Girding up for 2022

2022Gird up your loins‘ is one of those recognisable phrases, but one can’t quite remember where from. In my mind it’s close to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place‘, although I know that’s Lady Macbeth exhorting her husband to be bold and resolute. Both mean to prepare for the task ahead. In fact it’s from the Bible, where it’s used on a number of occasions, mostly in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we find ‘Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to end for the grace that is to be brought unto you.‘ from 1, Peter, 1:13. So, it’s about getting ready, bracing oneself for the future.

Which is what so many of us are doing at the beginning of a new year and I’m no exception. It’ll be a busyThe Controlling Idea year ahead. Despite the COVID prompted cancellation of several events outside of London which I was to attend, I’ll still be busy on zoom, starting with a discussion on 17th January for Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Libraries. ‘The Controlling Idea’ is a series of discussions sponsored by my publishers, Claret Press, about books which have been made into films and the first is about Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is where I come in, as an expert guest, talking about Whitehall and the structure surrounding the security services, it’s where Opera is set, after all.

Opera_CoverIn addition, I’ll soon be finalising Opera for the last time, for publication in September, going through the final proofs, the front and back matter and so on. There is a publicity schedule to be agreed with Claret Press too, including an online book tour and dispatching review copies, plus all the events around a book launch, including talks for libraries, book clubs and societies and, COVID permitting, an actual book tour of real bookshops. It’s exciting. Especially as Claret has a new distributor. We are already talking about flyers being handed out at Westminster and Vauxhall Cross Underground stations – an idea originally for the publication of Plague which got completely derailed by the initial outbreak of COVID. Of course, at the same time, I’ll be continuing to publicise Oracle and Plague.

Then there’s Clapham Book Festival 2022 to think about too – the first planningclapham book festivallogo2 committee meeting is later this month when we hope to be able to discuss the potential programme for the event. A date for your diary is 15th October, our flagship Festival day, though we’ll be planning events around it, probably including another literary walk in Clapham and some events online with our media partners Time & Leisure magazine before and after the Festival Day.

And of course, there’s the next novel, but that, as they say, is another story.

By the way, the derivation of the ‘Gird up your loins‘ phrase relates to managing the long, desert garments worn in the Middle East. Wearers would have to hoick these up and wrap them around their thighs, tucking the ends into their belts or girdles so as to leave their legs unencumbered, if they were about to do something strenuous, wet or difficult. It makes sense when you think about it.

The RBKC Libraries event is Free to attend and you can register HERE.

Wrapping

Opera_CoverPromos and packaging have been centre stage for me this week as I’ve wrestled with writing a tag-line (helped by Claret Press) for Opera, received the cover (with thanks to brilliant in-house designer, Petya Tsankova) and helped design a new social media banner and video. Never, it seems, has the wrapping of a book and its accompanying promotional images been more important than now.  I’ve only just finished writing the book (and still await more edits) yet already we move on to what it’s wrapped in.

Given the arrival of social media an author has to feature their latest book on their Facebook and Twitter banners, plus have some items to post on Instagram (and I haven’t even scratched the surface of TikTok, Snapchat and all those newer media). GIFs are the latest ‘must have’ Claret tells me and I’ve been exploring exactly what those are (technologically) and how they are created.

Here’s my banner, set out in the same format as those for Plague and Oracle, with the book cover andHeaderFooterV10 two other images set against an atmospheric background and with the tag-line in bold. This was the tenth version! Others were rejected as ‘too feminine’ and ‘insufficiently threatening’ (see the images below). I had to choose between the Downing Street sign and Big Ben too, because both weren’t needed, so I went for night and the Christmas tree, with the addition of a smoking gun! Readers of Plague and Oracle will know that each book takes places over a fixed period of time and they follow one after another, with about a month in between. OperaHeaderFooterV5 does the same, so its events happen during the fortnight before the Christmas holiday.  It was only when we were playing around with the designs that the tag-line ‘Truth Never Dies’ finally emerged, though it seems particularly appropriate at the moment. GIFs will be my next challenge, but a couple of mini-MP4 videos have already been produced, building on the ‘smoking gun’ imagery (these are being kept under wraps, but see below for my Instagram post). All part of the package pre-release of the book and for distribution to the book bloggers who will review it and post reviews on social media. Animated pictures, whether on Instagram or other SM have beenHeaderFooter shown to have greater impact and attract more attention than non-animated content – including the attention of the algorithms which determine which posts get shown first when a hashtag is used. Good news therefore for publicists.

