These are strange times, there’s no avoiding that idea, and like everyone else I am having to make changes to my life, my work and my expectations. Life is, of course, somewhat constrained at present though I am probably luckier than most in that I work from home and generally work alone so it’s not that different. The work itself though – now that is rather in a state of flux.
Just before this terrible sickness swept across the globe my publishers, Impress Books of Exeter, were taken over by a mixed imprint, Untold Publishing. Untold already had Aelurus Publishing, an e-book imprint focussing on fantasy and sci-fi. They also operate a series of services for self-publishing (though not the books themselves). Impress, with their diverse output, printed books and high production values, make up the third leg of this new company.
This sort of change can be rather nerve wracking for an author. Will the new publisher want to keep them on? What about contracts and terms – will they change? Will there be a gap where my books are reissued and if so how long? In the event the changes have proved to be small ones and generally for the better. There’s a shortage of print books, partly down to the closure of so many distributors, printers and physical book shops but one of the first things Untold did was to reformat and reissue the e-books for us. Not only are these now available for Amazon Kindle, they are now formatted for ibooks, kobo and Google books as well. And the print editions will return when we emerge from these strange times, blinking in the bright sunlight and shivering in the fresh air.
So, will there be any more “Alex Hastings” books? I think there might.
Watch this space – and the new Untold Publishing website for news. https://untoldpublishing.com/
September sees the publication of “Smoke and Adders”, the fourth book in the Alex Hastings series. Like most of the titles, this is the result of some heavy thinking from the team at Impress and I would like to thank Davi for coming up with it.
Adders, I have to say, loomed large in my childhood which is strange considering I grew up on a new housing estate in Essex. Every day I would walk to school through the estate and along a path skirting a large field. The more interesting and shorter route was through a patch of woodland but I was forbidden to take this path as my mother, who was deadly afraid of snakes, was convinced it was swarming with adders just waiting to attack her first born. It is interesting to think no-one thought it odd a seven year old should walk to school and back alone then.
You know before I say it, don’t you? I loved the little wood and took that way home whenever I could. One warm June day I was scuffing through the twigs, hopping in and out of the shadows and I trod on an adder. Understandably it was upset by this and it promptly bit me on the ankle.
I was wearing Clark’s open-toed sandals, the sort with a strap around the heel, and the luckless reptile got one fang hooked in the leather. Terrified, I began to run dragging the adder with me. As I raced through the woods I could feel its body whipping from side to side, hitting the backs of my legs. Almost hysterical with fear I finally kicked out with my foot and the adder flew through the air and disappeared into a bush leaving me sobbing in the undergrowth.
On returning home my mother knew something had happened but I was more afraid of admitting I’d disobeyed her than I was of the snake bite. It was only when a neighbour, a wonderful nurse called Bronwyn Hellack, spotted the red marks running up my legs, I finally admitted to what had happened.
I was lucky – even though there were no cars on the estate at the time a party of dads got together and carried me into town where we caught a bus to the nearest hospital. The four hour wait for some anti-venom to arrive was extremely painful and I have always viewed snakes with extreme caution ever since.
So, adders – not mad marauding killers but still very dangerous and perfect for Alex’s last outing.
I hope you all enjoy it.
With the New Year come new plans and new ideas and the team at Impress Books have been working on the Alex Hastings series on my behalf. I’m trying to do my bit, writing the new book (which is as yet untitled). I’ve found myself juggling things a bit as “The Moth Man was, in fact, an “extra” to the series. Originally I planned four Alex books in total, three in Somerset and a fourth in the North East. The idea was to have each book cover one year but when I embarked on “The Drowners”, I found the meat of the book, the crime story, actually fitted a shorter time scale. Rather than try to drag it out to a year I decided I would keep it the length it seemed to fit best and started looking at how to rearrange the whole story (what my tutors called the “story arc”) so it flowed nicely from one year to the next. The result fills the gap between the winter of 1986 and the general election in June 1987. It also gave me a chance to explore more of the lives of my characters and to look at a whole new type of crime so I guess that’s all for the best.
