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Monday, August 24, 2015

Part 1 Thank you, Rachel Koch, from those who speak with tails

If you know the dog world in the south of France, you know of Rachel Koch. Although she hates the term, forums and associations call her an angel for her work in fostering and adopting dogs, especially the Great Pyrenees she loves so much. I prefer to call her an expert, whose understanding of dogs comes from years of experience, from some sixth sense that defies analysis, and from love. I also prefer to call her friend. As well as a weakness for big furry independent types, we share a shaggy dog story of dubious legality about how we didn't meet in a car park ...

Rachel and some of her Great Pyrenees at home (Max on the left)
Welcome, Rachel! I know your first language is Dutch so thank you for responding in English for me. We often talk in French because of where we live so it's a change for me to talk in my own language with you. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I gave up my career as a flight attendant because I was away from home for long periods. I had always wanted to have animals around me, and, starting with a wire-haired Daschund, I soon began breeding dogs and got involved in  showing and working with them. I followed several courses in the Netherlands in order to become a show and field work judge, and travelled to many countries in Europe in the course of my judging activities. I left judging when I moved to France as I found that it took up too much of my time.

I did a quick count of the dogs I have taken in and came to 15 dogs fostered and 10 adopted although I’m sure I have missed a few. Most were of advanced years like old Jake, a Golden Retriever, whose owners were killed in a car accident. He was completely lost when he came to me but found his “maison de retraite” (retirement home) with us and died in his sleep like a gentleman a few years later.

It is difficult to send away a dog who finally has found his home at the age of 12-14. I prefer to keep older dogs with me as I want to avoid the stress of adapting to a new environment. Young dogs always find a new home very quickly. Older dogs are obviously harder to place. You also must realise that if you adopt, it can be for up to 15 years. I am 58 at the moment so a puppy will stay with me 15 years. Plan ahead if you want to adopt!

Our meeting in a car park was set in motion when I received a phone call from a volunteer with a dog association. A member had rescued a Great Pyrenees, who was in terrible conditions. She couldn't keep him and I was asked if I could drive him part of the way down through France to a foster home. I could. I did. In fact, my long-suffering-husband 'volunteered' to be the get-away driver on condition that I handled the dog. 

When the fugitive was handed over in a car park, he didn't resist. He didn't care any more. His eyes were dead. I've seen this before in shelter dogs, where they have given up completely and it is heart-wrenching. The foster-carer was of course Rachel, and this is what she saw when she came to meet me in the car park of Aix-en-Provence motorway services. Rachel took over with Max and his story.

Rachel's first view of Max (and Jean)
Jean and Max during the rescue

If I tell you that Max is the love of my life of course you cannot compare that to your parents or your husband. A dog is a dog and not a human being. But what I had with Max started probably when he came to our house in a bad state and I knew right away that we were connected. 

I was contacted by Adoption Gros Chiens. His story can still be found on their site. It was one of their first rescue operations. They had rescued Max but they did not have a foster home for him so I agreed to take him temporarily.

Max at Rachel's being nursed back to health

Max after adapting to his new life :)
As I am a judge for hunting dogs I went to a show not far from my house a few days after  and left him in the care of Sven, my husband, and told him to keep Max always on a leash or chain when he was outside.

Sven phoned me in the evening that Max had escaped and the chain was broken. It was at lunch time. He just went into the kitchen to prepare a meal and returned - no dog. So when I came back next day, Max was gone and the search started. Sven and I put pictures of Max everywhere, drove miles and miles to find him. I searched the entire neighbourhood, putting up pictures and of course informing the Gendarmes and Vet.People called to say they had seen him walking with a length of chain hanging off him but every time I went to look… no Max.

I had put him a collar with our phone number on but even then you have no idea if the collar is still on and Max had no tattoo or chip. I searched every day and finally I received news after ten days ! in the evening, on the day that there was terrible rainfall in Draguignan. (A lot of people were killed in the heavy rains and floods) On that very day, a lady phoned to say that she had found Max and he was in her  barn with the horses. She asked me if she could feed him.

I was crying all the time and gave the phone to Sven to try to figure out where he was. It was 75 km !! from our house and indeed he had tried to return to his old place in the mountains but he missed one crossing. I could not wait so we went in a storm with trees falling on the road, floods everywhere. They told everybody to stay at home because people where dying in Draguignan but we went in search of a dog ! 

And there he was in the barn. He could hardly walk so we put him in the car and drove home, where I put him in a blanket. I was so happy but then a few  days later he escaped again. He jumped the fence with me close to him, and I screamed and screamed, 'Max, no no!' and I was completely - how do you say that? - devastated, disappointed. How could a dog you have given so much attention and love and food leave you again?