OperaInstagramClaret and I will sit down in the New Year and agree a full publicity strategy, including pre-release publicity, whether or not to use NetGalley again (probably not), whether or not to have an online book tour (probably) and, COVID permitting, a schedule of actual bookshop signings. Publication date has been agreed as 5th September and both ebook and paperback versions will be available for pre-order in Spring. The author events with libraries, online and in person, are already being arranged. And, with Claret Press about to sign with a new distributor, this time my book will be launched into bookshops across the UK. All good news.  So here is the design for my Instagram feed. Maybe next week I’ll be back to editing.

Reading

OperaTheEndLast Friday the revised manuscript of Opera was sent to Claret Press, so please allow me a merry little dance (or a maniacal jig, more like) of pleasure and relief. I’d worked hard on it while in Spain, completing a whole rewrite, including a restructuring – I thought it was too flabby – and this won’t be the end of the story, there will be more edits still to do. I may have missed infelicities caused by the structural changes as well as potential for improvement (there is always potential for improvement, groan). The final proof reading edit is still a long way off yet, but the manuscript has gone. Yippee!

I have also been given a date for publication, the beginning of September next year. I’d hoped that itOpera_Cover_HiRes might be out in Spring, but the delay is unavoidable, to give Claret’s new distributors time to get it into book shops. I’m already discussing back cover blurb and tag-lines (we have arrived at the former but not the latter) and the cover design is almost done. The New Year will see us formulating a promotion and marketing strategy for events in the run up to and following launch.

Maybe next year, with the third Cassandra Fortune book, I’ll finally get to have a real life, physical book launch? Also, Omicron COVID strain permitting, I might get to do physical book tours (I’ve already got some events lined up). It’s strange to think that with this, my third traditionally published novel, I might get to experience what is normal for a new book.

dfw-ja-r-cover-midOn that note, a quick look back at Plague (published September 2020) and Oracle (published May 2021), was prompted by my receiving my Public Lending Rights statement recently. Despite libraries being closed for much of the year ended June 2021, Plague has been borrowed many times (Oracle wouldn’t have made it into libraries by then) but I was surprised to see that Reconquista, my earlier novel set in 13th century Al Andalus was second most frequently borrowed. That book and its sequel, The Silver Rings, are also selling again. When I began working with Claret Press I was told that there’s nothing that sells one’s first book like the publication of one’s fourth (or fifth, or sixth) and these sales, though small, seem to bear that out, even though they aren’t crime fiction.

But the real up-side of getting the manuscript off is that I am, for a short time at least, at leisure to read.

I have a pile of books waiting for me which is already toppling, it is reaching such heights, (see right) but I’ve been adding more to it recently and some are still on their way. All to be read before the next edit. Participation in a recent UK Crime Book Club Quiz on Scottish crime fiction showed me just how much of that I haven’t read, smething I’ll try to remedy with some of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books and Quintin Jardine’s Skinner series, plus some JD Kirk.  Then there are the historical crime books, like Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water and one or two non-crime books which I missed first time round which made the best seller lists like Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. My favourite, recently consumed, is The Manningtree Witches by A.K.Blakemore. You can read what I thought of that, together with some other book recommendations for the Christmas break in Time & Leisure magazine.

I am looking forward to reading them all!

Shivering in the park with Tosca

ToscaatCrystalPalace2On a grey and somewhat chilly Bank Holiday Sunday English National Opera, with the full ENO orchestra and chorus and soloists David Junghoon Kim, Natalya Romaniw and Roland Wood were at Crystal Palace Park. So were we.

