Guest Post – The Rise and Rise of Crime and Thriller Fiction

Today I host my first guest post.

I first met Sally Jenkins when we discovered both our books were to be published by The Book Guild, on the same day, January 28th 2018. We are not in competition, because our books are so different, she writes psychological thrillers and I write historical fiction.

Do these very different genres attract the same readers or do they remain completely separate? Today we introduce our blog readers to something different.

Welcome Sally:

Author Sally Jenkins

In 2017 18.7 million crime and thriller books were sold. This was an increase of 19 per cent over the previous two years. Even without the hard proof of these figures the popularity of dark fiction is obvious. Think about all those books with ‘Girl’ in the title, the influx of ‘noir’ TV box sets from Scandinavia and the emergence of a brand new fiction sub-genre, ‘grip lit’.  Grip lit is a blend of women’s fiction and psychological thriller, usually written by women and about women. And women readers account for just over half of all crime and thriller sales – so we do like to be scared!

Our fascination with dark fiction can be likened to the attraction of a roller coaster. In the former, we clutch the pages, not daring to turn out the bedside light in case something goes bump in the night. On the latter we scream and shriek with every rise and fall of the track. In both cases, as soon as the experience is finished we want to do it all over again! Val McDermid is the queen of crime thriller writers and she says, “A crime-thriller gives you an adrenalin rush. It’s exciting, suspense-laden … But you know it’s fiction and that the protagonist is going to make it out okay in the end. We live in a society increasingly fragmented and alienated. People … find reassurance in crime-thrillers because they know that in the end the world will be put right.”

Do the authors of all these crime and thriller novels need evil, twisted personalities in order to generate the material for their novels? Being a writer of psychological thrillers myself, I plead that we are nice people! As with all authors we pluck our ideas from what we see in the world around us and then embellish, sharpen and polish them from our own unique perspective on the world. One of the continuing themes or perspectives in my own novels is how past happenings rarely stay in the past. They can explode into our present day lives without warning and turn everything upside down. In Bedsit Three the evil comes from Ignatius, who was brought up by a domineering mother. The effect of this on his behaviour is seen as the novel progresses. The other characters in the book are also influenced by their early years but they work for a more positive outcome, begging the question: nature or nurture?

When I started to write my second novel, The Promise, my mind again darted backwards and forwards in time. The plot which emerged centres around a promise made in prison thirty years ago. This promise must now be kept by the next generation and leads to a blackmail attempt …

I’m certain the popularity of crime and thriller fiction will continue to grow. Modern day life is full of uncertainty, upheaval and unsolved crime. Books where good eventually conquers evil (after giving the reader a scary ride!) get my vote every time.

Visit Sally’s website, follow her on Twitter or view her books on Amazon.

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Publication – six months on

Was it only six months since my first book, Bright Sword, was published? It must have been, I remember the freezing cold of my book launch, when my Anglo-Saxon warriors administered mead to the handful of customers who braved the icy streets. Now we are in the midst of a heat wave and thunderstorms.

For all this time friends have asked, “How is it selling?” and I reply “I haven’t the faintest idea.” The only indication is the graph on my Amazon Author Central page – a jagged line for the first couple of months then a general decline. There are occasional upward turns, there has been on the last few days. Why? I checked the price and discovered Amazon have reduced the price, again.

The book is now £3.72, cheaper than the e-book at £3.99. Why does nobody tell me these things so I can pass on the news? Should I be checking the price every day? There’s probably something I can set up that will tell me.

Anyway, I now know exactly how many books I have sold – at least up to the end of June. Yesterday I received my first Royalty Statement from my publisher (I had to rescue the e-mail from my spam folder – good job I check it occasionally) They sent me money! Not a fortune but it proves that someone has bought my book. Several someones and not all of them family and friends! The bad news, for me, is that there are still plenty of copies in stock. But it’s good news for anyone thinking of buying a copy, especially at (did I mention the price?) only £3.72 – see here.

What have I learnt over these six months? The first thing is that I am not very good at selling myself. I haven’t even managed to get my book into my local library, despite giving them a free copy. Did they not think it good enough or is it languishing forgotten on a shelf somewhere?

I already knew this. I am the sort of person who has a tendency to say “I’ve written a book, it’s not bad, but it could be better. Would you like to read it? That’s all right, it’s probably not your cup of tea.” I must be more assertive. “Buy my book or I’ll kidnap your husband/children/cat and torture them until you read it and post a five-star review.” A bit over the top? Perhaps. I must try to find a happy medium – slightly more posts on twitter/facebook?