But the next day, in all my despair, I saw him next to the fence in the forest. He was looking at me and laying still and looking at me, and at seven in the morning I went up to him in my pyjamas and said, 'You are home,' and he never left me again.
Max chez lui

From that moment on his love was in my heart and it stayed until he died so that was the moment  that we had that unconditional love for each other and he became the love of my life. 

Rachel, you and Max were lucky to find each other and to know such happiness, for the last of his nine years. He is a different dog from the one with dead eyes who trudged across a car park with me and I'm sure his tail thanked you every day.

Max and Rachel on the ski slopes

The story of Max highlights some of the issues that arise when you foster or adopt a dog. They DO often attempt to run back to the place they know, even if they were horribly abused. We need to be so careful! I am so neurotic about a dog escaping that I take a collar and tag with my phone number on it when I go to the shelter to pick up the dog. 

Rachel, when you take in a rescue dog, what do you do during the first couple of days? 

I keep them in a quiet place away from the other dogs and with food adapted to the need of the dog. In the case of Max,  I started with rice and chicken and supplements and vitamins.  I also give them a bath and if necessary anti-flea and anti-worm pills. If needed I take them to the vet. I let them sleep a lot and go out with them on a leash, wearing a collar with my phone number on it.

The first days I always take a dog in my bedroom at night. I think this is very important and I do this with all rescue dogs.  Some people are against it but put yourself in a situation that you are lost and find yourself in a house that you do not know, and you are locked up in a kitchen with nobody around you!  So I try to bond with the dog, to keep him with me 24 hours a day. 

Different breeds adapt at different tempos, but with Great Pyrenees it will normally take a month for a dog to understand that he has found a new home. I think this is because they are so attached to the place they live, or the flock they are guarding. 

Thank you so much, Rachel. I love hearing your stories and advice. Neither of us will ever forget Max. His story and those of other rescued dogs show us what is possible. In Part 2, Rachel will tell us more about her adoption and foster care of dogs.

Sherlock, my own adopted dog, is lying beside me at this very moment, worried about the thunderstorm. Ditto Blanche. 
Jean with Sherlock (and Blanche's reflection)
If you would like to win an ebook of my story 'Someone To Look Up To' just post a comment below, before 30th September, in any of the blog posts about Rachel. If you already have my story from the viewpoint of a Great Pyrenees, please choose another book.

Rachel is happy to answer any questions you might have so feel free to post them below.

amazon link

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Taking Stock as a Photographer

What do you really want to photograph?

To answer that question, I spent last weekend in a workshop with Ana Puig Rosado, an amazing photographer who lives only 30 minutes' drive from me in the beautiful lavender valley of La Roche St Secret. This is my photo of her house, reflected in the window of a typical Provencal cabanon. She maintains two websites to separate her photo-journalism from her weddings and other projects. Both are stunning.

Fears that my French would let me down diminished as I discovered that 'RAW' is 'RAW' in French, pronounced 'Roe', evidemment. Camera settings and menus are all in English so it's my French friends who have to get used to S for Vitesse (or for Canon shooters TV, which I always think of as Toute Vitesse).

Ana travels. Sometimes commissioned, sometimes with a project she hopes to sell afterwards and sometimes because she just 'wants to go to Tel Aviv.' She is a photo-reporter, working usually with natural light and an emphasis on getting it right in camera. She is the antidote to stock photography, in which I've been semi-conditioned for the last 6 years. Her notion of editing is to choose a small selection of photos that make a coherent collection.

Here's the portfolio that Ana put together showing the workshop behind the scenes as well as mini-galleries from each of us (mine is the first one).  

Until recently, I saw each photo as a one-off. Albums were 'best of'. Influenced by reading David DuChemin, I have started to think about collections as a whole, in the galleries on my website; in the selection chosen with my Editor for 'One Sixth of a Gill'. You can imagine how pleased I was with the reviews from the Wishing Shelf judges; 'A worthy finalist... 5 (of the 31) judges thought that the photography was the best part.' It is time to ask more of myself as a photographer.
If you'd like a free copy of 'One Sixth of a Gill' please sign up here for my newsletter.

With perfect timing, I received a professional report on the portfolio from LensCulture, whose portrait competition I'd entered. By happenstance, this is also the organisation which featured Dead Season on the Edge of the Black Sea by - guess who - Ana Puig Rosado! Some things are just meant to be.

The opportunity to receive a review was given as a bonus for entry and I was asked to submit a portfolio of 10 photos. I chose the 3 portraits I'd entered for the competition (that hadn't won) and 7 others I liked, showing the range of my work.

Don't cheat. look at these photos and decide what feedback you would give. Then read what I was told. 

