Thursday, 23 May 2019

Lev Butts Lists the Best of Self Publishing IX

For the last year or so, I have been listing examples of books that prove that self-publishing does not necessarily mean low-quality, lazy writing. Over the past year a few things have happened that prove my point.

In response to the Georgia Writers Association deciding to no longer accept self-published books for their Author of the Year Award (despite their once being praised for doing so),  The Southern Pen Bookshop of Monroe, Georgia, decided to sponsor its own award: The Georgia Independent Author of the Year Award, geared to writers of self-published and small press books, as the capstone event to their first annual writer's conference geared mainly for independent writers.

The conference was held this past weekend in Monroe, and I was proud to present a workshop on creating effective antagonists (adapted from this earlier blog post).

The conference was very informative, covering topics ranging from writing to marketing to legal issues. I was particularly surprised to see how well attended the conference was for such a small venue and for a first-year conference. There were attendees from all over Georgia, of course, but also few from as far away as New York.

I was also excited to learn that not only was the third volume of my Western fantasy series, Guns of the Waste Land, a finalist in the Historical Fiction Category of the award, but that I received Honorable Mention for it once the winners were announced.

This conference and this award hopefully imply that things are getting better for self-publishers and independent writers despite the narrow-minded opinions of The Georgia Writers Association.

Anyway, as Casey Kasem was so fond of saying: On with the Countdown!

Or: "Like, Zoinks, Scoob! Here we go again!"
Dream Weavers & Truth Seekers (series) by Cecilia Dominic

I am a sucker for mythology-based fantasy. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite living writers (so much so I was going to tell you my favorite novel of his and literally just spent an hour trying to narrow it down and failing. They're all great), primarily because he deftly weaves mythology (both his own as in the Sandman graphic novels, and traditional mythology, as in American Gods, Good Omens, and Stardust). That is essentially the same thing that draws me to Cecilia Dominic's series.

The series revolves around a plot by a group of Faerie and other supernatural beings, to insidiously regain control of the waking world through otherworldly portals connecting all of the "real" world through a chain of popular coffee houses that have sprung up all over the world: "The chain's fairy logo should have tipped us off."
Yes, that one.
Opposing this cabal are the Truth Seekers, a group of immortal magicians, led by none other than King Arthur's counselor, Merlin, and Arthur's forgotten aunt Margaret of Cornwall (or "Maggie" but never "Mags"), who protect the mortal realm from malignant supernatural incursion.

Though they try not to include mortals in their plans, inevitably those mortals with "strong" perception inevitably find themselves mixed up in them, usually through their own blundering. For example, Emma, the protagonist of the first story "Perchance to Dream," unknowingly accepts an invitation to the Dream Realm (aka the Collective Unconscious) when she agrees to share a cup of tea with a psychic reader. Phillippe, the protagonist of the second story, the novella Truth Seeker, finds himself lost in the portals after sneaking into the back of the coffee house on a dare.

There are two things that I really like about this series. The first, of course, is the masterful blend of the modern, realistic world and the mythology, primarily Greco-Roman and Celtic with other supernatural folklore such as vampires and ghosts. I mentioned Neil Gaiman earlier because his work, particularly Neverwhere and American Gods, is exactly what I thought about after reading the first two stories in the series. So often when writers attempt to blend fantasy and realistic elements, it becomes either heavy handed and distracting or so subtle the fantastic elements get lost. Dominic handles both aspects of her stories like a master, making the magical aspects feel like perfectly natural if uncommon qualities of the mundane world.

The stories themselves are really good, and each volume is self-contained. A lot of series claim this, but they're usually not so much. Dominic's stories truly are, and that leads me to the second thing that really sets this series apart for me: While it's true that each one is its own, individual story with beginning middle and definitive conclusion, the "real" story, the plot that ties the series together, about the beings from the dream world invading the mortal realm, happens off stage and between books. In the first tale, the supernatural antagonists are attempting to find a way into our world by manipulating the protagonist Emma, and even though she appears to thwart them, by the beginning of the next story, not only have they managed a way into our world, they have created magical portals linking almost every city in the world in order to provide themselves a way to travel within the mundane realm. The clues to how this was accomplished are implied and revealed within each story if the reader reads closely.