Part of ‘South Facing Festival’ this was the first time this music festival has taken place and it showed. In the information provided to concert goers and in provision of refreshment at the site. So, there wasn’t a clear message that the gates would open at 5.30 pm, yet the show would not begin until 7 pm. A crowd of people were milling around at the entrance at 5.20, all a little bemused at the lack of urgency in letting people enter. We were there and then sat around for an hour and a half, waiting. It did allow us to grab a prime spot, however, with a very good view of the stage.

Despite a promise of ‘a carefully curated line-up of some of the UK’s top street food traders‘ we had small choice – aToscaatCrystalPalace3 couple of burger joints, a pizza place, churros and sushi – with long queues, which meant people walking back to their places bearing food after the performance had commenced. There were bars aplenty, unfortunately they sold only hugely overpriced cans – of beer, of wine and of gin & tonic. No draught beer, no bottles of wine. And no bringing your own drinks with you. We knew this, so didn’t try, but others clearly did not and had their goodies confiscated at the entrance. Given the lack of choice and the prices charged this left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.

So did some of the ticketing information. We’d gone for the cheap seats in Zone C ( blankets on the grass at the back ). Others had paid a premium ( £60 ) for Zone A. In one instance £240 for four seats, the man arguing heatedly with a steward clearly believed, only to be told this paid for entry to Zone A and he would have to pay even more for Zone A with seat (and there were no such tickets left). He and his family had to sit on the grass at ToscaatCrystalPalace5the back of Zone A, only a few yards from where we sat. They weren’t pleased and understandably so.

Whoever organised this was clearly focussing on making as much money as they could. I estimated over a thousand people were there on Sunday, each paying a minimum of £35, many paying more. The food and drinks outlets would also pay the organisers for their pitches. Yes, opera is expensive and the local council would be paid for use of the park, but, if you’re offering a superb musical experience, then why not allow people to enjoy the whole evening, not just the performance. 

But this was the ENO so the playing and singing was sublime. I had forgotten what a full orchestra, live, sounded like and Puccini was a wonderful way to be reminded. The performance was ‘semi-staged’ and the ENO had circumvented the potential pitfalls ( Tosca shot Scarpia and, at the end, herself, in the absence of a stage on which to set a dinner table or a set of battlements to leap from ). Inevitably some of the subtleties went missing -if you didn’t know about the political sub-plot and the news from Marengo, it would have passed you by completely.

The music and singing were absolutely ENO standard, that is, world class. They had bought their A game. Kim was a lyricalToscaatCrystalPalace9 and powerful Cavaradossi who reached those high notes with ease. Romaniw was empassioned and exquisite – even in a park and with an audience this big, you could have heard a pin drop during ‘Vissi d’arte‘. At the end, everyone was on their feet and clapping and cheering ( and booing Scarpia, who was an excellent Roland Wood ). Though there were also folk beginning to clear away their things – it was cold by this time. The group to the immediate right of us had brought duvets, they were snug.

Tosca is also the opera in ‘Opera’, a performance of which my heroine attends with a Greek diplomatic party ( the Greeks from previous book, ‘Oracle’ ) but that one is at the Royal Opera House ( of which more in a future post ).

Jam-making and manuscripts

PlumJam1Last weekend I submitted the manuscript of Opera to Claret Press. Then I went and made some jam.

I’d had a major wobble about the ending towards the end of last week and rewrote it, now I’m worrying that it’s not written well enough. In truth this doesn’t matter, because the editing process means that submission is just the beginning and I’ll have ample opportunity to consider it again. I’m sure that those more experienced or more skilled than myself are able to produce a manuscript which is almost, typos and a few infelicities aside, completely ready for publication. Their manuscripts would be almost perfect. As yet I can’t, so my aren’t.

