Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nostalgia - 5 huge changes in my lifetime

One of the big questions for a writer of historical fiction is how far it is possible to get into the mind of someone who lived x centuries ago. Researching facts is not enough; you have to make that imaginative leap into a different way of thought. I am now well into Chapter 3 of the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' and I feel like I'm dancing across twenty tightropes, skipping from one thread to another and testing that they will hold while I turn somersaults and land on my feet. One of those tests is 'Would someone living in that time have behaved in that way?' which adds complications to the usual test questions 'Would this individual have behaved that way or said that?'

While I was testing my threads, I thought about how much has changed in my own lifetime, making it difficult if not impossible for my children to understand people of an older generation. If you're over thirty I'm sure you already have a notion of the huge changes to ways of life that we have experienced and at fifty-six, I can add some years to that.

My arbitrary choice of cultural changes in my life-time (and my white British female cultural background) followed by a very general 12th century take on them:-

1) children's loss of freedom.
People my age had more freedom as children. We had no parental supervision in the parks, in the streets, roaming the countryside, walking (or cycling or taking buses) wherever we chose. Nowadays my parents would be reported to the NSPCC but they were considered normal, caring parents in their time. Between the ages of 8 and 11, I met up with friends at dusk and we ran go-carts, chased each other, played gang and spy games, climbed onto roofs, rode each other's bicycles. We went swimming, either as a group of children or as individuals. I often walked down to the shore alone and swam in the sea. I even remember the sign that said 'No swimming today - sharks' (We were an army family and living in Hong Kong at the time). I caught tadpoles in jamjars by remote waterfalls, I caught buses with my friend to go stationery shopping in the city or village markets. My parents had absolutely no idea where I was and apparently didn't worry. I ran wild and am so grateful for the barefoot richness of my childhood.

12th century (in what are now France and Britain) - Childhood ended young and a child followed in his/her parent's footsteps, heavily gender stereotyped. If you were training to be an archer, you had to start at about 8 years old or you'd never be any good. If you were in the landed classes, betrothal at 11 and marriage at 14 were normal. The age of majority was 15.

2) sex before marriage or - worse still - living in sin doomed a woman forever in this world and the next. Any children resulting were evil.

This was changing in 1970s Britain but my generation grew up with our parents believing this to be true. They would have been horrified by couples deliberately living together and having children without marrying but this is normal in modern Britain. To be born out of wedlock was a shame that never lifted from my parents' generation. Their peers were locked up in mental asylums for unmarried pregnancy and it was not only the girls who suffered. I know of one eighteen year old boy who committed suicide from shame at getting his girlfriend pregnant. These values still hold in other cultures but not in mainstream white Britain. When people complain about the breakdown of marriage as an institution, and the impact on children, it's worth remembering some of the costs of believing that marriage is all and a woman's virginity is social currency. No, I don't want to go back to the days when 'living in sin' meant social ostracisation.

Part of the same set of values was the attitude to homosexuality, which was illegal between men and unmentionable regardless of gender. There might be a long way still to go but the very existence of civil partnership shows a huge shift in attitude.

12th century - varied according to class but virginity (for women) and (arranged) marriage were paramount amongst the nobility. Homosexuality was always condemned in Christian society but a more open feature of men's lives in the middle east. Classical literature shows a more open attitude at times in the past.

3) global communication meant writing a letter

Using the telephone cost money so I was allowed to give urgent factual messages that way and nothing else. 'Chatting' on the phone was unthinkable. No computers, no mobiles, no texting. We didn't even have one of the newfangled televisions in our house. Photos were expensive, rare and processed in darkrooms, then placed in one or two albums, covering a lifetime with a hundred images. I still remember the excitement when at fourteen I was given a trannie - a transistor radio. It was about the size of a bag of sugar and I couldn't believe that something that small could work. I used to play Radio Luxemburgh late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping, holding this wonderful invention up to my ear.

12th century - the idea of pigeon post was brought back to Europe after seeing this speedy form of communication widely in use in the Holy Land in the middle of the 12th century

4) Begging on the streets in Britain was rare and confined to a few big cities. We were proud of our social support and our national health care. British people were offended and embarrassed by the dirty foreign habit of begging, that they encountered when travelling.

It is a complete mystery to me as to why there was no-one sleeping rough in the many small towns and villages of Britain that I lived in or passed through when I was growing up. I don't even remember there being people sleeping in doorways and subways in cities, and I was the sort of child who would have noticed. I just don't believe people are poorer today because I remember how poor people were then. Perhaps they just had roofs over their heads, squatting in shed or barns. Perhaps people lived in intolerable situations with each other and had no ideas of  escape or living alone. I would really like someone to tell me why this has changed so much. I get the feeling it has changed in Canada too but I don't know about the USA or other countries.