In short, this series is well worth your time, especially if, like me, you enjoy a smart, modern fantasy incorporating ancient myths and folklore into the normal, everyday world. At present there are four stories in the Dream Weavers & Truth Seekers series: a short story prequel, "Perchance to Dream"; a novella, Truth Seeker; and two full novels: Tangled Dreams and Web of Truth.

Give them a go; you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A Listening Project: Ali Bacon finds her audio book a bit too relaxing

Ali Bacon out and about
Time was when I regularly listened to audio books  that was when I had a part-time job involving a half-hour commute - perfect for picking up a story and letting go of home or work preoccupations. This was some time ago, of course and my audio books were on cassette - sets of tapes encased in big library boxes and taking several hours of listening. For some reason after I left that job,  and even though I still spent considerable periods driving, I somehow lost the habit of audio books. Possibly this was because I had started writing and spent most journeys worrying over my own characters.

Remember these?
I do remember the pleasure of those journeys and how the narrat out and aboutor was as important as the book. I discovered a penchant for a quiet American voice, perhaps because I also like quiet American books. and particularly remember losing myself in the cult hit of the time The Bridges of Madison County, to the extent of arriving at work a bit hot under the collar! But I think my choices depended mostly on what was available on the library shelves. So I listened to a travelogue about the Hindu Kush and a fairly dull (Anita Brookner?) novel which I enjoyed just for the sound of Anna Massey reading it.

Fast forward thirty (ouch!) years and with several of my friends heavily into the audio book habit I think it's time to partake of this forgotten pleasure. On the other hand I'm not sure if it will suit me so rather than taking up the eternal offers from Audible I plump for our public library service which quaintly involves borrowing for a limited period and and having to wait for a copy of a favoured title to become available. These restrictions seem odd but I assume there are licensing issues and hey, it's FREE! It's relatively easy to download the app for my Libraries West account and sign up to audio books. 

Libraries West Audio Book Service
The service is provided by a third party Borrow Box and I'm now sure what selection criteria are operating. It looks like browsing works better than searching but I don't immediately see anything I fancy. On a whim I search on 'historical' and get a very good selection embracing genre and literary historical novels. Although those I fancy are all on loan and have to be reserved, I click on Helen Dunmore's Birdcage Walk. Hurrah! I love Dunmore and this is high on my TBR list. A couple of days later I have a message to say it's available. So far so good!

The book arrives when I'm on holiday and maybe a period of down time after a strenuous walk is not the best time to begin. The soothing experience of being read to sends me straight to sleep - twice! I quickly learn the options for rewinding. 

Back at home I start again in the car and I'm glad to say this  goes much better with no falling asleep at the wheel, although short journeys mean I don't get much listening time. Of course my phone is always with me so when Mr B is watching something not to my taste on TV I can get on with my knitting and listen as I click my needles. Even so I had forgotten how long it takes to listen to a book unabridged. I note I still have 6 hours left and when I stupidly  put down the knitting and let the Eurovision Song Contest play in the background, the inevitable occurs ... I hear the Netherlands won, but where did this new character spring from in my book? Time to rewind yet again. So yes, listening is relaxing - sometimes too relaxing!

Or is it the book? Dunmore is a favourite author (The Siege and Exposure particularly memorable) and this one is set in my home town of Bristol, but I'm not sure it's doing it for me. The narrator strikes me as efficient rather than engaging and a few chapters in I'm interested but not enthralled. Most of all, the listening experience doesn't let me ignore bits that seem repetitive, or skim over the extracts from pamphlets and newspaper reports which remind us of the historical and political context somewhat at the expense of narrative pace. Of course it's common knowledge amongst writers that reading aloud is a great way to see flaws in your own work, and though it's too early (5 hours to go!) to say this book is flawed, I can see that the audio format is an unforgiving one.

