Successful Historical Fiction – Interview with M.K.Tod

The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”

At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History, author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.

The questions posed by Mary were:

  • What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
  • What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
  • Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
  • What makes these particular authors stand out?
  • In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
  • Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
  • Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
  • What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
  • In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
  • Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I took up the challenge, and you can read my interview here.

If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”

Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.

Photo Inspiration for “The Bondage of The Soil”

“Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” – George Orwell

(All photos © Margaret McGoverne 2017)

So, dear reader, I’ve published my very first work of fiction  and the truth of the Orwell quote above has hit me hard. Writing the story is only the first step; I’m busy with guest posts, building up reviews, and wooing local newspapers to bestow a couple of columns on my book.

thincovertbows5It’s a bit like having children; having brought my first book baby into the world, I now have to contend with gestating and giving birth to another one while the firstborn is still a very demanding toddler!

On the plus side, I have renewed vigour for my current work in progress; I suspect this is because, after endless rereads and edits and Kindle uploads and proofing, I’m thoroughly sick of The Battle of Watling Street!

The Bondage of The Soil is the modern-day Sci-Fi sequel to The Battle of Watling Street (which was set in 1st century AD Roman Britain) , although it was the first in terms of the idea coming to me. The inspiration was a lonely detour on my way home from  work, excavations for a new motorway junction, a steep hill, lots of local Roman and Celtic history and a very old, lonely church. So as a taster, here’s some pictures and the Google street view from the road (I couldn’t get a shot of the creepy pollarded trees that edge the church as there’s nowhere to park on the country lane.)

I hope to finish the first draft by the autumn; I’m excited by this one, it’s my first full length novel, and I feel I learned lots from The Battle of Watling Street, even though it’s a less than 20K words novella.

(If you’d like to read the first two chapters of The Battle of Watling Street for free, you can subscribe to email updates, or I’d be happy to arrange a free PDF copy for a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads)

Lessons In Kindle – Twelve Things I Learned When Publishing My Book on Amazon (Part 1)

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My first published novella, on Kindle

I recently published my first work of fiction, an Alternate history/Sci-Fi novella, The Battle of Watling Street, using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

This may turn into a short series of posts, but for now I want to limit the discussion to the technical/formatting challenges and benefits I discovered with KDP. Hopefully this will help someone, somewhere with their own self-publishing journey!

The advice in this post could be summarised by the 5 Ps of preparation: (or 6 Ps used where I work – hey, it’s a utility/construction environment, these guys are plain talkers!) proper planning prevents (piss) poor performance. Here are 12 specific ways in which you can prepare, and make the process as painless and productive as possible.

