Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The History Of The ClothesPeg: Ali Bacon tackles the demands of authenticity in fiction and in film.

A calotype in the making*

Filming a trailer for my latest book with Gavin Allen Productions (see last month's post) is still a few weeks away, but a location recce has thrown up some matters of urgency. 

As you will probably know by now, the book features encounters with early photography and while we’re not, I’m glad to say, planning to replicate the entire calotype process of 1843, even to give a flavour of what it was like demands a degree of historical accuracy. 

Luckily we had an expert on hand who agreed with our idea that negatives were very often hung up to dry on a makeshift clothesline. Just one thing had as all stumped – what kind of pegs would be used to attach them? Surely the handy wooden spring clip (I even have some now mixed in with the flashy plastic variety) weren't in use back then?

Just in time my calotypist friend emails me with a gratifying quote from 1844, " let it merely be suspended in the air, and in the absence of a better expedient it may be pinned across a string by one of its corners." So off I go in search of the history of the clothes peg. 

Googling reveals some ‘Victorian’ pegs made of a split stick, or two sticks bound, or nailed, together at the top. This one looks attractively primitive, don't you think?  Dead authentic, surely, and even if I last did whittling at guide camp, maybe I could actually make some myself? 

But I do eventually turn up an article (The Economist no less) on the history of the clothes peg which tells me the ‘dolly’ peg - as used by my Mum and available passim for making dolls - was patented in 1809. Wouldn’t Messrs Adamson and/or Hill have simply raided the domestic washing basket and used what was used these? I also confirm that  the “new and useful or improved…spring clamp for clothes lines” came along earlier than I would have thought in 1853, but not quite early enough.

Old pegs for new?**
So it’s back to the old-fashioned peg –  But somehow these don’t feel quite right. Won’t they look too new? Can I age them by leaving them out in the rain or staining them? Or should I splash out on ‘vintage’ versions (i.e. shabbier models sold at a premium!)

Here I remind myself that the Victorians did not live in a world of antiques and sepia mists – they might just have bought some brand new clothes pegs like me. But authenticity, as someone once said, is not about accuracy. It’s at least in part about meeting the expectations of the reader/viewer and I just have a feeling that light bright pegs will look anachronistic even if historically they are perfectly okay.

Curioser and curioser
Yes I am now truly obsessed and spend time empathising with my heroes in their candlelit rooms as well as Googling more clothes peg stuff just for the hell of it. I even turn up an exciting looking wire version of a U.S. ‘clothes pin’ which looks ideal for attaching paper, rather than clothes, to a line.  

My heroes were nothing if not resourceful – even if these weren’t around in the shops or on the doorstep, maybe they would have made their own? But presumably only if they didn’t they have anything else to hand which would work. I abandon my designs on a wire coat-hanger as hopelessly extravagant.  

So it’s back to the washing-line drawing board. Let’s get an old peg, some paper and string, and see if it works. 

I’m sure this is what any self-respecting calotypist would have done. 

Meanwhile if you have any clothes pegs which look like they could be very old, you know where to find me!

Ali's novel In the Blink of an Eye (Linen Press 2018) 
is a re-imagining of the life of Edinburgh artist and photographer D. O. Hill. 

Join Ali for its Edinburgh launch in Blackwell's South Bridge, Edinburgh. on October 17th.
You can register for free entry here. 

*Calotype of a bust of Daguerre by Rob Douglas,
21st Century Calotypist,

**Old pegs from


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Bestselling Titles: Tricks Publishers Use To Get Their Top Books Before The Eyes Of A Million Readers - Katherine Roberts

Yes, I know this post has a long title... that's rather the point. Did it draw you in? More importantly, did it come up when you searched for one of the keywords? Someone who knows what they are doing (unlike me) could make sure you find it, and the same theory applies to book titles.

Sometimes - in the interests of market research, naturally - I browse the Top 100 Bestsellers on my Kindle. There's one list for paid and another one for free (which requires an extra click to find it). For this post, we'll concentrate on the paid list, because any fool can give away a book... right? Wrong, as it turns out, with so many freebies around these days, but the same tricks will help you there, too.

The last time I looked before writing this post (about a week ago), almost every single book on the first five pages of Amazon's Top 100 paid list had not only an eye-grabbing cover and main title, but also an additional subtitle or sentence, some of these too long to fit in the thumbnail view on my Kindle.