So at this point in my life I have yet to be totally won over by the audio book, but whether or not I finish Birdcage Walk (a sneak peak at reviews suggests I should) I think I will keep one on the go, while remembering all the while to stick to the knitting! 

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon's historical novel, is available in paperback and e-book from Linen Pressonline stores and all good bookshops. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

KDP paperbacks - Katherine Roberts

Createspace is dead... long live KDP paperbacks!

I've previously used Createspace to publish indie paperback editions of my titles, but CS has now been retired by Amazon so this month I tackled my first ever KDP paperbacks with two short story collections Mythic & Magical and Weird & Wonderful, which up to now have only been available as ebooks.

Each collection contains seven of my short stories, so they both come in at around 125 pages, plenty long enough for a paperback edition. Being the same length also meant I could use the same KDP cover template for both titles, which made the design a bit easier. I'm calling this series 'Ampersand Tales' because the collections are additional to my novels, as well as being for older readers who might have enjoyed my children's books as young readers when they were first published. Some of these short stories helped inspire my novels, and each carries an introduction setting it in the context of my writing career, making Ampersand Tales of interest to authors, too.

But back to the publishing process. You'll need to format your book for print in exactly the same way as you did for Createspace, starting with choosing a trim size (I usually go for the American YA standard of 5.25" x 8", even though standard paperbacks are slightly smaller than this in the UK - I figure they're not going to be sitting on many shelves in a UK bookshop, anyway). You then add your front and back matter, make sure your title page agrees exactly with the title you've entered for the book on the KDP, and upload your interior. For simplicity, I usually upload my Word document, which then gets converted into a pdf by amazon's software, but if you are fussy about formatting you can upload your own pdf. KDP then prints the interior on either cream or white paper (you can choose... for fiction, I follow the standard and use cream). The paper is of a good quality, which makes the books slightly heavier than mass market paperbacks of the same length. Here's a sample page from the interior of Mythic & Magical.

Next you need to tackle your paperback cover, and again the process is similar to the one at Createspace. The KDP also has a cover creator tool for simple covers, though I prefer to do mine at Canva. You can use any photo editing software you like, including Photoshop if you have that, but you must get the cover exactly the right size for your selected trim, which means downloading the correct-sized template from the KDP and doing a small bit of maths before you start... if you're a beginner, I wrote a post about paperback covers for this blog. Take extra care to keep all your text - including the spine text - out of the red areas on the template. The KDP seems quite fussy about this (more so than CS, I think, since despite my experience it took three attempts to get my spine text the correct size on the first title I uploaded).

Remember you'll need smaller text for a narrow spine.

There's an online previewer at the KDP so you can check the results, although you'll need to upload both your interior and cover files before you can activate this, which I found a bit annoying. At CS, I used to check the interior file before designing the cover, because sometimes I decided to change the number of pages after previewing my first attempt, and if you're between different cover templates (which are provided in multiples of 10 pages), that could mean redesigning your whole cover to match. Also, be warned that the KDP previewer does not include the final page that gets added for the barcode on printing, so your actual book will be at least one page longer than it looks in the preview - again, this might cause a problem with your cover if you are near the maximum pages on a template. But once you know all this, it's fine.

You are then invited to do your pricing (the KDP handles the maths), and then you can either send for a proof copy (which has a 'NOT FOR RESALE' band printed across the entire cover so isn't much good for proofing your cover), or send your files straight for publishing. At this point, they will undergo a final manual check at the KDP - which I seem to remember CS used to do earlier in the process, before publication. You might get an email from the KDP alerting you to something wrong at this stage, in which case it's back to the drawing board... but if you did everything properly, your book will be 'published' (i.e. made available for order), although at this stage it's unlikely any actual copies will be printed. You can then order an author copy at cost price to check that it looks exactly as you expected it to look from the online preview... this is what I'd call a proof, but I suppose the pre-publication one with the 'not for resale' band on the cover would be okay for a final proofread of the interior, or if you want to send out nicely-bound copies to your proofreaders, The Devil Wears Prada style... although, Harry Potter aside, even big publishers rarely do bound proofs these days. More likely, your editor will send a pdf by email for the final proofread, and the 'proofs' sent out to reviewers are free copies of the actual book hot off the press, no doubt accounting for the large number that turn up for sale 'as new' on Amazon, sometimes before the actual book is officially launched (explaining that ugly NOT FOR RESALE band, I suppose).