Reviewer Feedback

I found some of these individual images very interesting and was drawn in by your innovative approach to self-portraiture. The mix of work here is very eclectic. I can understand it is hard to summarize your work in one edit and you may have wanted to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your practice, but I suppose we are just very used to seeing series of work in photography where you see one body of work explored in-depth. There are many images here that are very singular and beautifully taken shots particularly image 5 and 6. But I would encourage you to move from picking an individual good image to thinking about your work as a series.

Editing into a coherent series would enable the viewer to see more of you and how you work and also what you have to say. As we are so saturated by images all the time we need to work out what we are looking at and how to position it easily. I notice you do not have an artist's statement. It might be a very helpful exercise for you to write one. I realise they are hard to do as they in part require you to be concise and clear about what you are doing and you may work in a more organic less premeditated way. But the advantage is they force you to consider what might connect your work, and help you to develop confidence in your own voice.

Perhaps that is why the self-portraits interest me, they tell me more about you ( I am assuming they are of you). They make me think of Bill Viola's moving and slow studies of faces which take on a religious or spiritual edge and are very powerful. I like the idea that a single fixed image of self is never enough. We change so much over time and expressions alter our faces completely and you capture this well with this group of 3 images. I hope you will continue with those more in the future.

What do I think of the review?

I'm chuffed! And I smile now at my naivete in putting the collection together in such a random way. I'm writing this blog for everybody who's shared in my progress as a photographer - and for others who still think of one photo at a time.

Compliments like those in the review are really motivating me to carry on experimenting without worrying about what will sell in my istockphoto portfolio

Thank you to that anonymous reviewer, who made further suggestions. I would love comments from other photographers on the blog, on the review, on the idea of collections. I haven't answered the question of what I really want to photograph but I have some ideas!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Bad hare days and medieval dogs

Everyone went hunting in medieval Europe, for fun and for food, legally and illegally, and where the hunters went, so did their hounds. But what sort of dogs were they, what jobs did they do and how were they trained? For my current novel, I needed to imagine myself into a hawking expedition in 12th century Provence and my interest in dogs led me down research rabbit-holes…

Were there dogs in the 12thC anything like Blanche, Sherlock and Luca (a friend's Australian Shepherd)? 

Photos: Claire Hamlisch

The missing favourites: no labradors, no golden retrievers, no Newfoundlands. These breeds didn't reach Europe until the 19th century so the job of retrieving medieval game lay in different teeth. Neither were there any collies so Luca is out of the picture (although she always manages to be in any we take). Dogs were often referred to by their jobs rather than by breed names. The majority of a kennel consisted of running-hounds, in a pack that gave scent and chased game, looking and behaving like modern foxhounds. In addition to the running-hounds were the specialists:- 

The greyhound was the medieval knight’s all-round dog of choice: a noble dog, swift enough to take down game and sweet enough to curl up indoors with the family. Commemorated in poetry,on tombstones and in tapestries, greyhounds were prized. Training focused on the chase, with rewards (bloody meat) for catching prey. Medieval training by fewterers (houndmasters) did not scruple to use crippled birds as easy prey to encourage dogs to try for more difficult targets such as hares. Deerhounds and wolfounds were included in the category of 'greyhound'.

Nowadays, greyhounds are still prized for speed (track racing in the UK) and for hunting but have gone downmarket in social class and they are less likely to enjoy old age by the fire than in the 12thC. Traditional hunting with 'galgos' is still popular in Spain, where each summer the failures are abandoned, tortured and killed - or rescued by greyhound associations across the border in France, whose members wonder whether they are merely supporting this annual clear-out. Also by Spanish tradition, a hunting-dog's performance reflects on his master's prowess, and only a slow death to the dog can restore the human's reputation: hence the torture and death administered as punishment.

The lymer was the scenting-hound. In a kennel of 60 running-hounds there might be 5 lymers. Typically very long-eared, working on leash, either with nose to the ground or in the air, a lymer would track the quarry in silence. Training would include punishment for barking and rewards for nose-work, finding objects by smell. As with the greyhounds, the handlers would build up from easy activities (find the chopped-up liver a yard away) to more difficult ones (same liver hidden behind a tree or still inside a moving creature).

A nose with four feet, the lymer also gathered in smells via his long ears as they trailed on the ground. He didn't need to be fast as he could pick up a trail when the prey was long out of sight. 

Bloodhounds and basset hounds would have been in this category and you've figured out who my lymer is... Sherlock, my bleu de Gascogne, a Gascony Griffon, who was abandoned in summer 2013 by his hunter owner and has adapted just fine to home life. 

The spaniels - perfect bird-dogs then as now - flushed out and retrieved small game. They also had a reputation for being 'quarrelsome, noisy and easily distracted', just as likely to go off and chase  a villager's chickens as hunt the rabbits in the forest. The name came from the word for 'Spanish', their country of origin, and medieval English writers didn't hold back on racist comments comparing the spaniels' failings to those of their human countrymen.