After finishing “Moth Man” I took a bit of a break, planning and tapping away but not really working very hard at it. I was jerked out of my indolence at a friend’s wedding when the photographer, who was my friend’s father stopped at my table and asked, “Are you the writing lady?” Rather surprised I admitted I probably was – though there are a lot of other writing ladies he might have been mistaking me for. “Why don’t you hurry up and write the new book?” he asked before heading off to photograph the cake (which was a festival of Dr Who figures including a Dalek. I have some very interesting friends.) I had no idea he’d even read the books but over the next few weeks people rang me up and asked where they could get the next one, “for Christmas”. I had to admit they couldn’t. So here I am, doing my best to fulfill the advance orders for next Christmas. Hopefully book four will be out in September or thereabouts this year. And it is still set in Somerset.
As well as continuing to publish the series, the lovely folk at Impress Books have done a terrific job on the covers of the three novels. Keeping the original pictures, they have played with the colour balance (most noticeably for “The Drowners”) and now my name is above the title. Believe me, when you are an author this feels like a really big thing. Thank you Julie, Rachel and all involved for such a good job. And finally some exciting news. I will be recording “Death of the Elver Man” as an audio book, to be released free on YouTube as a serial in the summer. We are still working on the details but I will post dates and the web link closer to the time. So for all those of you who have stared in bewilderment as your Kindle reads “Death of the Elver Man” to you and wondered who on earth “Adder” is, I hope you will enjoy the audio version.
A happy new year to you all and I hope we will meet up sometime at a signing or reading.
I have wanted to return to the Levels in Somerset for some time. When I began writing the “Alex Hastings” books in 2010 my tutor, Carol Clewlow, told me I needed to find a setting strong enough to be another character in the story and the Levels soon became just that. I left Somerset twenty five years ago and apart from a quick trip by car one day whilst staying near Bath have not been back. Instead I hunted through second-hand shops for maps and picture books dated around 1980 and used the internet to look at locations and older photographs. Mixing this together with my memories and a pinch of imagination, I have written about the Levels for the last four years but I got a bit concerned I might be using too much imagination as the memories began to fade.
The chance to revisit this beautiful area came in the form of the annual rail excursion arranged by our local train enthusiasts. Not only could I get down to Somerset for a weekend, I could do it in style as the train uses first class Pullman carriages. The chance was too good to miss and I set off to see if I had somehow dreamed this mystical landscape. I hadn’t.
We spent a long, gloriously sunny day driving across the Levels, stopping for me to photograph at intervals. Some pictures were obvious and attractive – the encircling hills, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. Others probably have less universal appeal – the rusty sluice gate, for example. And the drowned cygnet. As we bounced along one road (it did have grass growing down the middle so probably should have been avoided) I spotted some peat workings, a fascinating mix of rich dark earth, rushes and water oozing from the torn land. Leaping out I began to photograph, much to the interest of a lady who had set up a picnic table and chairs by the road. As I looked around I realized I was standing opposite the exact building I had used in “The Drowners” as Derek Johns’ hiding place, only then it had been closed according to the pictures on the net. The lady beckoned me over and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain and she laughed. “That’s my father’s business,” she said. I told her it was in a crime novel and gave her a bookmark. Strange how things can happen like that.
And the image of the Levels I brought back? Despite the terrible floods, scars from which can still be seen in a number of areas, they are still quite lovely. The breeze blows almost constantly but on a fine day this sets up just a whisper in the warm air. It is hard to believe there are so many greens in the world, so varied is the foliage. There are vivid patches of golden hay, red and black cows and delightful, playful cream and tan goats. Swans drift in the canals and streams that catch the sunlight and send it, broken and glittering across the eyes. I saw so many tiny paths and little bridges and wanted to follow and cross them all. I will be going back soon, to explore some more but for now I have the Levels in my heart and my mind. it’s time to get serious about the next book.
