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Even writers need friends

It has been quite a month.
First, the new book, “The Moth Man”, is finished and now I’m waiting to see the proofs before it goes to press – but more of that later.
Then there was the London Book Fair and I’ve given a few thoughts on that experience in my previous post.
This week I’ve been working on producing the perfect pitch for yesterday’s “Meet the Agent” event, organized by the splendid “Writers’ Block” in Middlesbrough.
I had forgotten just how nice, supportive and welcoming writers can be. When I took the MA at Teesside University I met some wonderful people, a number of whom have become good friends but writing is a solitary affair and writers often seem -well, a bit odd. We do a lot of pacing around and muttering to ourselves. Sometimes we seem to be utterly lost in our own imaginary worlds until something captures our attention, at which point be become frighteningly attentive, homing in on the object of interest with the ferocity of a starving vulture.
It is a hard world out there with hundreds of writers chasing an ever-decreasing number of opportunities and you would think we would guard our ideas and knowledge jealously but actually in the hot-house of a ten-minute pitch my new companions were funny, open and so pleased for one another’s success.
I hadn’t realized how much I have missed that and I hope there will be another round of workshops and sessions soon. Like everything else, this depends on funding and the money to support groups in this region is extremely limited. The fact “Writers’ Block” can run a series of workshops culminating in an opportunity to pitch to two of the biggest agencies in the country is testament to their professionalism and the pool of talent with which they work and I really hope they are successful in their next bid.
For myself, I feel I have made some new friends and even someone as anti-social as I am needs friends.
Thank you to everyone who made the day so memorable and enjoyable and a special thank you to Steve, Mike, Luke, Beatrice and Jenna. And the very best of luck with your work.

Somerset Levels : A Lost Landscape

When I began writing the Alex Hastings books I started with the setting. My tutor, the excellent Carol Clewlow, asked us to write a place as if it were a character, advising us that the landscape should be central to crime fiction. Reflecting on my experiences in different parts of the UK, it was the beauty and strangeness of the Somerset Levels that came to me as I sat in the class. In fact the opening paragraphs of “Death of the Elver Man” are almost as I first wrote them that evening.

As I continued to write the books I became aware of the changes, physical, economic and political, that had worked to alter the area for ever. I was writing about a world fast disappearing. Many of the changes were possibly for the better – the moratorium on peat cutting, for example, and the tremendous work done to create nature reserves and visitors’ facilities on and around the Levels. All that has been washed away in the dreadful flooding of the past weeks. The Levels have always flooded, to a certain extent. They are a man-made landscape. But they have always endured, supporting life both human and animal, despite the worst the weather can throw at them.

With over sixty square miles of land under a sea of water, sludge and sewage, with the infrastructure, always a little fragile, swept away, it will be many years before this unique landscape recovers, if it ever does. Certainly it will not be the same – too much has been lost or damaged. The Levels are so much more than “just farmland”. They are home for people, birds and animals. They hold an extraordinary and diverse ecosystem and comprise a magical and beautiful part of our country. They need to be saved.

Radio Gaga

I’ve always been a fan of radio. I remember buying my first transistor (cast your minds back – or ask your older relatives) and glorying in the freedom to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted. This was at the time of the pirate radio stations and, living as I did on the east coast, I would sneak the radio into my room at night, listening through a tiny earpiece as the signal crackled and faded under the attempts by the authorities to jam transmissions.

It has also had its disappointments. My excitement when the first Open University course I took announced seven special “radiovision” programmes was only matched by my disappointment when a cassette tape and two dozen colour postcards arrived in the post. To be fair, the programmes were excellent and I still have the cards, small colour prints of new and unusual works of art. Still, it didn’t quite live up to the science fiction fantasy in my head.