The one thing missing on the KDP is the 3D 'spin' tool we used to have at Createspace, which showed your uploaded cover from the back, side and front as your 'book' rotated virtually on the screen. At CS, I used this spin tool to check my spine text was in the correct place - it's not quite as easy to check the placement with the guidelines on the KDP previewer, so you might need to use a bigger screen to do your online previewing, or send for an actual copy before you are sure.

One final thing: do not be misled by the colours you see on a backlit screen, as usually these print darker. My first attempt at Mythic & Magical arrived a darker blue than expected, and I struggled to read the black text I'd used on the spine and back cover, so I decided to change all the text to white. I also wasn't entirely happy with the contrast of the unicorn, so I've lightened the background slightly. I'm still awaiting the new version (which I just hope does not print too pale now) but the beauty of print on demand is that you are not stuck with a thousand duff books under your bed if you make a mistake. You simply upload a new cover, and within a few days the new version is available for sale worldwide.

Mythic & Magical - first attempt
(black text a struggle to read in dim light)

The result? Two short story collections, now happily available in both ebook and paperback... and as a special treat for reading this far, the Kindle ebook of my science fiction collection Weird & Wonderful is FREE FOR FIVE DAYS.

(free until 24th May 2019)
(not free, sorry)


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. Find out more about her books at

Monday, 20 May 2019

My Cornish Little Nan by Sandra Horn

After watching the last episode of Line of Duty, when I think I forgot to breathe much of the time, I needed something to read in bed that would let me cool down and get to sleep. In the pile of re-reads by my bed is Jill Paton-Walsh’s The Serpentine Cave. Perfect. 

As you’d expect, it’s beautifully written and beautifully crafted, a story of a mistaken episode in childhood and a search for a missing piece of identity – and it’s set in Cornwall, which is a plus for me. My Grandmother, Little Nan (so-called to distinguish her from Big Gran, my Great-grandmother) was as Cornish as cream.  Mar’Ellen Harvey from St Just in Penwith. She was from a poor family (tin-miners?) and was born in the workhouse at Madron. She’d had pernicious anaemia as a child and had lost all her teeth to gingivitis by the time she was fourteen. She was ‘taken up’ by a couple of early property developers she worked for, and went with them when they left St Just – a scandal still talked of 70 years later by her childhood friend, Lily. She married my Sussex Grandfather, raised eight children out of eight and also cared for his six unmarried brothers until they wed and left, and his parents. Washing was boiled in a copper and the grate had to be black-leaded. I can see her now, bringing huge dishes of spuds and meat and veg from the kitchen to feed the hungry hordes when they came in from work, and I’m humbled by her strength and tenacity. I loved her. The Heligan books, stories, based on the statues of the Mud Maid and the Giant,  are partly a tribute to her memory, and whenever I’m in Cornwall or thinking or reading about Cornwall, I feel close to her. 

She is Granny Ellen in The Silkie, too, and although the legends of the seal-people are usually found around the coast of Scotland, the ‘islands in the West’ could as well be off Cornwall in my mind. 

                                           Nan with some of her children. My Mum at the back.