The subject of genre is one that continues to concern writers and publishers, though perhaps not readers so much. Genre, we learn in creative writing classes, is very important. It allows our work to be categorized, placed alongside similar works and so, we hope, will find an audience more readily. Agents are great fans of genre too. Some – a lot of them actually – specialize in specific types of books. They have built up a network of contacts in the publishing world and have a keen sense for the way the market is going. This, by the way, is why it is so important to find out about an agency or agent before submitting your manuscript.
Writing in a defined genre also bestows a sense of identity on the writer. There are organizations run for the benefit of certain groups – I belong to the Crime Writers’ Association, and very proud of that too. There is a sense of community, of shared ideas and interests as well as interesting opportunities to learn about important aspects of our work. Good research, as I’ve said in a previous post, is vital if the reader is to enter your fictional world and believe in it. The late, great Terry Pratchett said there was nothing wrong with creating a universe that had flying pigs. Just don’t forget to add umbrella merchants.
It gets a bit more interesting – and more complicated – when a genre splits into sub-genres. There is crime fiction, for example, and the crime thriller. When I began writing the Alex Hastings series I read as much as I could find about the genre and was surprised to discover there seemed to be fixed rules governing the crime thriller. There had to be at least three deaths, I was informed. And a very strong sense of personal danger for the protagonist. Right. So that was part of the planning for the first book, “Death of the Elver Man”.
Then I got on to the next book and it began to change. In a recent article for “The Guardian”, Val McDermid argued that crime thrillers are right-wing whilst crime fiction tends to lean more to the left. I would like to add a further distinction between the two types. Having studied screenwriting in the past I became more aware of the difference between plot and story. The plot covers the main events – the crime, the hunt, the sense of peril – all the stuff that makes it thrilling. Plot is dominant in much crime writing, both in novels and for television. American crime dramas especially focus almost exclusively on the plot. The story, on the other hand, is more subtle and runs below and around the plot. It is the background, the life and journey of the people in the book or drama. British crime writing tends to use story as part of the narrative and thus becomes crime fiction.
In the Alex Hastings books I found the stories were becoming more important as the serial characters developed and so I am planning a series of novellas to ensure their tales can be told without overwhelming the plots of the longer novels. After all, however you cut it, where would crime fiction be without crime at its heart?
This was my second visit to the London Book Fair and I was a bit more focused this time but the whole show is so darn BIG and COLOURFUL and NOISY it is hard to avoid getting swept away by it all. It is a great opportunity to meet people face to face and to explore some of the new ideas and (especially) new technologies that might transform our industry. This is more than just the seemingly inexorable rise of the e-book in all its forms. There are interactive texts, multi-media options, games that are more like stories and stories reading and presented as games.
One particularly interesting area for a writer is the use of electronic communication to meet readers, promote books and share ideas. This is a very exciting time with a lot of new opportunities but it also demands a bit more work on the part of the writer. It’s not enough to simply tweet the equivalent of “buy my book!” twice a day. Actually, that was never enough but leaving that aside, this has great potential but takes a lot of time and effort. Am I writing at the moment? Well, you’re reading this so you tell me…
And the Book Fair? One of the most exciting roller-coaster trips I’ve had in a while. It was great to meet up with the lovely people who run Impress Books and publish the “Alex Hastings” series. Some really interesting talks and ingenious presentations and there was a real buzz of excitement about the place. But nowhere to sit down! Oh, I was so tired half-way down Wednesday. Perhaps the theory is if people are sitting down then they are not visiting the stalls but hey, this is a book fair. People meet and talk, exchange ideas and look at books, covers, handouts – this is part of the delight of a book fair. Maybe next year, in Olympia, there will be a bit more seating and perhaps a quiet area.
Books are exciting but sometimes they are best savoured in a little harbour of calm.
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.
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!