Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Jottings from the Journals... Amiens

I'm in Amiens today.  Yet again, according to my journals, it is books that have brought me here.  However, the books are not the only reason, I'm also meeting up with friends for a very special celebration…

Friday, 1st

… I've been reading Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, which is set here in Amiens in 1910.  Later the plot moves to the trenches in the Great War and elsewhere in France and then to the 1970s in England.  What I'm keen to see are the river- and canal-side gardens that form the backdrop for a scene in Faulks' book.
Amiens is dissected by the river Somme and the attendant canal.  But the rivers Avre and Selle also flow through areas of the city.  The abundance of water in the town enabled the textile industry - dating back to the Middle Ages - to flourish here.  But it also enabled the hortillonages, the floating gardens, to develop.  These gardens have been here for around 700 years and are thought to have been created in the 12th century, perhaps making them some of the oldest 'market gardens'.  Used originally to provide fresh vegetables for the local people, the gardens are now more of a tourist attraction.  But there are some hortillons, who hold up the long held traditions.  They sell their produce at the market on Saturdays and on Sundays can sometimes be found in traditional dress in their barques à cornet (a flat-bottomed open boat with one raised pointed end).
But it's not just Faulks and his book that is connected to this city.  Jules Gabriel Verne (February 8th, 1828 - March 24th, 1905) lived here for the latter part of his life.  Verne first visited Amiens in 1856 for the wedding of a close friend.  Lodging with the bride's family he became close to her sister and they married in January 1857.
Verne and his family did not return to Amiens until much later.  By that time his most well known books - Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) - had all made him into a wealthy man.  He lived the latter part of his life here in

Amiens at 44 Boulevard Longueville.  He died here on March 24th, 1905.  His final resting
place is the Cimetière de la Madeleine d'Amiens on the northern side of town.  He is in very auspicious company too as the graveyard has scientists, local dignitaries, architects and war heroes within its walls.  The street on which Verne lived has since been renamed in his honour and his house has become a museum dedicated to his life and his work.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Off my beaten track...

... I can honestly say that I'm a little off my beaten track today, as I'm  in Sicily.  
Hmm, I know, I don't normally venture this far out of France.  But this week, I'm on a bit of an adventure.  I'm staying at the President Park Hotel in Aci Castello.  A fabulous place that is also a little off the beaten track!  It's a 15 minute walk from the hotel down to the village.  And note, I said down.  The hotel is on a hill, so the walk back takes 20 minutes or so depending on stops to take in the view, but the hotel has a little shuttle bus for anyone who prefers to be driven.
At the bottom of Via Litteri is Via Livorno, a major thoroughfare.  Cross and take Via Calamenzana, on the right, down to the tiny harbour.  But do take a look in the church on your right as you reach the tiny square in front of the harbour.  On either side of the door are plaques of names.  The great war on the left and the 1939/45 conflict on the right.  Inside the ceiling has some stunning murals and the place is in immaculate condition.  The altar was dressed in purple for lent on the day of my visit.
Today I'm taking the promenade to the nearby village of Aci Castello.  It's a gorgeous Mediterranean day, but the wind from the sea is harsh, chilly and strong.  The light is unbelievably clear and blue.  No wonder Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet and others chose the southern coast of France for their art.  We're heading to the Norman fort that sits atop a basalt stack immediately off the coast.  And, yep, I did say Norman.  I know, probably, like me, you may have had no idea that those pesky Norman's got this far south.  It appears that they did.  The fort was built in the 11th century on the foundations of an earlier Byzantine building from the 7th century.  The square tower, the simple arches, all tell-tale signs that this fort is quite definitely Norman.
For a couple of euros you can view the fort.  I dig out my currency and find my smallest note is a 20.  The elderly gent in the tiny ticket office has no change.  I tip out the contents of my purse and produce about 60 centimes - or is that centesimi? - in change.  Senor, returns my 20 euro note, scrapes the change out my hands and tips it into his cash till.  He tells me togo in.  As I turn to go in he produces a 1c piece from the change I've given him and returns it to me.  "For the wishing well," he says.  I nod and thank him, "molto grazie."  He grins, perhaps my rudimentary Italian is improving.  I shake my head and tell myself that he was just being very polite.
The terrace, probably an original battery, is covered in small, beautifully arranged beds of succulents, cacti and palms.  It's March and I have to wonder about the rainbow of colour that might be here in the coming months as the temperature climbs to its August zenith.  I start to wilt at that thought and am glad I'm here so early in the year.
In one of the rooms in the fort is a snall art exhibition.  A local artist, I think as I scan the
walls.  The colours in the pictures are bright.  The blue here has a shade all of its own and I marvel at the way the artist has captured the light.
Out in the sunshine again and I have my lunch - an apple - sitting looking out to sea and the basalt stacks.  I'm joined by a black and white cat who sits in the shade of the tree and watches me intently.   When I get up to leave, he strolls away.  As I meander back along the promenade I wonder what will be for dinner.  The restaurant at the hotel is excellent and I can't help but think about the scrumptious chocolate panna cotta from the previous evening...