12th century  - begging was commonplace, a way of life for many, and there was no provision for the handicapped, the sick or the mentally ill. Beggars were taken for granted and rich people gave alms to beggars as part as their charitable duty. There was no stigma in being a beggar - it was a role in society, albeit at the bottom of the hierarchy.

5) no central heating and little privacy - when the weather became cold, one room in the house was kept warm by an electric/gas/coal fire (the living room), the kitchen was warm from cooking and the rest of the house was brass monkeys freezing. Washing and bathing in an unheated bathroom in winter in Scotland was the best deterrent to hygiene I've ever known. The hot water bottle was a lifesaver but your nose still turned blue. You could forget going to your bedroom for adolescent sulks; the choice was the warm living room watching your parents' choice of TV programme, or listening to their Mantovani vinyl LPs, or under-age drinking in the local pub as often as you could manage to escape. Of course if one of your friends had a more teen-friendly house (i.e. their parents were out) you went there. Families were larger and bedrooms were shared so even when the weather was warm, being inside a house meant living too close to your parents, by their rules and preferences.

Nowadays everyone thinks it's his/her right to live alone, which more and more people do. Living with someone else is a huge decision, rather than what used to be considered the natural process whereby you lived with your parents, then you married (and often still lived with your parents)

Central heating allows all the rooms in a house to be used, changing completely family relations. Children and especially teenagers now have a right to privacy, and usually one bedroom per person. Parents and children can avoid seeing each other, even when living in the same house. You can't freeze your kid into being with you any more. And if you don't have shared mealtimes as a routine, which is true of many modern families, you can't starve them into being with you either. Given the choice these days, people spend more time alone - or online with the people they choose to be with, instead of ones in the same house or street.

12th century - Hearth equalled home, whether a cottage with a smoky peat fire and one room to live in or a castle with a fire-place the size of the cottage and a Solar, the chamber catching the sunlight to add one more warm room. The castles and palaces we love to imagine living in, thinking how grand we would have felt, were actually complete communities housing hundreds of people. It was usual to sleep several in a bed (if you had a bed) and dozens would have slept in the Great Hall. Privacy for procreation was dependent on whether you had the luxury of a curtain between you and your children (or your neighbours). If you were very rich, you would have lived in such a community with a separate bedchamber to yourself, and apart from your spouse, but with servants coming and going all day. Privacy was not a medieval concept. Wanting to be alone would have been considered downright weird and as for the need to 'find yourself' - about as likely as in 1960s USSR. 

In a way, every novel is a historical novel. The time period can never be 'now' as so much is changing technologically, politically and culturally over the time it takes to write and publish 100,000 words. Even fantasy novels or sc-fi novels have a period feel, based on our current knowledge and technology. Fantasy novels are usually vaguely medieval, with magic added, and follow past conventions about magic. Sci-fi novels  imagine the future from the possibilities currently envisioned. You only have to look at sci-fi novels written fifty years ago to see how rooted in their own time they were. So how far we can get into the mind of someone who lived x centuries ago seems to me to depend on the usual skills of a writer.

I'd love to hear from other people as to what you think has changed most in your lifetime. If you're under ten, leave it a bit before posting, then get back to me.

Friday, January 20, 2012

love-hate amazon

I'm emerging briefly from the 12th century to contemplate the real world. I'm pleased with myself as I've written the first two chapters of the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn' and I want to keep writing. When I work, I write roughly 1,000 words a morning. When I don't work, I can hear the characters speaking and working out what they're going to do. I can see a hundred characters waiting in the wings and I'm not sure yet which of them are coming on stage. Research carries on but now it's focused on exactly what I need to know. So far this has included making opium tea and forging Damascus steel.

Back in the real world, there are mergers and takeovers for stock photography companies, so I took refuge in publishing news - yes, I'm joking. Anyone who doesn't like change would do well to stay in the 12th century and well away from publishing news. However, it is always a good time to take stock (pun intended) so I've managed to come to some conclusions about what might be the most important relationship in my creative life - me and amazon.

If you read or write books, you have a relationship with amazon. Like me, you're probably thinking about how  far you want to go with amazon and what the consequences will be. As with any relationship, short term pleasure might mean long term suffering, for you and for other people.

The two big questions for me as a writer

 - should I try to get amazon as a conventional publisher? Confession time. I did submit 'Song at Dawn' to their imprint and have heard nothing back whatsoever. It was already self-published (with lulu not amazon's self-publishing service) so I have only lost the time it took to write a submission but either their email submission route didn't work or they're just one more publisher too rude to reply/too bogged down to reply yet. I don't know anyone published this way but I shall be keeping an eye on the amazon imprints to see how they do.

- should I go exclusive with amazon's KDP select on an e-book to profit from their 500,000 dollar 'new author' promotion program? How far into bed with amazon am I willing to go?

These are my thoughts at present.