Nevertheless these small, plucky and playful dogs were essential to the chase, and their most common liver-and-white colour stands out in images of a hunt.

The setters had a fine reputations as quiet stalkers, water-dogs who retrieved game. In medieval England, hunting-dogs of Sherlock's colour were called 'French blues', and speckled blue was seen in spaniels and setters, as today in the English Setter.

The mastiffs were the heavyweights. Wearing spiked collars, they were capable of taking down wolf, boar and bear after the greyhounds had chased the prey to the ground. Often portrayed with large testicles, mastiffs represented raw, male animality, which was allegedly aroused in the humans hunting too. 

An aprรจs-hunt party might start with the traditional innards feast for the dogs, to which the lymer had first entitlement. Then, it was quite likely to continue with a large quantity of alcohol and anecdote. If ladies were present, as they usually were in hawking expeditions, then other kinds of sport might follow. Double-entendres regarding 'losing one's hart' and 'the beauty of hare' were the language of foreplay.

Among the mastiffs were the special breeds, still wearing their spiked collars, who did not hunt but guarded flocks and herds from wolf and bear. The Tibetan Mastiff, the Anatolian Shepherd and the Great Pyrenees were all among these ancient guardians. They were guardians, not herding dogs, among whom you would still recognise the ancestors of my Blanche.

According to one book on the troubadours, there was 'a rumour that a female troubadour toured the south of France with a large white dog' and this statement sparked Song at Dawn. I couldn't shake off that image of the girl and a Great Pyrenees, who became Estela and Nici. The large white dog plays a key part in the story and he even has his own fan club.

Underlying my Troubadours Quartet is this sort of research, on every aspect of 12thC life and politics but only a tiny part will show in the books. If it's not relevant to the people and the story, it doesn't belong in my novels. That doesn't stop me lingering along the way, finding out about alaunts, brachets, and harriers, and sometimes sharing those findings here with you. Did you know that black dogs were shunned in Christendom as evil?

Winner of the Global Ebooks Award for Best Historical Fiction, Song at Dawn will be on promotion from 7th-12th April at 99c/99p so now is a good time to discover the 12thC ready for the 3rd book Plaint for Provence on November 1st. The book trailer starts with the image of a 12thC citadel right beside where I now live. Inspiration out the window!


amazon link
Do you love dogs too? If you review any of my books you can add your dog to my Readers' Dogs Hall of Fame. Just drop me a line with a link to your review, a photo and a brief description of your dog.  

Further Reading
Thanks to Robyn Young (writer of outstanding historical fiction) for recommending The Art of Medieval Hunting - John Cummings. 

Another good source is Medieval Hunting - Richard Almond 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Go East Young Man: William Burton McCormick

A two-time Derringer Award finalist, William Burton McCormick's fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and others. William has lived in seven countries including more than two years spent in Latvia, the setting of  Blue Amber. His first novel, Lenin's Harem, about the birth and death of the first Latvian independence, was recently deemed historically accurate enough to included in Latvia's War Museum's permanent library in Riga, a rare honor for a foreign writer of historical fiction. 

He is a member of the Crime Writers Association, Mystery Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, and International Thriller Writers. He earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester, studied Russian language and history at Moscow State University and was elected a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland in 2013. He was also Highly Commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2010.

Welcome, Bill!
Thank you for having me, Jean. Great to be here.

 How did a boy from Maryland end up in Latvia? There has to be a story! Oh, yes, there's a story. In fact several.  But the shortest and simplest one is that I was living in Washington D.C., and planning on writing a thriller set in Eastern Europe. I didn't yet have a specific country as a setting for the novel, so I went to the Latvian Museum in RockvilleMaryland and bought some books on Latvia and its history. I was surprised at what I learned, fascinated and terrified about what had happened there and in the other Baltic States.  Later, after getting accepted in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Manchester, I managed to visit Latvia. At that point, I knew I'd have to live there if I was going to do any serious research for writing purposes.  So, I moved to Riga, fell in love with the city, and the rest is history.

What is it about Eastern Europe that inspires your writing? Many things. The cultural differences, the amazing history, the shadow of Soviets and the various politics of the individual governments, the tension between East and West, beautiful landscapes, beautiful architecture, ugly Soviet architecture, fascinating twists of history, the mix of societies within Eastern Europe (Ukrainian culture is very different than, say, Georgian culture), the changes in a post-Soviet world (if Mr. Putin will allow it), the continuing of religious faith underground during Soviet times, wonderful little nooks and crannies of places I discover walking around everyday.    On that last point, Mark Twain said real places are never on maps. He was right. Go there, see the details.