Here are a few examples, chosen at random:

The Party: The gripping new psychological thriller from the bestseller Lisa Hall.
by Lisa Hall
OK, I can see how this one works... 'psychological thriller' is a popular genre that a lot of readers will be searching for online, and I guess 'new psychological thriller' is even better for the jaded reader who has read every thriller under the sun. Is there much point in repeating the author's name? I can only guess 'bestseller Lisa Hall' works better than simply 'Lisa Hall' - or maybe it's like the Hunger Games, and the more times your name's in the algorithms, the more chance you have of being noticed/picked for fame.

The Wedding Date: The laugh out loud romantic comedy of the year!
by Zara Stoneley
This one has fairly obvious clues for the comedy lovers among you. Searches for either 'laugh out loud' or 'romantic comedy' should pull this one up. The exclamation mark! Don't ask me. It's possible there's a secret algorithm out there scanning book titles and ranking those with exclamation marks higher than those without, but more likely it's there for the benefit of the human reader. The sort of reader searching for 'laugh out loud' books, maybe.

The Endless Beach: The new novel from the Sunday Times bestselling author.
by Jenny Colgan
This publisher clearly doesn't think it worth repeating the author's name. 'Sunday Times bestselling author' has a nice ring to it, although I wonder how that works in the US? It also works as simply 'bestselling author', of course, in case you didn't know the author was pretty much a bestseller already.

Snap: 'The best crime novel I've read in a very long time.' Val McDermid.
by Belinda Bauer
This one wins the prize for cheekiness. It's a puff of the sort a publisher might put on the cover (couldn't read that at thumbnail size), and I guess some crime readers might search for 'best crime novel'.  As for 'Val McDermid'... well, I don't read much crime but I've definitely heard of her, so I can see the the logic in linking your book to hers if you can get away with it. Less than observant readers might even assume Val McDermid wrote the book, get over-excited and buy it before they realize she didn't... I can't help wondering if Ms MDermid, when supplying the cover puff, was made aware of this extra use of her bestselling author name?

Her Last Breath: an absolutely gripping crime thriller with a massive twist.
Some rather shady claims here, in my humble opinion, but 'gripping crime thriller' is doubtless a popular search term, and 'massive twist' sounds interesting, at least. Putting the author's name in capital letters just annoyed me - some publishers put their entire title in capitals too. Why? I doubt the algorithms see BIG LETTERS AS MORE IMPORTANT than little letters, but they certainly stand out on the screen - unless every other publisher with a book appearing on that same screen has put their titles and author names in capitals, too, of course. That's the trouble with trying to game the system. Once other people start doing the same thing, you have to start all over again...

Out of interest, these are the KDP's guidelines on metadata with regard to titles and subtitles:

Titles are the most frequently used search attribute. The title field should contain only the actual title of your book as it appears on your book cover. Missing or erroneous title information may bury valid results among extraneous hits. Customers pay special attention to errors in titles and won't recognize the authenticity of your book if it has corrupted special characters, superfluous words, bad formatting, extra descriptive content, etc. Examples of items that are prohibited in the title field include but are not limited to: 

  • Unauthorized reference to other titles or authors
  • Unauthorized reference to a trademarked term
  • Reference to sales rank (e.g., "bestselling")
  • Reference to advertisements or promotions (e.g., "free")
If your book has a subtitle, enter it here. A subtitle is a subordinate title that contains additional information about the content of your book. Your title and subtitle together must be fewer than 200 characters. The subtitle will appear on your book's detail page, and must adhere to the same guidelines as your title.

If you break any of these rules as a KDP publisher, you're likely to get a warning email from the title police, and maybe even - in the case of repeat offenders - total removal of your KDP account, although I don't know of any specific cases. Whether the same rules apply to the mainstream publishers, I'm not sure. Quite a few of the books currently on the bestseller lists are definitely stretching them, if so.

If all else fails, you can always opt for a very long title on the book itself, which isn't a new thing by any means as you can see from this link, but works in much the same way to help make your book stand out from the crowd. You could invent a long title to snag the algorithms with artfully-placed keywords in much the same way as the subtitles do above, but it's trickier. There's a young adult book on the Top 100 Kindle list at the moment with quite a long title already, which I notice has developed a few additions for its online listing:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Debut Sunday Times Bestseller and Costa First Novel Book Award winner 2017
by Gail Honeyman
It seems winning multiple awards is not enough these days... you still have to shout at the algorithms to get your book noticed online.

I'll admit to having played around with a bit of title stuffing myself.

