Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Ruby Fairy Book: Horrors for Kids

Today the postie brought me a treat - another "new old book"! This one is The Ruby Fairy Book, an anthology first published around 1900  with illustrations by H.R.Millar. This edition, published by John F. Shaw & Co., is probably from 1936 and also includes some of Frank Papé's colour plates. 
The book is one of a series of four comprising The Golden Fairy Book, The Silver Fairy Book, The Diamond Fairy Book and The Ruby Fairy Book. They are not to be confused with Andrew Lang's series of coloured Fairy Books (blue, pink, olive, etc).
 So why, you may ask, am I, a grown (some might say mature, cough) woman, so excited about a book of fairy stories? 
Well, firstly, this one isn't all that easy to get hold of. It's by no means impossible to get, nor is it wildly expensive when you do find it (though I couldn't afford the first edition at forty-five pounds), but there aren't all that many copies about. Also, as far as I can tell, it has never been digitised. I have found the Silver, Gold and Diamond books online but only one story from this one. So if you want to read it, you have to make a bit of an effort to lay hands on a copy!
Secondly, these are most definitely not cutesy sanitised fairy stories. Some of these are nasty
Take the story of Prince Egor and the Raven ("from the Russian"). It begins with a kind of Bluebeard-in-reverse story. "Remarkably handsome" Prince Egor, upon the advice of a talking raven, woos the beautiful Queen Agraphiana the Fair, who has an army of "strong, handsome men in armour" but surprisingly, no partner. Queen Agraphiana periodically wages war on her neighbours, and during one such outing she makes the Prince stay at home in case he gets hurt(!) but warns him never to open a particular cupboard. Naturally, the minute she has ridden off surrounded by mail-clad hunks, he opens the cupboard, and inside he finds this:

Yes, it is a "hideous-looking skeleton" hung up on one hundred and thirteen chains. The skeleton, in spite of skeleton, is not in fact dead, but very thirsty. Disregarding the raven's advice, the Prince unwisely offers it an invigorating drink of water, at which it breaks free of its chains and leaps out of the window, not before announcing that it intends to make Queen Agraphiana its own.
The Prince evidently bursts into tears at this turn of events, since the talking raven has to tell him to "dry your eyes and follow the skeleton like a man." He sets off in pursuit, and the raven tells him to procure a horse from a witch who lives near a fiery river. 
There is an illustration here of the witch's house, "which was surrounded by a hundred poles, on ninety-nine of which were human skulls."

At this point in the story I felt I had wandered into Heart of Darkness by mistake. It is amazing what was considered sweet bedtime reading for children in the early 1900s! I am glad to report however that the story ended happily for everyone except the skeleton, and especially for the talking raven. 
I haven't read all of the stories yet and I doubt that they are all as grotesque as that one, but I have read the very first one in the book, which is called Cinderella's Daughter and begins thus:
" 'So Cinderella married the King's son.' And a few months later the King died, and Cinderella's husband was King. Shortly after this the Queen had a little daughter, who was called Mimi."
Admittedly this particular story is translated from the French of Jules le Maitre but still Mimi struck me as a surprising name for a Princess - I can't see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge calling their baby that if it's a girl! (It'd make a lovely name for a burlesque dancer, mind you.) 
Princess Mimi is (naturally) drop-dead gorgeous, but soon runs into marital problems as the law of the land requires her to marry at the early age of 15, and the groom has to be a prince. The only two princes to be found are Polyphemus, who is seven times taller than she is, and Hop o' my Thumb, who is seven times smaller. Decisions, decisions...

Above: Little and Large?

Other tales include one about a girl who becomes Queen of the Ants, and one about a Princess who is turned into cotton wool by a wicked fairy! I've just dipped into those though, so I can't tell you what happens yet. Presumably they have happy endings...


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Do you just write whenever you feel like it?"