I’ve written stories and plays about her, trying to capture the essence of her indomitable spirit in her under-grown body, and imagining a future for her in the Suffragette movement, as a pupil teacher or librarian – fanciful stuff, I know, but her one great treat to herself was to have a book always in her pinny pocket in case she got a moment to sit and read. Those moments were few and far between, but I’m gladdened to think that she could find some solace in reading. She liked romances.  
She did escape the extreme privations of her early life – food was always plentiful in the Sussex house and, although the family was never well-off, they did not want for the necessities of life. Nevertheless, she was a drudge all her life until old age and illness stopped her, and she was then cared for and cosseted by her large family until the end. I wish she had known that she was an inspiration to me, and that she is in my work in one guise or another.
This is not even remotely the blog I’d meant to write! It was going to be about a community play we saw at Restormel, but Little Nan took over. She’s done it before. She’s welcome.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Coroners and Crime Scenes -- In 1940 by Jan Edwards

On reading out a section of work in progress at my writing group I was asked whether a coroner really would attend a scene of crime in 1940.  And I had to admit that I didn't know. Online  research had let me down somewhat on this one as the only references I could find were in a modern context.
Pottering back from an appointment pondering this question I realised that I was strolling past the Coroner’s Offices on Hartshill Road (as you do). So with a little time to spare I wandered in and asked. The Coroner’s clerks were really helpful and gave the following info.
In a modern context a coroner will rarely if ever attend a scene of crime, at least when the body is still on site. This is because SOCO teams now gather all of the necessary evidence. (One said he had never known it happen in the 20 years he had worked there.)
I was then told that in 1940, however, a coroner may well have gone to the scene of a homicide because SOCO teams, and indeed forensics to a great extent, were not so much in their infancy as positively embryonic, so that both coroners and/or pathologists would have had to be more hands-on in collecting evidence. Added to that is the small fact of it being war time when there were also far fewer police officers to do the leg work.
A little more research is required on the duties of coroners V pathologists in that era, but those few minutes unscheduled chatting were well worth the effort!
You can read more about Jan and her Bunch Courtney books on her blog HERE
In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats. AMAZON (PAPER)   US  / UK/  /  AU INDIE BOUND / BOOK DEPOSITORY  / WORDERY /  Waterstones  /  Foyles Barnes & Noble  / Digital sources: Kindle  US / UK / AU/   Apple/  Nook  / Kobo  
Winter Downs  Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU 
Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery Digital sources:

Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Importance of Food, by Elizabeth Kay

…And not just to keep body and soul together! In 1952, C.S.Lewis delivered a talk at the Library Association titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” which was eventually adapted into an essay and published in Lewis’s Of Other worlds: Essays and Stories. What he says is this:
In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, ‘Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” 
How right he was. When my children were small and it was snowing I used to follow Mr Tumnus’s menu to the letter, and it became a very popular event. But only when it was snowing!

            …A nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake…

            Of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, when rationing after the Second World War was still in place and a sugar-topped cake was a rare luxury rather than a precursor to diabetes. An overweight child was a rare phenomenon. But Lewis could make even soil sound utterly delicious. The meal produced for the talking trees at the end of Prince Caspian is a tour de force.

…They began with a rich brown loam that looked exactly like chocolate; so like chocolate, in fact, that Edmund tried a piece of it, but he didn’t find it at all nice. When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger the trees turned to an earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink. They said it was lighter and sweeter. At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil, and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand…

Note the remark about Edmund trying some, to discourage his readers from heading into the garden for a snack.
Adults do occasionally get served fiction with food at its core – Chocolat, by Joanna Harris, The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams. However, for children it’s an absolute must. And then you can use magic… I had great fun with that in Back to the Divide.

 …“Have you two finished your dinner?”
            “Certainly not,” said Betony, pushing her plate away and picking up the pudding menu. “Oh yes,” she enthused. “Got to have a slice of sparkle-meringue. Why don’t you have the glitter-bomb, Felix, then we can fizz together.”
            This sounded like fun. When the puddings arrived, they looked delicious – frothy and creamy with a crust of caramelised sugar on the top. Betony grinned. “You first,” she said.
            Felix took a spoonful, and tasted it. The flavour was a bit like vanilla, but as he removed the spoon from his mouth a shower of silver speckles exploded around him, and he yelped with surprise.
            Betony had hysterics. Then she started on the sparkle-meringue, and a glittery starburst of pink enveloped her head. “It’s lickit cooking,” she said. “Magical recipes. I haven’t had one of these since I was little.”
            They shovelled the puddings into their mouths as fast as possible, giggling as the silver and the pink collided, producing flecks of other colours which shot off at angles and then disappeared like sparks burning out…