Of course, it is all different now and the role of radio seems to be ready for another change. Whilst for many it is just background noise at work, for some it is fast becoming a way to communicate ideas and knowledge to a wider audience. Many of us get our morning news from the radio – so much more informative than the television, more detailed and with a wider range of topics. Whilst music radio is increasingly redundant – why listen to someone else’s choice of music when you can live stream your own from a service such as Spotify? – talk radio opens up the world with new voices and different lives. I firmly believe this is the future for radio. Yes, some music interspersed is great and radio can offer a chance to hear new and different music too. Whether national, local or community station, it is through the voices of other people that radio offers something unique. Something the world really needs right now. All we have to do is stop and really listen for a moment.

Writers as Readers

There has been some discussion lately about the link between reading and becoming a writer. As a prolific reader from an early age (see “In praise of libraries”), I would say from personal experience there may be a link. I was extraordinarily indiscriminate when young, consuming whole series of books by one author (Willard Price, anyone? Henry Treece?) before moving on to the next. A sort of book shark, always looking for the next meal. I read huge amounts of science fiction, historical novels, science books and assembled a shelf of favourites ranging from “The Gadfly” to “The Forsyte Saga”. The one thing they all did was to show me how powerful a good story could be. They filled my head with ideas, questions and new and wonderful places – it was only a matter of time before I started trying to create my own.

On the way I ran across John Buchan – oh what fun his stories were! Now I have the chance to revisit that early delight as part of the Middlesbrough Literary Festival when Southside Broadcasting present “The 39 Steps” as their book of the month. I’ll be meeting members of local reading groups at Thorntree Community Hub on the 24th of June, from 10am and we will be reviewing and discussing John Buchan’s most famous work as part of the broadcast. If you are around, please come along – it would be lovely to meet you.

In praise of libraries

I am a fan of libraries. Big ones, little ones, those wonderful book buses – show me a library and I find myself smiling. I owe my professional life to libraries – really. Without access to books I would not be writing this today. I would never have worked as a lecturer, survived the education system or become a writer. Libraries have been a lifeline for me.

I began to read very early, partly as I was bored, I think. I have dyspraxia – a form of spatial dyslexia – so I did not walk until after my third birthday According to my mother, I sat in a corner and shouted until someone brought me what I wanted – often a book of some kind, which at least kept me quiet. Then I went to school and the fact I could already read caused some consternation but I had a very smart teacher who pointed me to the Book Corner (remember those?) and, once I’d read everything there, let me sneak into the hall and take books from the Junior library. I was in heaven.

Then it all went wrong. Moving up to the second year Infant class, my new teacher (who’s name, fortunately, escapes me), decided I was not really reading at all, just showing off. She gave me the prescribed “reading book” for the term (!!) and asked me to read aloud. I couldn’t. I still find it hard and when I do readings and signings I practise for days beforehand. Aged six, I had a terrible stammer and half-way down the first page I burst into tears. Suddenly I was stuck with just one book for the term and until I read the whole horrible text aloud to this woman, I was barred from even the Infant library, let alone the now-forbidden Junior shelves.

On returning home that afternoon I told my mother I was never going back to school again. A remarkable and intelligent woman, she put me on the back of her bicycle and we made our way into the nearby town centre. Here I was signed up for the children’s library and given two pink tickets. Surrounded by more books than I had ever seen in one place, I agreed to go back to school – and keep my under-aged reading habit a secret.

That library kept me sane, in the midst of the crushing boredom of the second year Infants. By the time I was ten I’d consumed the Junior library too – dyspraxic, remember? So I never played out unless forced. I couldn’t skip, or catch a ball or even run without tripping over my own feet so I read – and read -and read. For my tenth birthday the local library staff gave me a quick test (to see if I really had read everything) and presented me with one illicit, precious grey ticket for the Adult section.

I wish I could go back now and thank them, show them all what a difference they made to my life.
I hope we will somehow salvage our library system and keep it safe, to pass on to the next generation of young readers. Yes, I’m a writer and I have a vested interest in getting them hooked on books but somewhere out there is a child just like me. I want them to have the same chances I had.