  • 1.There are KDP resources and guides to help with uploads, formatting requirements etc – do read these before you start. There are some important things to note about which format to upload your book, as each type has its own requirements and limitations. For example…
  • 2. If you are uploading to Kindle (eBook as opposed to print version), you will need to set up styles in your document for chapter/section headers, and also to create and format a table of contents that will work in your Kindle book. Be warned, if like me you had to juggle between two different word processors to get all the required formatting (I have Word Starter and Kingsoft WPS Writer at present), things can change between formats, especially font type and size. I encountered an issue where some paragraphs changed font and size, and I had to manually change them all back. Check your uploaded file carefully for any font discrepancies!
  •  3. Page Numbers – for Kindle eBook uploads, which are ideally uploaded in a Doc. or HTML (filtered) format, you need to remove page numbers from your book, and from the table of contents, as Kindle will format your pages differently. Don’t do what I did initially, which was to then save that file as a PDF for my printed book upload. The first few copies of my paperback were sold without page numbers, much to my embarrassment.
  • 4. Page breaks: If you are uploading a Filtered HTML document, you need to insert an extra page break at the end of each chapter or section, to prevent the pages running on together in the Kindle version.I did this while the file was still in DOC format as it’s easier to confirm it has created the breaks.
  • 5. Zipped Files: for your Kindle format, if you have any images in your document, you need to create a zipped file that contains both the document and any images. When you save a Word document as filtered HTML, it should create a folder; drop your images in here. If not you can manually zip your files together. If you don’t do this, images will be missing from your eBook.
  • 6. KDP offers a paperback print option for your book but you have to format your document (I used PDF) to fit one of the default paper sizes, usually 6 x 9 inches. My Word document was 8 x 11 but it’s quite easy to change; go to Page Layout/Size and select from there. (NB, sizes on Word are displayed in cm. There is also a custom size option at the bottom of the page, which is what I used.)
  • 7. Viewing and approving your document: as part of the upload process, you are prompted to review your uploaded document and cover image, and approve them for publication. The online reviewer is long and a bit cumbersome and requires a screen with minimum resolution of 600 x 1200 (I had to move from my laptop to my desktop to see the “Approve” button) but it’s essential to getting the formatting right. You are looking to check that there are no errors (red crosses) as these will prevent you approving the document. You can approve a document if the errors are only warnings (yellow triangles). Check that page breaks etc are in the right place, images have come through correctly, table of contents and tables/tabbed paragraphs display correctly.You may also be prompted to check that page numbers are within margins, and that your cover image is of high enough resolution.
  • 8. Your Blurb: you’ve been messing about with document formats, zip files and cover images, but have you prepared your book blurb? Your blurb is the (semi) short description of your book, and it’s your chance to shine: don’t write it on the fly, have it ready. I searched Amazon for the top 10 books in the categories I was planning to list my book in (Historical fiction/Sci-Fi/Mysteries) and I looked at what caught my eye and made me want to read a book. I came up  with a short paragraph that summarised the premise, but also a few short and choppy sentences, each headed by a teasing title. I also did a quick author bio, for readers who didn’t click through to my author page. Here’s what my blurb looks like:
    blurb
  • 9. The waiting game: when you’ve finally approved and uploaded your files, set your royalty rates and done everything else needful, be prepared for a wait. Your KDP Bookshelf will show you progress, from “Live – In review”, through to “Live”. This can take a while; the paperback version took about 4 hours for me, the eBook was the better part of 8 hours initially. Edits and updates are a little quicker once your files have been initially uploaded.
  • 10. Once your books are published, you should head on over to the Amazon Author Page (here’s my UK author page) and fill it full of interesting information about the newly published author. But be aware, this Amazon Author page isn’t universal; you will have to create a separate one for the UK, US, India, Australia etc. So far I’ve set the UK and US pages up as I think these will be my primary markets, although I will complete duplicate pages for commonwealth countries. The US page in particular has some additional nice features such as a unique author URL; do use these!
  • 11. Giveaways and promotions: if you want to feature your newly published book in a free or reduced price giveaway, you will have to enrol in Amazon’s KDP Select programme; this isn’t currently an option on KDP. I haven’t yet enrolled in KDP Select as I need to read up on the pros and cons; while your book is featured in KDP Select, it must be published exclusively with Amazon, although it can be marketed elsewhere in print format.
  • 12. Your book on other platforms: so you’ve uploaded your book, it’s live on Amazon, and you have a nifty new author page (or two). Now you’re keen to head on over to Goodreads, Bookbub etc and set your author page up, offer your book as a giveaway etc. Be warned, it takes a few days (a week for me) for your book to show up on their search pages after being uploaded to Amazon, so be patient.

I hope these pointers help you in your self-publishing journey; if you have any more or have had a different experience with Kindle DP, please let me know in the comments!

The Battle of Watling Street is Published!

I am a published author of a historical/science fiction novella!

Yesterday was D-Day. After feverish last minute formatting and some tiny revisions (how can I still find things to tweak after dozens of self-edits, software edits, beta readings and more edits?), I took the plunge and submitted my book to Kindle.

I’ve entered Amazon’s Storyteller 2017 competition, so I also had to make the book available in print, which added a whole additional learning curve and some drama – chez McGoverne was tense! In fact, the uploading process was pretty simple and well explained; preparation is key.

A couple of tweaks later (I forgot the keyword for the competition, I didn’t zip file the Kindle edition so an image was missing and I had to reupload both versions, which took ALL day), and both book formats were live on Amazon! A quick Author update later and I am an Amazon author – yay!!!

Margaret McGoverne Amazon UK Author Page

I am really pleased with the covers, especially the paperback version, which was easier to create than I thought, thanks to the proofing and formatting tool on Kindle DP. I’ve linked the images below back to the books on Amazon if you’re interested!

paperbackcovers

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It was such a rush to see the back cover of the paperback version, complete with barcode and ISBN (free from Amazon).

As you can see, the paperback version already has the free Amazon “Look inside” previewer; the Kindle version should be up and running within a week.

