of For Their Country’s Good trilogy which is selling steadily. Haven’t I been busy?
So busy, my painting has suffered a bit. I’m still painting and exhibiting in St Davids. We have two exhibitions a year at Easter and the beginning of August and sell a lot of work. I enjoy it, even though I don’t do as much as I’d like, and I’ve made good friends. It isn’t such a solitary occupation as writing, where my friends are mainly ‘virtual’ but good friends none-the-less.
In between painting and writing, I’ve replanted the new garden after spraying the whole area with weed killer to get rid of brambles – 24 one-ton bags went to the tip before we sprayed. I had to wait a year before I could re-plant, so I’m looking forward to some colour this summer. And we’ve put in a new fireplace and new curtains. And when I’m really bored, I mean desperately mind-numbingly bored, (edit out those adverbs) I do some housework!
Anything else? I’m hoping to look into the production of audio books this year. It is something I’d like to do as my mother and mother-in-law both lost their sight in later years and relied on talking books. Other than that, I’m a year older, a year stiffer, and hopefully, a year wiser and a better writer. Life is one huge learning curve, and I’m still climbing it.”
Lisa Shambrook lives in Carmarthen, “an old market town in the West Wales hills, [which] is inspiring as I’m surrounded by rolling hills, mountains, woods and forests, and I’m a stone’s throw from several gorgeous beaches. The scenery constantly changes and Wales, as a whole, has inspired my latest post-apocalyptic work The Seren Stone Chronicles and I’ve just finished writing the first drafts of all three books.”
I am aware that there is a community of writers residing in that part of the world, several of whom are, like Lisa, members of IASD. I suggested that this must offer stimulation and she agreed:
“I attend several local book fairs, and my fellow Welsh authors are a friendly, supportive, and generally amazing bunch. Christoph Fischer and Graham Watkins are regulars with me, and I recently met Penny Luker when she joined us too. I’ve met some truly inspiring authors within the IASD group and further afield in my local writing community like Carol Lovekin, Judith Arnopp, Thorne Moore, Judith Barrow, Greg Howes, and Cheryl Beer, and read some of their amazing books!”
Lisa recently made the move from self-publishing to a traditional contract with a small independent publisher, BHC. What made her decide on that route and how did she find BHC?
“I discovered BHC some years ago and they recently became my traditional publishers at BHC Press. I struggle with the formatting side of self-publishing and love the way they format my books. They offered me a contract a year or so ago for my Surviving Hope series and for A Symphony of Dragons and the contract worked well for me. I have also been given the opportunity with BHC Press to write an introduction and an original short story for their release of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and that was a real privilege.
I found self-publishing difficult within my emotional/mental health parameters and knowing my publisher is looking after me is helpful. I still have a great deal of say with my work and publishing, and marketing, as we all know, is something we take on as authors, so I do a lot of my own marketing too.”
She writes fantasies in which hope springs from tragedy and believes such themes are important in helping people of all ages cope with life’s ups and downs:
“The Surviving Hope books: Beneath the Rainbow, Beneath the Old Oak, and Beneath the Distant Star have dealt with difficult subjects. They work with grief, depression, self-harm, anger issues, and bullying. It’s heavy stuff, but essential to understand the human condition. I have suffered severe anxiety and depression for most of my life and so the themes have been woven easily into the books with compassion and empathy. The main theme of Beneath the Rainbow is living life to the full and reaching for those so called impossible dreams. I think it’s imperative for both the young and the old to understand these themes and to know they are represented within fiction.”
Lisa has participated in a number of collaborations, including with musicians as well as other writers:
“I worked with Samantha Redstreake Geary when she offered a chance to write for a project she was heading for Audiomachine’s album Tree Of Life. We each wrote a story that continued with the next author and moved through the entire instrumental album. I loved writing a short piece that resounded with the music and worked so well with my sense of empathy and beauty. She included me on a couple of other musical contributions too and it was a real treat as music and the written word work perfectly together!
“Working with other authors is revitalising, and I’m very proud of my collaborations, including You are Not Alone with Ian D. Moore, which many IASD authors will know.”