Seriously cheesed off.

Grrr.

On the one hand, great news as Waterstones in Middlesbrough have agreed to stock my two books. This is a major step forwards and I am so happy. They also suggested I might supply something that could be used as a bookmark. Excellent idea I thought. Yes, a little bit of publicity by the till, especially as the cover to “The Drowners” is so striking. (Forgive me but I think it is just great). So, off on the hunt for a print company who do bookmarks.
Found a good supplier, found a really good price for a large quantity, found an artist who put the designs together for me. All was going so well until – they needed a different format. Preferably Acrobat as, for some technical reason, this “keeps the internal integrity, dimensions and DPI of artwork and is resistant to digital compression when transmitted electronically”.

Now, I understand that, just about. My pictures were rubbish when they appeared at the other end. So I dug out my copy of Adobe Acrobat 7 and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to install it on my new computer. Only after several hours did I discover it doesn’t work with Windows 7. In fact, a lot of the software I’ve come to rely on doesn’t work so well with Windows 7 – or XP come to that. So, if I buy a new computer (as sometimes I have to) I’m forced into also buying a new (and different) operating system that promises oh so much – most of which I don’t want and never use. The stuff I do want and use I end up having to buy again.

So, seriously angry. It was bad enough finding all my favourite games didn’t run…but that’s another story.

And the bookmarks? Looks like I’ve managed it. I used a free on-line converter. Hah!

A note about Sunday

Getting myself all prepared for the reading on Sunday 17th. Thank you to all at Saltburn’s wonderful “Real Meals” deli who are opening especially – and making their wonderful dark chocolate muffins with plum compote. There will be books available to buy and I’m happy to sign any you bring along – provided I wrote them, of course.

Just to put everyone in the mood, I’m trying to decide what to read. Will I go with the hands in a bag or the long, slow drowning in the marsh? Perhaps the intruder chasing Alex through the probation office at night…
You’ll have to be there to find out!

A busy week ahead

Now the new book is well and truly out there, I’m doing some appearances around the area. On Wednesday (13th) I’m on Southside Radio (107.3FM and via the web) at around 6.20pm. I’ll try to post the podcast on these pages after the broadcast. Then on Sunday (17th) I will be reading from “The Drowners” and signing books at Real Meals, Saltburn from 2pm – 4pm. I’ll have copies of both books available and if you buy both on the day you get a special price of £12 – and signed for no charge of course.

Do come along if you’re in the area. Real Meals have promised their wonderful Dark Chocolate and Plum compote muffins will be on the menu so it’s worth it just for that.

Update

See my podcasts here.

After long silence

So, a new year and a new book at last.

I must admit, I was very despondent at the end of last year when despite all our efforts “The Drowners” failed to make the shops in time for Christmas. We were so close to a December release but – there were problems with the cover and so we decided to wait and make sure it was as good as we could possibly make it before launching.

On the positive side, the cover does look very good now and the second book in the series is now available in paperback from Amazon, direct from Impress or can be ordered through any bookshop. The e-book is also ready and should be out in the next few weeks.

Although it is a sequel (the story picks up six weeks after “Death of the Elver Man” ends) “The Drowners” can be read as a stand-alone novel so if you are new to Alex Hastings and the world of the Somerset Levels in the 1980s, jump in and give it a try!

I received a compliment from a new reader last week. Well, I think it was a compliment, anyway. She came up to me in my favourite local cafe, stared hard and said, “I thought I knew you. I thought I knew what you were like.” There was a pause and she added, “Now every time I see a dead chicken, I think of you.”
If you’ve read “Death of the Elver Man”, you probably have an inkling of what she means. If you haven’t, well I’m not going to put any spoilers on here, just say I thought I was making it LESS gory. So much for all the psychology I studied.
It is a strange feeling, to know someone or something you made up is living and talking in someone else’s mind. Strange and really rather wonderful. No wonder I love my job.