I am the Great Horse: The story of Alexander the Great from the horse's mouth.
by Katherine Roberts
In this case, I added the subtitle when I published the ebook to give my readers a better idea of the book's contents, since 'I am the Great Horse' did not sit easily in any particular genre. I didn't break any rules, but the subtitle didn't seem to make much difference to the book's visibility, and it didn't tie in with the original paper editions listed online (which created linking problems), so after a couple of months I removed the subtitle and went back to the simpler 'I am the Great Horse'.

These days, a more algorithm-catchy Great Horse title might be:

I am the Great Horse: Bookseller's Choice! The most original laugh out loud adventure ever told by a four-legged celebrity author.
by Katherine Roberts
No false claims here. The book has been a genuine 'Bookseller's Choice' (John Newman of the Newham Bookshop called it "a major work of historical fiction"). Celebrity chasers may be a bit less than enthusiastic once they find out that the 'celebrity author' they expected is actually Alexander the Great's warhorse Bucephalas, but I did say he had four legs... anyway, you've seen my book now, so you might at least mention it to a friend you know who does like horses and/or history... in other words, you (a potential reader with potential reader-friends!) SAW my book in the first place, and that's quite a trick these days among the vast oceans of books out there swimming about all-but-invisibly in the ether.

Finally, here's my 1999 debut novel, appropriately title-stuffed for today's online marketplace:

Song Quest: The 'fascinating and poetic' Branford Boase Award winning debut fantasy, chosen by Jacqueline Wilson and published by the original editor of Harry Potter.
by Katherine Roberts
All fairly true, if rather clumsy and breaking just about every rule in the KDP guidelines. The 'fascinating and poetic' quote came from Joan Aiken, not Jacqueline Wilson - but 'Jackie' was one of the judges in the year my book won the Branford Boase Award (2000), and the manuscript was picked off the slush pile by Barry Cunningham, the original editor of Harry Potter, who later went on to publish my book on his own list at the Chicken House. So you can see how this works... although anything with 'Harry Potter' in the title and not written by JK Rowling is unlikely to get past the title police!

Fun, isn't it?

Why not try stuffing one of your own titles in the comments, and watch your book rise magically up Authors Electric's bestseller list... though, be warned, you'll probably see it sink just as quickly when our algorithms change!

Katherine Roberts is an award winning author of fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers.

or, in AE title-stuffed tradition:

Bone Music: SEX ON THE STEPPES! The most original werewolf story you'll ever read!!!

(I'm still not sure about all those exclamation marks...)

 Find out more at

Monday, 20 August 2018

The Lure of the Land by Sandra Horn

We recently spent 10 days on the west coast of Scotland; a week in Oban right by the harbour, and the rest of the time in Fort William so we could go on the steam train to Mallaig over the Glenfinnan viaduct. Here's an Oban sunset:

From Oban we had a sea safari and saw a whale, rocked about in the Corryvechan for a while (nothing like as fright/sick inducing as I’d feared!). We also went island-hopping (Mull, Iona, Staffa), some of us on a RIB and the sensible (or feeble)people, of which I was one, on proper CalMac boats. 

It was magical! I kept on thinking it ought to remind me of western Ireland, what with the sandy beaches, bays and islands off the coast – but it didn’t. It is as beautiful, but somehow seemed more grounded in the rocks. I don’t know what comparisons there are in terms of height, etc, between the hills of the Ring of Kerry and Glen Coe, but the atmosphere is completely different. Something about Glen Coe is dwarfing and chilling, even without its history, whereas one can feel right at home in Kerry with its dreamy beauty.  I’ve felt the same in Cumbria, in St-John’s-in-the-Vale – not dominated or dwarfed by the hills, but sheltered by them and feeling that I belonged there. I can’t explain it but I’ve been pondering it since. It led me back to Louis MacNeice (again, again): 

In doggerel and stout let me honour this country
Though the air is so soft that it smudges the words
There you have it – the idea that there is something softer in the Irish landscape, something dreamier. He goes on to say
For the western climate is Lethe,
The smoky taste of cooking on turf is lotus,

MacNeice was deeply grounded in that landscape by birth and upbringing, as I am not, but for me it’s that ‘Let’s just sit here and forget the rest of the world, let it all drift by,’ feeling. Scotland was invigorating, even though it was as hot and sunny as I’ve known it, and Ireland was wreathed in mist and rain when we were last there, but still invoked MacNeice and also Tennyson’s Lotos-eaters and the ‘languid air’ of their island. 