Your short stories have been  very successful: published in top mystery magazines and you’re a Derringer Award finalist, twice.  Are short stories your favourite genre? I certainly love short stories. Poe is one of my influences, and he believed the short story was a greater art form than the novel because intense emotion can only be maintained in a reader for a very short time.  When this is achieved, Poe thought, the story must end as soon as possible. That said, I love novels, and how a longer narrative evolves chapter to chapter.  I enjoy the intricate plotting of a novel.  So, I'd say they're about equal with me.

Which elements do you think makes the ideal short story? I don't think you can say there are universal and necessary elements to a short story, because as soon as you set those rules someone will break them in a brilliant way.  Obviously, as a general guideline, a short story should start as much as possible 'in the action" because of its necessary brevity.  Though that rule could be applied to novels as well, couldn't it? Most novels are too long by half.

Do you stick to the rule that there must be a twist at the end?I love twist endings but they're challenging to do. More times than not the reader can see it coming, and, if so, then the twist isn't really a twist is it? There are lots of beautiful short stories without a twist, especially literary ones. How many twist endings does say James Joyce have?  That said, especially in the mystery or thriller genres, a twist ending is usually expected. I sometimes start with the twist and build backwards from there.

What are the greatest challenges in working within a limited word-count? I imagine every word must do exactly that - count!Having a limited word count is indeed challenging, but in a way it really tightens up your writing. You don't have the luxury of going on and on. It is why I increasingly find myself drawn to flash fiction. Trying to tell a whole story in less than 1000 or 500 words is really a great exercise for writers. You agonize over every adjective, restructure your sentences for brevity, and eliminate anything remotely extraneous.     You find out how to imply things you'd otherwise waste space explaining.  I think writing three or four flash fiction pieces is a good warm up for a longer short-story or even for writing the chapters of your novel. Less is more. In fact, of all the fiction I've written, my parents' favorite seems to be a 300 word short-short for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's a complete story with intro, plot, twist and resolution in space only about twice as long as this question and answer.

Does the method of developing character differ? Do you stick to a small cast?
You certainly don't have the space to develop characters, so, for me, I absolutely have to stick to a small cast. It's also so difficult in a short story to switch points of view. I've done it, others do it, but a lot of creative writing types will tell you that it's better to keep the view to one character in a short story.

Have you ever started writing a short story and thought, this has the potential to be a novel?
No. In fact, I've often had the opposite experience where I decide while writing a novel that the plot would be better served as a short story or novella.

Let’s talk about your new book, the novella Blue Amber. By the way, I love the jacket ;) and it’s an intriguing title. Why did you choose Blue Amber?
Yes, that jacket is just brilliant, isn't it? Clearly made by a simply fabulous artist who will probably wish to remain humbly nameless despite her stunning talent? Or does she? ;) Blushing and moving on quickly
    As for Blue Amber, well, without giving away the plot, I wanted the character of Fricis to find something very valuable on that beach, and a rare form of amber seemed logical. Originally I considered "red amber", as I liked how "red" hinted at the revolutionary connection in the story, but as many types of amber have a reddish hue they aren't too valuable. Blue amber is extremely rare in the Baltic Sea (it is more common in South America), and I liked how "blue" connected with water or sea, which plays a big part in the story, so I settled on that.

How would you describe the main character? He's a man who has been unlawfully imprisoned, who is going to be executed for his views, and simply wants to survive to help his people and his wife. I think that even with the historical and relatively exotic setting of Latvia, every reader can engage with such a character. He's universal. At least, I hope so.

The story had me hooked and every detail feels real. Was it based on real events?
Sort of. The character of Fricis is based upon a real revolutionary, and he did escape from prison.  No one knows how, so I had creative license to do what I wanted. Also, the murder of revolutionaries during fabricated escape attempts was a real thing.

Was it your intention to write a story with a message or a moral? No. But if it was my intention to include a moral I wouldn't tell you! J I believe authors should remain silent and let the readers take what they wish from any story.

Your work shows an insider’s knowledge of eastern European politics. Do you have a clear allegiance yourself? Are you concerned about being controversial in your books and attracting unwanted attention? Well, I only owe allegiance to my homeland, the good ole USA (and maybe the Fallowfield part of Manchester), but I have fallen in love with Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine. And what is happening in Ukraine now tears me up.    As for controversy or attention, I couldn't care less.  I write what I write.

How did you come to be a writer? I've always been a storyteller. At some point, I just decided to start setting all these stories down. Nothing more sophisticated than that, really.Who gave you your first encouragement as a writer? When I applied to the MA Program at the University of Manchester, I was required to have a telephone interview with novelist Suzannah Dunn, who was then the course's director.  She had read three chapters of a novel I'd submitted with the application. In those three chapters I alternated first and second person points of view between two characters, apparently a risky move. She told me she thought this style was really interesting and really bold, and let me into the program. Such encouragement from a very successful historical novelist was a huge boon to my confidence as a writer.