One of the things people are always asking me is "How do you work? Do you just write whenever you feel like it, or do you do a set amount every day?" I am asked this often enough that I thought it might be worth a blog post. 
I first started writing "seriously" in 2004 when my youngest child started Kindergarten. At the time we were living in Bad Münstereifel, a small but very pretty town in the wilds of the German Eifel. I had longed to write for years but life always got in the way: first a demanding job, then two babies in short succession and then the move abroad. By the time I actually had some time to myself again I was so full of ideas that I felt as though I would burst if I didn't write some of them down! The very first morning I found myself at home alone I powered up the family PC (those were the days; now we have one each) and started work on an article about Steinfeld Abbey. Much later, after a false start that was mostly about proving to myself that I could write something 100,000 words long, I wrote The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. 
When I was writing The Vanishing I had no idea whether it would ever be published. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing except for what I could glean from the well-thumbed pages of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. All the same, I was determined to write the book. I loved Bad Münstereifel more than anywhere I have ever lived - its beauty, its history and its weird legends - and I wanted to put all of that into the book. Because I had no publisher breathing down my neck at that point, it would have been very easy to spend five or even ten years writing it. However, the thrill of finally having any time at all to myself to write things, and the pressure of only having from 08.30am until 11.35am every day to write them, spurred me on. I finished the first draft in a year.
Since then I have written a number of other books and my working schedule has settled down into a pattern. I consider every weekday a working day but I don't expect to be able to get any creative work done in the school holidays. I have a target word count for each day and if I manage to get the target for the week completed by Thursday I have Friday off! This probably sounds very mechanistic but it works well for me. Sometimes if I am feeling uninspired, the only way to get the writing engine warmed up is to start work - even if I have to delete it all later. Before Christmas I decided to delete an entire 9,600 words from my work-in-progress because it really wasn't working. So sometimes I go backwards as well as forwards! The main thing is to keep going.
One of the hardest things for me is not letting other things intrude into my working time. Since I work at home, and my husband has a two-hour commute to work, it makes sense that if someone has to take the cat to the vet I do it. More difficult if you are a full-time writer are the invitations to meet for coffee etc during the day. There is no good time to do this! If you meet for breakfast you start the working day late. If you meet at 10.30am you feel as though you cannot really get anything done beforehand, and afterwards it is nearly lunchtime. If you meet at 2pm there will be no time to do anything afterwards because the kids will be home from school by then.
Even more difficult is the question of having people to stay. Try as you might, the time when you thought you would be relaxing between books always seems to turn out to be the time when you are frantically racing against the clock to finish one. It would take a flinty-hearted writer indeed to stand at the door greeting people who have travelled a long way to visit with the words, "The kettle is over there; I'm getting back to work so BE QUIET." Also, since my "office" is the dining-room table it would be pretty much impossible to get the solitude to work anyway.
I don't know what the answer to this is apart from work like mad when there isn't anyone around. I suppose ideally we would live on a huge estate surrounded by pine trees, so remote that there would never be a ring on the doorbell from a courier wanting me to take in next door's parcel again nor passing roofers wondering whether I would like anything done about the hole in the barge boards (no thanks; there is a family of starlings living in it, you know). My writing room would be a little chamber at the very top of the highest turret, reached only by a spiral stone staircase, so that even if any hardy visitors made it past the iron gates, the roaming hounds and the moat they would not be able to disturb me with their distant cries...
On the other hand, I don't find Facebook and Twitter a problem, as some people do. Since I work alone, Facebook is my "office water-cooler", where I can spend two minutes chatting with someone whilst I have my mid-morning cup of tea. I shall have to make sure that my lofty turret has wifi.

Left: my MacBook, which appears to have been "blessed" by a passing pigeon. Where are the screen wipes?!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Feedback time!