These feelings that a particular landscape invokes are strange because, I think, they are hard to predict and probably very personal. I don’t like heights but have braved a series of cablecars, including one with a rotating floor (EEEK!), in order to walk on a glacier – to walk in one, on another notable occasion, but you won’t get me up the lighthouse on Anglesea or the dome of the Duomo in Florence.  I can’t begin to explain the draw and the joy of a glacier on a high mountain or the deep discomfort of a winding, upgoing stair, but they run deep and strong.
 Auden and Kipling have considered our place in a particular landscape and what it is that makes us feel enfolded and cherished. In Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone ‘ he posits that we are drawn to and are homesick for, limestone landscapes because like us they are fickle: they dissolve in water – and he likens the rounded slopes and secret cave systems  to a Mother:

What could be more like a Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved.

That’s it – the feeling of belonging and being loved in a particular place – or places.

In Kipling’s ‘Sussex’, my own home county, he makes a paeon of praise to the county Downlands, where the sheep-bit thyme smells ‘like dawn in paradise’ and he describes the land calling us home:

So to the land our hearts we give
Till the sure magic strike,
And Memory, Use and Love make live
Us and our fields alike –
That deeper than our speech and thought,
Beyond our reason’s sway,
Clay of the pit whence we were wrought
Yearns to its fellow-clay.  

So there it is. Something in our human psyche is powerfully affected by landscape and it’s a uniquely personal thing. I don’t seek to understand it, I just live it and love it wherever I find it.

Western Landscape, Louis MacNeice
The Lotos-Eaters, Alfred Lord Tennyson
In Praise of Limestone WH Auden
Sussex, Rudyard Kipling

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Leading Questions by Jan Edwards

I was recently sent a Q&A interview by a publisher for an upcoming anthology Into the Night Eternal: Tales of French Folk Horror, (which (shameless plug) will include my novella A Small Thing for Yolanda’). As always that online interview sheet included that old chestnut ‘Which books have influenced your writing the most?’ And, as always, I was at a loss for an answer.
The books that had any effect on us at age four are never going to be the same at age fourteen, or forty-four, or sixty-four.  That said I am not sure that books read in adulthood ever affect us in the same way that they do when we are young.
I suspect what the question is designed to portray authors as astonishingly erudite by naming the latest literary success or else one of the classic worthies such as Joyce, Naipaul or Woolf.  I have read and enjoyed my share of literary classics – ancient and modern, but I suspect the books that really influenced me the most will always be those favourites of childhood. There is wonder in reading for the pure pleasure of being absorbed in something beyond our experience; when even the oldest of fairy tales were new to us.
This same ‘influential reading’ question came up in a Facebook reading group recently, and though some named worthy reads the vast majority (across the ages) named the books of Enid Blyton as their first passion.
Whatever your own feelings about Blyton as an author the fact remains that she is one of those writers who possess the gift for appealing direct to her readership, despite all that the literary critics have said during her lifetime and since. BBC records show that she was kept from children’s radio for many years by BBC executives. In 1938, for example, Jean Sutcliffe, head of the BBC Schools department, wrote: "My impression of her (Blyton’s) stories is that they might do for Children's Hour but certainly not for Schools Dept. They haven't much literary value." There was a similar reaction against her books within some schools and libraries through the 1980s and into the 90s that pointed toward her middle-class values and political incorrectness as unsuitable reading for modern children. Yet of most of Blyton’s 700+ books, so far as I am aware, remain in print.
Returning to my Q&A – I know that what they really want is for me to be terribly erudite and name the latest prize-winning books or classic ‘must reads’ such as Joyce or Rushdie. But truth to say that whilst I have read a fair few literary classics – ancient and modern, I suspect the books that really influenced me the most will be from my pre-teen reading list.
If pushed I would point toward Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons as a series that has stuck with me for the longest time. Not for the four central characters, the Walker children, nor because it reflected my own upbringing in any way (far from it), but because Captain of the Amazon, Ruth ‘Captain Nancy’ Blackett who struck an indelible chord. She was one of the few truly independent young women in children’s literature of her time, and may possibly still hold that title. Captain Nancy broke rules and defied convention and never stepped back to allow the boys to take centre stage. When I consider other books that have stuck with me, both from my younger years and later, the recurring theme is invariably that of a female character who refuse to be put back into her box. Even Rowling’s Hermione Granger had to battle against expectations.
My novella ‘A Small Thing For Yolanda’ is a folk horror tale based around the unsolved murder on the metro of Laetitia Toureaux in the late 1930s. Whilst it is true that Toureaux was murdered, it is almost certain that it happened as a result of her work as a female private investigator. In my crime novel Winter Downs the lead character, Rose Courtney, set in the 1940s, takes no quarter from anyone. I think I detect a pattern developing...
Captain Nancy may have been the first and most influential inspiration on my list of fictional women, but many other came after to bolster the message. Lewis Carroll’s Alice; Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett; Daphne Du Maurier eponymous Rebecca; Flora Poste, courtesy of Stella Gibbons; Sarah Paretsky’s V I Warshawski. That is not to say I don’t have male characters that have been an influence. There have been Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L Sayers), Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher), Peter Grant (Ben Aaronovitch).
I could go on, and on, and on because there are so many books that I have read and loved over the years. How can any of us genuinely pick just one?