As a reader

I've been buying books from amazon for many years. They offer an incredibly wide selection of books, cheap prices, cheap postage (even from the USA or UK to France, where I live), fast delivery - wonderful! With kindle books I have the ebook option and can even have a selection of newly published kindle books free - wonderful!

Obviously, I've killed the bookshops where I used to browse shelves, read reviews by shop assistants, have a coffee, enjoy bookshop atmosphere and sometimes go to signings or readings by other writers. As a little girl I spent all my pocket-money on books and when I was lonely (because I wasn't allowed a dog) I'd hang out in a bookshop or library and read.

Nostalgia doesn't create the future and nowadays even lonely little girls living in the wilds can chat on amazon forums or join online booklovers' sites like goodreads , read, review and talk books all day (while skipping school because they get bored there) Someone's publishing prediction for 2012 was that amazon will buy goodreads.

I live in France. When I decided to buy an ereader, I could ONLY buy a kindle from, not uk, and pay import tax for the privilege. Now I can buy a kindle from and pay far more for kindle books than from .com or .uk, where I am not even allowed to see the price. The relationship between the different countries' amazon sites is complicated and however much I am told 'it is to do with national laws' I remain sceptical. I can buy a print book from or but not an ebook. I can buy ebooks from US based smashwords but not from or Barnes & Noble.

I am not happy with my access to ebooks, nor with the prices I'm charged. This is not just an amazon hate, as I cannot even buy ebooks from Waterstone's or Blackwell's UK. Amazon does however charge me more because I live in France and limits my choices as a customer, wherever I live, by selling only a link to an ebook, not the book itself, and by restricting the format of books to kindle only. I believe this to be illegal but no-one yet has taken on amazon and those who wish to do so can find ways around this. Whether it is illegal to hack into an ebook which you have paid for and are keeping for your own use, is another question I have yet to see taken to the courts. The last straw for me was when I found I had to pay 2euros on for a kindle book on special free offer on .com


PRINT books
If I self-publish with ISBNs, my books can sell via amazon's wonderful online bookshop, be reviewed, be packaged and posted, all without me lifting a finger. Amazon distribution is first class and international. The site is user friendly and is visited by millions of readers. Amazon is efficient!

Amazon is offering more and more feedback to authors, with demographic stats on sales, author pages, questionnaires and comparisons. I've had a couple of problems to deal with and amazon staff have replied promptly with practical solutions.


Some of my books were not self-published. I negotiated a wonderful 40% off cover price to buy my own books direct from the publisher and guess what? I could get them cheaper from amazon. It is not only the bookshops that lose out from amazon prices.

the bully
Amazon has such a huge profit margin that it can sell products below cost price. No-one can compete with this. It kills the competition so in the future there will be competition. Without competition, there are no checks and balances. Amazon is deliberately turning publishing into a totalitarian state.

As a self-publisher, I cannot offer buyers enough discount for me to make money by them buying direct from me. I have to tell them, they will get the books cheaper from amazon. Guess who amazon puts the squeeze on, demanding bigger discounts for them to purchase books, as they cut prices more and more? The publisher. And who does the publisher squeeze? The author. That's me, both publisher and author, screwed twice over.


I hated the fact that .com had kindles three years ago and welcomed self-publishing from US based writers only. I spent two years desperate to get in at the beginning but without an American bank account and address, no dice. I still resent missing those two years, when I had books ready to roll.

However, the love returned with kindle uk and amazon has enable me to self-publish 12 kindle titles, sell them via amazon's amazing online bookshop, in all the different amazon countries, with instant feedback on sales, and the option to control pricing.

You need a degree in discounts, pricing and royalties to understand and compare anything on one amazon site, never mind in three currencies on six international sites. My books are available in more currencies on more sites but my brain overloads after six permutations - and that's just on amazon. I suppose you thought you'd set a price in sterling and amazon would happily convert that into dollars/euros or whatever? Bitter laughter. No indeed! Hence my real grievance about amazon not allowing me to even see the price of my ebooks on amazon sites where, as a French resident, I'm not allowed to buy the books.

Add to that the fact that my royalties are halved for purchases outside the UK and the USA and I am not happy about these complicated international amazon relationships. I do understand that different countries have different laws, different taxes on books, and different 'norm' pricing for books. Print books cost far more  in France than in the UK or USA, protecting publisher and author, so one price doesn't suit all. I don't see why should take a different cut on my royalties to though.

That puts my decision into context. Now back to the question

- should I go exclusive with amazon on an e-book to profit from their 500,000 dollar 'new author' promotion program?

I now know a couple of writers who've done this and I intend to track their progress and interview them on my blog as they progress. I rate them both highly as writers and at the moment they've launched their books with free giveaways, taken up by hundreds of readers - nice start.

They're both pricing their books at 99cents - the conventional low price 'starting point' for unknown writers.