You can read more about my little trip to Sicily Here 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Writer and friend, Jennifer Wilson...

...makes a very welcome return to my blog this week.  Thanks for taking time out to come and visit today...
January 2020 was a big turning point for the Kindred Spirits series, which transferred publisher from Crooked Cat Books to Darkstroke at the start of the year.  Being re-released under a new imprint meant we could take another look at the cover-art, and all four books got their new covers in February.
The old adage might well be to “never judge a book by its cover” but although we know that applies to most things, ironically, in the world of Amazon and social media, books are definitely not on that list.  Cover-art matters, whether we like it or not (the fact, that is, not the artwork!).
Looking again at the covers was a really strange process then, especially as it was something I wasn’t expecting, and so hadn’t put a lot of thought into before Darkstroke raised it as a possibility.  But then Laurence sent me the stunning new cover for Kindred Spirits: Tower of London. Oh, that claw…
I still remember the day I was sent the first draft cover for Tower, and being absolutely overwhelmed at how much I adored it.  I spent ages looking and looking, desperate to find ‘something’ to suggest changing, as I didn’t want it to look like I hadn’t given it proper thought.  In the end, my contribution was to suggest removing a colon from the title, as it didn’t look quite as perfect as it could.  Crooked Cat accepted my comment, and that was it.  So easy, and yet such a wonderful cover.
Each time another book came out, there was the joy of finding the most appropriate image for each place I was writing about, and then as with Tower, the stunning font and logo would be applied.  I’ve been so happy with every single one.
It was bittersweet then, when the topic of new covers came up during discussion. Even though it was Laurence himself suggesting it, it felt to me like being told that your baby isn’t pretty enough, and “how about we give them a makeover?” I’ll be honest, a little bit of me pushed back, mentally at least.  But then another writer friend phrased it another way: See the first covers as “first day of school”, and any new ones as “Graduation photo.”
That was when it clicked for me, and I realised she was completely right.  Things have moved on in the five years since Tower was originally published, and tastes change.  As wonderful as the original covers were (and are), maybe a makeover would be a good idea.
Laurence had selected some wonderful images, with the idea being to look afresh at these well-known landmarks, and find a quirky angle or image, to represent the book’s location, and the fact that these stories are just a little bit different…
So now we have the stunning claw to represent the Tower of London, my favourite view of Edinburgh to show off the Royal Mile (as the book isn’t limited to that particular stretch of road!), a “vertigo-inducing but brilliant” (according to a colleague) view of Westminster Abbey, and a gorgeous image of York that my mum helped choose.  And just to top it all, I adore the new font for the titles and my name.
All-in-all, I’m rather happy with my graduation photos, and I hope you agree!

about the author… Jennifer C. Wilson is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history and historical fiction whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots on childhood holidays (she has since moved on to Richard III). Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east of England for work reignited her pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since.
In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and has been working on a number of projects since, including co-hosting the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle.  Her Kindred Spirits novels are published by Darkstroke, and her historical romances by Ocelot Press.
She lives in North Tyneside, and is very proud of her approximately 2-inch view of the North Sea.