As I have probably mentioned, I recently finished the first draft of The Demons of Ghent, the second book in my upcoming Forbidden Spaces trilogy, and despatched it to my editor for perusal. Although The Demons of Ghent will be my fifth novel (and in fact my sixth book if you include my ghost story collection), I still get a wee bit (okay, a lot) nervous about the feedback stage. This is not, as fellow author Philip Ardagh quipped on Twitter, because "each book is slightly less good than the previous one" (thanks Phil - the hitman will be round shortly). I guess it is mainly because having gone through the process of producing other books, I know what an innocent editorial suggestion can lead to.
When I was working on my very first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I suppose I cherished that impossible dream that I am sure many authors nurture: that the very first publisher to read the manuscript will be so enthralled that they will abandon whatever they were already reading (the latest tome by J.K.Rowling or a newly-discovered lost work by Charles Dickens) to devour it to the very last word. Then they will ring up and say, "The book is perfect just as it is. Here is a million pounds. I am just going to call the printer."
Alas, this never happens. Not to me, anyway. This is normally how it goes. For the first book at least, the agent (once you have got one) may suggest some changes to make the manuscript match-fit for the publishing arena. You may make those changes. Once the book has a publisher, the editor will probably suggest some changes too. These might be relatively easy to tackle ("it would be nice if they kissed twice in that last scene instead of once") or they may strike horror into your heart ("I know Manfred is in all 75 chapters but I think it would work better if we killed him off in chapter two"). You are not obliged to make any of these changes, of course, and if you are as slippery-tongued as a defence attorney you may even talk your way out of some of them, but ultimately you want the publisher to publish the book, right? By now we are on version three and indeed I do save the MS as a new Word document each time, so I can keep track, and don't lose any interesting bits that have to be cut but might  come in useful later. 
Once everyone is happy with the latest version the copyeditor gets their hands on it. In my experience copyeditors are all as good at spotting inconsistencies in a story as Sherlock Holmes or indeed the disturbingly compelling Inspector Reid from Ripper Street. They will also notice that you repeated the same piece of information 15 times in one book, that you have described the hero's smile as "lopsided" 37 times and even in one case (the shame!) that I had had the hero change gear in his car after he had parked it. 
It is still not over. Later, the proof reader will go over the manuscript too and pick up all the typos etc. My keyboard is somewhat aged and the D key keeps sticking, so he or she will probably have to go through the next book, Urban Legends, or Urban Legens as I shall probably type it thanks to that sticky   key, and fill in all the Ds. 
At some point, of course, the book will actually make it to the marketplace where it will stand before the reading public like a goat tethered to a stake in the middle of a jungle clearing. But that, as they say, is another story. 
Anyway, the next step for The Demons of Ghent is hopefully a meeting with the editorial team to discuss the manuscript. I must admit that I approach such meetings with the secret terror that once I am in there they are going to tear the stripes off the shoulder of my writer's uniform. Still, I can brace myself up with the knowledge that whatever they say, it cannot possibly be as bad as the feedback my first book got from school pupil 'Slattybatfast' in the Carnegie Shadowing Scheme: "its the lamest peice of drivvel i have ever had the missfortune to pick up."
No experience, good or bad, is ever wasted...

"OMG, you're absolutely right - there's a whopping typo here..."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The eagle has landed!

I am delighted to say that yesterday I received my author's copies of my new ghost story collection, The Sea Change & other stories, published by Swan River Press in Dublin.
(Excuse the murkiness of the photo - I took it after dark with Photo Booth. There is no excuse for the appalling floral wall-paper however.)
The Sea Change is an entirely separate project from my novel-writing. My novels usually fall into the thriller/crime category (though up at the literary end of the thriller pool) but the stories in The Sea Change are all supernatural ones. I've been a fan of ghost stories since I was a child - I love the work of M.R.James and my bookshelves are home to a host of tatty old Fontana ghost story collections. It was perhaps natural therefore that my very first forays into fiction would be creepy tales. I say "first forays" but although my first published short story, Nathair Dhubh, appears in the collection, so does Alberic de Mauleon, an M.R.James prequel that first appeared in Sarob Press' Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows last autumn.
The stories have a variety of settings including the South of France, the German Eifel and rural Slovakia. Anyone who has read The Vanishing of Katharina Linden or Wish Me Dead may recognise the setting of Grauer Hans as Bad Münstereifel. There is also a story based on my experiences of sub-aqua diving - I always felt there was a spooky story in that! You can also read my ending to M.R.James' unfinished tale The Game of Bear, which up until now has only been available in the subscription magazine The M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter
One or two readers have asked me whether the tales are "terrifying"or look-under-the-bed creepy etc. I can reassure anyone who is not fond of extreme horror that these are (I hope) spine-tingling rather than gross - more abbey than abattoir, one might say.
The book is available for order online (world wide) at Order The Sea Change
Given that the book is a hardbacked edition with dust cover and a limited print run, the cost is obviously higher than for my other books. I am pleased to say therefore that Swan River have produced a free sampler eBook which includes one of my stories - Self Catering. This is a great way of sampling individual stories from different Swan River authors before you commit to buying a whole collection!  Details are here: Swan River Reader
I'd like to say a VERY BIG THANKYOU to everyone concerned in bringing The Sea Change to publication - Editor Brian J. Showers whose boundless energy has pushed this project through, Meggan Kehrli who created the cover design, Jason Zerrillo who did the beautiful dust jacket painting and Jim Garrison who created the design for the board covers. Also Iona Grant for the photograph (taken at a secret location on the Scottish coast!) that inspired Jason's gorgeous painting, and Jim Rockhill for proof reading the book. I shall shut up now before I start to sound like I am presenting the Oscars...