Opera is the sixth book that I’ve written, the third to be traditionally, commercially published (by Claret Press), beginning with The Village back in 2014. I’ve learned a lot since then, not least how very unglamorous a job writing is andOpera_Cover_HiRes what extremely hard work. It’s a business, an industry and many of those toiling within it do so for very little reward and recognition. As with any industry the larger entities, the Hachettes and Harper Collins, will have greater reach and a higher profile ( placing their books on supermarket shelves for example ) and the big corporate vendors, the Amazons and Waterstones will also skew the market towards those books which get the publicity and the coverage. As my friend and fellow Claret author, Steve Sheppard, says in the note in his latest novel Bored to Death in the Baltics, he ‘ought to have tried to become a celebrity first, as this would have made selling it (the book) so much easier’. 

Another of the things I have learned about is the creative process, or, at least, how the creative process applies in my case. So I know that there comes a point in the making of a book when I, the writer, need other input.  As ever this will come from my husband, who has an uncanny knack of spotting plot holes, very useful to a writer of crime/mystery stories, but also from a trusty band of beta readers, some of them writers themselves, who are ‘critical friends’. So the manuscript of Opera has also gone to them.  Their feedback will inform the editorial process too. But the major input will be from my editor.  So far, I’ve had two, Gina Marsh on Plague and Madeleine Simcox-Brown on Oracle: both were excellent in different ways and, of course, there is the over-arching input from Katie Isbester, the Editor-in-Chief.

PlumJam4I have come to genuinely enjoy this process, though it sometimes isn’t a comfortable one. People get passionate about a work, there are disagreements and I, like any writer, am possessive about my stories. I expect to know them better and know what’s best for them, despite evidence to the contrary. But for now I have a moment’s respite, maybe a fortnight, maybe longer. I can sit back, read other books, do the garden, catch up on all those jobs… and make more jam.

Bored to Death in the Baltics will be published by Claret Press in September 2021.

 

Truth lives on…

Opera noun, Italian, feminine  1 work: 2 task, job: 3 artistic creation: 4 action, deed, handiwork: opere buone goods deeds: opera lettararia literary work: opera musicale opera: opera lirica opera.

Opera is, of course, also the title of my current work-in-progress, the third in the Cassandra Fortune series. As yet, it is nowhere near complete, even though it’s been written. Quite apart from matters of plot, of tension, surprise and revelation – the stock components of the crime thriller/mystery – there’s the theme to explore. In Plague it was power, in Oracle, justice, this time it’s truth. This is why Opera is set in the opaque world of secrets and the secret intelligence agencies, of smoke and mirrors where disinformation and deceit are the stock-in-trade and real truth, both in terms of fact and of understanding, is hard to find.

My heroine, Cassandra, has been a seeker of truth from the start, tracking down the killers in Plague, while attempting to get back to a position of power, mainly because she wants to have some impact and do something meaningful, but also because she cannot stand being on the outside, without knowledge of what is going on. She achieved her aim and landed a plum job working for the Prime Minister, but, in Oracle she learned that this wasn’t enough and she would have to address certain matters arising from her past if she wanted to escape them.  Thus she sets out, at the beginning of the third book, to find out the truth of what happened at Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ), her former posting, when she was forced to leave it. Until now she had believed her dismissal was because of her own failings, but begins to see that there may have been other forces at work.

Thus Opera opens with Cassie going to visit her former boss, Angela Kayser, whose retirement paved the way for the shake-up which resulted in Cassie’s being made to move on. Angela, as head of GCHQ, is the modern equivalent of the Pythia in Oracle, the priestess of Delphi who listened to the voice of the god Apollo and delivered his message to the listening supplicants. GCHQ provides signal intelligence and information to the government and armed forces of the UK, monitoring voices from the ether and interpreting their messages, just as the Pythia did (though without the psychotropic gases). Cassie sought guidance from the Pythia and in Opera she seeks it from Angela. Both provide answers couched in riddles.

That’s all I’m about to disclose about the plot, though Cassie has to follow a labyrinthine trail of clues, often unsure of the direction they are taking her in and shrouded, like Plague‘s lost River Tyburn, in darkness. Set, once again, in London, its main locations are Whitehall, Number 10 Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster, but Opera also takes in some of the less well-known and quirky gems of central London and, of course, the Royal Opera House. Needless to say, individuals from her more recent past also resurface, seeking revenge.