I think that encouraging children to try something new is really important in these days of burgers, chips and fizzy drinks. Reading about children enjoying strange and unusual foods is surely a way of promoting a bit of experimentation? I still haven’t tried witchcetty grubs, which I read about as a child, but I would do given half a chance!
            Non-fiction is a different matter entirely, of course. The biggest sellers are cookbooks and diet books. When I was a kid my mother had only one cookery book – The Radiation Cookbook! This came free with her gas stove, and was the only one she ever used.
When I write about food in adult books, it’s to make another point, either about the setting if it’s abroad, or the characters – or preferably, both. These are two extracts from Beware of Men with Moustaches.

…They found a self-service restaurant for lunch, where they could point to what they wanted. What they got wasn’t always what they expected, but the cost of everything was so low that they just stopped worrying about it, and ordered anything that took their fancy.
The cakes were divine. There was a strong similarity between shoe design and cake decoration; it was easy to believe that people switched from one profession to another, taking their themes with them as they went. The barnacle and seaweed motif was equally at home in either leather or marzipan.

...The restaurant, like many of the shops, proved to be underground.
“Does it double as a nuclear bunker, then?” queried Sybil.
Maxim laughed. “Who would want to window-shop above ground in the winter, when it is snowing so heavily you can’t see your own private parts?”
They went down some steps. The moment the proprietor saw Maxim, he beckoned to a waitress and issued orders as rapid as gunfire. The girl showed them into a little side-room, and they seated themselves round a table. The menu even had an English translation, although they were all in hysterics by the bottom of the first page. It was debatable whether this was the menu alone, or the effect of the cocktails.
“Fish in water?” mused Steve. “Doesn’t sound frightfully appetising.”
“Crap,” said Sybil.
“Carp,” corrected Steve.
“Tea for sad people?” queried Julie.
“Presumably someone’s translated the cup that cheers into Karetsefian, and then back into English again,” said Ferris. He turned to the next page. “Ah. The poultry list.” After a moment he added, “Good grief.”
“Duck,” Julie read aloud. “Goose. Pigeon. Snip. Snip?”
“Snipe, I’d imagine.”
“Quail casserole, roast partridge, bruised peasant… braised pheasant, presumably…”
“I think the first one was probably right,” said Sybil.

Food is awfully useful in books, because it plays on all the senses. Its appearance, its texture, its smell, its taste – even what it sounds like. Crunchy? Squishy? Slurpy? If your narrative has got stuck somewhere, send your characters out to eat!

Monday, 13 May 2019

'A Yorkshire childhood?' - Alex Marchant

Last weekend I was asked to join a fellow author in an event at a local library. I’m a member of a group called Promoting Yorkshire Authors (PYA,, which is exactly what its name suggests: an organization of authors working together to promote their books. The ‘Yorkshire’ part covers both authors born in the English county of Yorkshire and those who currently live there. The event in question was to be two children’s authors talking about and reading from their books. And the theme was ‘A Yorkshire Childhood’.
It has to be said I was a little uncertain whether this was really an event for me. I come under the latter category of membership of the PYA – I wasn’t born in what the locals call ‘God’s Own County’, although I recently realized I have now lived here something more than half my lifetime. (I was once told I could qualify for my Yorkshire passport after about fifteen years, but I’m still waiting…) But that ‘half a lifetime’ has been the latter half – not a moment of my childhood was spent here, unless one counts the single day on which I visited the city of York for a university interview at the age of seventeen. So I felt a bit of a fraud. Am I in any way qualified to speak about ‘a Yorkshire childhood’?
My fellow author undoubtedly is. Maggie Cobbett, author of Workhouse Orphan
Maggie Cobbett reading from Workhouse Orphan
among other books, may be the daughter of a Kentish-born father, but her mother was born, and she herself grew up, in what was once known as the West Riding (and still is in true Yorkshire circles, although now known officially as West Yorkshire). Workhouse Orphan draws upon that heritage in various ways, from basing its central character on a distant family member from the early 1900s to its setting in a fictionalized coal-mining (or ‘pit’) village in the West Riding. In addition, much of the dialogue is in local dialect, which Maggie is of course able to render brilliantly on the page. 
Interestingly, though, the title character of the book, David, isn’t himself from Yorkshire at all. He is as much an ‘off-cumden’ (an outsider, ‘not from round here’) as I am myself. Until the age of twelve, he lived in London – could in fact have been neighbour to my own forebears, all of whom at the turn of the twentieth century lived in England’s capital city. And most of whom, like David’s father until his early death, were dock labourers or similar – very much from the lower classes, living in some of the worst slums in the world at that time.
But as in many of the best children’s books (and perhaps adult books too), the drama stems from someone being uprooted from all that is familiar to them and shipping up somewhere very different, alien even, and seeing that place (and the people who inhabit it) from the point of view of an outsider. And having to deal with life in that strange place and the events that unfold there. In David’s case, this means adapting to life two hundred miles away from his brothers and sister still in the London workhouse, toiling long hours in the dark depths of a coal mine and living among the family of strangers to whom he was sent by the workhouse authorities so they no longer had to pay for his keep. 
Related image