If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say? People tell me my writing style is "cinematic," whatever that means in practice.    I'd say my writing is usually historical fiction, usually set in Eastern Europe, either with a lot of humor, mystery, action,  or politics, though there are a lot of exceptions to all of these.

Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer? 
No answers. I'm not so intellectual. My crusade against "theme-ism" is about as successful as Don Quixote's crusade against windmills.  

I would love to read your novel Lenin’s Harem but it’s out of print at the moment. Can you give us an update on when it might be available?
Lenin's Harem sold very well, but went out of print only because of a dispute with the original publisher, Knox Robinson Publishing. The good news is we have just been awarded a default judgment against them for nonpayment on an advance for the translations rights sale.  In my opinion, Knox Robinson Publishing has not been cooperative or in anyway helpful in resolving this issue.
    The good news is I am very close to signing another agreement with a new publisher to put Lenin's Harem back in print. I would expect it by mid-summer.

What do you think is the greatest advantage of self-publishing? Well, Blue Amber is the first story I've self-published, so I'm a novice at this. But, I'd say, that compete creative control is the obvious answer.  The artist can give the world his or her vision unaltered or unimpeded by any publisher, producer, editor or agent. That's not always a good thing, but it is the most honest one.

Is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? Well, though it somewhat counters what I just said, a strong editor.  Some self-published work, though by no means all of it, could use a good pruning.    Obviously, also the promotion or distribution a traditional publisher provides would help, though in fairness few publishers do much of the former unless you're a proven seller.

What are you working on at the moment? I've got a lot of irons in the fire. Two thrillers, one set in modern Riga, another set in 19th century Odessa (and a full-length sequel to my Derringer-nominated story The Antiquary's Wife).     Also, I am editing a war novel I wrote set in Russia, Latvia and the East End of London.  The opening of it was commended for the Yeovil Literary Prize a few years ago, I just need the time to edit it and polish up the narrative.  I've been saying that for years, though.Some authors have one particular person in mind when they write. Do you have a muse – or perhaps an imaginary ideal reader? I have a friend in Ukraine, who is my muse! She is certainly an influence on my writing.  But, speaking generally, I try not to have an imaginary reader in mind when writing something. I do try to play the audience ("like violin" as Hitchcock would say), and imagine what they're thinking. You have to do this if you're going to guide them through your story. But a specific imaginary reader or demographic is a fool's game I think. Yes, I'm aware of the "know your audience" rule, but I think if you write for everyone, you end up writing for no one.  I trust my instincts. If I like what I've written, I'm pretty sure there are other misfits out there like me who will enjoy it too.It's kind of like the song "Little Room" by the White Stripes.  I've never heard the creative process and its aftermath summed up so succinctly and accurately.  If you don't know it, have a listen.  I'll wait. No, that’s new to me - nice choice!

Have you ever found that a book you were reading was influencing your writing style? I've never consciously noticed this when I've been reading a book for pleasure. I'm sure my literary influences are all mixed in there when I write, and I can sometimes see them, but not so much with a new book I'm reading at the time I'm writing something else.   It takes awhile to filter down, I guess.   I have, at times, decided to write a specific scene or in a specific style and gone back and referenced how others have done it. For example, when I was going to show a large party scene on a Baltic-German manor, I referenced how Margaret Mitchell depicted the American South's equivalent at the opening of Gone with the Wind.  When, I wanted subtle horror in my story, I read a host of M.R. James stories to see how it was done.

Some writers need silence, others like the buzz of a coffee shop, the rumble of a train or their favourite music. Which type are you? I work best at a library. (For example, I'm typing up this answer at the Latvian NationalLibrary in Riga, a simply stunning place, have a look)
    When I'm in foreign countries, I like to get out, and I often write in coffee shops too, but only as long as nobody close to me is speaking English. If I can't understand the language, then it just becomes ambient noise, and I can get work done. But if a few people having an English language conversation sit down, it pulls my attention to them and I have to move.  I'm sure I've flashed a lot of dirty looks to my countrymen over the years for killing my creativity around the world.  Sorry guys.    In America or Britain, I don't have this problem since the English language doesn't stick out from the background noise. There I can write nearly anyplace. I've finished short stories in some astonishingly loud places, including concert halls and casino sports-books. Music doesn't bother me as long as I like the songs.    The one thing I can't do is to write while on something moving.  Planes, trains, and buses are a no go. And I have to get far away from the internet or television, I'm an addict.

What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
First person (and second person) are much easier, but often you've got to do it in third person for the needs of the plot/style/twist/conflict, etc.

Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day? I think all authors have scraps sitting around. But I've got two complete novels’ worth of material, some of it quite good on a few hard drives. It always amounts to how to use your time. And, unfortunately, editing and sifting through old stuff is not as fun for me as writing new stories.  I guess it comes down to my being a storyteller more than a writer. Once I've set the story down, I want to be on to the next thing.

What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? My favorite is the sheer creativity. Lying in bed half awake with new ideas floating into your mind, then getting up and making those things a reality, something you can share with others. And when you get that perfectly balance story, it’s a wonderful thing.    My least favorite aspect would be crashing hard drives. Tell me about it!

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Do it because you love writing, storytelling or the beauty of prose on the page/screen. Or perhaps because you have something to say about the world in which we live.    Don't do it for money, fame or because a guy who looks like Salman Rushdie got to date supermodels.

As a reader, which writers or books are your favourites? Is there a genre you are drawn towards? In terms of full-length literary fiction Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is still the greatest novel I've ever read (even though he completely contrasts all I said about "less-is-more" in a book.) John Steinbeck is close behind. Of Mice and MenGrapes of Wrath, East of Eden, the list goes on.    For full-length genre fiction, I would say that Alistair MacLean's Guns of Navarone and its sequel Force Ten from Navarone got me writing as a kid and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles returned me to writing as an adult. I also like James Ellroy, particularly Black Dahila and L.A. Confidential, (really the whole L.A. Quartet is excellent), and Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming, Brian Dailey and Alan Dean Foster.For short stories, as I mentioned Poe is a favorite, as well as Steinbeck, Melville, and Conan Doyle (all again), Anton Chekhov, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Doug Allyn, Bill Byson, Jack London and Mark Twain.    I was an Ancient Studies major as an undergraduate and fell in love with the classics particularly Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides.  I sometimes listen to the Iliad (Robert Fagles translation) on audio-book when I do household chores.    And I read a lot of nonfiction of all eras and locales.  In fact, my nonfiction reading probably inspires my writing much more than other fiction authors do. I certainly read it more often. Killer Angels, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A Brief History of Time, Ken Burn's The Civil WarHitler and Stalin Parallel LivesThe Rise of Teddy RooseveltWith Dance Shoes in the Siberian Snows, the list of good nonfiction books is near endless for me.  So many books to read, so little time.    I guess the genres are obvious from the list above, but I'd say literary, horror, and detective/thriller, with the occasional science-fiction and war thrown in. And, of course, again: nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction.

Are there any authors whose work you champion?
There are a lot of fantastic authors whose work I'd recommend: Karen Charlton, Jenny Milchman, B.A.Morton, John Floyd, Sarah Schofield, Shirley Bozic, Erik Amaya, Ken Pelham, Frances Kay, CMT Stibbe, J.G. Harlond, Kristin Gleeson, Karen Maitland, Ray Philpott, Jon Land, Lucretia Grindle, Bill Bowen, Ronald Sharp, Martyn Bedford, Michael Sears, the excellent authors of the Prometheus Saga and of course (saving the best for last) Jean Gill. Flattery gets you everywhere :)

What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies? I like to go places, often on foot, and see the world. Then I get back on the internet and read about what I've just seen. This usually inspires writing or going to see even more places. It's a cycle of sorts.    I'm also a huge classic film buff (Hitchcock and Kurosawa especially). Other hobbies include rambling incessantly about music, astronomy, or history, museums, storyteller's theater, whitewater rafting and swimming (often suddenly and surprisingly swimming during the whitewater rafting).    I'm a big fan of the Miami Dolphins and San Antonio Spurs.Really useful tips for writers, Bill, and thank you so much for joining me. Let me know when Lenin’s Harem is in print again. I should warn readers, this is a political thriller not concerned with hundreds of women in skimpy clothing…

My Review of Blue Amber

Exceptional thriller: a precision-cut gemFrom the moment the sleigh stops in frozen wasteland, the suspense never lets up as Latvian political prisoner Fricis tries to cheat the death coming for him via Russian guards. If I hadn't been caught up in the sheer adrenalin of the escape bid, I'd have lingered over the quality of the writing. Instead, I was gripped by the story, wanting Fricis to come out alive but never knowing what the outcome would be. I've read plenty of thrillers and adventure stories but few which are so convincing.    William Burton McCormick took me to the Baltic Sea, its politics and its savage beauty, where `if the tides were right, with a bit of swimming here and there, a man could walk near five miles out to sea with little difficulty, never getting his beard wet, often with his knees above the lapping waves.' I came out of the adventure a little dazed but so pleased to have discovered an author to add to my must-read list. This short story packed a much bigger punch than its word count and I can't wait to see whether the quality is sustained over a full-length novel.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Don't make your books into trailer trash

Welcome to Rachel Bostwick, the designer of all my book trailers and also an author in her own right, who's accepted my invitation to share some tips for authors on making pro book trailers.