And look! Look how prettily it renders on a Kindle! Oh, the formatting that went into this, the sneaky Word/HTML reformatting that I had to manually adjust, the mucking about with paragraphs, styles, and headings!

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I am so thrilled to see all the hard work translated into a thing, a book, that looks professional, has a working Table of Contents, has an engaging cover (I think), and is all my own work!

I let my personal Facebook friends, family and colleagues know, and have tweeted a link to the book, and the response has been great; purchases have happened, in both formats! Now I need some reviews; my mind already turns to promoting this book, and I’m looking at services such as Bookbub and The Fussy Librarian, but both require at least 10 4 star Amazon reviews. I’m not sure if Bookbub accepts novellas, and they are notoriously choosy!

I’m also promoting with local news outlets, Twitter interest groups etc.

I haven’t registered for KDP Select yet so I’m not sure if I can do a free promotion; these are things I need to research ASAP!

It’s been a tiring, an emotional and ultimately a hugely rewarding journey, with lots of learning curves. The work isn’t over for The Battle of Watling Street; I want to make it visible to as many people as possible, but I also have to crack on with the sequel, and the other novel I’m working on; no laurel lounging allowed!

My last note on here is a request/plea: I’d like to guest blog on your blog! I’d be happy to blog about the book, the writing process, the subject matter or the process of publishing with Kindle DP. I’d also love to do interviews, and have already compiled some great questions I’d love to ask my fellow authors in return!

So if you would like to include a guest blog from me or interview me, please do get in touch, and thanks to everyone, to all my dear constant readers and commenters, for your support!

A Hiatus and HPL…

HP Lovecraft, 1934
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1934

I’ve had a tumultuous couple of months, and my writing has suffered; in fact my output nose-dived to zero. I keenly feel the truth of the (probably apocryphal) Chinese curse of living through interesting times. You may note, dear reader, the lack of any posts on here since July, but my hiatus is hopefully over, and I’m able to concentrate once more on the only thing that really matters.

In the meantime I’ve kept my hand in by reading and catching up on some recommended podcast listening; I’m currently working my way through the excellent HP Podcraft.com podcast, a literary treasure trove of all things HPL, as well as some excellent readings of Lovecraft tales. And now we’re in October, what better time to read of witch-haunted Arkham and the evil cults that worshipped and called back to earth the Old Ones?

Talking of Halloween, John Xero’s 101fiction.com is open for submissions of 101 word micro fiction; the theme is “Hallowe’en or unlucky thirteen or just something dark and chilling”  – head over there if drabbles are your thing, and keep your fingers crossed for me, I’ve just submitted an HPL-inspired tale!

Although I haven’t completed any serious writing for several months, I have written down a couple of short story ideas, and the plots for Buntings and Bondage have been simmering at the back of my head, so I hope to make quite a bit of progress on both drafts before year-end.

Last but not least on this brief round-up, I haven’t neglected my editorial duties at strippedlit500 – if you haven’t already read them , please take a look at the excellent short fiction I’m proud to present in Issue 2.

Happy writing!

8 Foods of Ulster featured in “And The Buntings Flew”

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I recently read a great article in the Guardian Food in Books series by blogger Kate at The Little Library Cafe; – you can read the latest article here.

Kate writes about the food that features in some of her favourite books, and she often recreates recipes for foods as described in such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fellowship of The Ring, and Vanity Fair.

I love this idea, and it got me thinking about the food that’s featured in the novel I am  writing, And The Buntings Flew, which is set in 1970s Belfast.The food of Northern Ireland was and still is very traditional, and may seem limited (not much pasta or rice was in evidence, and salads were sorry affairs), but Irish meat, dairy produce and vegetables are of world class quality, and food was often bought fresh from the butchers and grocers, when shopping was a little-and-often affair before the widescale introduction of supermarkets.

Below I’ve listed eight of the Northern Irish food and drinks you can read about in And The Buntings Flew, and if you find yourself in Ulster, please do try as many as you can!

Tea (Lots Of It!)

I may have mentioned this before on here: the Irish are some of the most prolific tea drinkers in the world! Wikipedia lists the Republic of Ireland at number 3, and the UK at number 5 of the highest consumers of tea per capita

Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own popular tea brands, one of which is Thompson’s “Punjana”. In the 1970s, the period in Which And The Buntings Flew is set, loose leaf tea was the norm; I still think it’s more flavourful, although spitting out errant tea leaves is one of its drawbacks. One of my memories of my late father is of his never being more than a few feet from either a mug, cup, teapot, flask or bottle of strong white tea.