On the other hand, I have been writing, rewriting and editing book two. Bright Axe is now finished. It will go back to the editor soon – more about that another time. Then I’ll have to think about publication. Do I go back to the publisher of Bright Sword? Have I sold enough copies of the first book? If they offer me the same (partnership) deal should I accept? Would I be better off with straight self-publishing? It would mean more work, but more control about what happens. Do I put more effort into Bright Sword or concentrate on publishing Bright Axe?

So many decisions to make.

Recently I was thinking about the future:

About book two.

About when to return to the first draft of book three.

About plans for book four and whether the story will finish there.

I had a sudden revelation. If I finish the Byrhtnoth Chronicles with book four – what will I write next?

It was that, not the receipt of a royalty payment or anything else, that stopped me in my tracks.

I am no longer someone who has had a go at writing a book. I am a writer – and I’m not sure I can stop.

With Aethelflaed in Tamworth

I have never been to Tamworth before. I don’t know why, it’s only about 30 miles away, straight up Watling Street. Perhaps because I’ve never had a reason to go. This weekend, there was a very good reason, it was Aethelfest. This was a celebration of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who died in the town 1100 years ago, in 918.

I’m not sure why a town would celebrate the death of a famous visitor – not exactly good publicity. Although it can happen (Maldon, 991?).

So who was Aethelflaed? For anyone who has missed all the publicity, she was the daughter (and eldest child) of Alfred the Great and like him, she fought the Danes, driving them out of Mercia. She was not a Queen, because her husband, Aethelred (no, not that one!) was not a King. Who he was is a mystery and one of the subjects that was covered at the event, organised by Tamworth Literary Festival – Aethelflaed and Women’s Worlds: Reconstructing Early Women’s Voices.

Statue of Aethelflaed and the young King Athelstan by Tamworth Castle

I had seen this advertised some time before and had been attracted by the fact that two very good authors were taking part, both of whom have written about “my” period. Since it was held only a few days after my birthday, I knew I had to go.

I allowed plenty of time for the journey, and arrived an hour early, finding a car park right next to the venue. Plenty of time to have a look round the town. There were plenty of boards so I learned something of the history of the town and ended up at the castle. unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit but wandered round the Castle Grounds where there was an Anglo-Saxon encampment and the display of a colourful Aetheflaed mosaic.

Aethelfest Mosaic

Entrance to Tamworth Castle and floral Anglo-Saxon warrior

The Castle was Norman but Tamworth was important long before, as the capital of Mercia, home of King Penda and King Offa. It was sacked by the Danes in 874 and rebuilt  and fortified by Aethelflaed in 913. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring but I had to get back for the main attraction.

After an introduction by Dr Sara Read, the speaker was Annie Whitehead. Annie has written several books, one, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, actually includes a character I have written about – although from a vastly different viewpoint. Today she was talking about Aethelflaed, whose life she has written about in “To be a Queen”. She told us about Aethelflaed and how little information there is actually is about her. Was it because she was a successful woman in a man’s would, or was it for political reasons? The Kings of Wessex were eager to take over Mercia and when Aethelflaed died, leaving only a daughter to succeed her, she was quickly “rescued” by Aethflaed’s brother, King Edward and never seen again.

Annie has cleverly taken what is known and woven it into a plausible story, interpreting the facts to fit what might be what happened. I recommend her latest book “Cometh the Hour” about King Penda, an interesting view of a king who is usually the antagonist in other books set in this earlier, 7th century, period. It provides an explanation of the burial of the Staffordshire Hoard. Annie also has a non-fiction book coming out in September, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom“. I look forward to reading it.

The second speaker was treading on dangerous ground. Marianne Whiting is a Viking – or perhaps I should say a writer about Vikings. Born in Sweden, she was captured by a local while on a course at Birmingham University and has been held hostage ever since. She explained how the Vikings were not (just) the rapists and pillagers we know and love, but traders, merchants and innocent settlers. She described the difficulties of writing about writing in a time when beliefs and customs were very different from today. Should she leave out descriptions of animal sacrifice that might shock the modern reader? She doesn’t and her books, the Shieldmaiden Viking Trilogy are all the better for it. We are immersed in ordinary farming life of settlers in the English Lake District. Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter is a shieldmaiden. She fights for her land, her family and her honour. Politics intervene, her uncle is Eirik Haraldson (Bloodaxe) sometime King of Jorvik over the period of the books. I had read the first two, “Shieldmaiden” and “To Save a Kingdom” and was particularly interested to buy the third “Honour is All” as it deals with the same period, and some of the same characters, that I am struggling with. I have read and finished it (which is why I didn’t write this blog yesterday) and it was everything I wished for, with a wonderful ending.