I've decided NO, not for me.
It would be a lot of hassle to remove any of my ebooks from their other distributors -  smashwords, lulu and goodreads, where they're building up steam nicely.

If the offer's still there when I finish the follow-up to 'Song at Dawn', I could publish that exclusively to kindle. Why wouldn't I?

For the same reason I don't price my ebooks at 99cents. I agonised over pricing, caught between 'conventionally published authors demand and get high prices for ebooks' and 'unknown authors get thousands of readers via cheap ebooks'. My current theory is that there is a huge readership for books which are free or 99cents but that those readers will have no loyalty to an author. They will always be looking for - and able to find - books that are free or 99cents - and their priority will be the price. As a writer, I am looking for readers who value what I write and who will come back to read more of my books because they think they're good, not because they're free. I am prepared to sell books more slowly at what I've decided is a fair price - definitely less than print books but above the '99cents mass of new and unknown writers'. I will get more money per book and I am hoping to reach 'my' readers. Time will tell.

I am also unhappy at the idea of signing that amazon contract, not just because I've had bad experiences with a recent publishing contract, but also because there are clauses along the lines that you don't talk about your contract. What was I saying earlier about totalitarian?

Maybe freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, maybe freedom ain't worth nothing, but it is definitely free. I want to keep my sense of these two words, 'value' and 'free' separate from amazon.

In future blogs I will be following the progress of writers who've made different choices for their books so that I can relate our experiences in conventional publishing, self-publishing, print books, ebooks, kindle exclusive.

Now I need to go back to the 12th century, where the Crusader armies taunted the Saracens before attacking by miming the act of writing. It showed what a wimp you were to be literate. Plus ca change. Long live us wimps.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Journal Review of 'Song at Dawn'

Lela Michael's review of 'Song at Dawn' for 'Self-Publishing Review'

About the reviewer:Lela Michael has been a freelance copy editor and writer’s assistant since 2007. She currently serves as editor of the website Beneficent Bards. You’ll find her on Twitter as @TheBookMotel.

Historical thriller/love story set in Narbonne just after the Second Crusade. 1150 in Provence, where love and marriage are as divided as Christian and Muslim. On the run from abuse, Estela’s musical talent finds a patron in Alienor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the finest troubadour of the age, Alienor’s Commander of the Guard. Weary of war, Dragonetz los Pros uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill,drawing the wrath of the Church down on his head. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne.

Jean Gill’s extensive, caring research for her book Song of Dawn places this novel appropriately into the classification of Historical Novel. The front and back matter provide us with a period map, a list of historical figures appearing in the book, and an impressive list of research sources consulted. That the author is a highly-skilled and respectful researcher is all well and good, but the next question is,
can she write fiction? In a word, yes.

Our protagonist’s personality, chief motivations, and obstacles are outlined within the first two pages; two other major characters are outlined and the plot foreshadowed by the end of the first chapter; and the remaining 22 chapters, with the author’s deft one-two punch of complex characters and an even more complex plot, prove this novel a decided “page-turner.”
The plot yields plentiful fodder on the politics of power, both personal and societal; the consequences of religious and ethnic bigotry are explored in depth; we learn that it was once a crime punishable by death to manufacture paper; we receive more than a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in another time period. The mentions of natural remedies and how they were used in the 12th century spice things up, so to speak, and the presence of a big white dog in the lengthy cast of characters doesn’t hurt, either. At 354 pages, a lack of plot is not a concern whatsoever.

It is by way of this intricate plot that Jean Gill extracts payback for time spent on her meticulous research by demanding that her reader pay attention. There isn’t one sentence in this book that doesn’t move the story forward.

Space doesn’t permit commentary on all of the numerous characters in Song at Dawn, but a brief word on the main character, Estela de Matin. Gill inserts into the story something that sets Estela apart from other fictional female characters such as Jane Eyre, i.e., young women who find themselves cast alone into a world controlled by men and stifling social institutions: Estela wants to be a musical performer. Estela’s desire to develop her talent is arguably her greatest motivation, or at the least equal to, her desire for “true” love and a natural curiosity about sex. In fact, it is in Chapter 1 that Estela must pass an audition in order to literally keep from getting killed. Her beautiful voice saves her.

With its detailed historical setting, a believable, page-turning plot, and memorable characters, Song at Dawn is an enjoyable, interesting read. These elements of successful craftsmanship in place, Jean Gill goes the extra literary mile by using an authentic, consistent narrative voice—a voice I not only trust, but am left wanting to hear again.

I reluctantly give Song at Dawn a rating of 4 of 5 stars. The paperback copy I read contained several commas that should have been periods, a couple of minor typos, a few formatting problems (all at the bottom of the page), and one obvious use of a cliché. If these things have since been fixed, please consider my rating 5-star.