Above: Bad Münstereifel, scene of Grauer Hans, one of the stories in The Sea Change.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Libraries I have loved

Today - Saturday 9th February 2013 - is National Libraries Day, so I've been thinking about all the libraries I have known and loved (hmmm, I sound like Barry White talking about his lady friends...). Here are some of them.

Ley Hill County Combined School library. This is the first library I can remember using in my entire life. I particularly remember reading one thick volume - I think it was an encyclopaedia - which ended with a section speculating about the future of mankind. There was an illustration of a slim bald man with a skin-tight blue one-piece outfit on. This, opined the writer, was our future: since we have ostensibly been getting less hairy since our ancestors swung down from the trees, eventually we won't have any hair at all. And we will all wear form fitting performance fabrics. Perhaps there was some truth in this prediction; there is a lot more lycra around in 2013 than there was when I reading that book, back in 1974. But thankfully I still have my hair.

Chesham Library. Nowadays, this library is housed in a red-brick purpose-built building on Elgiva Lane in Chesham. When I first visited it, however, it was on the Broadway, in a much smaller building that became a shop in a later incarnation. I mainly remember the Broadway library because my mother took me there to take out a book about Fire. When I was a little girl I was very anxious about Fire, and very worried about the house burning down, so she decided to find a book which presented the positive side of fire - eg. smelting. I don't think it worked, because I still live in a house peppered with smoke alarms, but I can still remember the illustration of the smelting...

The Bodleian Library. I spent many hours in the Bod when I was studying for my degree, but I am sorry to say that the main thing I remember about my time there is the occasion when a friend and I nipped out of the reading room and sat on the windowsill on the venerable stone staircase, sharing a hipflask of brandy. Enough said.

Bad Münstereifel Stadtbücherei. When we moved to Germany in 2001, I was thrilled to discover that the local library had a small section of English books, as well as some brilliant German ones about local history and folklore. I joined forthwith - in fact I still have my library card somewhere. 

This brings me to:

Gemeentelijke Openbare Bibliotheek Tervuren. This library mainly stands out in my memory as a kind of mental torture. I managed with the German library in Münstereifel pretty well because my German was fairly fluent, but my Dutch was non-existent when we arrived in Flanders. I studied it at night classes for three years but of course, fluency is not achieved overnight. I joined the library with the intention of improving my Dutch by reading loads of books, but mostly my time there was spent wandering around looking at the thousands of fascinating volumes in miserable frustration!!! 

Strathearn Community Campus Library. One of the first things we did when we arrived in Scotland was to join the library. We hardly knew a soul locally and had no money so the library - and long walks - were our main entertainment that first summer. It has a super section of local history books, which was where I first came across the delightful tale of murder in Muthill, in which the crime was discovered after a small dog was observed trotting down the street with a rotting human leg in his mouth! It also has a section of Japanese manga, very popular with my daughter. The other section that is dear to my heart is the small shelf of just-returned books - a great hunting ground for recent acquisitions. I managed to snaffle Stephen King's 11.22.63 from that shortly after it came out, and I've just got Justin Cronin's The Twelve from the same place - in fact the book is sitting on the table less than two metres away from me as I write. 

And finally - last but most definitely not least -

Innerpeffray Library. This is the library in the photo above, which previous readers of this blog may recognise. It is the oldest lending library in Scotland, with books dating back to the 1500s, and the truly wondrous thing about it (apart from the wild lonely setting, the gentlemen's-club atmosphere and the nearby attraction of a church with a leper squint) is the fact that you are allowed to read the books. Yes, even the really old ones. I love Innerpeffray Library with a passion. If it were a person my husband would have stopped me going there by now...

Libraries - I love them. Love yours too! 

Above: a book yesterday. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Calling book lovers in Belgium!

I posted a while ago about my upcoming book launch in Belgium and I'm pleased to say that I have all the details now!
NB There are going to be launch events in the UK too - details on those to follow!

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my new book, Silent Saturday, is named after Stille Zaterdag, the day after Good Friday, when the church bells in Flanders supposedly fly away to Rome to collect Easter eggs for the children! The opening scene takes place on Silent Saturday.
For that reason, it seemed like a great idea to be in Belgium on the weekend of Silent Saturday itself, which is 30th March 2013, to launch the book.

Here's where I'll be:

Waterstone's in Brussels (address: Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan 71-75, B-1000 Brussels, tel. 00 32 2 219 2708) on Saturday 30th March 2013 (Stille Zaterdag!) from 15.00h.