The third and final speaker was Dr Jennifer Evans talking about medical treatment of medieval women.  Her speciality is the Early Modern Period but she spoke to us about a little known woman called Trotula said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, who wrote a textbook on women’s medicine. This was a very amusing talk about some of the “cures” for various ailments, mostly of women but sometimes men. The main method of administration was by fumigation, which meant that the doctor didn’t need to look at or touch the woman at all.

The speakers were followed by questions and then a buffet lunch. There was plenty of time to chat and buy books.

Viking and Saxon in harmony. Marianne Whiting and Annie Whitehead signing books.

It was an entertaining and educational  event. I wish I had made more of an effort to investigate more of the whole Aethelfest experience, but it was just too hot. I retired to my air conditioned car and returned home, to read my books in the garden. Thanks to the authors for giving up their time and the Tamworth Literary Festival for organising it and of course Tamworth Borough Council for organising Aethelfest

Where do you go to, my darlings?

As a writer of fiction, you make things up. That’s not really a surprise, but the fact is that those things become real, at least to the author. To the reader as well, I hope, but what happens if they never reach the reader?

You invent a world, and the events in it. There is a plot and you must decide what happens next. You need a scene. It must continue from the scene before and lead on to the one after. You decide who will appear in the scene and what they do. How does it start and how does it end? You test snatches of conversation, imagine the venue – should you add some description? Eventually, when you have it complete in your head, you write it down. At least that is how I do it.

You continue with the next scene, and the next. You end up with a book. You start to edit. You rearrange words, delete some, correct the spelling and get rid of those words that you use too much. You read it through, aloud if possible. You edit it again, you send it to beta readers and you make changes – perhaps.

By now you have read it so often, you know the book almost as well as your own life. The memories of your characters have become your memories; a part of your life.

Then you employ an Editor!

An editor, if he is any good, will tell you what is wrong with your book. He will tell you to change this, delete that. A character is delaying the plot, another needs more of the action. What does he want? Why is she doing that? You will want to ignore the advice. Must I really get rid of that scene, that beautiful scene that says exactly what I wanted to say, the beautiful description, the words that will tear at your reader’s heart? Yes, you must kill your darlings!

But where do they go, those memories? Do they disappear in a puff of smoke? Perhaps they remain, if the reason they were killed was lack of space, they remain as back story, part of your character’s life. But some die completely. The plot is changed, a relationship is destroyed, a life takes an unexpected turn, characters merge to become someone new.

Perhaps they will be recycled, names changed, in another book. But even if the characters forget, I will not. It may be that when I have written more books, the “might have been” scenes will fade away. For now, they linger and I mourn them.

I have been rewriting, it has been a long process, although I hadn’t realised it had been so long since I posted anything here. I am close to the end – an end which I have now identified – that was one of the problems.

Now I must put it all back together. I haven’t checked the word count, I know it is large. There will be more editing. Will I have to remove more “darlings”? I hope not, I don’t think I can stand the anguish.

Editing in the garden

How much longer?

I’m sorry that this post is a bit late.

I have been writing, but the more I hurry to get to the end of book three, the longer it gets. I have been trying to finish this first draft. I thought I would finish last week, with plenty of time to catch up with other things before I get book two back from my editor.

I knew I had been doing well, with a couple of 2k+ days. I also knew, because I was feeling so tired. But there was not far to go. I was disappointed when I got to the end of the week (Saturday, for working purposes) and hadn’t finished, the disappointment cleared when I totted up the totals and found I’d written 10,267 words! In seven days! A record for me. I would polish off the rest on Sunday, plus the blog post I had planned.

Real life intervened. Saturday evening my mother was taken into hospital – nothing serious – we went on Sunday to pick her up. Several unproductive hours later, there was still no sign of when they would let her go, so we came home. There we found a message from our son. He had broken his leg and was in hospital – a different hospital. Since he is of an age not to require the presence of a mother at his bedside, we didn’t have to rush out to visit. As you can imagine, I was not in much of a condition to do much writing.

Those things I was going to catch up with, drifted.

I managed a healthy 1,000+ yesterday and (wow) 2,200 today. I am still exhausted and still not finished. My target is 90k, and I am now on 108k.

Am I writing rubbish? I don’t know, but it keeps pouring out. I don’t want to turn it off – what if I can’t start it again.

Thank you for listening to me. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible – I hope.