In some ways, David has in fact left his childhood behind – such as it was. There is of course some debate over what constituted ‘childhood’ in the past – was it really a concept at all before the Victorian period? And even then, for youngsters such as David – forced into a life of hard labour and looking after his younger siblings – in what way was it so very different from the toils of adulthood?
My own books provide a sharp contrast. Set four hundred years before Maggie’s, in
the medieval world of the Wars of the Roses, they show a very different childhood, albeit one that’s also gradually eroded by events out of my characters’ control. And it occurred to me while writing my talk that it’s perhaps not so much the era (early twentieth century vs. late fifteenth) or the area (Yorkshire vs. London) that dictates a young person’s experience as their class and access to wealth and power. The young characters in my books are from what would today be called the middle and upper classes – Matthew, the lead character, being a merchant’s son, most of the others being the offspring of noblemen. And in my first book, The Order of the White Boar, we see them leading a relatively carefree existence in
The Yorkshire Dales, through which The Order roam
the Yorkshire Dales, just a few miles from the West Riding. They go to school, studying very similar things to children today (albeit in a castle), make friends, play together and roam about the surrounding countryside in much the same way as I did when I was a kid – albeit my horse and those of my friends were make-believe, and the ‘countryside’ was a suburban park in Surrey. 

My own childhood games in that parkland often involved forming gangs or secret clubs with my friends – like the Famous Five or ‘Secret Seven’ of Enid Blyton, or Malcom Saville’s ‘Lone Pine Club’ – or perhaps today, Harry Potter’s ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ – with secret dens, oaths of loyalty, codes, messages written in invisible ink, and covert signals (once upon a time I could passably hoot like an owl). And these childhood pleasures of course found their way into The Order of the White Boar. Its very title is that of the ‘gang’ (in this case, a secret order of chivalry) that the child characters form.
When I spoke about all this at Harrogate Library, I saw our audience nodding and smiling with recognition. And as Maggie and I answered questions after our individual talks, and discussed our books together, the more it became clear that, despite the differences dictated by class, many aspects of childhood are very similarly experienced across space and time. In our books, two boys of the same age, although with very different backgrounds, are plucked from their families and relocated in the depths of Yorkshire, and each feels the same insecurities and vulnerability, each makes firm friends among welcoming people, each faces bullies against whom he must stand firm or go under, and each takes what simple pleasures he can, wherever he finds them – among those friends, in those games. And my conclusion? That there are sufficient common experiences in childhood – whether in Yorkshire, in Surrey or in the working-class slums of London – in the nineteenth, twentieth or fifteenth century – for me to be able to speak about at least one version of ‘a Yorkshire childhood’. But for all that, I still don’t expect to receive my Yorkshire passport any time soon…
Maggie and Alex at Harrogate Library
 Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at Deadline 19 May 2019.

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