Treasure Trove Books in Tervuren (address: Brusselsesteenweg 7, 3080 Tervuren, tel. 00 32 2 767 7476) on Sunday 31st March 2013 from 12.00h to 15.00h.

If you're a book lover based in Belgium, I'd love to see you! I'll be signing copies of Silent Saturday and I'll also be chatting to readers, so if you want to ask anything about the book or its inspiration, please do. The locations of the book include Montgomery and central Brussels, Tervuren (including Tervuren Park) and Oudergem, and you'll also recognise De Lijn buses, the number 44 tram and other well-loved aspects of life in Belgium! 

Above: Treasure Trove Books in Tervuren, where I'll be on Sunday 31st March. 

Above: a previous author event at Treasure Trove. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Murder in the Maldives, anyone?

Someone wrote to me recently asking me how I go about researching my books - do I look things up as I go along, or do I try to do it all beforehand?
When I wrote my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I didn't think of myself as doing any formal "research" at all. The book is set in the real-life German town of Bad Münstereifel, and is crammed with references to the town's layout, its history and its local legends. However, I had been living in Bad Münstereifel for several years before I started writing the book, so I knew the town very well, and as I love folklore (especially creepy or bizarre stories) I had sought out as many local legends as I possibly could, long before I thought of weaving them into a story.
I suppose that if you are going to set a novel in a foreign location then the ideal thing is to go and live in that location for seven years (Murder in the Maldives, anyone...?). Sadly, however, this is not normally possible! I am currently in the middle of writing a trilogy set in Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) and we only lived there for three years before moving on. I probably wouldn't have attempted setting a single book in Flanders if I hadn't tried to integrate into local life as much as possible when we were there: I took Dutch classes for three years, visited churches and castles, took part in local cycling event De Gordel, etc. However, once I started working on the trilogy, the gaps in my local information became clear, and that is where some extra research has come in.
I do try to build up as full a picture as possible of a book setting before I start writing. The second book in the trilogy, The Demons of Ghent, is (obviously) set in the Flemish city of Ghent, and in December 2011 I went over to Flanders to get to know the city in as much detail as possible (see pic above). I had visited Ghent before and fell in love with the city, but I was very aware that I knew little about it - for example, in what part of the city would my heroine, Veerle, and her family be likely to live? So I went over and spent days on end walking about the city, taking photographs, visiting churches, the castle, etc. Some friends who live in Ghent very kindly drove me about the city for a day too, telling me a bit about the character of each part of it - where the students live, where the rich people live and so on. I also bought a heap of books about Ghent, Flanders and Belgian culture and collected things like local tram maps and timetables.
All of this enabled me to choose the locations of the various scenes in the book with confidence, however, it was by no means the end of the story. For example, when the heroine gets up in the morning and wanders into the kitchen looking for breakfast, what is she going to find in the fridge? You can buy a lot of the same cereal products in Belgium as you can in the UK but she might just as easily have a waffle (what sort? the Brussels waffle? the Liège waffle? - check that too) or some cheese (check which ones are local to Ghent). 
After breakfast the heroine decides to go into the picturesque old part of the city; I've already decided where she lives based on what my Ghentish friends have told me, but how is she going to get from there to her destination? There are trams but actually if you look at the routes, she would be better off walking - it would be cheaper and probably as quick. 
Later on someone has an altercation in the street. If they stumble off the pavement into the road, is there a kerb? Are they going to stumble down or simply along? Haul out the photographs and take a look; check on Google Streetview too. 
Of course it is still possible to make mistakes, no matter how carefully you research. There are pitfalls you haven't even thought about! In Britain a good way of getting the heroine out onto the street is to send her out to get a pint of milk and the paper. In Belgium many people tend to buy long-life milk in bulk from the supermarket; she'd be more likely to be going out for fresh bread from the bakery. Thinking of making a bequest part of the plot? Check this is actually possible. In some countries (eg Germany) it is quite hard to disinherit family members; they may be able to apply for a compulsory share of the estate. 
Actually by this point I am marvelling at my own nerve in setting a book abroad in the first place...! 
To be honest, though, it wouldn't be much easier for me to set one here in Great Britain. I lived abroad from 2001 to 2011 and I'm still relearning life in the UK. I'm not sure I could tell you how much a litre of milk costs here (nor how high the kerbs in Dundee are, nor what Glaswegians have for breakfast). Perhaps it's a case of Life imitating Art: I need to do more research...