Take a deep breath

If you have been following this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I have been having problems with book two of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

In the first place I didn’t intend to write a series. Bright Sword emerged from a writing course, it grew and by the time I finished it, I knew there was more of Byrhtnoth’s story to tell – He had a long life and he was still in his teens. Book two came easily, I enjoyed writing it. I tidied it up and sent it to a couple of brave volunteers for a Beta read. I was told it was better than the first book I was pleased, Bright Sword had been published in a bit of a rush, and was not entirely happy with it. The Beta readers made various comments, on different parts of book two.

Meanwhile I had started book three. I say started but in fact I began in the middle – an experiment in POV. I forced myself to stop at what I thought was the end and went back to the start. But where was the start? Book two had continued directly from the end of Bright Sword, but for some reason I couldn’t get it to work properly this time. I carried on writing, from a later “beginning” and have nearly finished the first draft, joining the two halves together.

I have continued to worry about the beginning: Steal the end of book two for the start of book three? Ignore what happened between books two and three and start later? But that bit of plot was vital! What I needed was someone to tell me what to do. An Editor.

I was wary. I had already had problems with an editor. Where did I find the right one? Someone was recommended – they were too busy writing their own books. Someone else was mentioned, but another person said they were expensive. Time passed and I became desperate. Then I found someone. I won’t say who or how, in case it all goes pear-shaped, but I think it is going well.

I sent off my manuscript, together with synopses of Books one, three (so far) and four (ideas) and a list of what was troubling me. I wanted a basic Editors Report. What I got was fantastic; it addressed every point I had raised, in detail. It told me what was good (thank you) and what was wrong (help). Horrible as some of the suggestions were, this favorite scene had to go (too much like something in book one) and that was too unbelievable, I knew they were right.

I took a deep breath and thought about it, for several days. If I take that bit out, what do I put in its place? Yes, I can shorten/lengthen that piece. That scene is just waiting to be filled out. I came up with a new outline. It is better but there are problems – I still can’t work out where it ends! The Editor has ideas, so I have signed up for a full Structural Report. I’ll report later on how it goes.

I have now recovered from that tornado of emotion – fear and elation. It is as if I had finished a large jigsaw puzzle. Every piece was in place, but the picture was wrong. Someone has taken the puzzle and thrown it up in the air. Where will it come down and in how many pieces? All I know is that it needed to be done and I will lean a lot from putting it together again. Wish me luck.

Another good thing that came out of this shake up. Despite, or because of, spending all that time thinking, I still managed 6290 words of book three this week. All that’s left to do is the final (middle) scene – the battle. I feel I have just been through one, which may be a help.

I’ll let you know next week.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

With apologies to the Rugby Cafe Writers group, whose subject this was at their latest meeting, where do I get my ideas?

Writing historical fiction, I am constrained by what was actually happening in the period the book is set. The advantage of writing about the tenth century means that there is not a lot of known facts to contend with. In fact the plot outline is provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Book three is set in the year A.D.948 and according to this source, these are the events:

Research – £2.99 from Oxfam according to the label.

A. D. 948. King Eadred ravaged all Northumbria, because they had taken Eric for their king.
In that ravaging the minster at Ripon was burnt down, that St. Wilferth had built.
When the king was going homewards, the force in York overcame the king’s troops left behind in Castleford, and there was much slaughter.
Then the king was so enraged that he wanted to turn back and destroy that land, and everything in it.
The Northumbrians perceived this and gave up Eric; they made amends for that deed with king Eadred.

This is quite a lot to work with. Apparently two years later, in A.D. 950 absolutely nothing happened!

How was Byrhtnoth involved in these events? Apart from (probably) being alive at the time, nothing is known. So in the tradition of most historical novelists, Bernard Cornwall and Uhtred, etc, I must put him in the heart of the action. For some reason, that I don’t remember, I started writing the second part of the book first, then went back to the start. I am nearing the end (or what will be the middle). This week Byrhtnoth arrived in Ripon.

I have never been to Ripon, so I consulted my other sources (Wikipedia and Google Maps). One important fact I discovered was the Minster, which was burnt down, was in fact built of stone – one of the first Anglo-Saxon buildings built of that material. How do you burn down a stone building? I had a lot of thinking to do: What did it look like? How was it furnished? How would I burn it – if I wanted to do such a thing. I think I came up with a reasonable solution. You will have to wait until the book is published, to find out how.

All I have to do now is describe how Byrhtnoth survives Eric Bloodaxe and the great slaughter of Castleford and the first draft will be finished.

I am now past 88k words and last week I wrote 7,709 – I’m on schedule!