The proceeds from You are Not Alone are donated to the Macmillan Nurses cancer support charity in the UK. Other collaborations also enabled Lisa and her fellow writers to support charity:
“My favourite collaboration is Human 76 which I managed along with my daughter Bekah, and authors Michael Wombat, and Miranda Kate. My family loves taking out-of-the-ordinary family portrait photographs and we did a post-apocalyptic shoot a few years ago. A photo of my daughter became an inspiration to a group of my author friends and we decided to write a collection of stories surrounding her character. It became an amazing project, pulling fourteen authors together with a great original concept. Each story in this collection follows individual characters through a post-apocalyptic world and they meet the main character at some point during their story. She affects many lives as she searches for her kidnapped sister. I wrote Ghabri, our main character, and put together the opening and closing chapters, the other stories weave between and I was astounded at how well they all worked and brought a wonderful book together.
“When we put the book out there we wanted to support a charity and to fit the themes in the book ‘Water Is Life’ is the charity we chose. It provides clean water in countries without it, and it’s lovely to know you are contributing to something worthwhile and important.”
As well as writing, Lisa has a business which uses old books in a unique and innovative way:
“I have an Etsy shop called Amaranth Alchemy (Not to be confused with an American design consultancy with the same name, FP) which I began with my daughter, but I now run on my own. I hate seeing books going to waste and a local charity collects books to give back to the community, but some are beyond repair. I use books that have been damaged or abandoned and give them new life as book marks, picture frames, and other gifts. I breathe new life into old pages…”
I wondered if there were any copyright issues with such a business. She agrees you have to be careful with certain authors’ works:
“You cannot use Tolkien’s books as the Tolkien estate is very protective of any outside usage. Many old books are already in the public domain. I am only reusing pages that would have gone to landfill, and as far as I know there are no copyright issues with recycling.”
When asked about her favourite authors, she admits t having several:
“My most favourite author is Garth Nix, I adore the Old Kingdom series, especially Lirael my favourite book. I love Tolkien, having been brought up with The Hobbit’ and Lord of the Rings. I have eclectic reading tastes, so often choose books according to the individual story, rather than the author. I also love The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, and he’d be an author I’d like to meet along with Nix. I think I’d ask about their confidence in their writing, how they learned to accept and embrace their own styles, because I think that’s probably one of the most important things about writing. Not sure where we’d go though.”
In answer to my final question she confesses to being “a quiet introvert”, but she loves “to talk about the deep things of life. I find socialising almost impossible and struggle with people. I think I’m a bit of a squirrel – a scatty, secretive, panicky, hoarding, arty, curl-up-and-sleep, autumnal creature!”
I enjoyed my chat with Lisa. I hope you do, too. Why not check out her website where you can find more information about her books along with purchase links.
Throughout 2019 I intend to post updates on each of the authors I featured in my “A Date With . .. .” series in 2018. Dominique Kyle was my first date, back on January 11th last year. You can read the original interview here. She very kindly broke into a climbing holiday in Sicily to provide this update.
In the original interview, we talked about her series about a young woman stock car racer which had the protagonist, in the fifth book, investigating a paedophile gang in her Northern English home town. Dominique bemoaned the fact that, unlike her protagonist, no woman reached further than a semi-final of the World Championship since 1980. A good place, it seemed to me, to begin our recap by asking if that was still the case.
Apparently it is, because: “Courtney Finnikin qualified this year for the 2018 F2 Stocks world championships semi-final but withdrew.”
The other subject that we discussed last year was what Dominique saw as the refusal to face up to and discuss the activities of grooming gangs. Throughout 2018 there were a number of successful prosecutions, government debates and reports, documentaries and drama documentaries. At the same time: “Sarah Champion (MP for Rotherham) has been working tirelessly for change on many issues to do with abuse, new identikit grooming gangs have come to light recently in other British towns, court cases continue, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has continued and they launched the ‘Truth Project’ last year for abuse victims to put their accounts on record*, the UK Parliament signified its determination to end the sexual exploitation of children around the world by ratifying the Lanzarote Convention, national days to raise awareness of grooming gangs have been organised by County Councils – the list is endless.
This is a double-edged sword for an author. Two years ago, my book was cutting-edge, taking on a subject that no one wanted to tackle (and which publishers were wary of touching due to the perceived inherent ‘racism’ of the subject), and now it may come across as a tawdry ‘jump on the bandwagon’, and the whole subject may soon become tired and passé. This was why I didn’t make it a one-subject book. By including the topic of organised abuse gangs in a series that is mostly about a girl trying to make it to the top in the Stock Car racing world means that it will always be part of a wider dialogue.”
Nevertheless, Dominique has not “noticed a sudden rise in interest in my book at times of national interest in the subject. I changed keywords and search terms for the book while the ‘Three Girls’ drama was being advertised and when Sammy Woodhouse brought out her book. I’ve done promotions at key times. I’ve tweeted out on the subject using the hashtag that the County Councils use on their national awareness days. But I don’t know if any of these have had any long-term effect on raising the profile of the novel.