The title of this post, by the way, is from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘On the Aesthetic Education of Man’ (1795) and it sits, in its entirety – ‘Truth lives on in the midst of deception’ – on the frontispiece of the novel, together with the definition of ‘opera’.

‘Opera’ London

BromptonCemeteryStatuaryI’ve recently been out and about looking at the places in London where the third book in the Cassandra Fortune series, entitled ‘Opera‘, is set.  The obvious one, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is not yet open to anyone but ticket holders to socially distanced performances ( though I have a contact there for when it opens more widely ), but there are others, less obvious and, to non-Londoners, perhaps something of a revelation. If ‘Plague‘ was set in places that we all know, even if it took you to parts of those places which are usually closed to view, or hidden, ‘Opera’ will introduce some settings which are less well-known, but, I hope, people may then visit.

I visited one of these last week, just before the heatwave hit.  Cloudy weather notwithstanding, Brompton Cemetery was still a delight to visit. Designed as a ‘Garden Cemetery’ and meant, from its inception, to be a public space as well as a last resting place, the cemetery stretches over a long, rectangular-shaped forty acres on the Fulham Chelsea borders. It has a grand entrance lodge gate at its northern extremity which houses a café, an information centre and exhibition space ( and which will feature in the book ) and which looks down a grand main avenue towards the chapel and colonnade at the far end. BromptonCemeteryMainAvenue

The main avenue is flanked by the grander grave markers and mausolea, this was the most public and therefore the most expensive part of the cemetery to bury your loved ones. The side avenues and circles have their fair share of statuary and raised tombs too, though the still working part of the cemetery to the west is in a lower key. On Wednesday, when I visited, the cow parsley was rampant and allowed to be so, only the edges of the lawns next to the avenues were mown ( except for the railed section of the cemetery which belongs to the Brigade of Guards and which was fully mown with military precision ).  Butterflies and bees were plentiful, the latter possibly living in the cemetery bee hives still kept on the west side of the cemetery.

BromptonCemetery1Brompton is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries, which includes Highgate, with its graves of Karl Marx, George Eliot and other very famous people and Kelsall Green with its oft-filmed catacombs. While well known to locals – and a godsend during lockdowns – it is less widely known than these others. Both Kelsall Green and Tower Hamlets ( another Magnificent Seven cemetery ) featured in ‘Plague’. Brompton is owned by the Crown and run by The Royal Parks and includes many military graves, including of Commonwealth service personnel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and many Czechoslovak, Polish and Russian military burials.  It is also evidence of the diversity of Victorian London, housing as it did and does, the remains of individuals ranging from Chief Long Wolf of the Ogulala Sioux nation to Johannes Zukertorte, Jewish-Polish chess grandmaster and the Keeley and Vokes families, music hall artistes and actors. Other individuals buried here include a Mr Nutkin, Mr Brock, Mr Tod, Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett – Beatrix Potter lived nearby and was known to walk in the cemetery often, did these names inspire her?

BromptonCemeteryCatacombEntranceThe Chapel at the cemetery’s southern end wasn’t open last week, but the grand colonnade is open all year round. Built in a style aping that of St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Colonnade runs above catacombs, which were fashionable for a brief time in Victorian London ( all too brief, additional catacombs built along the west side of the cemetery were never fully occupied ). The steps down to them are very wide and shallow, mainly because the lead-lined coffins deemed necessary for catacomb interment were extremely heavy and therefore difficult for pallbearers to carry and manoeuvre. The catacombs themselves are not open to the public except on special tours and open days and the locked metal doors, with their sculpted serpentine bas reliefs offer tantalising glimpses within.

If you happen to be in West London and have an hour or so to spare, you could do worse than spend it in this tranquil and interesting haven from the city which surrounds it. I will, most certainly, be back.