Rachel's website

Graphic designer by day, aspiring novelist by night, R. L. Wicke explores the fullness of life set against the compelling beauty of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Her writing has been described as rich and filled with reverence for the characters who struggle and fight at the end of one world and the beginning of the next.

She lives in Amish Country, PA with her husband, a million cats, and four feral children. She seeks to help out fellow writers and lovers of fiction by offering her pro design skills and her natural talent for encouragement.

I need intro music for Rachel and she is just the right person to choose it. What would you like as your theme, Rachel, and why?

My husband would choose Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong by the Spin Doctors. He always gives me that wicked look in his eye when it comes on the radio. I would choose Hallelujah by the Newsboys – it’s about having faith when life gets tricky and it’s the one song that I’ve always felt was actually written for me.

The first trailer you made for me, One Sixth of a Gill keeps to your basic template ( which can be ordered from Rachel at fiverr for only $5 ).  

One Sixth of a Gill

Can you talk us through your creative process?
Well, working with you has been amazing, Jean, because as a photographer as well as a writer, you have an eye for beauty. 
(I'm blushing here but thank you for the compliments!)

I try to get a feeling for the tone of the book – is it funny or dramatic or sad or compelling or adventurous? Then I choose music and images that will communicate that directly to potential readers.

What can authors do to help you make more compelling trailers?
Communication is key. Tell me what feeling you want to pass on to the reader so I can work with the right ideas in mind. For example, yesterday a client told me that his book appeals to the Sex and the City crowd. That gave me the exact right idea for choosing music. But even simple things like 'My book is humorous and appeals to women in their twenties,' is helpful.

What makes your work more difficult?
The hardest thing to work with is images that are too small. I can have a basic book trailer done in a single day if I start with the right images. Free images of highest quality can be found on or on Better yet, if you want to make a striking impression, you can buy images on one of many stock photography sites out there. If you feel like that’s too much of a time investment, I am able to choose and even license professional images for you.

Authors can ask you to customize trailers for a few dollars more. In our work together, I’ve really appreciated the way you see the story and show it, using my images and your choice of musical theme. You were especially pleased with this trailer: why? 

Faithful through Hard Times

How did you get into making trailers?
I’ve been a professional graphic designer since my late teens, but I never did much video. When I decided to pursue writing, I made friends with many other authors and was exposed to some book trailers that I felt were poorly done. I started making my own for fun, just to inspire me in writing my drafts. A good friend mentioned that he thought it was something I could do professionally, so I started making them for friends, just to see if I could. And I could :)

Rachel's fivver link for trailer design
You’re a writer too. How do you combine working at home with looking after young children?
Flexibility is the key. My kids are young enough that they still need me all the time. I set my deadlines so that I always have extra time to put something off a day or two. I know that my time with my children is limited, so I try to make sure it’s always ‘yes’ to them and ‘later’ to work. I fail at that sometimes, but it’s my guiding principle.
Tell us about your own writing. 

I am currently penning the first novel in a young adult post-apocalyptic series, titled The 7th Judge, set a century in our future. Three decades past, mankind was wiped to near-extinction overnight by a fatal sleeping sickness. Now a thriving civilization blooms in the ruins of New York City. Lux is one of the Undergrounders, a single father trying to raise his daughter in one of the poverty-stricken subway barrios. When Lux is conscripted by law to be the consort of a high-ranking official, he becomes involved in a series of murders that threaten to shatter the tenuous peace of the Boroughs and destroy his new family.
amazon link
A prequel short story Fairy Tales for the Very Young set in the world of the 7th Judge was published in The Dragon’s Rocketship scifi anthology, The Ship’s Log, available here and a popular free story prequel, titled The Last Firefly and featuring Lux’s daughter, Summer, is available on my website here 

Another story I’m very proud of is Her Betrayer, a horror short with a twist.

What are your plans for 2015?
In the last half of 2014, I helped approximately 40 authors create gorgeous trailers for their books. I’d like to help at least a hundred in the new year! I’ve also added book covers, Kindle formatting, and Facebook banners to my Fiverr store, so I’m looking forward to helping my fellow writers make a great impression in the new year. 

Rachel's book jacket design service on fivver
I also hope to put the finishing touches on the first draft of The 7th Judge and have it professionally edited while raising each of my children to individual brilliance, helping my husband find his true calling in life, and becoming an independent millionaire who owns her own island castle paradise. But I’ll be perfectly satisfied just to keep my children safe and happy and get a little writing done on the side. 

Rachel, thank you so much for joining me on my blog and for making these wonderful trailers for my books. Good luck with all your projects!