Punjana teapot, courtesy of punjana.com
Punjana loose leaf teapot, courtesy of Punjana.com

Ulster Fry

The BBC asked if the Ulster Fry was the best-cooked breakfast in the UK, and the answer to that is surely a resounding yes! What’s so special about a wee fry you ask? For me it’s the addition of the Potato and Soda breads, adding a range of glorious flavours and textures that toast simply can’t match. Vegetable roll is also a winning addition to the cooked breakfast, as are the wonderful Irish sausages, which usually have a higher meat content than their mainland counterparts; put them all together and you have a taste extravaganza and a meal that sets you up for the rest of the day!

Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3
Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3

Champ

A cheap, simple but wonderful dish celebrating the potato and made even better with flavourful Irish butter; potatoes mashed with butter and milk, with the addition of chopped spring onions, or scallions as they’re known in Northern Ireland. The scallions give the mash a real tangy kick.

Scallion and brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com
Scallion & brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com

 

Dulse

Dulse (Palmaria Palmata) is a strongly flavoured, salty seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic, including Northern Ireland. Dulse is harvested at low tide by hand during the summertime and then dried.Dulse can be found for sale in little plastic bags at markets, fairs and bars; we always bought a few bags on day trips to Ballycastle, where it is also sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in August. It is something of an acquired taste!

By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956
Dulse, by Cwmhiraeth Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956

Potato Bread/Farl

Another potato dish, this reminds me of Sunday evening teatimes and was often in evidence if there wasn’t much in for dinner. The main ingredient is leftover mashed potatoes mixed with plain flour, a pinch of salt and a knob of butter or a drop of buttermilk if available. Potato bread is dry fried in a pan or griddle, is quick and easy to make and is absolutely delicious. A true Ulster Fry must include both Potato bread and soda bread, at least in my family!

Soda Bread

Soda bread was created in the 19th century when locals used baking soda and buttermilk for raising agents as a substitute for yeast. Soda bread is divinely soft and fluffy, and is served either fried or sliced with butter (my preference) on its own or as part of an Ulster Fry.

Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com
Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com

Yellowman

I have happy memories of munching bagfuls of crunchy bright Yellowman on days out to the seaside, but I haven’t seen it outside Northern Ireland; it is similar in texture to the bags of honeycomb you can still buy at fairs and markets, but chewier, with a hard, rock-like “rind”.

By Wild quinine - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713
Yellowman, by Wild quininehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713

 

Vegetable Roll

The name “vegetable roll” is a total misnomer for this sausage-like roll of fatty meat (often beef brisket and rib trimmings) seasoned with onion, carrot and celery. Vegetable roll can be served in an Ulster Fry or on its own with potatoes or champ, or with mashed carrot and swede. My wonderful late aunt always brought home a batch whenever she returned to East Belfast.

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried any or all of the above Northern Irish food favourites, or if you feature any of them in your writing?

Margaret

(With grateful thanks to the following websites and blogs)

Robert Harris Goodreads Q&A January ’16

Cesare Maccari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite authors, Robert Harris is doing a Goodreads “Ask the Author” Q&A mid January and I’ve just posted a question about his latest novel “Dictator”; fingers crossed that he answers!

My question is about the historical character, Roman lawyer, politician, orator and consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is the central character in Harris’s latest trilogy, although he is surrounded (and intrigued) by historical heavyweights such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Pompey the Great.

Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today?

Cicero was a very talented, largely self-made man in a key period of history  that was dominated for the most part by men with an aristocratic or very wealthy background. My question to Robert Harris was, does he think that there is, or could be a public figure like Cicero today, and if so, is there someone he would identify as being that person?

One of the main themes for me in reading Robert Harris’s historical first century BC novels is that politics is timeless, as are the scheming, betrayals, uneasy alliances and real-politik that dominates it today. Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today, or as in the time of the Roman republic, would that require huge financial backing? Has much changed? The 20th century featured one or two very ambitious orators who had humble beginnings, and that didn’t work out so well for humanity.

If I do receive an answer I’ll post it here, and if this type of historical/political fiction is your thing, please do check out Robert Harris’s novels if you haven’t already.

Margaret