Information on Jan Edwards and her work can be found on:
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards
Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: 
Winter Downs; Fables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties
Jan’s award winning novel Winter Downs is first in the ‘Bunch Courtney Investigates’ series. Book two, In Her Defence, is coming soon!


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Life on the other side of the fence by Ava Manello

I recently attended a book signing in Oxford from the other side of the fence, as a reader rather than an author. I now have a whole new appreciation for my readers. I thought it was a tiring day standing in front of my table talking to readers, but life on the other side of the fence is pretty gruelling, although massively entertaining.  

The signing took place in Oxford Town Hall, a grand setting, but perhaps a little too small for the number of readers who attended which meant that many signing authors had to be ticketed, and those that weren't still had queues.  

The camaraderie that was evident amongst readers was infectious, from friends made in the registration queue outside the venue that began a couple of hours before the doors were due to open to friends made whilst bumping into each other inside. This was only the second signing I'd attended as a reader, a good four years after my first one, and I'd thought I'd planned pretty well. I hadn't.  

Apparently, a book signing on this scale should be approached with military precision - colour coded table plans that can be marked off as pre-orders are collected, scrapbooks are signed, or books purchased. I confess, with trying to find the shortest queue I may have lost track of where I'd been and who had signed what, despite there being just under 30 authors to meet. Only having less than a handful of items to be signed I'd taken a large shopper which was discarded before the event started. Instead, I carried everything in my left arm, and as the pile of items grew, so did the dents in my skin. There wasn't time to faff around putting books and canvas totes back in the bag to get them out again at the next table. Partway around the room another author asked me to get some things signed for them as well, queue me not remembering where I'd been with what. I felt like a total amateur!  

Surrounded by readers with trolley crates overflowing with pre-purchased books and colour coded charts I felt out of my depth. Two ladies who were attending this as their first signing even had drag along truck crates that made a pushchair look small. At the start of the event they were pretty much empty, by the end they were overflowing with more books than would fit an average bookcase. I was in awe of their determination and dedication.  

I'd bought my tickets a year previously when my unicorn author was announced, this was her first visit to the UK and probably the only chance I would have to meet her. If you've never heard the phrase unicorn author it's your absolute must meet, favourite author ever. I wasn't the only reader who'd had the same idea, over a quarter of the tickets sold queued up, some practically all day, just for that moment with her. Outside of the book world I'm not sure how to explain this phenomenon to someone, other than imagine an opportunity to meet your favourite rockstar, have a photo with them and a quick chat. It's a priceless moment you will remember forever.  

Before I started blogging and reviewing I hadn't even realised there were book signings like this, then as an author I decided to run one of my own. The amount of work that goes into them is unbelievable, hence me only running mine every two or three years. Not all signings have to be on a grand scale and I'm looking forward to attending a more intimate signing as an author late next year to see how that goes.  

The romance community embraces signings, and over the last four years we've gone from having only one a year to multiple signing opportunities throughout the country. Imagine a room filled with forty plus authors and several hundred readers. It's one of those experiences you really should try at least once. Authors are just ordinary people, and all the authors I know love getting together with readers and talking books. You get to know certain faces that seem to pop up at events regularly, and they become firm friends. You also make new friends as no one ever seems to be alone, they may arrive that way but by the end they've been adopted by fellow book lovers and become part of this wonderful book community.  

So, if you see a signing come up near you, do consider attending. You'll find authors you may not have known about before and make new friends who'll happily recommend their favourite books to you.