You can follow Jennifer on Amazon on her Website on Facebook Twitter and on Instagram

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Crime Writing, Quality, and Volume

Portrait by Lori-Lee Pike
Friend and writer, Tom Halford, makes a very welcome return to the blog this week.  Hi Tom, thanks for taking some time out to be here today...

The first stories I wrote were crime stories.
When I was a kid, I wrote about a giant fruit loop who was terrorizing a small town in Atlantic Canada (Harvey Station, New Brunswick).  I thought I was quite clever to have my story feature a cereal killer who was also a serial killer.
As I got older, I started reading authors like James Joyce and George Eliot and Norman Levine and Alice Munro and Michael Winter.  I made the mistake of thinking that I could write like them.  My stories shifted from silly and violent to quasi-literary and quasi-autobiographical.  Some were good and some weren’t.
The point is that now I’m back where I started, trying to write quirky crime fiction, and I’ve noticed an important difference between some of my favourite literary authors and some of my favourite crime writers: the number of books they publish.
My favourite literary authors might publish a book every five years, whereas my favourite crime writers publish a book every year.  I was completely stunned to find out that some crime writers publish three books a year!
Three books!
How do they manage?
First of all, how do they muster the output?
If you write 1,000 words a day, and a novel is 60,000 words, then you could write a rough draft in 60 days.  There are 365 days in a year.  So, technically, you could write three rough drafts in 120 days.  That would leave the other half of the year for editing and for a few holidays here and there.
So, assuming there is no writer’s block and assuming that your only responsibilities in life are to write, then it is physically possible to write three novels in a year.
But second of all, how do they make these novels any good?
I am not speaking of any of other writer than myself, but it takes a long time to work out the kinks in a story, and it takes a long time to make a story (what I think of as) interesting.  To figure out the characters, to make sure that their voices are all distinct, these things take work.
However, it seems like many of the authors writing multiple books in a year have made the extremely intelligent move of writing in a series.  They don’t need to invent new characters each time, and certain elements of the plot carry over from one novel to the next.  They don’t need to spend as much time working out the kinks because they’ve already been smoothed over in previous novels.
So, now that I’m back to writing quirky crime, my biggest issue is volume as it relates to quality.  I’ve got an idea for a novel, but I’m worried I’ve gone too far with it--made it too ridiculous--another serial killer who is also a cereal killer scenario.
My other problem is that I’ve got a novel that I’ve been working on that could be part of a series.  It’s in the same universe as my first novel Deli Meat. However, the issue with this series is that I keep killing all of the characters.  There’s no one left to carry into the next novel!
All of that is to say that I’m amazed by the crime writers who publish a book a year, and even more amazed by those who publish more than a book a year.  I don’t know how you do it, but whatever tea or coffee you’re drinking--and I don’t know what it’s laced with--but can I have some?

Great post, Tom, and I'll have whatever those authors are drinking too!

You can follow Tom on Amazon  Twitter  and his book Deli Meat is available Here

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

I'm reviewing The Paris Secret...

... by Lily Graham...

On Thursday, March 5th, it is World Book Day.  It seemed appropriate to me that a book review would be the subject of my blog this week.  A book set in France, to be precise in the most famous city in France, would seem to fit the bill perfectly.  In addition, one of the central characters owns a bookshop and a significant proportion of the action takes place in that wonderful bookish environment.  A perfect fit for this particular week!
I haven't come across this author's work before but, as soon as I started reading this book, I knew I was going to be in for a comforting, uncomplicated but compelling read.  The prose flows well, the narrative voice is easy on the mind and the use of description is just right.  This writer paints wonderful pictures with her words.  I found myself totally immersed in this story from the outset.
Moving between two time frames - the 1960s and occupied Paris - it tells the story of Valerie, her family and the secrets that have been hidden from her since she was a tiny child.  Les années noires, the dark years of the occupation, were an especially difficult period of history for France.  Although the book is partly set during those years, I felt that the difficulties and actuality of everyday life during that time were underused in the story.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fiction, not history.  Naturally there are some excellent tomes about that period of French history; one or two of them have featured in reviews here on the blog.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, I found the characters to be very well drawn and the dynamics between them compelling.  I will be adding more of this author's books to my kindle.