Reader Interview Series – Douglas from Warwickshire

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent
Man Reading – John Singer Sargent

Douglas and I met through A Writer of History. If I recall, he had read one of my guest posts on another blog and, as luck would have it, ‘clicked on through’ to me. Our interactions via the comments feature ultimately lead to interactions via email – I value his encouragement and support. When he volunteered for a reader interview, I knew his responses would be thoughtful and interesting. So take it away, Douglas.

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am a three score years and ten male still in a good marriage longer than a life sentence. Grateful to be born safe when bombs still dropping in London. Came to a 44 year old mother as a surprise, or given older brothers, not the daughter she wanted.

I moved around the UK to live and work ending up in lovely Royal Leamington Spa Warwickshire. A figures engineer by training so I have read and made up quite a lot of futuristic fiction.

Sadly as a child I cannot recall being read to or many books at home. When I started school other children seemed favoured by teachers as they could read, so there appeared some advantage in doing so as well. Teen years progressed from historic fiction in Biggles, Sherlock Holmes and Dennis Wheatley on to straight thrillers by Alastair Maclean and Ian Fleming, with off putting reading of Dickens and Shakespeare for school certificates.

Interests – thinking and dreaming, people watching, trains, boats and planes, social, economic and war history, computing, taking snaps, health and mental illness and walking. Reading, one of life’s great pleasures, uses up rest of my waking hours. Life highlights have been crewing in 10,000 miles of ocean sailing, piloting a plane, being a delighted passenger with my wife on Concorde, driving a couple of big steam engines and doing the Tour de Mont Blanc walk.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.   100+ books a year – five or six books on the go at any one time picking up any one depending on mood or where I have left them in the house – unless I have been hooked into a page turner. Also now, where I have left a pair of spectacles. Most reading takes place late, running past midnight into early morning.

Prefer books under 100,000 words each. Up to 2010 for previous 40 years I read mostly non fiction, four out of every five books, including biographies being works of fiction about how people wanted to be known. Reading has changed over last four years to one book out of five being non fiction but this year two books in a drift back to non fiction. I have a Kindle and can read on PC and iPad, but I do not like electronic reading. If I read a book electronically, it will have been a page turner and/or a book I was prepared to pay up to £5 / $8 for as an e book but not £10/ $17 as paperback. My ideal is a large print hard cover book.

My youngest son gave me a copy of Lee Child’s Affair in 2011 and said I would get hooked. I have read all Lee Child’s books finishing with in my view the best , his first book Killing Floor. He said he was angry when he wrote Killing Floor so he needs to get angry again. I am still trying to work out why he hooks me in having tried many of his peers with little success.

Fiction reading is mostly adventure and thrillers covering the background history in my lifetime and my parents lifetime, so anything going back pre 1900 is less interesting.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I try to get a good idea about a book before I borrow, divert from my wife’s reading pile, or buy. I often buy books originally loaned from my public library as I did for a lovely anthology – A Little Aloud , also Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. I apply my five “E” tests to books:

Engrossing and interesting – being hooked in.
Enjoyment – warm feelings about a particular book.
Entertainment – the chuckle and laughter factor.
Emotional – one’s feelings and personal intimate memories.
Educational – learning about a subject for the first time or in more detail.

Ease of reading – I read fiction for pleasure, so books with dull stories or poor structure are discarded. I will work at a densely written book if content is good, for example: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. I have a preference for a good pace but do acknowledge history can be a dry and slow subject. There are far too many good fiction and non fiction books out there to waste reading time.

Price is a factor as I am mean on the amount I am prepared to pay for fiction because I wish to read a lot. 100 new books a year at £10 / $17 or more each is too much. Generally I read and pass on fiction. Amazon used books for a few pence plus postage provides a source for most books I buy. On non fiction I am prepared to pay up to £20 /$34 for new or used books as non fiction books will usually stay on my shelves and/or clutter up our home.

I visit charity shops and lookout for a great cover, an author’s name which rings a bell or good attractive synopsis hooking me in on a back cover or frontispiece. Some new authors I have found this way include Katherine WebbUnseen and Half a Forgotten Song. The latter contains one of my all time jaw dropping scenes. Alastair CampbellAll in the Mind and Daniel Mason – The Piano Tuner.

I would like to support independent bookshops more, but pricing is an issue and I buy few new books. I purchase new non fiction books from them even if I can buy more cheaply on Amazon.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like books with a strong technical background of politics or history. I think this is because I am a non fiction reader at heart. I am not too enamoured with historical fiction pre 1900 which seems too remote. If a good story I would prefer a modern setting. I read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth because of the background about Cathedral building but found his book far too long.

I think I should try to read more classic historic fiction as when I look at 100 best books of all time lists I struggle to find books I have read. However, my inclination is weak and not improved by a web site last week which gave low star rankings to and witty comments about most of the usual 100 best books.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    Robert Harris, (25th on Mary’s 2013 survey ) is a favourite … books about Cicero and the politics of Rome rang true of recent UK politics … he even made Pompeii a great read, even though I knew the volcano would erupt. The background of aqueduct systems proved very interesting. I find his recent historical fiction settings are best. In Fatherland and Archangel he has written a different outcome to historical events.

I have a number of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks books on my shelves – some good – some great – some awful. Jeffrey Archer is a good story teller. I liked his book on Mallory on Everest and his own Prison Diaries.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    My four and five star recommendations during the last year in rank order below show how historical fiction is a strong preference for me and meets my “E” factors – sadly all have war as the historical background. However, I still prefer to read about war in non fiction.
Garden of Evening MistsTan Twan Eng – WW2
Never ForgetAngela Petch WW2
Gift of RainTan Twan Eng WW2
UnravelledM K Tod WW1 and 2
Empire of the SunJ G Ballard WW2

The self published books at 2 and 4 stand up well against the others. These front runners are out of a wider fiction field of general fiction by Morpurgo, McGregor, Holt, Hall, Cain, Campbell, Jacobson, Roteman, Baldassi, Kureishi, Shan, Silva, Dyer, Lawrenson and Moggach and historic fiction by Webb, Deighton, Wilson, Bragg, Cornwell, Follett, Goddard, McEwan and many others.
Personal lifetime historical fiction book highlights ranked by period
Piano TunerDaniel Mason 1880s
War of the WorldsH G Wells when published futuristic, now to me historical fiction c1910
Arthur and GeorgeJulian Barnes c1910
The English PatientMichael Ondaatje WW2
The ReaderProf Bernhard Schlink WW2
A Robert Harris book WW2 – a hard choice which one,
A Thousand Splendid SonsKhaled Hosseini late 1970s and 1980s
The SettRanulph Fiennes 1980s
All the above include memorable scenes and continue to give me warm feelings and most I will read again.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I am a dinosaur as far as Twitter and Facebook are concerned. Goodreads seem to me to be too female dominated. I limit my reading to reviews in the national press and on Amazon and I ask friends what they are reading and for their best book reads. The answers are not always successful as reading tastes are very personal and some just follow fashion and the crowd. Some of my best reads have been accidental. The national press in the UK are promoting some new books very cheaply; also supermarkets virtually give away new popular books. I have purchased with mixed results. The Book Lovers’ Companion reviews over 250 books and many look to be worth reading. The extracts from what the critics said are often amusing. I find face to face book club type discussions a little false often being about reader’s own egos.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?

As a reader I do look for success in balancing the educational historical factual background with the writer’s story. I prefer historical facts to be clearly stated and as far as possible verified and correct, or indicated as supposition or fantasy variation written for the story. Although as a non fiction reader I am happy to have chunks of history and fact in solid text I am sure creative writing classes will preach ‘show rather than tell’ with more dialogue. In my recent reads list above the authors have balanced the history facts and their stories very well in all the books particularly those based on war with Japan where cultural differences came much more into play and also historic Japanese and Chinese relationships. In Len Deighton’s Winter I thought the excellent WW1 and WW2 history from the German perspective overshadowed the fiction story lines.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    Read a wide range of authors and genres in library books to provide context to historical fiction. Do not be disappointed if you cannot get on with a particular author. I do not like Hilary Mantel’s books but clearly the literary establishment does. Try some self published books. Go around the on line self publisher book shops.

Try and review on Amazon all books you start and finish because the thought process does often draw out and clarify why you liked or disliked a book and informs then what you might read in the future. I always give a review as soon as I start a book and another on completion if I get that far.
Many thanks, Douglas. I particularly like your five Es test for books as well as your suggestion for readers to review the books they read. Reviews are a real gift to writers. And you’ve given us some great recommendations to consider – I can see some overlap in our reading preferences!

A Reader of History – Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham found A Writer of History last summer and ever since has been offering suggestions and wonderful encouragement as I published Unravelled and then conducted my survey. Douglas has also been going through the self-publishing cycle. Written in collaboration with his fantasy twin brother Alexander (a frequent commenter on my blog) and guest writers from writing groups, his book of short stories Ywnwab! came out last September.

Douglas reads and writes with the Allrighters. This post appears on his web site and blog

Many thanks for all your support, Douglas!

A Reader of History

After I started writing fiction in June 2010, I found a strong recommendation on a web site to read Stephen King’s On Writing. The book justifies the referral and I took King’s advice about reading widely, not to plagiarise but to absorb the atmosphere and ways of storytelling. Since 2010 I have tried to work through at least a book a week thereby reading ten times as many words as I write each year. Even then I know I am hardly scratching the surface of the millions of fiction books available.

In a Christmas-time discussion with my first professional editor, we talked about what might form good advice to new and old writers, as we are both putting together short books on the subject: his from many years of writing and publishing experience and mine a new writer’s petulant view from my last 43 months, before I become conditioned into the entrenched thinking of the established literary world.