I would like the book to reach either girls in danger of being groomed, or parents and carers who don’t know anything about the issue, to raise awareness. To this end, my most successful ploy has been to make it known that I always make the book free on the first of every month. I put this in my author profile on Amazon, and now, even though some months I don’t advertise or even tweet about it being free, I usually get around forty downloads of the book – so someone out there is finding it! It doesn’t appear to lead to sales of the rest of the series, and I don’t even know if the people downloading it are actually reading it, or even what demographic they are, as no reviews ever arrive on Amazon, but I am hoping that this means that the book is getting out to at least a few people who need to read it.”
Meanwhile Dominique “has been getting the six-book series through an editor. A year on and the editor has only managed to complete five of them, as she likes to leave a couple of months between each to make sure she has substantially forgotten details of the story-line so she can come to each book fresh… However, I had a real piece of luck getting this editor, so I genuinely value her input.
Another author who I met through Goodreads recommended her own editor who is a medieval expert. I was dubious. Why would a woman who knows everything there is to know about some very ancient history, want to edit a series about modern car racing? But I approached her anyway and she fell on my series with every appearance of joy saying that she’d spotted it out there in the ether and had been wanting to take a look at it! Apparently, she’s a secret petrol-head who for years was a marshal in the Formula Ford format (which used to feed into Grand Prix F1) and grew up driving cars around fields! And the author who recommended her to me had no idea about this… So, a marriage made in heaven, I’d say. She’s so picky that I get emails saying, ‘now that you’ve set the date of your first book at 2007 – you cannot use that model of VW as it did not get launched onto the market until Autumn 2009’. Doh! You get the picture…”
With no new writing having taken place “for nearly eighteen months”, she “tried to get going again. But I struggled to work out what to write. My ‘Not Quite Eden’ series is quite unusual, both in its subject matter and by having an awkward anti-heroine as its main protagonist, so I didn’t want to disappoint fans by my next book seeming too tame.”
She “started three, but one (despite the promising subject matter following a girl who joins the FEMEN protest movement) turned out surprisingly bland; one I couldn’t follow through on because it is about an anarchic young male wheelchair-user and I need my two wheelchair-using nephews co-operation on it and they’ve both been too busy; and third I originally wrote in the mid 1990’s and it now seemed too old-fashioned! So by the end of this year, I still hadn’t written anything that was close to being suitable to be released into the world.
Finally, I picked up my nineties ‘first’ novel and decided on a seriously radical re-write/edit, treating it as though I was adapting it for a TV serial and as though it wasn’t anything to do with me. And suddenly, I had a breakthrough and I was flying. No one can get a word out of me now. Work doesn’t get done. Friends don’t get emails. My husband mutters ‘tappity-tap’ as he passes me on my laptop.
I have no idea if fans of my current series will like it. They may hate it simply because it is so different, and they hoped for more of the same and I may get blasted by ‘disappointed’ reviews. But I don’t care.
One of the revelations I had when I picked up this old manuscript, was that over twenty years ago, when I was not much older than the featured protagonists, I was taking on the subject matter of domestic violence and ‘coercive control’ – a term that has only recently been coined and put into law. And I was amazed to find that the way I wrote about it then, when still in my early twenties, was as though the coercive control aspect in it was simply what was to be expected in male/female relationships. However, I am relieved to find that I had a campaign going on in the story line against the outright domestic violence side of it – which was still a substantially unrecognised/under-recorded phenomenon then. How times have changed! So I’ve left it set back in 1995, but I’m bringing out the message in a way that wouldn’t have been understood by readers twenty-four years ago. And at last I’m thoroughly enjoying the whole process of writing again.”
So it seems that Dominique is still as controversial as ever and determined to write about topical aspects of the relationships between men and women. I wish her every success.
Her Amazon book page is here
*There is another ‘Truth Project’, as I discovered when I googled the term. I have provided a link to the correct site. (FP)
I quite often express views in this blog – and share them on Facebook and Twitter – that some may not agree with. So far those views have not reached anyone who felt so strongly they felt the need to be hateful in their response. My professional writer friend, Lucinda Clarke, reaches a much larger audience and that comes with the risk of being subjected to hate mail as she explains below. Such behaviour is inexcusable. Like Lucinda, I wonder when people started to forget their manners when engaging in debate and argument. What happened to free speech?
Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.
The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.
When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?
It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.
I’ll say no more, but hand you over to Joey at: