Historical fiction – spoiled with choice

HNS LogoFor the May issue of Historical Novels Review, I reviewed Habits of the House by Fay Weldon, Motherland by William Nicholson and Paperboy by Vince Vawter. Reviewing books for HNS fuels my interest in historical fiction while providing the opportunity to examine how other authors approach this very popular genre.

In a nutshell:

  • I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Vince Vawter’s young adult novel – perhaps I should read Harry Potter after all? The hero, a boy who stutters, encounters an intriguing and life-changing group of characters and learns from each of them.
  • Fay Weldon’s novel, a turn of the century upstairs-downstairs story (apparently it’s the first of a series) was too thin and fluffy for my taste.
  • Motherland which begins with the Dieppe raid in 1942, had more depth, more twists and turns and, of course, I’m a sucker for WWI and WWII stories. Two caveats – in my opinion, Nicholson could omit the prologue and epilogue (they detract from the plot) as well as a contrived section set in India as Mountbatten helps transition that country to independence.

If you enjoy historical fiction, visit the Historical Novel Society website. It’s full of interesting articles and more than 6500 online reviews.

Taking the Plunge as a Self-Publisher – Guest Post by Derek Birks

FEUD by Derek BirksA few weeks ago, Derek Birks stopped by the blog and posted a comment on Who to Believe Readers or Editors. It seems that Derek and I had something in common – readers who love our novels and editors who say nice things but ultimately reject them. Derek has self-published FEUD and I asked him for advice. Here is his very thoughtful response.

Before I took the plunge and self-published my first book online as an e-book I was pretty sure it would be a big mistake. Well, the jury is still out on that one because so far my experience has been very mixed. This is not a “rags to riches” story. I’m writing this in the hope that if others have had similar experiences to me they will be encouraged to learn that they are not the only ones.

Let me say at the outset that no-one forced me to take this route and no-one owes me their attention. I was rather naive when I started. My thought process was quite simple: my book was well written – even agents said so and I’d done more work on it since I last submitted it to any agents – therefore readers of historical fiction would want to read it and would be prepared to pay a modest sum for the pleasure of doing so.
Well, there will be a lot of you out there thinking: “what a muppet!” What I had not taken on board, of course, was that there were thousands of books sitting out there in the ether and all the authors thought their books were pretty darn good. Also many of those authors – unlike me at the start – were working their little socks off to get their books noticed.  Slowly it dawned on me that no-one was going to buy my book because hardly anyone on the planet knew of its existence and most of those who did thought: “mmm…self-published? E-book? It’ll be rubbish.”

Armed with this life changing revelation, I discovered book blogs and started to contact review sites to ask for reviews. Again, at first I just didn’t quite appreciate how many authors there are out there seeking reviews. Given that, I’m amazed that some kind bloggers agreed to review it. I’m also staggered that they have the time to do so and the patience to deal with so many requests. Some reviewers didn’t reply to my email – and I don’t blame them, life’s too short!

Inevitably I got a bit depressed about all this and began to question the quality of the book – was I kidding myself that it was worth reading at all? But the feedback from those who read it was consistently great and that small crumb of comfort kept me believing in it.

When I got a 5* review from the Historical Novel Review and Feud appeared on the Great Historicals site, I thought: at last now things will really take off. Well, I sold a few more books, which was good, but I didn’t really feel that lift off in any tangible form had taken place.

Promoting any aspect of ‘me’ – as those who know me will verify – is a struggle for me. It’s not my natural method because I’m normally fairly laid back and low key about what I do. Nevertheless, I set up a Twitter account – thanks to daughter Katie’s patient instructions – and then set about establishing an “online presence.” As a result I’ve met some really nice people, all of whom love books. I carry on with Twitter because I enjoy using it and the short snappy communication suits me, but I’m not sure it has much impact in terms of promoting the book. As we all know, self-promotion becomes wearisome to others after a very short while.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I’m taking the long term view – which is what I should have done to start with. Since I want to become a published writer I must expect that it is not going to happen overnight. So I am dividing my time between writing the sequel to Feud – which I am loving – and trying to persuade lovers of historical fiction and action novels to read it – which I don’t find quite so easy!

I am not saying “keep going, there is light at the end of the tunnel”; I am saying “there might be light at the end but you may as well enjoy the tunnel while you’re in it.”

There are two reasons why I now feel quite relaxed about the whole process.

One is a comment a complete stranger posted upon reading Feud: “the pace took all sense of time away.” If someone can say that, then I’m not going to spend another minute worrying about whether it sells or not.

The other reason is that I can now see the second book – the sequel to Feud – taking shape. It is developing day by day, month by month, from the first ideas into a genuine story. And, as every fiction writer knows, the thrill is in creating the characters and guiding them as they take your story by the scruff of the neck and make it come alive. What more could I want?

FEUD by Derek Birks

In 1459 England stands on the brink of chaos. The most powerful nobleman in the land, Richard of York, and the weak king, Henry of Lancaster, prepare to settle their differences on the battlefield. As the rule of law breaks down all over England old scores are being settled.

For a long time the Elders and the Radcliffes have been, at best, uncomfortable neighbours but when Ned Elder’s father and brother are murdered and his sisters abducted by the Radcliffes, the young knight is forced to flee from his home. His sister Emma is torn from the quiet solitude of her household and forced into marriage. Eleanor, her wild and beautiful younger sister, is condemned to imprisonment in a remote nunnery.

But neither Ned nor his sisters are willing to concede all to the Radcliffes without a fight. And so the feud begins and the fate of the Elders will hang upon more than just Ned’s skill with a sword, but on the courage of his sisters and the girl he loves, as the feud is played out amid the blood and misery of the Wars of the Roses.