I contend the three most important elements of a good book are similar to property purchases with the location, location, location mantra becoming … story, story, story. A good story badly told is, in my view, better than a bad story perfectly told – showing not telling and the rest of the technical ways in vogue. Reading, in my view, gives a writer the strongest clues about what makes a book which the world may want to read. I accept all jokes need to be told well to succeed … if only I could.

Having nearly completed my target of writing a million draft words in three years, set in July 2010, I am about to set off in 2014 on a long self-edit and restructuring of my past writing, based on the magical elements and ways used in books I like reading.

Since 2010 I do not think my plotting and story creation have improved, but with all the actual writing, and particularly the added reading, I believe I am in a much better position to produce books readers may want to read.

Over Christmas I have also taken a view of my reading over the last three and a half years. I realise my memories of books read have been crowded out by history titles. Because of this I feel this post as A Reader of History is an appropriate flip side to Mary’s awriterofhistory blog.

There are so many books to read and, given the wide choice, this has made me a fickle, demanding, critical and sometimes cynical and disloyal reader. Why do I read?

  • For enjoyment of all books, except those with grim content.
  • Entertainment mostly in quick 24 hour easy read thrillers, the snacks of reading.
  • For interest and education books with a good technical or historic background in the last century, often banquets of reading.

As I write this post my instant reading memories of 2013 out of sixty or so books I ploughed through are three factual books.

  • one medical Why Bipolar? By Declan Henry,
  • another No Easy Day about a killing or assassination (you can choose which)
  • a biography of Bernie Ecclestone, a self-made man.

The AllrightersOED – History. – The branch of knowledge which deals with human events. The formal record or study of past events, especially human affairs.

Based on this definition, a surprise for me – all these factual books slip onto my bookshelf as A Reader of History. I found the characters and their modern history all interesting and educational.

These memories are followed by five fiction titles I regard as serious fiction, each a banquet of reading, all with an historical background in the last century.

Never Forget – Angela Petch

In this book I felt very close in my own memories with the main female lead character telling the story of her brothers’ receiving the family inheritance on their mother’s death and her being left with a box of old letters in Italian and a collection of photos. I found myself on her shoulder, being taken back to Italy under German occupation and two romances, one in wartime and another in the present.

The main lesson to me as a writer was the intimacy Angela created between me as the reader and the main character in her telling of her story.

I read this to the end on Kindle, always a stern test of a book for me as I probably stop reading more Kindle books than others, because I do not really like electronic reading and its detrimental effect on my tired old eyes. A hard cover, large print book of about 500 pages is my ideal read.

Unravelled – M.K. Tod

I found the awriterofhistory blog and this book through a post by Mary on Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine web site about marketing books. I am not really into families and romance and again I read the book on my Kindle, so reaching the end gives great credit to the book. The WW1 information about signals, details of the Canadian War Memorial – including the Mother Canada figure and the excellent crafting of the uncertainty of the times of not knowing the result of WW2 and the pressure on family members created by service were all memorable. The book links a family and WW1 to WW2. I look forward to Lies told in Silence … a title to raise reader’s hopes of a good read.

I prefer to read non fiction books about the sharp end of war and have previously shied away from fiction, apart from Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks, about WW1. Unravelled awakened my interest in more war fiction books, including my current read The Yellow Birds, which although fiction reads as a grim autobiography. From the incidental closeness of these two titles a stray thought occurs to me about birds and war. 

Turning Point – Calvin Hedley – To be published in 2014.

I had the good fortune to read this draft book of c100,000 words as an advance reader able to comment on the content of the book in substance and detail. I read the book twice. The action takes place in 1940 and 1982 and is built around a pivotal moment in WW2, involving secrets, aircraft, Hitler and Churchill. I believe it has the makings of a good film as well as a book. Calvin has helped me with my own writing, especially with my awful grammar and punctuation. His achievement is even greater because he is blind.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Ing

My wife had been urged to read this book by friends and when it turned up in our house from the library, I started to read the first few pages and did not stop until completion the following day, a short sub-loan. I usually take time reading serious fiction, but this demanded my undivided attention. The ingredients were good. Malaya in the 1940s at the time of the Communist insurgency, with flashbacks to Japanese occupation, and near the end a surprise technical analysis of something seen in every day life.

To me the key to my pleasure reading this book centred on the delightful way the often horrific story was told and the two timeframes, current and flashbacks to the past. I will have to read it again.

Winter – Len Deighton

He chose a huge canvas from before 1900 to 1945 on which to paint twentieth-century history and a family story. Several sub plots, so his story kept me reading. Of necessity a slow read, stopping for breath and reflection on descriptions of everyday events taking precedence over horror, the characters seemingly unfeeling. An unsatisfactory ending to me and at the time I could not think of a better one! I can now. One knew in advance the end of the story of Hitler and the Third Reich but not the fate of all the characters. The story of events in Germany put another slant on the history of WW2 for me and provided many new insights. I will have to read it again.

All sound like wonderful novels, Douglas. I’m honoured that you chose to include Unravelled and look forward to our ongoing dialogue as we both strive to become better writers! I applaud the concept of A Reader of History.